Monday, 2 February 2015

My Journey into Mirrorless.

I started my journey into 'serious' macro photography in November 2013 as an extension to what I was already doing the past 15 years, which was to observe invertebrate behaviours in the wild. What started out simply as a neccessity to document these beautiful creatures (I was using a regular P&S camera before this) slowly turned into a passion, almost bordering obsession! Thanks to the wonders of macro photography, I was finally able to see and appreciate these animals from a much more intimate perspective, capturing never-seen-before moments, and ultimately reinforcing the love and appreciation I have for Mother Nature.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have experimented with many camera systems (most are 2nd hand or rented units) and techniques for macro work, and to be honest, I really liked the image quality from these non-mirrorless configurations below (sorry for the lousy IQ, taken with iPhone):

1) 60D Canon (crop sensor) + Kenko Electronic Extension Tubes + Tamron 90mm (non-vc) + Raynox Dcr 250 + Canon 580 EX ii Flash + DIY diffuser + Ultralite Torchlight (used for focusing). see Fig.1

2) 5d Mark II (Full Frame sensor) + Kenko Electronic Extension Tubes + Tamron 90mm (non-vc) + Raynox Dcr 250 + Nissin Di 622 mark II Flash + DIY diffuser + Ultralite Torchlight (used for focusing).

3) 7d Canon (crop sensor) + Kenko Electronic Extension Tubes + Canon 100mm L Lens (IS)  + Raynox Dcr 250 + 2 X Canon 270EX flash + Fotopro dual-arm macro flash arm + 2 X Fotopro Diffuser. see Fig. 2

Figure 1. I absolutely adore this set-up.
Figure 1.1. Using the above mentioned.

Figure 2.
While all these set-ups produced great images, they were huge and heavy to lug around! Just to clarify, I go to the gym quite often so my body was used to lifting heavy weight. However, the problem here was not just the weight per say, but rather, it was the extended duration of time that i have to lug the weight around, depending on the location of my macro session. I shoot alone most of the time and often I would travel deep into forested area. A normal macro session would be about 3-5 hours long and when you multiply that by a frequency of 3 times a week, that adds up to ALOT of hours! Another important consideration to take note would be the buildup of lactic-acid in the arms due to prolong handling which would make maintaining a stable shot for long a challenge. And as we all know, shaky hands equate to blurry images. Plus, it was difficult for me to come real close to whatever I am photographing because, more often that not, I would end up disturbing the scene with my huge twin flashes and scaring the subjects away.

What i brought with me on my trip to California. I nearly broke my back.

I travel quite a bit and that brings me to the next issue, something that is really important to me - portability. I remember one time where I had to travel 400 kilometres by bus to attend my first macro workshop organised by non other than Kurt Orion,in my opinion, one of the best in the scene. It was a cumbersome affair carrying around 10 kilos of gears (I was planning on doing some street photography as well) on top of my small duffel bag containing my daily essentials. And then there was one time where I drove to Pahang, Malaysia, for a one-week jungle expedition, and this time with an even heavier set-up with a deadweight of around 3.4 kilos that was constantly around my neck. Setting up my rig is another story altogether - it took me an average of 15-25 minutes to put everything together.

Funny-looking set-up i used during one of my trips.

By the end of it all, I was in a dilemma. I really liked the image quality that came out from my Canon set-ups but I did not like the weight and the size. It has worked for many, but somehow, not in my case. It was starting to feel like I was in a love-hate relationship, up to the point where I dreaded the idea of setting-up my camera.With all these concerns in mind, I went on a quest to find a suitable system that would fulfil the following criteria:

1) It has to be compact. Even if it means going back to a P&S camera and having to compromise on Image Quality.
2) It has to have Full Manual controls and able to shoot raw.
3) It must have a hotshoe.

Anything beyond that is a Bonus. Having a higher Megapixel-count is a good thing to have although I no longer consider it a priority; I have been shooting relatively long enough to know that image quality goes beyond the pixels, and bells and whistles of the camera. Image-Stabilisation is another feature that would be nice to have although not a must-have considering the high shutter-speed I am constantly working with. I shoot for fun anyway so user-experience is something that I placed very high up on my priority-list. At the end of the day, I must enjoy the experience.

I was very fortunate to be given the rare opportunity of joining the amazing Nicky Bay (another household name) and his band of macro masters (All of them are crazy good too!) during one of their late night sessions. I noticed that everyone in the group was using a regular DSLR set-up with the exception of one, Victor Cheah, who was holding onto a camera that looked more like a "toy camera", and with the attached DIY diffuser, it was hard for me to take it seriously at first. I didn't really know them well, so I decided to keep my curiosity in-check and my questions to myself, out of courtesy. It was only a few days later that I began looking up his Facebook profile (very stalkerish, i know), and what i saw blew me away - the images that came from that "toy camera" were simply fantastic! I quickly got hold of Victor on Facebook the same night, who very generously shared photos of his setup. I was sold, and 6 days later, I became a convert when I bought my first ever mirrorless micro 4/3 camera, the OMD EM5 (used).

Over the next 4 months, I sold all my canon gears and further expounded on Victor's ]  ideas, and as they say, the rest is history. What I have learnt from my journey, albeit a very short and intense one, is that in my obsessive pursuit of getting the "best images" possible, I had ultimately compromised on my first love, which was going out there and looking for things to observe and admire. I still take mediocre photos now but have never been happier! 

Some of my "experiments". Quite hilarious, some of them :)
My first generation DIY diffuser on OMD EM5 next to the enormous Canon 60d dual-flash set-up.
My 4th generation DIY diffuser on OMD EM5 next to my A7r, which I eventually sold.  Very happy with my Olympus. :)

In my next blog post, I hope to share with you more on my current set-up in greater detail. Thanks for reading! 

1) Click here for the types of equipments I use.
2) Click here for ideas and suggestions on how to drastically improve your macro lighting.
3) Want to learn backlighting? Click here!

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