Review: The Olympus ZD 60mm f2.8 Macro and FL-600R wireless flash system

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Although ‘development announced’ (i.e. officially leaked) several months ago together with the 75/1.8, Olympus’ newest macro lens – the M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 (hereafter known as the ZD60) was formerly announced at Photokina 2012, and should be available sometime in October 2012 at a price of around RM2,000. It’s also only the second macro lens available natively with a Micro Four Thirds mount (and autofocus), the other one being the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, which I reviewed earlier here. Being an OM-D shooter, and heavily product-photography oriented, I was invited by Olympus Malaysia to review the ZD60 together with the new PEN Lite E-PL5 (review coming in the next week or so). The macro work I do almost always involves flash, so I had them loan me a set of their most recent flashes – the FL-600R. This review will therefore be approached from the point of view I’m most familiar with: photographing watches with speedlights, in a pretty much identical manner to how I do it with my main Nikon system. There will be comparative notes throughout, and no pictures of flowers, cats, eyes, coins, trinkets or other typical macro subjects. Let us begin.

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All images in this review were shot with an Olympus OM-D and FL-600R wireless flashes; the images are all from the ZD60, except the images of the ZD60, which were shot with the PL 45/2.8.

Let’s talk about the lens first: it offers 1:1 reproduction ratio at a minimum distance of 19cm from the sensor plane, which translates into a healthy 7-8cm of working distance at maximum magnification. This is great news for people who want tight frame coverage; by comparison, if I try to get the same subject coverage (i.e. 2:1 on full frame) with my D800E and Nikon 60 macro, I’m down to around 4 of working distance, which makes even lighting control much more difficult. The optical design has 13 elements in 10 groups, with one ED element, two HR elements and one E-HR element (I presume these are different types of optical glass).

Optical design and MTF chart. From Olympus Malaysia

Three of the groups float and perform focusing functions. This is not a simple optical design! There are traces of a double-Gauss base design in there, but it looks as though heavy modifications and extra elements were added to optimize resolution and close range performance. By comparison, the excellent Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro – which has been my mainstay lens up til now – has one less element and one less group.

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Size-wise, it’s similar to the 12-50 kit lens for the OM-D; build quality is definitely better, but still plastic and nowhere near as nice as the 12/2 and 75/1.8 lenses. The plastic used is matte, feels reasonably robust, but curiously has visible moulding lines in several places – I’ve not noticed this on any of the polycarbonate-shelled Nikon or Canon lenses before, but it may be because those tend to have a spatter-finish paint that hides the seams better. It’s also weather sealed, with ‘SPLASH PROOF’ in big letters on the bottom of the lens barrel. The lens is made in China.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300.

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100% crop of the above.

Two small points of interest on the ergonomics of the lens itself – firstly, although the (optional, shame on you, Olympus) hood is a bayonet fit, it telescopes in and out; neat, but I found it annoying after a while as if you support the lens by the hood and put too much pressure on it, the hood will easily shift or start to collapse back in. Second is the little rotary knob to control the focus range, accompanied by a pointer scale showing the subject distance and corresponding magnification level. The switch has several settings – full range, 0.4m to infinity, 0.19m to 0.4m, and a sprung detent to take the lens to 1:1. It sounds clunky but is actually very practical in use – selecting the right range keeps focusing fast and positive, and the 1:1 position is very helpful in traversing the focusing range when you don’t have a full-time mechanically coupled focusing ring. Overall, ergonomics are excellent.

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100% crop of the above.

Once in a while, (though increasingly frequently with today’s computer-designed optics) you come across a lens that is truly outstanding – the last two that come to mind were the Olympus ZD 75/1.8 and Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. I’ve used a number of competent, but imperfect, lenses in the meantime, none of which were that memorable for their optics. Fortunately, the ZD60 is another one of those lenses that falls into the ‘truly outstanding’ category – I’ve tried hard under many varied test conditions to find fault with the optics, and come up with an extremely short list. If you want the short answer, you can skip the next few paragraphs: this lens offers excellent optical performance at every aperture and focus distance.

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The lens has an even more impressive MTF chart than its highly-regarded predecessor, the ZD 50/2 macro for Four Thirds; granted, both designs only have to cover the small Four Thirds frame, and they used a lot of elements to do it, but still: it clearly outresolves the OM-D’s sensor, even wide open. On my copy, I simply didn’t see any improvement in stopping down – you get increased depth of field, and sharpness stays constant (i.e. outstanding) at every part of the frame. There’s diffraction beyond f8, and that’s about it. The plane of focus is also flat, as far as I can make out, and there’s almost zero distortion present. Let’s just say that the ZD60’s resolving power is not going to be the reason for any soft images. Like most of the extremely sharp lenses, the ZD60 also has very high microcontrast – these characteristics are related because high resolving power is required to differentiate between subtle tonal differences in the subject. In fact, it’s amongst the best lenses I’ve ever seen; deserving of the superlative classification (for lenses, at any rate) – of transparent.

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For reference, the screws on the right are about 1.5mm across.

Although overall resolution would support a much higher-density sensor, it wouldn’t be practical in use: on the OM-D’s 16MP sensor, you already have minor diffraction from f8, and visible diffraction at f11 and up (even though the lens can stop down to f22, I really wouldn’t recommend it; you might as well use a pinhole at that point). I suppose it would have been nice if it had tilt control too, but I think given the target market for Micro Four Thirds, that option might be a long time coming. I believe Novoflex has a T/S bellows system, which might be worthy of investigation at some point in the future.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude.

As for the other optical qualities of the lens – bokeh, chromatic aberration, color rendition and transmission – there are very few flaws. The only one I could find was some slight texture in the bokeh, and even then only in a couple of frames with circular out of focus highlights at a certain brightness level – one of the signatures of a moulded hybrid aspherical element somewhere in the construction. To keep things in perspective, even the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro exhibits this trait, and more obviously. Aside from that, bokeh is smooth and pleasant, with very minimal bright edges on defocused highlights. Chromatic aberration was nonexistent laterally, and more commendably, almost completely absent longitudinally, too, even wide open. I have not seen this level of CA performance in any macro lens I’ve used to date, even the Leica 120/2.5 APO-Summarit-S. Color rendition is neutral and pleasingly saturated, and taken in tandem actually quite reminiscent of the Zeiss lenses. Olympus uses their new ZERO coating on the lens, which keeps transmission high – I would estimate the lens to be around T3.0.

The ZD60 uses Olympus’ MSC system, which has the elements moving linearly on a rail; it’s not as fast as the 12/2 or 45/1.8, but with the limiter in the 0.4m-infinity position, it’s similar in speed to the 75/1.8, and definitely faster than the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8.

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FL-600R compared to the Nikon SB900. One would fit in your pocket; pocket the other and you’d probably be arrested on a public indecency charge.

Next up, we have the FL-600R flash; it has a guide number of 50m at ISO 200, or 36m at ISO 100, running off four AA batteries, with a wide panel and zoom head covering from 16 to 85mm. Full-power cycle time is claimed to be 2.0s with NiMH batteries; it didn’t feel any slower than my Nikon SB900s or SB700s, which I find to be pretty fast. In addition to the usual TTL and manual modes, the flash can also act as both wireless commander and slave using Olympus RC system. It’s also got a bright single LED in the base portion – ostensibly for video use, but I actually found it to be a useful modelling light for macro work, making focusing and composition quite a bit easier. If only it was in the head itself and even brighter…

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In use, the flashes are fairly simple to operate, though the very low number of external controls means that a lot of button presses are required, and you have to remember what does what – I much prefer the softkey and physical switches approach of the SB900 and SB700. That said, the units are physically much smaller than even the SB700 and SB600, and positively dwarfed by the SB900 – this leaves very little real estate on the back for the LCD and controls.

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Overall, I found TTL flash exposure to be mostly good; wireless TTL on the other hand, was a bit hit and miss. There were certain situations – specifically when one flash was firing at the background, and the other at the subject – where the subject exposure was a bit inconsistent. Not much of an issue, I just dialled in manual power. The limited external controls and display space also mean that adjusting settings for remote flashes with the FL-600R as master isn’t so easy, and requires far more button presses than I would like. Fortunately, even with the FL-600R on the hotshoe, the camera itself can be used to set the remotes; the hot shoe contacts then transmit the data to the flash. Coupled with the OM-D’s touchscreen, it’s a fast and easy experience – in this respect, better than the Nikon system. And you can control all three groups of flashes from the camera, regardless of which flash is attached to the hotshoe – which is one more than the Nikon system. There are also three available channels so other users’ flashes aren’t triggered by yours and vice-versa if there are a few of you. I can see this being useful if you shoot Nikon or Canon, but to be honest, I’ve never encountered an Olympus flash shooter…

