Deconstructing light, part two: multiple sources

Part two deals with multiple sources: how and where do you use them? What is the one key rule to remember?

Although you can do a lot with a single flash, there’s even more that can be done with two or more. For starters, you can fill in shadows; or if you want to get more adventurous, you can mix both hard and soft light (direct and diffused) for better definition, or more accurate replication of found light sources. (There’s one particular shot I’m rather fond of that I call ‘the Hollywood’, which I’ll go into later).

There’s one critical thing to remember when using multiple sources, though: there must always be a primary source. If you don’t have one, then you won’t have any subject definition – opposing sources will fill in the shadows, and shadows are what defines the shape of an object.

The same parameters you can control with a single source apply to multiple sources, of course. The more sources you have, the more complicated things get. It’s useful to decompose your thinking thusly:
1. Primary source, on main subject
2. Secondary source, on main subject – definition (rim light, not diffused) or fill (diffused, or reflected)?
3. Other sources, for background objects or secondary subject – take steps 1 and 2 and repeat.

I’m sure you can now see why Joe McNally needs several trunks full of speedlights. I’m not quite there yet, but I find that most of the time a two-light setup is sufficient; there are times where I’ll use three for watches, but I’ve yet to require four sources (except in situations where I need more power from one location, and have to add a second flash to turn the wick up a notch).

Let’s look at some examples.

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Ferrari 250 GTO. Sadly, not a real one. Nikon D200

This one has two distinct sources, both flashes behind diffuser panels – one at left, and one at right. They’re actually slightly behind the subject to create a nice specular highlight that defines the curvature in the panels; if I’d put the sources at right angles, you’d have very flat illumination and not much of a feel for the 3-D shape of the car.

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Nikon 14-24. Nikon D3

Some objects betray their lighting secrets very clearly – reflective hemispheres are perhaps the worst culprits. For something like this, the best thing to do is keep the light source simple; in this case, two softboxes from the left and right. Power was equal; if not, you wouldn’t get the nice multi-colored reflections off the coatings on the lens. Note that the softboxes were actually pretty close to the subject; the hemispherical shape makes them appear further away.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700

Through a trick of optical projection, the watch actually appears floating in mid-air and truncated, even though it’s resting securely on the surface behind. Note that this was shot with the lens and watch resting on a flat surface, but lit as though vertical. The primary source was through a diffuser, aimed at the watch and shielded from lighting the lens in front; a secondary source, at reduced power, lit the nameplate of the lens; finally, a third source – again at reduced power – lit the background. A simple-looking shot, but a bugger to light.

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Panerai Arktos. Nikon D200

Sometimes you want hard definition; in such cases, a concentrated, direct source is the best way to go, without diffusion. Here, I used one flash from the top, and one from the bottom to provide fill. Both were positioned at a low angle to avoid flat-looking interference at the point of the subject closest to the camera, with a small baffle on one side of the flash preventing light spillage.

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Steak. Nikon D700

This example is an instance of when two light sources look like one. A flash with reflective umbrella was used from the top right; you actually need to see a bit of harsh reflection off the oil on the steak to know it’s a juicy steak, making a reflective umbrella ideal. However, you still need to soften out the edges a bit, which is where the very low power secondary source comes in; if it’s too diffuse, you lose the defining effect of the first source, so there’s another flash reflecting off an umbrella from the left, too.

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The Hollywood. Nikon D3

There are actually four flashes in play here: two at the back to provide the spotlight effect and backlit definition on the subject’s hair; one from the right in a softbox as the primary source, and a fourth on the D3 to serve as remote commander.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon I. Nikon D700

Lighting at the macro scale is extremely tricky – partially because you don’t have a lot of working distance, and partially because your source has to be the right size: too large, and the light is too soft and lacks definition; too small, and you’re going to get harsh reflections and rough-looking surfaces. Here, I used one flash fairly close to the topmost diffuser, with a secondary one through the back diffuser to provide fill of the shadows – thanks to the handy aperture in the watch dial.

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Seiko Fifty-five Fathoms. Nikon D700

We finish this section with a classic two-light: primary source upper back center, and secondary fill from the left to give the transparent domed objects – water and watch crystal – some definition. Not much power difference between the two flashes; the bigger difference was the location of the flashes. The back one was further away and with a wider spread than the left one; this created a larger source of almost equal brightness.

Come back tomorrow for part three! MT

A primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here.


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Deconstructing light, part one: one light

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Over the next few days, we’ll look at a few examples of lighting, and specifically, deconstructing it: what lights were positioned where, and what was the logic of doing so?

Today, I’m going to start with some relatively simple setups: they only use one light, with or without additional modifiers. Quite often, you don’t actually need much more than that. Single light setups tend to have very well defined shadows and highlights; chiaroscuro is the term that’s used to refer to an image that is predominantly described by it shadows and negative spaces. Classical painters were masters of this technique; they lit things in ways that are very difficult to replicate in real life – partially because of the size of their sources, and partially because they weren’t strictly limited by the laws of physics.

For simplicity, let us assume that you’re shooting at your camera’s highest sync speed, and that ambient light is not really a factor into the equation. Note that everything said here applies to both speedlights and studio strobes. I’m not going to discuss built in or on-camera flash, because it simply will not give you the results you need or offer the flexibility required. There are few variables in a one-light setup:

1. Output power
How bright do you want it? Usually, your lights will alter power based solely on your desired depth of field – which translates into aperture, which in turn translates into the amount of power required to provide a correct exposure. Note that the shutter speed only affects ambient light, not the power output of the flash. Flash duration is often 1/1000s or even much shorter. Most cameras will sync to 1/250s or thereabouts; this is the maximum duration of a full power flash. Those that sync at higher speeds require the flash to fire several times to cover the focal plane, as this is the highest speed at which the entire sensor area is exposed at the same time. (Anything faster, and the opening between shutter curtains is effectively a narrow moving slit.)

2. Distance
More distance requires a higher guide number to provide the same given illumination. Distance also affects the perceived size of your source – in general, providing the light isn’t a single point, the farther away you are, the brighter your source has to be for a given illumination level. For more diffuse light, you want your primary source to be further away.

3. Beam coverage/ angle
Most flashes and heads can have their beam angle changed – you want to match the beam angle to the focal length to produce the optimal balance frame coverage and power consumption; lighting more than you need to is a waste of power, but less than your angle of view will produce hot spots. Of course, you could always do this deliberately for a spotlight effect. Note that a wide beam close to the subject and diffuser will not look the same as a spot (telephoto setting on the flash) beam farther away with a big diffuser; the latter will produce far softer light.

4. Diffusion
The best example of diffusion is the difference between a clear, cloudless day and an overcast one: look at the difference in shadows. A cloudless day produces very harsh shadows and wide dynamic range with high brightness in the highlights; it’s a dynamic range nightmare (especially for outdoor wedding shooters, because of all that black and white involved). The opposite is true for cloudy days – note how soft and diffuse the light is. The clouds are effectively adding as a diffuser. For photographic/ flash purposes, you can use a diffuser – not a small clip-on thing that goes on your flash, but something larger like a softbox. The further away your source is from the diffuser, the softer the light is going to be. Control diffusion, and you effectively control the subject’s tonal differentiation.

5. Angle of incidence/ positioning
This seems obvious, but where you put your light and how you aim it can make a huge difference to the look of the image. In fact, it’s possible to leave the orientation of subject and camera fixed in one position, and just move your lights to create several completely different-looking images.

A quicks note on color and white balance: assuming all of your exposure comes from flash, just set your white balance to flash or daylight – most cameras will do this automatically. We do need to start worrying about mixed color temperatures, but only when balancing ambient and artificial light.

Let’s look at some examples.

