Macro flash bracket and other macro tools for OM-D users

This blog entry describes several things I have made/used that make flash and macro photography easier for me; a trigger grip/bracket I have made to support two Meike Mk320p flashes, how to use such a setup in conjunction with remote pre-focus shutter buttons and the Keyline art filter to take perfectly (well, hopefully!) focused macro shots. It is specifically aimed at Olympus OM-D users though some of the tricks may be useful more generally. First, a word in praise of the Meike flash unit: it’s small, it’s versatile and it has a reasonable guide number and, above all, it is pretty cheap! Second, a word of explanation for why I have built such a setup. The answer is moderately complex! I sometimes need to take macro shots using flash. I like the technique in which you hold a single flash with a large diffuser in one hand and the camera in the other, or you mount the flash and the diffuser on the top of the camera. However you can’t really beat two flashes with diffusers for good macro lighting, and it is for this reason that both Nikon and Olympus will sell you a twin flash setup for macro. The Nikon and Olympus flashes mount on the lens or optionally on little stands. I have such a setup for my Nikon cameras – the R1C1 unit with the SU800 flash commander. The Olympus unit is also meant to be very good but both are pricey £400 – £600 and I don’t find the Nikon setup easy to hand-hold – it’s heavy and a bit tricky to steer. Since I already had one Meike flash, an extra 55 Euros to add a 2nd gun seemed a much cheaper way to go. However, I needed some kind of frame on which to mount the two flash units. For this, I turned to a newly acquired skill: 3D printing. More of this bracket later.

The OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 is equipped with ‘focus peaking’, and I use it a lot. I far prefer it to the ‘magnify’ option. Peaking shows you when an object is in focus by highlighting pixels on the in focus objects with the colour of your choice. ‘Magnify’, as its name implies, ‘bigs up’ the part of the image of interest so you can better see if it is in focus. I prefer ‘peaking’ because I find it annoying to lose sight of the majority of the field of view for a small selected magnified region. With ‘peaking’ you can see everything *and* see what bits of the image are in focus. Normally, these functions are activated when you turn the focusing ring on the lens. However, they can be allocated to buttons and then you can activate them by pressing say the ‘Fn1’ button. If you press the button, on comes the peaking and with its help you can move the object into focus without having to turn the focus ring. You press the shutter button and with a bit of luck you have a perfectly focused shot. Next shot press the Fn1 button and away you go gain. I love the focus peaking function and I used it all the time. However, a while ago, I came upon this: http://trevinchow.com/blog/2012/10/28/how-to-get-focus-peaking-with-the-olympus-om-d-e-m5/ – a way of adding a kind of ‘focus peaking’ to the old E-M5 Mk1 – back then it didn’t have that function built in. So, I had to try it. Basically, on the E-M1 Mk2 you simply set the Art Filter to ‘Keyline’ (number 11 in the Art Filter menu). As part of its overall effect, the Keyline filter highlights in focus pixels as black.  If you want ‘focus peaking’ to be available all the time without pressing any buttons before taking the shot, Keyline may be the way to go. In use, I set the camera to record a small jpeg and a RAW image. It’s a bit annoying to throw away storage on recording a Keyline image but they can easily be thrown away later and I find that it is worth it. I find it much easier to view the Keyline image on the live view screen than a focus peaking image and you soon realize that the in focus Keyline image ‘snaps’ when you hit exact focus. I have tried to demonstrate this with the photo shown below (forgive me for the fact it is taken with an iPhone – the object here is to demonstrate the effect rather than take wonderful photos!). You can of course go on using ‘focus peaking’ with the bracket – assign it to the Fn1 button and you can reach it from the RHS grip with your thumb. It is somewhat annoying that it seems you have to press that button for every shot – do let me know if there is a trick that lets you have it ON all the time.

You can use this Keyline peaking technique at any time; with or without flash, manual focus, single AF etc. though , unfortunately it does not work with proCapture but then nor does peaking. However, I find it most useful for when you want to take photos at a preset distance. This makes sense when you are using macro flash – your flash guns are set for objects at a certain distance both with respect to their angle and their power. Note that in the picture above the camera is viewing a curved sheet of paper. It is pretty clear (black pixels) what is in focus and what is not even though, the difference in the distance from the lens only change by a mm or two.

OK, so now to the bracket. I have used U-shaped brackets before to mount a camera along with various bits of electronics, for laser rangefinders, cross-beam laser triggers etc. I decided to try 3D printing such a bracket for two Meike flashes. At some point, I will want to add a range-finder laser trigger to this setup, indeed, it is ready to go, but that is another story! Here is a screen shot from Slic3R of the STL file for the bracket.

You will see it has two handles by which to hold the setup. They are oval and I find them pretty comfortable. I separately printed two trigger switch boxes that mount on the handles – one functions to set the camera to pre-focus and the other to fire the shutter.

When pressed, they connect the second and third ring respectively of a 2.5mm jack plug to its barrel. This plug inserts into the remote socket on the right hand side of the E-M1 and allows the buttons to take over the functions of the camera’s own shutter button. It is worth noting that separating the ‘pre-focus’ and ‘shutter’ functions has both advantages and disadvantages. For me the big advantage when doing macro photography is that ‘single AF (sAF) + manual’ is useful because it can, given reasonable light, in combination with the focusing range limiter on the lens barrel of the Olympus 60mm lens, very quickly focus the lens on the object of interest. This is fine if you immediately go from pre-focus to taking the shot without taking your finger off the shutter button. However, sometimes it would be more useful for macro shooting if you could use sAF to do the initial focusing and then remove your finger from the shutter button and use the technique of slightly rocking back and forth while taking photos. If you do this with sAF enabled every press of the shutter button will cause the camera to seek a new focus lock. Not so if you divorce pre-focus from the shutter button – use pre-focus button to get near to the focus you want and then use the shutter button as many times as you like without the camera seeking a new focus lock. The downside is that, for reasons that I do not understand, you have to press the pre-focus button briefly if you want to ‘chimp’ (view) your pictures. The picture of the complete setup shows how the pre-focus and shutter buttons are mounted and other images (above)  show Slic3R screen captures of the STL files for them.

The only other components of the system are the two little stands for the flash guns made from pieces cut from 50 x 25 rectangular 3mm aluminium tube drilled with holes on their bases tapped for 1/4 inch UNC tripod bolts. A 7mm hole on the side of these stands allows 1/4 inch UNC bolts to pass through to hold flash gun clamps (see the pictures). The stands provide a wide range of possibilities for positioning the flash units. Remarkably, this whole thing feels really good in the hand; secure precise and easy to maneuver. The downside is that you need to set the camera up by either holding the whole thing in one hand or by sitting down with it and doing that….but, it was the same with my Nikon R1C1 set up only that was MUCH heavier!

So, how well does it work? To test it, I set up the camera in full manual modem, set the aperture,  placed a 20 Euro note flat on my desk and then gave myself the minimum time to find the preset focus point and hit the shutter button.  I found that using the Keyline filter, I could have perfect focus in much less than a second. I repeated this about 20 times and each time I got nicely focused shots. As described above, one can also use Single AF to get the initial focus and then after letting go of the pre-focus button move the setup a bit to hit precise focus and then press the shutter button without pre-focus. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but it works for me!

I printed the bracket in PLA but I will be making the final version in ABS (or possibly  PETG). PLA seems fine but it isn’t good in the heat.

If you find anything here interesting or controversial (!), leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. If there is a demand, I will put the STL files on Thingiverse.

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About petermobbs

Inveterate meddler.
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