Experiments with ring lights and insects

I am currently experimenting with an alternative lighting solution for my insect macro work – LED ring lights. My usual insect macro technique of using wireless off-camera flash (as seen in this article) may be effective in shooting bugs hiding in difficult to reach places, but it is also physically challenging to execute. Holding the camera and macro lens steady with just one hand with the flash on the other can be tiring for hikes in the forest hills – where these insects are usually found. The LED ring light, in theory, should be much easier to use. Let’s see if my hypothesis was correct.

LED ring lights are much simpler than any of my previous lighting techniques. I found an old Yongnuo LED ring light, purchased years ago to shoot electronic boards and tiny lego pieces. I never used it for macro because it was not powerful enough for extreme magnification shots. For the sake of the experiment, I decided to compromise a little by increasing the ISO. I shot with the Olympus PEN E-P5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 30mm F3.5 macro lens primarily, with the LED ring light held around the macro lens. This helps achieve even lighting around my subject. I used ISO400-800 (because the LED light is not that powerful), F4 to F6.3 and shutter speed faster than 1/60 second for these shots.

The LED ring light was easy to hand-hold around the lens, and I can still, technically, brace the camera with two hands which is a huge bonus for stability. I needed to move the LED light as close as possible to the subject to get sufficient illumination. I did wish the LED light was more powerful – an easy fix with an upgrade, if I decide pursue this experimentation further. I do like how the light is even and spread out, with no harsh shadows and a softer look overall. This is different from my usual work which has stronger highlights and shadows which create more depth and a three dimensional look. The soft light from the ring flash works well for some scenarios, but I still prefer the more dramatic lighting that I can achieve with the wireless off camera flash.

The lack of sufficient power in the LED ring light created another problem for me – it limited my ability to capture more depth of field. In order to obtain sufficient focus I need to stop down to F8 or narrower. But due to the weaker LEDs and to ensure my ISO was reasonable, I did not go beyond F6.3 for most of my shots. While the OM-D cameras like the E-M1 Mark II have focus stacking, it is not practical because bugs, the leaves and branches move and this causes weird artifacts.

Another unique effect of using the LED ring light is the white “O” shaped reflection on the bugs’ eyes. Most of the time I am not bothered by this, but when you have a spider with 8 eyes, all showing the obvious bright “O” shaped reflection, the image may appear somewhat unnatural. Certain creatures like the damselfly/dragonfly, bees, or beetles have compound eyes that are not reflective and may exhibit this issue.

The Yongnuo LED ring light worked well for larger insects and spiders, but I did find myself wishing it was more powerful. The softer look works well in some scenarios, but I would not give up my wireless off camera flash technique just yet. This LED ring flash opens up the opportunity for me to test the focus stacking option if I find a completely still subject on a totally windless day.

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 30mm F3.5 Macro lens is available from B&H

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Comments

  1. Great advice, love to come back here, best regards!

  2. atnbirdie says:

    Not sure why you are opposed to ring flash. Metz MS-15 is light weight, works wirelessly, is more powerful, and gives ability to create some shadowing from any angle.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I tried it. Did not like it. If I were to create “shadowing” effect, I prefer the wireless flash technique which I have been using all along.

  3. The Metz MS-15 ring flash may be more powerful and has the capability to aalter the power from one side ti another to create some shadowing effects. You can rotate it on the lens so shadows could be left to right, up to down or any angle.

  4. Steve Gombosi says:

    Robin,

    Thanks for the article – I was actually considering getting one of these, but I suspect it wouldn’t really work for my current setup. For years, I’ve done high-magnification (> 1:1, often 5:1 or 10:1) photography with a Hasselblad, the old Metz-Hasselblad macro flash, bellows, microscope shutter, and dedicated macro lenses like the old Leitz Photars and Zeiss Luminars. It sounds like these little ring units are just too dim for my application (to say nothing of the lighting being flatter than I like).

    This isn’t practical with the X1D, since the ES can’t be used with flash and there’s currently no way to fire the microscope shutter from any of the current V-adapters. It’s probably the only thing keeping me from switching completely over to the X.

    What sort of magnifications do you currently shoot at? What’s your “hit rate” like at that low a shutter speed? Did you lose a lot of them due to camera shake?

  5. Great pics. Have you tried the Olympus STF-8 macro flash? Two units sit at the front of the lens and are individually adjustable for angle, position, power and diffusion. Not had mine long but looks like it has potential.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Not my style of shooting. I usually angle my wireless flash over the top of the subject, firing down from the head, sometimes a bit off center (to the letf or right, depending on-the-spot decisions). Definitely not from extreme sides. And sometimes I need the light to be a bit further away from the subject, but with a large softbox.

      • The STF-8 Flash units can be positioned anywhere around the 360 degrees, so at the top is no problem. Perhaps a bit to close top the lens for you although extenders can be fitted to increase the distance.

        • Robin Wong says:

          What I was saying, the flash was too close. I took the flash off camera, diffused it over a large softbox to create the “studio” like light, and light from the top, simulating natural sunlight effect. No matter how you turn the ring flash, it won’t be the same.

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    YIKES !!! – now I know where Hollywood has been getting its ideas for monster movies !!
    Amaszing photos, Robin – thanks for sharing them – macro is fascinating and a very absorbing sector of our hobby. (Not being negative – I don’t think there are too many pros out there making a living from macro photography !! I think the vast bulk of the macro stuff I’ve seen so far is coming from enthusiastic amateurs, or from pros relaxing in another genre.)

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Jean for the kind words. While macro may not be seen as a money making photography genre, it is not less important than any other photography done out there. In research on flora and fauna, especially the ones my friends are doing in the rainforest here in the tropical side of the world, macro photography helps so much!

  7. Robin, you need a ring flash instead of a wimpy LED ring! It will change your life!

    I’ve modified the wonderful Olympus OM System T-8 ring flash with reflector to work with the Olympus FC-1 controller, to allow TTL flash with 4/3rds and µ4/3rds. That really opens up new horizons! And the original RF-11 ring flash for 4/3rds works perfectly well with µ4/3rds, as well — it just won’t do in-camera focus stacking.

    With a ring flash, you can shoot ƒ8 for great depth-of-field, but at flash sync speed, with the flash duration being perhaps only 1/2,000th, for bug-action-stopping photos!

    • Robin Wong says:

      I would not like the idea of a ring flash. If I were to use flash, I am perfectly fine using my own wireless flash technique, which I have demonstrated and shared many times before.

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