JUMP RIGHT IN
Before subjecting a bunch of innocent amphibians to blinding light for an afternoon I wanted to get a handle on how to drive our borrowed flash gear.
Our baseline comparison was my aging Canon 550EX Speedlite, slotting onto the hot-shoe of a Canon 1D MkIV. I was skeptical that such a simple rig could be effective, expecting the flash to be rather harsh and one-dimensional, but it wasn't as bad as all that. Taking it one step further I grabbed a bounce umbrella and swivelled the flash-head into it. This generated a broader, softer and off-center light source which immediately improved the tone and detail of the shots. Not only does this simple technique generate some relief by lighting gently across the subject, but the wide reflection source fills in some of the background too.
The next unit we tested was Canon's MR14EX Ring Lite unit. Reading the manual was illuminating in itself, with references to film EOS cameras not seen on shelves for at least a decade. This reveals how reliable the basic technology has been for Canon, but also highlights the evolution of SLR camera technology in comparison to flash. The Ring Lite controller is pretty simple, with options for high-speed sync, remote slaves and the ability to de-balance the output from each half of the ring as well as pump up or drop down any slave heads. It's easy to get started and begin playing with the balance to suit your preference.
Compared to bouncing the 550EX off a reflector, the Ring Lite offers a better targeted light source for macro photography and draws less juice from your batteries. That's useful when you're shooting on location and didn't pack a spare box of AAs. In a professional studio we'd be shooting with large scale strobe heads driven with high capacity power packs, usually with enough current to recharge a Toyota Prius. But our objective on the day was to shoot with a compact and portable rig. We can't bring the frogs to the studio so we're packing a scaled down studio and visiting the frogs.
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Either of our primary flash configurations work fine but lack one essential creative element, a second light source. Controlling the background light is a luxury at the macro level, but useful. Aesthetic control of the background colors and brightness is possible with a slave flash, so instead of putting the 550EX Speedlite onto our camera body we activated the slave mode and let the Ring Lite become the master. Our final configuration has the MR14EX Ring Lite loaded onto the camera and the 550EX perched on a second tripod.
Newer generation flash technology employs radio controllers, but the Canon range still employs line-of-sight triggers for wireless communications, which can be troublesome when shooting outdoors. Indoors however the gear works well, if a little by mystery when first getting to know the gear. The trick is understanding how the 'master' flash triggers the 'slaves', using the flash equivalent of a dog-whistle. In the fractions of a millisecond before exposing your subject the master flash sends a short encoded burst of low power flash which only a correctly configured slave will decipher. Because the trigger signal is generated by light from the master flash, you can effectively bounce that signal off walls and reflectors.
Film bodies more commonly seen in the 90s get more mention in the MR14EX manual than do useful tips on how to setup a slave flash. One tip worth highlighting when pairing a Canon Speedlite as a slave to the MR14EX Ring Lite is to be aware of which flash group your slave belongs to. The Ring Lite defines each of its flash tubes as 'Group A' and 'Group B', while any slave units you add to the party are deemed to be in 'Group C'. If we don't configure our 550EX to behave as 'Slave C' it simply wont respond to the trigger signal of the Ring Lite.
After a few test shots the 550EX is happily slaving away at the command of our master Ring Lite. From the master flash we can even adjust up or down the relative exposure of the slave flash, adding more light to the background or dropping if off. This if useful if you want to tone down or over-expose the background. Positioning the slave directly behind our frogs gave us exactly that dramatic effect of back-lighting, while for other shots we used the slave to illuminate leaves from beneath or the side.
Both the Speedlite and Ring Lite support high-speed flash syncing as well, so we can take the shutter speed up to 1/8000th of a second and still keep our pair of strobes working in harmony. The flash itself is fast enough to freeze the action of a frog on the hop, that's not a problem, but minimizing ambient light that interferes with the exposure is the purpose of such a feature. If we were shooting in moderate strength daylight it would also be impossible to work at shallow depths of field without the high-speed sync option.
THROUGH THE LENS
With our light under control our next decision is the lens itself. Canon's top quality dedicated macro is a 100mm image stabilized L-series stopping wide open at f/2.8. Image stabilization was not a requirement for this shoot, but can be useful when shooting hand-held frames in ambient light. Those extra stops of light granted by the image stabilizer mode can be employed to maximize depth of field or minimize camera blur when you don't have the luxury of flash exposure. Most IS or VR lenses are less effective the closer you are to the subject, so this macro lens from Canon features a new hybrid IS system that claims to effectively deliver 2-stops of light when shooting at 1:1 macro ratio.
Initially we mounted the 100mm macro and Canon 1D MkIV onto a Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fibre Q90 with the Light Duty Grip Ball head. Depending on how many spare hands you have free for wrangling frogs the benefits of a tripod platform will be obvious. Ball grips are great for quick re-framing of the subject, and the grip release model made it quick, accurate and stable. The Canon 1D is a hefty camera body and the 100mm macro lens is solid enough too, but despite the combined weight this ball-grip performed without incident. The complete rig is extremely light and achieves good maximum height, ideal for a wide variety of mobile studio requirements.
As much as I liked the tripod, the frogs didn't. At least the juvenile Growling Grass Frog had objections, and with each burst of flash the little guy took flight. Our shoot stage was a low tub of water with pebbles and leaves, with enough room to dash out of shot and require endless re-framing. We released the Canon from the tripod, shoot a dozen or so frames with our shy subject and moved on to the other frogs. Half of the species on show at Melbourne Museum were shy of the flash and half weren't, so the tripod came in handy half of the time while the image stabilized macro worked its magic for the other half.
