Macro with Mirrorless

image from Sony.com

I’m sold on mirrorless.  Really.  They’re small, and they take great photos–what more does a casual photographer like myself need?

Lenses?  It’s really all about the glass.  If you can do without fancy things like auto focus and image stabilization, your choices are practically limitless.  Because of their short flange distances, mirrorless cameras can accept just about any lens you can think of, with the proper adapter.  There is a ton of great (and cheap) legacy glass to choose from.  This is especially useful when it comes to macro lenses, since there aren’t many native offerings to chose from–especially if you’re looking for longer focal lengths.

A hotshoe would be nice, since they’re not a standard feature on most EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens) cameras, but we can work around that.  Really, there isn’t anything that I’m looking for in a camera that mirrorless doesn’t offer.

Macro photography with mirrorless cameras really isn’t all that different from macro on a dSLR.  The techniques and mechanics are unchanged.  Crop factors do come into play, but they don’t really change the way we shoot.  The most significant difference is in full-flash macro photography.  This is where the lack of a hotshoe is rather inconvenient because we need a real flash.  Not having a hotshoe becomes the source of two problems for mirrorless users.

1.)  How does one trigger an off-camera flash without a hotshoe?

2.)  How does one mount an off-camera flash to a camera without a hotshoe?

The solutions to these problems are actually very simple.  We can fire an off camera flash using optical triggers and we can mount the flash using either an off-the-shelf or a DIY flash bracket.

My setup for full-flash macro is based around Yongnuo’s YN-560 speedlight.  It’s cheap, and supposedly comparable to Canon’s 580EX.  I went through two triggering methods for the 560.  The first method involved the use of fiber optic audio cable to transmit light from my camera’s accessory flash to the optical trigger on my speedlight.  The reason I went this route first was for cost–I wanted to do everything as cheaply as possible, and optical cable can be pretty darn cheap.  It works, but turned out to be too unreliable enough for me.  The triggering method I use now involves the use of an optical slave to trigger the 560 using a  male-male PC sync cord.  More expensive, but much more reliable–as long as the 560 has had enough time to cycle, it will fire every time my camera’s accessory flash fires.

I’ve attached the speedlight to my camera with a DIY flash bracket.  The reason I chose the DIY route was, again, a cost issue.  There are some great flash brackets out there (Really Right Stuff’s offering is my favorite), but they are really expensive for what they are.  Most of the cheaper flash brackets out there are not designed with macro photography in mind.   And those that are didn’t offer the right blend of adjustability and price for me.  My solution: a pair of t-brackets from Home Depot, some washers, a few 1/4″ 20 screws, and a small ballhead.  Paired with a DIY softbox, the results are great!  Most of the images in my galleries were actually shot using my DIY rig.

A word on speedlight selection: you will want one that has an optical triggering mode and/or a pc sync connection.  You will also want to make sure that the slave mode can ignore preflash since the TTL flashes that come with EVIL cameras use a preflash for metering.  If the speedlight doesn’t ignore the preflash, it’ll fire too soon and you’ll get a totally black exposure.  As far as power goes, don’t worry about overdoing it.  I really feel as though there is no such thing as having too much light available for macro–once you stop your lens down, add some extension, and a teleconverter, you’re losing a lot of light.   My 100mm Rokkor setup loses about 4 stops between the 50mm extension tube and the 2x teleconverter.  In addition to using that power to deal with the light loss, you’ll actually want that extra power so you can shoot with the lowest power setting that gets you the exposure you want.  The reason for this is because lower power settings on speedlights give you shorter flash durations.  In full-flash macro, it effectively bumps your camera’s shutter speed up to whatever the flash duration is.  The YN-560 has a guide number of 39 and I’m actually shooting it at about 80% power to get the light I need.  I honestly wouldn’t complain about more power, if it means that I can shoot at a lower power setting ;).


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