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. [Read more…]

Insect macro photography techniques – an ongoing experimentation (part I)

1/125sec. F11, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

When I first ventured into photography, I started with insect macro photography, and it quickly became an activity I indulged in often. Macro photography, I think, is one of the more technically demanding types of photography, and is a good, if masochistic, way to learn and get all your photography basics right. In addition to different techniques to gain magnification, you have to worry about accurate focus, proper hand-holding technique, and the use and control of additional lighting and lighting modifiers.

After a recent attempt at insect macro work (for the OM-D E-M10 Mark II review), I found myself with a renewed itch to hunt for insects to photograph. This in turn lead to me writing this article sharing my techniques for insect macro photography.
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Photoessay: Design goals

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Regular readers probably know that I have more than a passing interest in all things horological; firstly as an aspiring collector, then a photographer (this is what motivated me to begin, to be the story of another article), then a low-budget collector, and fortunately, somebody who has access to the industry through client relationships and options that might not be available elsewhere. Eventually, I realised that the temptation to design my own was far too strong; finding the right collaborator proved less easy, but I eventually realised that dream (more detailed story here). It is, unfortunately, both an addictive and frustrating process: inevitably, once you’ve lived with any design for any length of time, you start to appreciate what works and get frustrated by what doesn’t. It’s even more frustrating when you have ideas you might want to try, and know that you can (somewhat) easily execute them. Some CAD and some sitting time later, the design has matured and you are making some phone calls. The trick is not to overdesign: it is easy to make something that’s too fussy and just doesn’t work.

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Horological-photoessay: One of your own

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Today’s subject is a somewhat unusual one, and an esoteric one even for the horological enthusiasts in the audience. It’s not often that a creative sees the whole product gestation process through form design to photography to consumption; either it happens at the very small and private scale, or you work for Apple (or the like) in in a senior capacity. It takes a certain environment for that to happen. For me, this is probably the fifth or sixth time; several watches for various companies, and of course the MTxFF daybag. This design is a one-off for myself, made by a little company in Switzerland called Ochs und Junior that specialises in such customisations. I wanted something unusual, wearable on a daily basis, and visually interesting: that would have a bit of a chameleon personality depending on light (both direction and quantity). I think this is pretty clear in the images. This is an odd series from a purely photographic standpoint, too: though every set of images I post is subject to some degree of self-curation, here it really doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks of object or images: neither are really for mass consumption 🙂 MT

I wrote the full story behind this watch here, for Quill and Pad, in much greater detail (and probably more than most readers would want to know). Images were shot with a D810, 85 PCE and speedlights, and processed with Photoshop/LR Workflow III. I cover the basics of watch photography in a series of three articles, starting here.

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On Assignment photoessay and challenge: Making a $200 watch look the business

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Today’s photoessay-on-assignment-report hybrid comes courtesy of a regular client who both makes their own and OEM watches for other companies. They’re not a big name – you’ve probably never seen the brand outside Asia, if at all – and they’re certainly not competing at the high end, but they do have mass-market volume; it’s a very different sort of assignment to the kind I normally undertake in Switzerland. It doesn’t require much skill to make an exceptional watch made with no consideration for price look exceptional; the challenge there is making it look extraordinary – otherwise your photography has not added any value or even done the object justice. My job here is very different: how does one make a $200-retail watch look like a $2,000++ one?

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Lens review: The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

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In what appears to be a hideously enormous oversight on my part, I seem to have neglected to review what is ostensibly my most used lens: the Nikon AFS 60mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor. As you might expect, I use this lens for the majority of my commercial watch photography. I prefer it over the 85 PCE for images that require high magnification, as this lens natively reaches 1:1 magnification on its own; thus requiring fewer extension tubes to reach even smaller levels of frame coverage.

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Nitro Experiment One

Before we start talking about the lens specifically, I would like to debunk some myths about macro vs micro photography: both have to do with the reproduction ratio created by the lens on the imaging medium; it is format independent. Simply, macro refers to 1:1 or greater magnification (i.e. a 20mm wide object in reality would be 20mm or wider when projected on the sensor plane); whereas micro refers to magnification slightly less than this but more than would be encountered during normal photography – ‘close focus’ might perhaps be a more accurate term. Almost nobody seems to get this right online, even the manufacturers; ‘macro’ mode almost never yields 1:1 magnification, and there aren’t that many lenses that achieve this natively. (I suppose Carl Zeiss gets away with it by sounding German and putting a ‘k’ in Makro-Planar – these are 1:2 lenses.)

