As I tend to just go out hunting for subjects rather than have any specific subject in mind, I’ve been trying to maximise the ability to shoot quickly at different magnifications, whilst minimising the need to adjust the lighting setup. A key requirement was also to reduce the weight as much as possible (I had a nightmare trying to cart all my gear in the hand-luggage the last time I went travelling).
Although it’s heavy, Canon’s MP-E 65mm lens provides the convenience of being able to go from 1:1 to 5:1 just by turning the barrel. Pair that with the excellent quality glass and the ability to retain aperture control and I knew I didn’t want to be excluding this lens from my setup. In fact I see this setup as being built around the lens above anything else.
With my starting point already being very heavy I had to look at ways to reduce the weight and an easy way to do this is was to reduce the size of the flash. You don’t need a big powerful flash for macro work (your subject is usually right in front of the lens) so you can pretty much use anything that’s out there. I had been eyeing up the small 270EX flash to replace my 430 EX II, however a sudden price drop in the Canon EOS-M camera body meant I just had to give it a go.
The EOS-M is Canon’s first foray in to the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market and designed with the philosophy of being as small as possible whilst retaining all the functionality of a larger dSLR. This little camera has the same sized sensor as my Canon 550D, and is in fact a more modern version so has slightly better low light performance. This all sounds perfect for what I was looking for, however it doesn’t come without it’s compromises. A lot of the camera controls are accessed through the menus via the touchscreen LCD. This takes some getting used to, and I find it not quite as easy to adjust settings as the manual dials and buttons on my dSLR. Furthermore there is no viewfinder on the EOS-M. This isn’t much of a problem as I usually use the rear display even with my dSLR, but there are times when the viewfinder is the better approach (especially when shooting in bright sunlight). Regardless I think the EOS-M is fun to use and perfect for travelling and I would say a real bargain at it’s current price.
The EOS-M comes with it’s own tiny little flash (the 90EX), and this will work perfectly for macro shots. It takes 2 AAA batteries so weighs next to nothing and this allowed me to think about mounting the flash to the front of the lens, rather than the usual setup of having a larger flash bracket attached to the camera body. Inspired by Kurt Orion G and his friends’ FMMB (Front Mounting Macro Bracket) I attempted to build something similar. Lacking any skills to shape or machine acrylic, I came up with a solution based on a filter mount from a cheap UV filter (glass removed), a small aluminum plate (bent into shape with a hammer) and some industrial strength metal glue with a covering of thermal plastic to hold it all together.
I also swapped out my infra-red flash trigger for a short (cheap) flash cable, and removed the need to carry additional batteries in the process.
Finally I added Canon’s 1.4X Extender III to enable me to get to 7X magnification, mounted to the Camera body via the Canon EF-M to EF mount adapter (currently on loan from my brother) to complete the main setup.
The top image shows all this at it’s minimum magnification (although greater than 1:1 due to the inclusion of the extender).
The second image shows the same setup at full 7X magnification. Note the flash has moved forwards along with the lens, and there is little need to adjust the flash angle (I use a small ball head to make this easier if required).
The last image shows the same setup but with addition of a DIY diffuser (made from thermal plastic). I have tried numerous diffuser shapes with the thermal plastic, some with more success than others. Ultimately, despite rolling the warm plastic as thinly as possible, I’ve decided it blocks too much light, making recycle times for the flash longer and the batteries drain quicker as it needs to fire for longer. I’m currently trying to re-engineer my old Ice-Cream box diffuser, but this time using a Yoghurt pot.
Behind the camera in the bottom image is a viewing loupe I’ve added to overcome the issue of not being able to see the LCD screen in bright sunlight. It also helps to reduce any camera movement when you hold it against your eye.
I’m forever tweaking my gear, so no doubt it will change again in the near future, and I haven’t decided if this is my preferred setup about the Canon 550D and larger flash. The tiny 90EX flash takes some time to recycle and this can make stacking images of live subjects more difficult (but not impossible). It’s definitely much better for travelling with, and this will all be coming with me when I head off on holiday
Examples of images taken with this setup: