Micro four thirds and insect macros (part II)

This is a follow up to the last article on insect photography but unlike in that, I will not discuss techniques today, but rather why I find the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system ideal for newcomers to photography, who want to explore the world of insect macro.

As mirrorless systems, the Olympus OM-D and PEN cameras are smaller and lighter than their dSLR counterparts. In addition to being smaller, they bring a host of useful features such as 5-Axis Image Stabilization, a large Electronic Viewfinder and built in wireless flash TTL control capabilities. You basically have all the tools necessary to shoot extreme close up insect macro. The M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens offers a 2:1 magnification (in 35mm terms) which is plenty for shooting small insects.

Here are my top 5 reasons for why the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system is ideal for insect macro photography:

1. Small, Light and Easy to Handle:  Insect macro shooters typically use dSLRs mounted on tripods. While this method is the best for eliminating camera shake, framing becomes cumbersome as movement of the tripod head is limited. Imagine your beautiful butterfly decides to fly to another flower right after you spend the good part of 3 minutes getting the tripod ready for that shot – frustrating right? The Olympus OM-D and PEN cameras are much smaller and very light, allowing them to be easily operated single handedly, with the external flash in the other free hand. And if the insect moves, or changes position, I rarely have to waste time and effort in reframing and can shoot immediately.

2. 5-Axis Image Stabilization: I understand that certain genres of photography (long exposure landscapes, astrophotography, as well as products and studio shoots) will require use of a tripod, but for most of us consumers, hobbyists, or those who have no commercial brief to fulfill or client to please (besides yourself of course), is a heavy tripod a burden really worth bearing? Not if you have the 5-Axis Image Stabilization, which opens up new possibilities for your photography. People underestimate the importance and effectiveness of a good image stabilization system. If I’m shooting the insect in ambient light, I require slower shutter speeds and rely on 5-Axis Image Stabilization to help me get sharp images without having to sacrifice my ISO. It’s also useful that the 5-Axis Image Stabilization affects the Electronic Viewfinder thus providing a smooth view while shooting. As a rule of thumb, camera shake visibly increases as magnification does – but with the Image Stabilization system, framing and focusing is much easier on the Olympus cameras.

3. More Depth Of Field: Generally seen as a weakness of the Micro Four Thirds format, the difficulty in achieving very shallow depths of field becomes an advantage with insect macro. While most photographers want beautiful bokeh, and throw the background as far out of focus as they can, macro photographers, want to have as much depth of field as they can get away with. If the depth of field is too shallow, you can only see the insect’s eye in focus, for example, but you want the wings of the insect and the patterns on the body in focus as well, given how beautiful they can be.  As a rule of thumb, Micro Four Thirds will give you twice as much depth of field as a full frame system will for a certain f-stop.

4. M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro Lens: I believe that having the right lens is extremely important and the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens is a brilliant tool for macro photography. It is small and light, weather sealed to match the higher end Olympus OM-D bodies, and sharp wide open. The M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens provides 2:1 magnification (in 35mm format equivalent). This will let you magnify a very tiny insect (eg, an ant) large enough to fit the entire frame and reveal all the beautiful tiny details of the subject. To better understand the magnification capabilities, you can refer to the examples below:

I am sure everyone knows the typical, generic size of a Lego figure.

The higher the magnification is, the more you can fill the frame with the tiny subject.

5. Built in Wireless TTL Flash Controller. There are many methods to light your subject and some recommend the use of LED lights, or light painting (I wonder how many insects can stay still long enough for you to light paint), others, like me,  recommend using a speedlight. No one will recommend the use of direct flash, instead some form of diffusion or bouncing light off a surface is preferred. You can create a DIY macro flash diffuser quite easily and they provide differing quality and output based on materials used and size and so on. I opted to shell out a little for a generic tiny softbox for my Olympus FL-50R flash, which I trigger wirelessly off camera. The OM-D cameras all have built in wireless triggers with TTL capabilities, eliminating the need for bulky triggers and allowing you to work quickly on the filed with TTL.

Caterpillar underneath a leaf, with flash

This shot was out of focus, and was taken without the flash firing (my mistake in adjustment). The out of focus part aside, you can clearly see why flash is necessary in keeping a balanced, brightly lit subject.