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Water on slate

The 60/2.8 G replaces its predecessor, the 60/2.8 D, both of which are 1:1 lenses; unlike its predecessor, it reaches 1:1 through internal focusing alone, and the lens doesn’t extend – the front element on the G is a lot closer to the front of the barrel, and as a result, offers greater working distance at a given magnification than the D (which has a very heavily recessed front element). The lens has been completely redesigned with a new optical formula; it’s a 12/9 design with aspherical and ED elements, as well as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating. It also has a silent wave motor, but no focus distance limiter (oddly, the older version did have this). Focusing is fast and silent, but occasionally the lens does get ‘lost’ – if you’re say at the near focus limit and point it a subject at infinity, then sometimes it can hunt and fail to find focus. A quick tweak of the focusing ring solves this. One thing I have noticed with all of the Nikon SWM macro lenses is that they appear to be very ‘nervous’ when focusing at close distances; they’ll chatter and hunt and rack back and forth slightly. This could be because I’ve got the camera in AF-C most of the time, but it doesn’t really make sense given that everything is static – camera on tripod, inanimate subject. Still, I haven’t noticed any focusing errors, even on the D800E; in fact, this lens is the only one I’ve got that doesn’t require AF fine tune correction on any of my cameras.

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I also owned the previous version of this lens, and the difference mechanically is night and day; optically, somewhat less so, but the newer version is clearly better. (I suspect part of the reason why the G appears sharper is simply because it can focus more accurately without any of the backlash inherent to screwdriver-focusing lenses.) The biggest difference in optics between the two version are seen in off-center performance – specifically to do with CA – and bokeh. The new lens has very little lateral chromatic aberration; you have to be shooting something very, very contrasty and bright to excite it. For most subjects and shooting conditions, you probably won’t see any lateral CA at all. Longitudinal CA is a different matter – whilst again better than the old lens (and much better than the 105/2.8 VR), longitudinal chromatic aberration is still visible, as are traces of spherochromatism. It’s not a disaster, but it does mean that some work has to be done in postprocessing to remove traces of this – especially on say, white metal watches. On the bokeh front, the new lens has a 9-bladed, perfectly round aperture diaphragm that makes for very smooth out of focus areas; amongst the best I’ve seen, actually – though at normal distances, a 60/2.8 will not yield a huge amount of separation.

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Alphabet pasta

It’s worth noting that the lens’ maximum effective aperture at 1:1 is about f4.8; this isn’t because it’s a variable-aperture lens, but rather because additional magnification always results in some light loss. The Nikon lenses and bodies are the only combination that reports this correctly – not that it matters, because the meter takes care of any necessary exposure adjustments anyway. I suppose it might be important if you were to calculate flash exposure with guide numbers, but I can’t think of anybody who still does that.

On the subject of flash, shooting into the light yields no problems at all; the Nano-coated element is clearly doing its job when it comes to suppressing flare. (I use partial backlight quite often to clean out backgrounds or help define the texture in watch dials.) Macro-and micro-contrast are both very good, improving slightly on stopping down. I feel this lens has a bit more microcontrast ‘bite’ than overall global macro-contrast; this isn’t a bad thing at all as it helps to extend dynamic range somewhat.

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Breguet La Tradition

I actually don’t have much to say about resolution and optics: what do you expect? It’s a macro lens. There’s almost zero distortion or field curvature, and nothing funny going on with the focal plane. Sharpness is already excellent at f2.8, though with the D800E you’ll probably have to go to f4 or f5.6 to hit peak resolving power across the frame. Note that diffraction softening will set in by around f13 or so with the D800E; I try not to go past f16 unless I absolutely have no choice. That said, you can get away with f22 on the 12MP FX cameras if you need to.

Something I’ve been asked in the past is why I don’t use the 105/2.8 VR instead for greater working distance; the answer is that for the kind of work I do, the 60 actually holds several advantages. Firstly, I don’t need as many extension tubes to achieve higher magnifications*; secondly, the lens itself has much lower chromatic aberration than the 105 – lateral is fairly well controlled on both, but longitudinal is ugly on the 105 – and requires a lot of work to fix afterwards. Finally, there’s the issue of depth of field: for any given aperture, you’ll get more with the shorter focal length**. And given that you’re already challenged to find enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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Who could resist a steak like that?