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The only major issue I have with the wireless flash system is triggering – the sensor on the flash unit itself seems to be very small, aimed forwards and somewhat recessed – this makes no sense whatsoever, seeing as the flash is likely to be facing the subject, which means that the sensor will be away from the camera. Even the Nikons – with side and front mounted sensors – still have problems picking up the optical trigger signal at times. With the FL-600Rs in orientations where the sensor wasn’t almost facing the camera directly, triggering was somewhat hit and miss, especially with the small flash supplied with the OM-D. Use of one of the FL-600R units as a master improved this somewhat, but camera companies really need to start making flashes with multiple optical sensors, or better yet, built in radio triggers for both camera and flash. I know some of you might suggest external radio triggers, but has anybody tried looking for a TTL PocketWizard for Olympus lately? It just doesn’t exist.

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To date, when using the OM-D for macro work, I’ve either been using my large LED panels (and hence continuous lighting) or the SU-4 optical slave mode on my SB900s and the supplied small flash set to 1/64 power, which works well, but lacks the convenience of being able to set the power output from the flashes either via TTL metering or directly from the camera, let alone both. This can be inconvenient at the best of times – worse still if your flashes aren’t easily accessible. I’ve wanted to try the Olympus wireless flashes for some time now; my thoughts are that so long as you can spare one unit to use as a master trigger, they’re a viable alternative to the Nikon system; the problem is that I’d have to buy another five flashes to get the same flexibility as I have now, which seems somewhat silly.

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That said, the Olympus system – and Micro Four Thirds – for macro work has a lot going for it; firstly, a truly outstanding lens which is almost completely CA-free; flashes that aren’t that expensive, and very, very small – like the rest of the system. I could fit an equivalent system to what I use now in a bag half the size. Although on the face of things, the Nikon system has a huge resolution advantage – you lose something in diffraction (despite the D800E not having an AA filter), and the OM-D files are clean enough to upsize well to 25MP or so. The difference is much less than you might think. I think I’d have a very difficult time deciding what to buy if I was starting over again with the same objectives. As it is, I won’t be returning the ZD60 to Olympus; it’s unquestionably earned a place in my arsenal, edging out the 45/2.8 (it’s also nice that I no longer have a focal length overlap with the faster 45/1.8). As far as I’m concerned, this is the new reference lens for Micro Four Thirds. It’s that good. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

The FL600R flash is also available here from B&H and Amazon.

Come back again tomorrow for part two: a four way shootout between the M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 macro, Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar and Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro!

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Parting shot – another 100% crop.

On Assignment: Time factors and big magnets

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MRI machines are a lot thicker than they look on TV. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

I’ve shot for hospitals before, though not under these conditions. The day – well, night – before the shoot, I didn’t know I was going to be shooting the next day. Turns out that the hospital ordered a new MRI machine, at a cost of just RM13,000,000 – making it by far the most expensive object I’ve ever photographed. Here’s a bit of background on MRI machines: they’re so heavy that the room has to be purpose built to accommodate it, and the machine settled in then the rest of the place completed around the outside. (The control booth wasn’t operational or in place when I went there.) Apparently the magnet has to be cycled when it’s new to run in; during breaks in the cycling when the magnetic field strength dropped to zero was the only time we could go in to shoot it – they never fully turn the thing off. The upshot of all of this was that I had about half an hour to complete the shoot before they had to gas the MRI machine up with helium and start the cycling process again.

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Inside the donut. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon. Single SB900 with an umbrella outside to illuminate the patient and room. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking of Star Wars whilst I was inside here shooting.

There were about ten shots to complete inside the room – several of the room and machine itself, a few with a patient in it, and a couple with doctor-patient interaction. Needless to say, everything required lights to be brought in; not because ambient wasn’t bright enough, but because even, flat light is great for soothing patients but utterly crappy for providing definition on white objects. I used two SB900 speedlights for this shoot, triggered by the built in on my Nikon D800E. One was the main key light on a stand using an umbrella, and the other was placed to provide background fill. Whilst they work fine with line of sight, I do find myself wanting to hide them in ever more creative places; the inside of the MRI’s donut hole being one. I think I must be one of the few people to ever stick a flash inside an MRI machine. Perhaps I’ll pick up a set of Pocket Wizards at some point.

Half an hour and one haematoma on my finger later (I clipped it between the leg joins of my Gitzo while rushing to pack up) – good thing I was at a hospital – we were done. Possibly the most rushed shoot I’ve ever done, but also rather fun.