If you’re a newcomer to insect macro photography, and are looking at purchasing a camera and lens, I recommend giving the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system a serious look. An OM-D camera (with 5-Axis IS) and the M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro lens, and perhaps an external flash to go along with the setup.

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Hi Robin ! What about 3-Axis Image Stabilization systems ? (I’m still shooting with my loved E-M10.1 theses days).
    Great pics as usual, thank you very much ! Florian

  2. Robin, you are already an expert in macro insect photographer. My only gripe is that my wife, having seen your photos has decided there is no way she is going to visit Malaya!

  3. Would the Oly M10 Mark 1 offer all the needs to use the macro technique as described here?
    looking for a cheap solution and would get a second hand 60mm Macro lens with the M10M1

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think E-M10 MRK 1 works just fine, but do add on the external camera grip for better handling. Without the external grip the handling might be a bit uncomfortable for long hours shooting.

  4. Dave Hickson says:

    Thanks, Robin. I’ve followed you from your own site to this, and it all helps. Thanks for your efforts.

  5. peterfraileyphoto says:

    Hi Robin. All so wonderful. Do,younise the same technique and camera set up for flower photography? Thanks Peter

  6. I’ve had good results with auto extension rings in my OMD EM5II.
    The AF still works. But has a very limited range.
    With a zoom lens, the zoom ring almost replaces the focusing ring and I switch to manual focus.
    A little balancing back and forth does wonders in some cases.

    But I’ve since stopped using them as I invested in one of these amazing 60/2.8 macro lenses!
    It is nothing short of incredible how good they are and how well they work with this camera!

  7. Just stepped up to the E-MI Mark II and have the lens, which I love. Do you set IS to S-IS 1?

  8. Thank you for sharing some great Macro shots Robin, and a great review of the use of the Olympus.
    I’m new to the blogging world and viewing others work and posts is really helping me to get more experience. You work is very inspiring.

  9. Wow! Truly beautiful close ups of some wonderful creatures. I totally appreciate this post 🙂

  10. Thanks for the great Macro series Robin! Could you share any thoughts about the Olympus MCON-P02 macro converter on the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 lenses as a low budget alternative to the Olympus 60mm f2.8 and other native Micro Four Thirds macro lenses and extension tubes? For example, how will the magnification compare? Does the lens lose any light gathering capability like woth extension tubes? Etc.

    I have the Panasonic lens and I am contemplating this kind of set up as a way to get started into macro photography. Thanks!

    • Robin Wong says:

      Most of the macro converters will not be able to reach sufficient magnificication, and even if they do, the image quality is usually degraded significantly. The only one macro converter that I can think of which is not half bad, is the Raynox DR 250. However, the quality (sharpness, details, contrast, etc) is still no where as good as a true macro lens.

      Using extension tubes will be cumbersome in execution, as you have no control over aperture and probably focusing. It is recommended that you use a legacy manual lens, with dedicated manual aperture and focusing ring control on the lens itself.

      • Thanks for the speedy response Robin! That all makes perfect sense. It sounds like I should either pick up an old MF macro lens or save for a dedicated Micro Four Thirds macro. Keep up the great work in the field and on the blog. Cheers!

  11. Hmmm… I would love to see some lines about BIF – say E-M1II + 300mm f/4, 100-400mm, etc. as well as Adapted Lenses (4/3 using standard adapter or Canon using Metabones/Kipon adapter) ? As you have started a series on m4/3 specifics this would be of interest to many – I don’t expect the results to match 1DXII w/ 600mm/4 but interesting how close to those results you can get… Happy to see you join Ming from Olympus (OK, it’s old news but good) – and the new perspective.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Glad to be here!
      Unfortunately bird photography is not my expertise and I rarely leave the urban landscape and step into the dangerous forest for any kind of bird shooting. Nonetheless, there are some photographers who have had great success with BIF shots using Micro Four Thirds setup, Scott Bourne being one of them.

  12. This combination is perhaps the biggest bang for your money in photography. For most people,
    this very practical combination gives up very little. Fantastic lens. Well done.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Kadi. Indeed, specifically for this shooting technique/style and insect macro, I think the system works well.

  13. Hi Robin, thank you for a wonderful article series about macro photography. What kind of while balance setting do you use?

    • Robin Wong says:

      I left the White Balance to Auto. It worked well with the flash. However, I would not hesitate to adjust the white balance as necessary during post processing.

  14. Ones again, thanks for sharing!

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