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Hair. Leica X1

Single speedlight in softbox; shot at 1/2000s sync speed – to freeze motion, I used a camera with a leaf shutter and high flash sync speed. The source was positioned at 45 degrees to the subject and camera to provide definition; it was not that far away from the subject to avoid too much diffusion – this way, you still get some highlight definition which helps give the subject shape.

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Maitres du Temps Chapter 3 prototype dial. Nikon D800

Single speedlight behind diffuser panel to the top of the watch. The watch was inside a diffuser box to control reflections of surrounding objects off its polished surfaces. For images like this, the precise position of the flash relative to the diffuser and subject, as well as the beam angle, are very important – a small change in the position of the flash or beam angle changes the nature of the reflection significantly, as you will see demonstrated by the next image. For this image, the source was reasonably high up, far away, and with a wide beam angle to produce a soft reflection.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700

This shot employed an almost identical setup to the previous one, except the flash was at a lower angle, much closer to the watch and with a tighter beam spread (longer zoom setting). Note how the reflection in this shot is very concentrated in one spot close to the top edge of the crystal, and is much ‘harder’ and more defined than in the previous shot.

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Seasoning. Nikon D700

I used a flash in an reflective umbrella to the back left of the subject here; I wanted some diffusion but also some definition – too much diffusion and the pasta looks like a flat, matte amorphous blob. The source was partially behind the subject to provide a bit of backlight, which would define the grains of seasoning against the dark background of the person’s shirt. Note: there is such a thing as too much diffusion!

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047. Nikon D700

Despite appearances, this shot actually employed direct flash with almost no diffusion. The watch itself is fairly matte, and the texture of the carbon-fiber dial is only apparent when struck with strongly directional light. I used a single flash to the right of the subject, almost touching the diffuser panel; this provided a minimal amount of softening of the edge of the flash source (so it wouldn’t appear as a hard point source in the minor reflections) but enough directionality to give the dial definition.

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Prawns. Nikon D700

This example involves one flash again, but bounced off an umbrella fairly far away from the subject. Given that the room, tablecloth and surroundings were predominantly white, any light source used would reflect and provide some fill. This meant that the primary source had to be diffuse, yet directional – making an umbrella ideal.

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Eugenie. Nikon D200

The final example involves a combination of light modifiers – a snoot and a diffuser box. The snoot was used to concentrate the light to the center of the diffuser; the diffuser was used to soften the skin of the subject. The net effect was a soft spot – imagine a source about the size of a large dinner plate, with intensity dropping off towards the edges. Thus, we get the best of both worlds – chiaroscuro definition, and gentle tonal rolloff in the shadows and highlights.

Come back tomorrow for part two. MT


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Lighting equipment: a primer

One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.

Before we do that, it’s important to establish a baseline: if you don’t know what it is you’re using, then it’s going to be both time consuming to explain, and difficult to understand. Thus, we’re going to begin with an explanation – a quick 101, really – of common lighting sources, tools and modifiers – and an explanation of what they’re useful for, and how one would deploy them. Please excuse the crude line drawings; I don’t have a lot of these objects myself, hence a lack of source images. We’ll go down the list in alphabetical order.


Barn doors
Moving plates fixed to a light to control spill off. Useful for creating strongly directional light and preventing too much from reaching the background behind the subject.


Beauty dish
A set of nestled reflectors fitted to the end of a studio strobe to create a ringlight effect for portraits/ faces – soft, without shadows, but still with some definition.

diffuser dome

Diffuser dome
A clip on bit of translucent plastic that goes over the end of a flash to soften its output. Usually makes almost no difference but eats a lot of power.


Diffuser panel
Any sheet of semi-translucent material that goes in front of a light source to soften the directionality of its output; varies in thickness and opacity.


Flash/ Speedlight
Small, portable, self-powered light source. Usually mounted to the camera, and communicates with the camera’s meter using electronic contacts to control output power. More sophisticated models are capable of wireless operations, triggered optically by another flash and with metering taken care of by the camera. The flash head itself has some modifiers built in – usually zoom, which controls beam spread, in addition to being aimable.