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The Mammomat. Has a rather neat carbon fiber um…rack tray, too. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. SB900 with umbrella from top right. The bluish color is actually a big glass panel that’s part of the machine; it changes color which supposedly helps keep patients calm.

The session actually started off here, in Mammography – it’s challenging to make a room that’s designed to have some separation between the x-ray source and the operator booth look cosy and inviting. And even more challenging was to show the process with a model patient in a way that didn’t reveal any skin.

The trick with lighting here was to balance the mid-warm ambient fluorescent with flash to provide definition and shadows; I shot manual for all of the exposures at about 0.5-1.5 stops under ambient. A SB900 with umbrella behind and above the subject provided face definition, with a second naked one on the floor provided room fill.

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Showing everything while showing nothing. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar

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On assignment: Bistro food

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This set shot with a Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and several SB900 flashes.

I’m seeing an increasing shift in my commercial work these days towards food – as a gourmet (or perhaps as a greedy person) I’m certainly not complaining. Interestingly, food photography actually shares a lot of techniques in common with watch photography – with the huge benefit of not having any reflective surfaces to worry about. But from a lighting point of view, it’s the same.

Last week, I shot what was probably my final job with the Nikon D700 – some highlights of which are presented here. The D800 studio update will probably be towards the end of next week due to job scheduling.

I wanted to use this opportunity to say a few things about both food photography, and draw some conclusions on the D700’s use as a studio camera.

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Food may not have any reflective surfaces, but it certainly presents some challenges of its own: firstly, temperature. Things don’t look optimally appetizing for that long (think ice cream) which means you’ve got to work quickly, and studio strobes are pretty much out of the question because the heat would make anything fresh wilt in less time than your fastest flash sync speed. The solution I’ve found to that is either use low-temperature LED panels or use flashes. For the most part, I use flashes because they’re more flexible in terms of light output deliverable, and have enough power to accommodate larger setups. LED panels don’t have as much throw or power, and go through batteries like crazy. And there are also color temperature issues – so far, very few panels can deliver a relatively even, neutral spectrum – and those that can are both hideously expensive and not all that bright.

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The next challenge is actually detail: most people don’t want to look too closely at what it is they’re eating. I mean, a steak looks great as a whole, but I don’t think you want to start looking at meat fibers and thinking about exactly what motor function that muscle did when it was still part of the cow; there’s a huge compositional tradeoff between detail, suggestion, and emotion.

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Bottom line: food images are about emotion: they must make you feel like you want to eat them. The ultimate litmus test for me is: would I want to order the dish if I saw this image in a menu? Lighting is your one control here: both softness and position of the light sources, and less intuitively, color temperature. (I’ll go into this more in a future article).

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I’m going to conclude with a few words about the D700 as a studio camera. It may not deliver the most resolution, but it does have a few advantages over say a D3x or medium format – providing you don’t have clients that must absolutely have that pixel count. Firstly, there’ the built in flash with commander function – that was the #1 reason why I went for a D700 instead of a D3s, and I don’t regret it one bit. Speed isn’t an issue, but putting an ENEL4a in the MB-D10 grip gives you both speed and an incredible amount of shooting time: I can easily shoot a full day assignment on one battery. This assignment (2,000 frames in total) was completed with 60% power left over on the ENEL4a, and the ENEL3e in the camera still full. Finally, base ISO of 200 gives your speed lights a boost – and even if you don’t need the extra power, it reduces cycle time as well as extending your battery life.

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Curiously, the internal flash can’t handle more than about a dozen shots or so in reasonably rapid succession before it cuts out to take a breather – unclear whether this is due to the capacitor’s limitations, or an overheat protection system of some sort to prevent your prism catching fire (which would probably be a fatal disaster considering the camera is both touching your face and made of highly inflammable magnesium.)

I’m looking forward to the quality the D800 brings, though I can’t say I’m so enthused about the amount of retouching it will require – especially for watches and other similar product. But for food, bring it on! MT

I will be attending the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore at the end of April to conduct some sessions for Leica; details to come soon. MT

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10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Lighting

This post deals with the light you create. You can’t always find what you need, so it’s important to know the dos and don’ts of off camera lighting. My tips apply to speedlight users; I’ve never been a huge fan of monoblocks, nor have I used them very much since Nikon launched their CLS system. Sure, sometimes you wish for more power, but then again you remember that you can go for hundreds, if not nearly thousands, of shots on a set or two of AAs – instead of carrying a 50kg lead acid lump around. Read on.

