Spring has arrived, the macro season has opened. The beautiful weather, flowers and insects that we have been dreaming of all winter are waiting for us outside. But this time, instead of grabbing the camera and jumping in, I want to go for the goal I set for myself this year: “using natural light”.
It is important to complete the necessary equipment before using natural light
That’s why I’ve been experimenting and trying to eliminate the problems throughout the winter. Apart from getting into the practice and being more patient, there’s also the equipment side of the business. In this article, I will give examples of tools that make our work easier and help us get more successful results. The choice of these is all about personal preferences and necessities. As time progresses, different methods and devices come into my hands, one is replaced by another. Different products that do the same job can easily be used. Use whatever is available to you.
If we have decided to use natural light, shooting macro outdoors means carrying a mini studio with us. We need to use diffusers and reflectors to manage the light and block wind and other vibrations. At the same time, it all needs to be easily transportable and not a hassle to set up and take down. While there are still some things that I am still undecided about and some things that are missing, here are the things that I plan to use in the coming period:
Of course, the first and foremost and essential one is a tripod. We will take long exposures when shooting in natural light. Although the exposure time varies depending on the light conditions, it will almost never be short enough to shoot handheld. It is usually between 1/10 sec and 2 sec. I prefer to use a little dimmer light and keep the time longer so that I am less affected by shutter vibration. When we take a long exposure, the body does not vibrate during the main exposure time that continues after the shaking at the beginning of the shot.
Note: Canon bodies with EFSC support and Sony NEX mirrorless models do not suffer from shutter vibration.
Benro A0691T Travel Angel Tripod
This is the model I have. When I was choosing a tripod, I preferred this model, which is actually a bit troublesome for macro, because the approach of being suitable for general purpose was dominant. Benro works for me in general. It is sized to be carried everywhere. It’s sturdy and light. It is 1.33kg and the weight it supports is 6kg.
Benro comes with a ballhead on its own, model B00.
As it is, it’s fine for shooting large insects like butterflies or flowers. But at higher magnifications we are faced with a serious framing problem. For example, we want to make a portrait of a fly. After setting the frame and stabilizing the camera by tightening the ballhead, when we take our hand off, a natural bending occurs as soon as the weight of the camera gets on the tripod head. Even if this tilt is a fraction of a millimeter, when we look through the viewfinder, we realize that we are no longer seeing the head of the fly, but its feet.
Loosen again, hold the frame a little higher this time, tighten the tripod head, release. Unfortunately this time we only see the fly’s abdomen. Loosen again…. This cycle takes minutes. If you are working with a live insect, it will probably move away before you can adjust it. Or if it moves, the frame will be distorted and you will be back to the beginning. That’s why it’s worth changing the tripod head.
Another problem is that it is not possible to approach the ground with Travel Angel. As seen in the photo above, when we open the legs, we have to lift the central column up. The camera stays on the top again. When the camera is up, it is on a thin tube and it takes a long time for the vibrations to disappear. That’s why I plan to cut the center column from the bottom, which I never lift up. After a while, I want to switch to wooden tripod models that can go down to ground level and are very successful in terms of vibration.
Manfrotto junior geared head 410
Despite its somewhat bulky and cumbersome appearance, the Manfrotto 410 solves the framing problem very well. We simply remove the old head and replace it with this one. And that’s all.
This head has a device that provides precise movement in 3 axes. By rotating the 3 wheels of 3 different gears in the way we want, we can move up-down, left-right and tilt to either side. While doing these movements, the camera is securely fastened and we keep our eyes on the viewfinder. We don’t tighten or loosen anything afterwards and the frame is not distorted. With the Manfrotto 410 I can precisely set the frame I want, even at 10X magnifications on microscope lenses.
Just behind the fine adjustment screws there is a second screw that looks like a butterfly, which is a bit hard to turn because it is spring-loaded. When we want to make a large amount of rotation, we turn it and disable the fine adjustment screw. The head remains free on that axis. We move it roughly to the desired position, release the screw and it is fixed again. Then we continue with the fine adjustment.
This head also provides great convenience with long tele lenses. I love using it with 500mm mirror lens and teleconverters.
The Junior Head 410 doesn’t move up and down much. It is not very important in macro. We already can’t tilt our Newport rail down too much to avoid sagging. But I would like to be able to lift it higher for tele use. Birds in the trees usually require looking up.
If we are going to do focus stacking, which we will, we need a rail. At low magnifications we can also give this task to the bellows rail. But getting very good results again depends on the presence of a precision rail. For this task, I chose the Newport 423 model, which is actually an industrial product that uses a micrometer for shifting. It has steps marked in hundredths of a millimeter, but it can also be shifted half a step if needed. So we can easily step at the 5 micron level. In this way, it works perfectly up to 20X magnification.
There is an extensive article I have already written on Newport. I will give the link to it without explaining the details again:
General purpose mini tripods
I treat them as a different class. When they are marketed, they are shown with DSLR cameras with big tele lenses attached to them, but in reality they have very little carrying capacity. They’re made of plastic, so they’re very light and they’re small, so they don’t have portability problems. In fact, they can get along very well with small compact cameras. In short, you need to keep a few in the drawer.