There are three autofocus settings on the 100mm f/2.8L IS, in an attempt to regulate the stubborn nature of the focus system. The macro range of this lens has clearly given the engineers a bit of trouble, and while taming the frogs our lens sometimes stumbled before giving up entirely. Stepping away from the subject to shoot a wider frame would routinely throw off the autofocus, while stepping forward between frames was never a problem. The lens works better when gradually pushing in towards a subject.
DEPTH OF FROGS
Before starting with a bucket of frogs I expected the major challenge to be their tendency to hop away. Captive frogs have a decent level of tolerance for us crazy humans, and the 100mm lens allows a bit of breathing space so the camera itself was not immediately threatening. The real battle was with depth of field, and deciding what F-stop to work with. I like the look of extreme shallow depth of field, and the Canon lens at f/2.8 packs a pretty picture. Frog eyes upset the party however, bulging out from the face so far that getting all of an eye sharp is near impossible at the widest aperture.
At f/8 the eyes are easier to target, but you're no longer getting the full abstract effect of a bokeh rich background. If you're not shooting for shallow depth of field you may as well shoot for all you can get. Taking things up to f13 still doesn't ensure that all your frog is clear, but you're likely to get the bits you really need. To our surprise, while framing up the juvenile Blue Mountains Tree Frog we still generated some nice background bokeh at f/13, further emphasized when water reflections catched the slave flash.
The key to working with a limited depth of field is to modify the camera angle on the frogs to get more than one element in the sharp zone. Shooting from the side a Gold and Yellow Tree Frog can present the eye, cheek and toes in the same plane of focus even at f/2.8. As the scale of frog gets smaller, the usefulness of wide apertures gets smaller too. Our shots of the diminutive Blue Mountains Tree Frog at f/2.8 enter the realms of art instead of science.
We also tested an alternate setup on the newly released Nikon D5100 coupled with the R1C1 Speedlite from Nikon and a Carl Zeiss manual focus macro lens. Anyone with a good quality manual lens from their film SLR days will appreciate this rig, putting an affordable but pixel rich sensor on the rear end of some good glass. With 16 million pixels and a flexible rear screen the D5100 is easily up to the job. The DX format adds an additional 1.5x crop, which is not unwanted when your objective is getting in close and tight.
We weren't testing an old lens of course, but a brand new Makro-Planar T* 100mm that opens wide to F2. This model has the Nikon mount and electronic coupler to any suit full-frame or DX body, and there's a Canon version available too. This is not your average lens, and holding it your hands it feels like nothing else. I love the build quality of Canon's 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro, it's top notch, but the Zeiss is from another realm. Out of the box the bulk of the lens is neatly shrouded by the lens hood, slipped on in reverse. As you slide the hood into place it locks into the slot with a solid snap, and the sound of metal-on-metal echoes around the room.
Rolling through the focal range feels unique on the Makro-Planar, not only because the lens extends forward in the process but you have to fully rotate the barrel several times to dial down from 1:10 ratio to the closest macro at 1:2. How else do you achieve sensitive selection of your focal point when shooting wide open?
Because this is an f/2 lens I wanted to shoot my subject at f/2. Most commercial and scientific applications simply need as much depth of field as they can get, but this lens has even greater appeal to the artist within. The image at f/2 has a velvety bokeh and vibrant tones. There's no drop-off at the edges, the colors march straight through and whatever you lock into that narrow band of focus comes back sharp as steel. The focus screen on the Nikon gave me good feedback and once mounted on the tripod I could make extremely subtle adjustments from one frame to the next.
CAMERAS, FROGS, LIGHTS
What the setup lacked was light. The R1C1 is a lovely piece of design but just a little underpowered compared to the Canon Ring Lite. The system provides three major components for creative lighting, the wireless commander (SU-800) that mounts onto the hot-shoe and drives the TTL metering, plus two wireless remote speedlights (SB-R200). Each of the three components are powered independently by single CR123A batteries, making this an extremely flexible rig but low on juice.
I had gone shopping for spare batteries the night before, but my local supermarket didn't have this special variety on hand. Drawing maximum power from the strobes without spare batteries on hand meant we had to go easy on the R1C1. By comparison we snapped over 300 frames on the Canon Ring Lite, and Speedlite slave, before swapping out the batteries due to slowing recharge times. Each of the Canon units require four AA batteries, and they were toasty warm after two hours of constant use.
The Nikon D5100 doesn't support high-speed sync with the R1C1, so we had to manage with ambient light impacting the color tone in unpredictable ways. The issue was most palpable when it came to processing the RAW files and getting the color balance under control was anything but straight forward. The lack of grunt and slow-shutter performance was disappointing because the concept of the R1C1 is superb and the kit comes loaded with a dozen extra bits of creative gear. Diffuser channels, color tints, clip cords and flat stands are all included in the box, along with the necessary adapters to mount both heads directly onto your lens.
There's more than one way to shoot a frog, but the MREX-14 Ring Lite with an additional Speedlite is my preference to get the best from any lens. The ring itself does throw a unique catch-light onto dark shiny surfaces, but that's pretty simple to rectify in Photoshop if you have the inclination. Comparing the luxury 100mm Canon macro lens to the Carl Zeiss 100mm T* Makro-Planar was fascinating for me, as these represent two very different styles of photography. For studio operations the Carl Zeiss is my favorite, but for flexibility in the field the technology of the Canon is compelling.