Disclaimer: As with every other article in this series, I’m assuming you know the basics already.

_7056032bw copy My current array of lighting: three SB900s, one SB700, two 120-LED daylight balanced continuous panels.

10: Always shoot in manual mode. Otherwise, there’s no way you can balance your flash and ambient exposure; if you want all flash, then you can dial in the highest sync speed possible – this will help you avoid camera shake. If you let the camera decide, it will usually only get it right for the center portion of the frame when the flash exposure is much greater than the ambient exposure. This is to say, most camera systems are useless at daylight fill, especially under very bright conditions.

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Inspector. Note how inside/ outside luminance is balanced. Nikon D3, 24-70, one SB900 in a soft box.

9: Imperfect diffusers and softboxes add character to portraits, but not product shots. Uneven lighting for most product shots just makes the object look odd. For people, it can be strangely flattering. Consider making some shoddy homemade internal baffles for your portrait soft boxes.

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Shoddy baffling adds character! D200, 17-55/2.8, 2xSB600s in homemade soft boxes.

8: If you’re controlling lighting, you shouldn’t have blown highlights or blocked up shadows – unless you want them. Self-explanatory. Your lighting isn’t balanced properly. Try again.

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Intentional outline. Nikon D3, 105VR, one SB900 off camera.

7: Those clip on diffusers are pointless. A small light source can never replicate a big light source unless you expand (and diffuse) it – be it bouncing off the ceiling, or a softbox. A little clip on diffuser is just going to make a small, diffuse source – which at any distance, looks like a small intense source except weaker. You’ll get the same reflections and general lighting feel. All you’ll have done is a) look stupid b) wasted your money and c) lost at least two stops of light. I’ve never even used the diffuser domes supplied with any of my flashes; they’re still in the plastic bags they came in.

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Unrelated shot. Speake-Marin perpetual calendar. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G, one SB900 and diffuser.

6: Duct tape is your friend. Use it to tape flashes in odd positions to whatever supports might be handy; sometimes you just can’t erect a flash stand in the place you want it. But you could tape the flash to the ceiling. I’ve done it before.

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The Hollywood shot. Flashes duct taped to curtain poles. Seriously. D3, 24-70/2.8 and three SB900s

5: More flashes are better. I’ve got four; two primary units, one spare, and one more unit to use as a commander on cameras without a built in (Leica M9-P, I’m looking at you). Legend has it that Joe McNally travels with an entire suitcase of SB800s. I dread to think how many batteries he goes through every year.

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Alfabeti. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G 2xSB900s

4: If you’re short of lights, consider a reflector. Positioning one light directly opposite the reflector gives you another pseudo-light – depending on the reflector, it could be as little as 1 stop light loss – think of a mirror, for instance. A more diffuse reflector can provide gentle fill.

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Leaf shutter benefits. Leica X1, SB900, 1/2000s.

3: Higher sync speeds are better. Pro DSLRs top out at 1/250s for full power, or less power and faster – but these are not true ‘flash speeds’, because the flash has to fire for longer but at reduced power – note how the flash no longer freezes motion at 1/8000s as much as it did at 1/250s. Leaf shutter compacts like the Ricoh GRDIII and Leica X1 both sync to 1/2000s; they’re great for capturing motion or providing balanced daylight fill, where your ambient shutter speed might be very high. You won’t lose the highlights, and you also won’t lose the shadows – thanks to your high sync speed.

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Dessert. Balanced with ambient daylight in restaurant. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon, 2xSB900

2: Remember the eyes. For living subjects, a little catch light reflected in the eye can make all the difference between a flat, boring shot and a portrait that looks alive. Use a reflector, or if you’re using Nikon CLS, the trigger flash on your camera works fine too.

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Note the eyes. Leica X1, SB900.

1: Spare batteries are important. Never get caught short. I avoid NiMH as they tend to exhibit the memory effect, especially if not used frequently – as would be typical for your second or third spare set. The Sanyo Eneloop batteries are fantastic – they really do hold charge like alkalines, but have the reuseability and current draw properties of NiMH. I’ve got eight sets of these for my flashes, and only charge them when depleted. MT

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Macro lighting is quite a different game entirely. There isn’t a lot of working distance, and you need a lot of diffusion to create the same apparent perceived light source size.