*The more mounts you put between your optics and your camera, the higher the chance of something going out of plane.

**A longer focal length does not mean that you can stop down more before diffraction sets in; that’s a property of the sensor’s pixel pitch, not the lens.

Of course, for those situations when I really need to manipulate depth of field, there’s the 85/2.8 PCE Micro – note it’s a Micro lens, because it only reaches 1:2 – and its full array of movements. That – and an accompanying piece on the Scheimpflug effect and how to properly use a tilt-shift lens – will be the subject of another article.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047

For the work I typically do with macro lenses – watches and food – the pairing of 60/2.8 G and 85/2.8 PCE is usually more than sufficient to deal with any possible scenario. If you shoot bugs, or want the lens to do double-duty for portraits, the 105 is probably a better choice; that’s not to say that the 60 can’t do the job; it just won’t give you the working distance or depth of field control you’d like to have. (The optics remain similarly excellent at longer distances – you could quite happily use this as a long normal lens if you didn’t mind the slowish f2.8 aperture; it out resolves all of the ‘regular’ 50 1.4s and 1.8s I’ve used, especially in the corners.) Perhaps the most telling fact I can leave you with is that of all of the lenses I own, it’s the one that’s been with me the longest. MT

The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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Photoessay: Some Hublots (and, how to shoot watches on location with available light…)

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I was recently at a Hublot event – both covering the new Basel 2012 watches for fratellowatches.com as well as meeting the CEO and marketing people (it never hurts to network in this industry). I didn’t want to bring the lighting equipment, and the photos were for a blog – not commercial use – so I figured that I could get away with a lightweight rig. I used the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro, and available light. Most of the images were shot at ISO 1600 or above; even at larger sizes, they hold up pretty well. Needless to say, for web use, they’re fine.

But I digress – all I had was whatever lights were set into the roof of the showroom, and a dark watch display tray for use as a background. By tilting the tray and camera to look for the right lighting angles – sometimes to avoid reflections, sometimes to enhance them – I managed to produce a set I was pretty happy with, but yet manages to have a very different feel to what I normally produce in the studio. (They also have zero dust retouching, which you fortunately can’t see at this size – cleaning cloths are your friend!) Enjoy! MT

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Photoessay: The C3H5N3O9 (Nitro) Experiment ZR012

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Despite being completely unpronounceable, this watch is just plain outright cool. The brainchild of Max Busser (MB&F) and Felix Baumgartner (URWERK), it is the first watch to use an eccentric planetary transmission system for the timekeeping mechanism – i.e. the same geometry as the Wankel engine. (Curiously, there’s only one ratio of inner to outer satellite that actually permits the three distinct chambers to be formed; any other ratio doesn’t seal at all). The minutes are read off the red tips of the upper ‘rotor’, with the hours on the level below. There is no seconds indication, but there is a power reserve on the back of the watch.

I believe these are the first photos outside the official press release, and I was told that the watch is a working production prototype – which means non-final parts and finishing, and some potential tool marks in places as befits an engineering experiment…

Many thanks to Ian Skellern at C3H5N3O9.

This series shot (hastily) with a Nikon D800E and AFS 60/2.8 G Micro. It wasn’t a commercial shoot, so please excuse me if I missed a spot or two. All images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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Photoessay: The Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin Moon

From the horological files. MT

Set shot with a Nikon D800E, several SB900s, the AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and one shot with a Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE via adaptor – see if you can spot which one!

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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 | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Photoessay: Bruno Menard at Forlino

I was in Singapore recently to run a few food photography 101 sessions under Leica at the World Gourmet Summit. One of the perks of the job was getting to enjoy the samples. In this case, by 3* Michelin chef Bruno Menard, who formerly ran L’Osier in Tokyo – widely thought to be the best restaurant in Japan at the time. I ran a very basic setup for the participants with a couple of small LED video lights, a Leica D-Lux 5 compact and some modified settings (optimized for food work); I shot tethered and showed the results instantly on a HDTV via HDMI out. There was a little PS work done to the images afterwards (i.e. for this set) but for the most part, the D-Lux 5 makes a surprisingly excellent little food camera – especially when there’s enough light around. MT

Images shot with a Leica D-Lux 5.

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