A piece of transparent, colored plastic that filters the output of any light to balance it with ambient sources; usually yellow/orange or green to balance tungsten and fluorescent sources respectively.


An opaque piece of material with a cutout to permit light to pass through; usually with a shape or design. Used more frequently for productions than photography. The best example of a gobo is perhaps the Batman sign…


Exactly what it sounds like – a grid of panels placed at right angles to the light source. Acts like an array of 90 degree barn doors; controls light spillage and ensures that most of the light goes in one direction, but without the hard edges that barn doors produce.

HMI light
Very bright incandescent source in the form of a studio strobe – used for video production. Compatible with all normal accessories, e.g. softboxes/ gobos/ diffusers etc.

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LED Panel
Continuous, low-temperature light source. Nowhere near as bright as HMI lights, but also nowhere near as hot. Useful on location when you have to operate off batteries, or when you have to photograph temperature-sensative objects – ice cream, for example.


Any self-contained studio light that doesn’t require a separate power source or transformer. Plugs directly into the wall.


Radio triggers
Wireless trigger for flashes or strobes that isn’t restricted by line of sight. Requires one controller on-camera, and one for each flash unit.


A piece of material – usually white/ silver or gold (warm) – held below a or to one side of a subject to provide fill light on the shadow side by reflecting the primary light source. Softens out the shadows. Usually requires an assistant, as in, ‘Tilt the reflector down a bit more, thanks.’


Ringlight/ Ringflash
A flash with a circular tube, or a light shaper in the form of a ring that simulates the effect of a circular tube. Once again, useful for portraits.


A tent of sorts – usually fabric – which the light source fires into at one end, with a semi-translucent window at the other end. The insides are usually reflective to minimize light loss. Creates a large, soft, diffuse light source; comes in many sizes. Useful for anything and everything. Can be used in conjunction with grids, barn doors, etc.


A cone-shaped object, open at both ends that goes over the end of a light source to create a very tight, intense beam of light – effectively a spotlight.


Anything used to hold your lights or accessories.

Large studio flashes – much more powerful than portable flashes/ speedlights, but require mains power or large lead-acid battery packs to run.


Umbrellas come in two varieties: shoot through and reflective. The former act as diffusers; the latter produce a slightly harsher, more directional (but still diffuse) light. Usually deployed in conjunction with flashes or smaller studio strobes. More light loss than a softbox because the sides are open; not always a bad thing because sometimes a little ambient illumination is required.

zoom head

Zoom head
The part of a flash that allows control of the beam spread – it’s called a zoom head because it allows the photographer to match the angle of coverage with the field of view of the lens, with minimal power wastage.

Stay tuned for subsequent parts – we’ll cover reverse engineering setups, and some more advanced techniques and tricks. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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!


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Parting shot – another 100% crop.

On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P

We photographers are a strange lot: sometimes we make our lives difficult when there’s absolutely no need to. I recently shot a watch photography assignment using a Leica M9-P, of all things. (This setup has been the subject of another post, here)

You probably know that my usual rig for this is a Nikon with a whole bunch of extension tubes. Why did I do it, you might ask? See the end of the post for the answer.

Let’s start back-to-front, with a few highlights from the results:

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Deep Sea Chronograph.

