Adding Flash to Macro 1

Macro Setup-17

With gas prices pushing over four dollars a gallon, many of us will have no choice but to cut back on how much drive. This may include how much we drive for photographic purposes. But merely because some of us may not be able to drive as much to our favorite places doesn’t mean we have to give up photography. With a camera and a macro lens, a backyard or a nearby park can be turned into a vast and intricate jungle yielding innumerable photographic opportunities.

One of the great challenges in macro photography is getting enough light on the subject. Generally speaking, macro photography doesn’t work well in direct sunshine. Natural light is preferable, but not always practical. Depth of field can be extremely narrow when shooting macro. If you want to get more than a sliver of the grasshopper or horsefly you’re photographing in focus, you may have to stop the lens quite a ways down, necessitating long exposures. And since it is not always practical to use a tripod when chasing a bee or a butterfly, flash becomes indispensable.

Unfortunately, flash doesn’t always provide attractive light. It blasts where it should soften, casts unattractive shadows where it should bring out detail, produces catchlights where it should merely illuminate. Various solutions have arisen to improve the quality of light for flash photography. The easiest solution to implement is the ring flash, a circular ring with two crescent-shaped flash tubes that can be attached to the filter ring of one’s lens. The major complaint about ring flash is that it provides flat, “uninteresting” light. I tend to think such complaints are exaggerated. I’ve seen plenty of excellent macro shots taken with ring flash. A bigger problem for many of us is the cost of a good ring flash. The Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring Lite is going for $522 at amazon; the Pentax AF160FC Auto Macro Ring Flash is $451; the Sigma EM-140 DG Macro Ring Flash is $379. I can’t justify spending that much money on a flash that I would only use on bugs. Furthermore, such a flash is of little use for macros involving stacked lenses. A better solution for many of us is what nature photography John Shaw, in his excellent Closeups in Nature, called the “butterfly bracket”:

You can make a bracket for yourself that is far better than anything on the market. I call my homemade model a “butterfly bracket” since I often use it to photograph butterflies. It is made of some nuts and bolts and a 1 inch wide, 1/8-inch-thick aluminum strap that I purchase at a hardware store, plus a flash shoe, a small ball-and-socket head, and a couple of knobs with threaded shafts, all from my local camera store.

Duplicating this outfit can be a bit of a challenge, particularly for those of us lacking even the most basic machine-shop skills. Shaw engineered his bracket back in the eighties, when options were much fewer. Partly as a result of Shaw’s influence, there are several commercial brackets available which improve upon Shaw’s original design. The best of these brackets is the Wimberly F-2 Macro Bracket. It is also, at $169, the most expensive option. At $100 less, Kirk offers the Universal Macro Flash Bracket:

I decided to try out an even less expensive option: Adorama’s C” Shaped Adjustable Bracket:

While not as nice as either the Kirk or the Wimberly brackets, this C braket is only $12.

Next, a flash is needed to go with the bracket. This proved to be more of challenge than I would have expected. The chief difficulty arises in finding a flash that is both capable and lightweight. I wanted to diffuse the light on the flash with a Rogue Flash Bender. I also wanted a flash with a head that tilted and swiveled. The only small, light weight flashes available for my Pentax K200D won’t work with the Rogue Flash Bender: there’s just no place to wrap the bender on the flash. Moreover, these small units lack heads that tilt and swivel — an additional strike against them. So instead I sought out an older, used flash. Since such units would not support my cameras TTL system, I needed a flash with variable exposure output. After much research, I settled on an old Sunpak Flash, the AF333:

Not only is this flash light (9.9 ounces), it has a head that tilts and swivels and features five manual settings (from full to 1/16). I found a lightly used, in box unit on ebay for $22. Then merely bring in a flash sync cord, and this makeshift macro flash system is ready to be assembled:

Here’s an example of how it works with the Pentax DFA 100mm WR macro lens:

What I hoped to attain with this bracket system is soft with mild, detailed shadows. This is why I decided to go with the Rogue Flash Bender rather than a softbox. By twisting the Flash Bender in to direct light from the top and side, I was hoping to somewhat mitigate the flat look attributed to ring flashes:

Not altogether perfect, but close enough for most practical purposes. The main problem with the setup was the C bracket, which gave me any number of problems. In the first place, the joints would not keep fasten, but kept getting loose. The screws that fastened the two shoes to the C-bracket were too long for the sync cord. I had to squeeze in a few washers to keep the cord from slipping down the bracket. Worst of all, the C-bracket was too small, limited, and inflexible: I couldn’t place the flash precisely where I wanted. The C-bracket is not an adequate substitute for John Shaw’s butterfly bracket. It will do in a pinch. But it will only work on the smallest of DSLRs. Don’t try this on any of the professional Nikon or Canon cameras: it simply is not big enough.

Meanwhile, as spring approaches, snails are emerging out of their larvae and inundating my back yard. Time to go out and get some shots!