Gorilla is a strange tripod with jointed legs that I found very strange when I first saw it. It actually resembles a 3-legged octopus rather than a gorilla. We can give the legs the shape we want with our hands and adapt them to any kind of environment. It is even possible to tie knots in the legs. For example, the promotions show cameras attached to a gorilla wrapped around a tree branch or a pole. Such a flexible product.
The Gorilla tripod family has several models in different sizes and carrying capacities. I bought one each of the medium and large size ones. Actually, my goal was to connect them together and make the monster that John Hallmen calls “gorillazilla”! With its 3 clamps, it seemed to be capable of holding both a diffuser and a sample.
My cousin Kerem built Gorillazilla before me. He used it for a while. He wrapped the lower legs around one leg of the main tripod and worked all together. But after a while he didn’t find it useful enough and gave up on Gorillazilla. That’s why I didn’t try it. We decided to evaluate them separately.
Slik mini II tripod
The articulated legs and light weight of the Gorilla tripods prevent them from always being a vibration-free holder. So I needed something a little better to hold the area where the insect was located. After some research, it turned out that the Slik mini II tripods work well. Again, my cousin was ahead of me. After seeing and examining it, I decided to get one too.
When we lower the center column of the Slik tripod, it can also stick to surfaces such as glass with the suction cup on it. But we should not perceive this as we can stick it to the glass and use it. It can be used to provide better adhesion on flat surfaces such as glass tables. If you ask me, it is not a very meaningful feature. Apart from that, it is written in the technical details that it has a load carrying capacity of 1.24kg. This is also a very good value.
Sample holders and stabilizers
After fixing the camera, it was time to fix the subject. Since it is extremely difficult to move the whole setup to a different position for each shot, we usually prefer to move the insect and not the camera. For example, when we come across a bee sleeping on a leaf, we cut this leaf with scissors and place it in front of the camera with the insect. It is very important that the object or insect to be shot does not sway in the wind. Even small oscillations that are imperceptible to the naked eye lead to a completely blurry photo. The greater the magnification, the greater the effect of these oscillations.
Of course, the only task of the holders is not to prevent the wind. The diffusers or reflectors that we will use to transform the light into the form we want must be in the appropriate position. This is where the holders come in handy.
These little clamps have different names. We can easily find them by typing “helping hand” when searching on eBay. Although I mostly use helping hands at high magnification for home studio shoots, they can be easily used in the field. By positioning them on height adjustable tripods, we can raise them to the level of our camera and use them as multi-purpose holders.
There are two clamps on the helping hand. By loosening the screws, we can move them to the position we want. While one of them is enough for studio shooting, it is useful to stabilize the object outdoors using both clamps. Objects with large surfaces, such as leaves, are very sensitive to the wind when attached from one side. Just like a sail… Or if we hold grassy plants on one side in this way, they start to wilt quickly. Each frame of the stack process creates a slightly more sagging image. This is prevented by double-sided fixing.
A magnifying glass is included in the package for delicate repairs. We are taking it out to use it for other fun activities.
The full name is “Adjustable Friction Articulating Magic Arm”! In short, we can call it an adjustable articulating arm. These are joining arms used as intermediate elements. When we loosen the screw, both the arm folds and the ball holding the connection screws at both ends loosens. After bringing it to the position we want, we tighten the screw again and they all stay in that position. It can work in any way we can think of. It can be a flash holder, diffuser, reflector holder. I can say that they are a very useful element with alternatives sold in different sizes.
The photo above shows two models, 7″ and 11″ tall, with different attachments. On the shorter 7″ one on the right, I also attached a mini ballhead to increase both the length and maneuvering flexibility. The clamps on both of them can be found in places like Bauhaus. To install the clamp, I just needed to enlarge the small hole already on its handle with a screwdriver and make it the right size for the screw on the handle.
Now we can start building Voltron. Let’s put the arms with the clamps on the tripods. Attach the Manfrotto 410 head to the Benro. Put the bellows, lens and rail on the head:
We’re almost ready to shoot. The way we use the holders is a bit up to us. I use one to hold the paper/plastic sheets that we will use as diffusers or reflectors depending on the light conditions. The other one serves as a sample holder. There are two ways to use the sample holder. The first option is to cut the object together with the branches, leaves, etc. Then we will hold the object directly.
In the example above, a feather is chosen as the subject and fixed with a holder. The other holder uses cardboard as a reflector. Of course, in a real shot, these need to be in a more favorable position. The paper here is white on one side and aluminum coated on the other. This is the kind of cardboard that home delivery restaurants use to cover food. I use the shiny side when I want to reflect a sharper light, but it’s usually better to reflect with a white surface. I use them a lot on shoots.
If we add our camera, we get a view like this.
The other way to use the specimen holder is to fix it directly to the branch where the insect is located. This is also possible if the location is suitable. This prevents the branch from moving in the wind and allows us to take long exposures in natural light.
In this article, I didn’t talk much about the use of diffusers. I haven’t clarified this part in my head yet. It could be the use of tents or white plastic. I will share ideas after trying different methods.
It’s not directly related to the topic, but I can’t resist sharing. Now let’s see what happens if we leave these items lying around!
That day, after the shoot, I stayed inside for a while. The fun continued in the garden while I was gone. Especially if you have a 5-year-old daughter, you should be more careful. At any moment everything can be dressed up, decorated and turned into a game material. As shown in the figure: Tripod doll!