I would conservatively say that this was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done, and the only one that required the services of an assistant – normally, I find they just get in the way and it’s much faster for me to do what needs to be done rather than have to explain it. Firstly, this rig is one which does not focus to infinity, is entirely manual, and is both heavy and unwieldy. Put one finger wrong and you’re liable to make a hole in the bellows, which being the better part of half a century old, is extremely fragile. (The mechanical parts are still in amazingly good condition though, and operate very smoothly.) You need to set magnification first – also restrictive, between about 2.5:1 to 1:2 only (with the Visoflex and 90/4 only) – then move the entire rig to frame – and because it’s unwieldy, you can’t do this handheld. I made a kind of gimbal head out of a Manfrotto 468RC0 Hydrostat head tilted at 90 degrees, to which was vertically mounted a Manfrotto geared focusing rail, with the rail on the Bellows II attached at right angles to that – which allowed me tilt and yaw motion, and precise front/back and up/down movements. Slow going – there were ten adjustment points on support system alone, to say nothing of photographic controls – but accurate.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

Secondly, the Visoflex prism obviously blocks the M9-P’s hotshoe, ruling out the use of flashes – at least by any conventional means. With a custom-fabricated cable (read: a hotshoe cover with holes made in it to thread through speaker wire, which was then soldered to the contact points of a donor slave – in this case, a Nikon SB700), it was possible. The slave flash would fire at minimum power and trigger the other flashes in SU4 optical slave mode. Optical slave mode is a polite way of saying 100% manual – so it’s either light meter (which I don’t have) or experience (which I do have, from shooting the same thing with slide film). My assistant would run from flash to flash poking buttons and turning wheels in response to cryptic instructions like “top, up one; back, thirty-two and fifty millimeters, up ten degrees; kill the right one.”

[Translation: Top flash, increase power by one stop. Back flash, change power to 1/32 and zoom head to 50mm, tilt the head up ten degrees. Turn off the right flash.]

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Amvox World Chronograph

It was a near thing. The entire job relied on a single critical part: that sync cable. At one point, there was an internal short somewhere which either kept the flash firing frequently enough to trigger epilepsy, or not firing at all. And to compound things, I suspect the trigger voltage of the hotshoe and flash didn’t agree, which would occasionally cause the M9-P to not fire its shutter at all. And then the Visoflex jammed…let’s just say the Victorinox earned its keep on that day.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

It took me just over nine hours to make a final cut of 80 photographs – which is excruciatingly slow, considering I’ll normally do three times that number in two thirds of the time. Most of the delay was due to moving and setting the camera, or fine-tuning the flashes.

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Duometre a Spherotourbillon

However, I think this conclusively proves that the Leica M system is a lot more versatile than most people think. Now, if only Leica would produce modern versions of these accessories – and perhaps something to trigger a flash. I don’t think most people have any idea how difficult it is to find a Bellows II-screwmount to Leica M adaptor until you look…

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Master Ultra Thin Reserve de Marche

One quick comment on image quality: the 90/4 Macro-Elmar is a superbly sharp lens with great micro contrast, if you use it in the optimal range. At maximum aperture (f4), there is very visible chromatic aberration – both longitudinal and lateral. Stopped down between f5.6 and f11, it’s superb. At f16, diffraction suddenly kicks in – there’s a huge difference between f13 and f16, it’s as though somebody has run a Gaussian filter over the entire image. (I think at this magnification it’s probably closer to f32, though). I wouldn’t even go near f22. I had to pay careful attention to lighting with the M9, for the simple reason that its dynamic range is probably 2-2.5 stops less than the D800 at base ISO. All in all though, I think you’ll agree that the combination is capable of some spectacular results – even more impressive considering that it was never designed for this.


Because we photographers have a particularly odd fascination with checking out other people’s equipment, I’m going to leave you with some gear shots. I will also say that if anybody is in the market for a tripod head, the Manfrotto Hydrostat series is truly excellent – it’s the only head I’ve ever used that doesn’t exhibit any ‘droop’ when locking down the head, no matter the weight or magnification of the camera and lens combination attached. It’s rock solid.



Yours truly at work. (You’ll notice I’m not using the tripod here; I put it aside for the further-away shots of whole watches.)


My exhibition of fine art horology sponsored by Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica will be on display at Starhill Gallery, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur from 3 May onwards – please drop by if you’re in town! If you let me know in advance, I’ll try to give you a personal tour. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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.