Handheld Macro Photography

Handheld Macro Photography

Honey bee on approach to land on a Calandrinia. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash @ 1:8 power with diffuser, handheld, 1/250th sec, f8. ISO 500.

Handheld macro photography in the field can be one of the most fun and rewarding ways to photograph nature. The required equipment setup can be simple and lightweight and easy to use and does not have to heavy, overly complicated and cost an arm and a leg. Over the next couple of weeks I will cover my favorite close-up tips and techniques in multiple parts; macro flash basics, my recommended equipment, and finally field techniques. I hope this will inspire and motivate you to get out in the field and give close up photography a try, especially my favorite, hand held macro flash photography.

I prefer to shoot handheld and with flash when doing macro photography. Using flash allows you to attain sharp results even in breezy conditions without the use a tripod. In fact using flash means you can photograph in all kinds of less than satisfactory situations like midday sun, dark cloudy skies, or even at shooting at night with good results. Flash can record and reveal an amazing amount of detail and sharpness in the field that would be difficult or impossible to attain even with a tripod. For an idea of what kind of sharpness you can expect look at the example directly below then look at the image below that made at a 100% view or 100% crop of the very same image below at the actual pixel level in Photoshop, Menu > View > Actual Pixels. Note that these images were made with a Nikon D800E.

Daisy close up.

Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash @ 1:8 power with diffuser, handheld, 1/250th sec, f8. ISO 200.

Take a look at the full frame daisy image above, then look at the same image below cropped at 100% view to show you the amount of detail present in the same image above.

This kind of detail is impressive but when you consider that the image was made handheld at close to life-size magnification with a 180mm telephoto lens without a tripod it is almost unbelievable.

Handheld close-up photography gives you freedom and speed that is just not possible when using a tripod. You can shoot at different angles and perspectives freely without the need to constantly adjust a tripod. Even more importantly shooting handheld makes shooting small fast moving objects possible and even fun, like this Robber fly image below.

Robber Fly, Dysmachus trigonus, southern Hungary, Europe. Robbers are interesting to watch and photograph, they can take prey larger then themselves. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX APO Macro HSM lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash with diffuser @ 1:8 power, handheld, Manual mode 1/250th sec at f9, ISO 200. Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

Almost any flash will work well for close up but remember to always place the flash as close to the subject as possible for the best light quality,  and always use of a flash diffuser for softer lighting. Choose a flash that allows you the capability to control the output with manual control or exposure compensation. Low size and weight are very important considerations when choosing a flash for hand held use.

If you have trouble holding the camera steady, monopods are fast enough to use for close up work without all the bulk and weight of a tripod.

Considering a ring flash or dual flash set up from Canon or Nikon? This type of system is really suited for scientific applications. They are heavy, expensive and a little large to have to carry for long hours in the field. A single small flash is all you need for good results in the field.

The downsides to a macro flash set up is most of all the initial cost then there is the extra weight and extra set up time. The macro flash set up does not have to be expensive, my current Nikon set us was less than $250.

My current macro gear set up

I will post a complete breakdown and description of my macro equipment in a few days but this image will give you a good idea of what the system looks like.  At the front you have a single Nikon SB-R200 attached to a Nikon XS-1 adapter ring mounted to a Sigma 180mm macro lens mounted on a Nikon D800E, simple, fast and deadly sharp.

After shooting macro with Canon DSLRs for about 7 years and Nikon for the past 5, I have to say the set up as seen below is about as close to macro gear perfection as you can get, super sharp, light, quick, responsive and wireless.  Nothing can come close to matching this set up in terms of portability, reach, resolving power and it is all available off the shelf for a a very low price, that is if you find a D800 or D800E in stock that is. You do not have to use the same equipment as I do, a shorter macro lens and an older body would work very well.

For this image I removed the flash diffuser so you could get a good look at the flash. I use this system handheld about 90% of the time. Also the D800E flash is down but it would be up during normal use in the field.

All content (including text, design, photos, layout, and graphics) are copyright © 2012 Robert OToole. All rights reserved.

MacBook Air 480 GB SSD Upgrade

What you need to know about Apple's MBA SSDs

The Apple MacBook Air is a seriously good laptop and is almost the perfect back up or travel computer for a photographer. In 2011 Apple finally refreshed their MacBook Air lineup with new SSDs using new form factor Called mSATA SSDs (also known as blade SSDs). Although Apple does offer two choices on the 13 inch MacBook Air, 128 and 256 GB (on the 11 inch you can choose 64 or 128 GB), this is one area where the MBA disappoints.

The OWC 480 GB 6G SSD upgrade installed on my 13 inch Macbook air with 1.8GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7.

Apple uses both Toshiba SSDs and Samsung SSDs on the current 2011 MBA. This doesn't sound like anything to worry and really its not but you should know that the Samsung SSDs are much faster than the Toshiba units and there is no way of knowing which one you get before booting up the machine for the first time. This just takes a second. Go to the Apple menu > About this mac > more info > System Report.. > Serial - ATA.

You can tell what SSD type you have by looking at the model string in a System Report from your machine. The SM prefix indicates a Samsung drive while the TS indicates Toshiba. A Samsung 256 GB drive will show up as - Apple SSD SM256C.

The problem is that the performance difference between the two Apple 3G drives is pretty significant, the Samsung is about 2X or more faster than the Toshiba SSD, see the Anantech's MBA review -

Upgrading the MBA with the 480 GB SSD

The OWC 480 GB 6G SSD upgrade and 256 GB Apple Samsung 3G SSD side by side. The pink square is a foam thermal pad.

The OWC 6G SSDs are about 3x faster than the Apple Samsung factory SSDs. The 480 GB SSD upgrade costs right around $1000. The Apple 256 GB upgrade for the 13 inch MBA is $300 or $2.34 per GB, the OWC upgrade is $2.14 per GB and 3X faster and you get to keep the factory SSD for back up or other tasks. This is a great value for someone like me that needs the additional HDD space.

OWC's Mercury Aura Pro Express 6G SSD should guarantee a significant boost in speed and with the 480 GB model, almost twice the disk space as Apple's largest SSD. There are no other SSDs suitable for 2010-2011 MBAs, unless you find an original Apple unit on the used parts market.

Installation notes

Because OS X Lion is preinstalled on the removable Apple factory SSD, you cannot simply remove that drive and replace it with a new SSD. There are two methods to prepare using a new SSD, I used two USB HDDs to back up and restore the OS. Remember to format the new SSD with the disk utility before you restore the OS. For more details -

OWC Mercury Aura OS X Lion installation instructions

Installing the OWC SSD

The installation is quick and easy only taking about 15 minutes or so. All the necessary tools for the job such as Torx and Pentalobe drivers are supplied by OWC with the SSD purchase. Make sure you use a proper container or at least a strip of tape sticky side up to hold onto the tiny Pentalobe screws that secure the MBA bottom cover.

OWC Mercury Aura Pro Express installation videos

Important links

Information on OWC MacBook Air SSD upgrades -

OWC SSD review at -

All content (including text, design, photos, layout, and graphics) are copyright © 2012 Robert OToole. All rights reserved.