Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Macro photography - yesterday and today

Olympus has great tradition in manufacturing of macro lenses and accessories. I take mostly macro photos since I have been using FourThirds system. Before 2007, I worked with an Olympus E-1 camera, a STF-22 twin flash set, an extension tube, a teleconverter and the two macro lenses of the system but now I am using E-3 and two FL-36R's. Another change is that I bought an EC-20 teleconverter, which made 2:1 magnification available to me. In this post I'm trying to collect my thoughts about handling and image quality from this point of view.

Glanville fritillary (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-20)

It is well-known that the larger depth of field (DOF) is an advantage in macrophotography. This was one of the reasons why I chose the E-1 in 2005. After four months of using the E-3 I'm still thinking that the FourThirds system is the best solution for macro shots. Even though the larger sensors have better signal to noise ratio and they can mask the effect of the diffraction, their advantages fall to the ground in this type of equivalent (same DOF) situations.

The improvement in the image quality of the cameras is clear. I take more than 80% of macro shots at ISO400. I could not have done this using the E-1 without compromises. The A3+ sized prints from picture-files of E-3 that contain 8-10 megapixels are beautiful and full of details with no visible noise. Sometimes the employees of the shop hand the photos of insects to me with closed eyes. :) The more AF fields, sensitive and fast AF system definitely help to make high-quality photos easier, too.

The change of cameras had other effects, too. The relatively small resolution of E-1 could hide the weaknesses of the lenses, but the E-3 has double the pixels. The first thing I noticed when I put the 50mm macro onto the E-3 was that the image quality is very sensitive to subject distance. It is clearly visible that this lens is specialized for macro and portrait distances. There is easily discoverable contrast and sharpness drop at infinity especially with fully opened aperture. But as long as we use it for what it was designed for, it is a really amazing lens.

The 35mm macro is an another story. When I bought it some years ago, its image quality was a big surprise. It is a relatively cheap and very-very sharp lens. The high resolution remains with teleconverters, and hardly depends on subject distance. Due to the small aperture the foreground cannot be separated from background in normal situations, so this lens is not as universal as its big brother. The darker viewfinder or lack of sealing sometimes can be a problem too. In my opinion both lenses can exploit a 10+ megapixels sensor.

Common milkweed (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-20)

I have more than a year experience in using of STF-22 twin flash and now I can compare it to the dual FL-36R setup. I think the easiest way to show their features is to list their advantages and disadvantages.

STF-22 pros:
- very flexible and easy to use positioning mechanism (tiltable, rotatable individually or together)
- precise light-intensity controlling
- ratio control from 8:1 to 1:8 (very important and useful)
- small heads

STF-22 cons:
- FR-1 adapter ring is not a part of the set (it makes the whole solution ridiculous)
- FR-1 is too long for 35mm macro or for combinations with EX-25 (I used a DIY adapter)
- the controller is built into the body of FL-50, so it is needlessly large and heavy due to rotating and tilting head (the center of weight is positioned too high so it is hard to hold the camera in portrait mode)
- very dark LCD back-lighting (I can't understand why it is darker than the LCD of the FL-50)
- unusable auxiliary bulbs (why no LEDs in 2004?)
- serious faults at electric contacts in the head-wire sockets of the controller
- price (it is over any competitive products)

two FL-36R's pros:
- virtually unlimited performance (for macro applications)
- relatively cheap
- a third flash (or group) is usable for lighting of the background
- they are usable for any other application

two FL-36R's cons:
- there is no manufactured solution to fix them onto the camera (I'm working on it now)
- Olympus wireless RC has not as precise in light-intensity controlling as STF-22 for small distances
- the built-in flash has to see (directly or indirectly) the sensors of FL-36R's
- no ratio control from menu (it would need only a new camera firmware)
- batteries can go dead individually (you have to observe two packages)
- heavy

Hazelnut (Acorn) -weevil (Olympus E-3 + Zuiko Digital 35mm macro + EC-14)

Something is still missing from this very good macro-system. There is a 100mm macro lens in the lens roadmap of Olympus since 2005. I like the wider angle of view in macro shots but sometimes I need a longer lens. I use the Zuiko Digital 50-200mm SWD and EX-25 in this cases, but a lighter and specialized lens can be a better solution. I have a dream that it will brighter than f2.8 but there is very small chance for it. I hope Olympus will release the 100mm macro lens soon.


John Anderson said...

Dear Krisztián, you have some excellent images, and have obviously taken time to get to know the E-3/macro lens/flash combination. I recently bought an E-3 ( I already have the Oly 50mm macro lens, and both macro flash sets), and have just taken the first of a few macro images (my speciality is scientific photography). I'm looking forward to see how my images compare to yours. I didn't know Oly were planning to release a 100mm macro lens.. It should prove interesting.

With best wishes,

John Anderson,
Dublin, Ireland.

Hokuto said...

Thanks for this explanation of your technique; I'm currently considering using two Sunpak PF20XD flash units on either side, and using the E-3's built-in flash as a trigger (the PF20XD has a built-in optical trigger). I'm still thinking of how to build arms to hold the two flashes, however. I need to be able to use the setup both handheld and on tripod, and I don't like the idea of attaching a heavy weight to the front of my lenses (I have the 50mm f2 macro and the Sigma 150mm f2.8). Any ideas?

Krisztián Nagy said...

Dear Hokuto,

I hope that I will finish off my DIY flash-arms on next week. I will show the complete solution and first pictures in this blog as soon as possible.

Best wishes,