Sunday, March 29, 2015

iMac 5K Retina: Photographer’s First Impressions

This post may interest only Apple desktop users or anyone else contemplating upgrading to the new iMac 5K Retina. I just upgraded from a late-2009, 21-inch iMac to the new iMac 5K Retina with i5 processor and 16GB memory. The following are comments and first impressions from a photo-editing perspective. 

iMac 5K Retina
The new 5K iMac was introduced in late 2014. It has a 27-inch Retina display with 5120 x 2880 resolution. Aside from the display and an upgrade to Thunderbolt 2 (vs. 1), the inners are essentially the same generation as the rest of the iMac line. However, a side-by-side comparison between the 5K and the older display will knock your socks off. The 5K can display an actual-size 12 x 18 inch image at 218 ppi, which is printer output quality! The older 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMacs are half that resolution. 

Intel i5 vs. i7?
I agonized over this for a long time. Ordinarily, I would have opted for the i7 since the cost difference is only $250 more. The i7’s hyper threading feature can improve performance on some (but not necessarily all) photo-editing algorithms. My hesitation was the power dissipation of the i7 when running full bore. According to Apple's specs, the i7 dissipates over a 100 watts more than the i5 (though at idle both processors are about the same). Before purchasing the 5K, I researched the web to ferret out any weaning issues with the new 5K. A common complaint I saw concerned internal high temperatures of the i7 and the annoying fan noise that resulted. 

I also compared some Photoshop performance benchmarks and the i7's performance was only marginally better than the i5. From that I assumed (and I could be easily wrong) that Photoshop doesn't benefit much from the i7's hyper threading feature. However, I’m a heavy user of the Nik Collection plugins and, according to Nik, they can benefit from the hyper threading; but by how much is unknown. Based on averaging various Geek benchmarks, I’d estimated that the i7 may improve performance by roughly up to 30%. That’s significant, but not particularly earth-shaking, so I decided to play it conservatively (from a long-term reliability perspective) and opted for the i5.

Apple has migration software to transfer all of  your old computer's software to the new one. I elected not to use it because I was upgrading from Maverick to the latest Yosemite OS. I rather reinstall all of my software applications with the latest versions to avoid any problems with the new OS. I was also overdue for a good housecleaning anyway. As for my user files, I keep those on a separate drive and merely connected it to the new computer.

Besides software, I have two FW800 drives and an old FW400 flatbed scanner. I wanted to keep the Fire Wire bus to save on USB ports, but I was a bit concerned (especially with the older scanner) that the new Thunderbolt might prove problematic. It was a needless worry: every thing worked perfectly. You will need a Thunderbolt to Fire Wire adapter ($29), otherwise it's all plug-and-play.

Performance Improvement
My point of reference is my 5-year old, 2-core iMac; but if you’re upgrading from a similarly aged (or 2-core) machine, then your experience should be similar. Using files from my Canon 5D MkII (21 megapixels), I timed various Photoshop, HDR Efex Pro, and Color Efex Pro processes. The results confirmed the various Geek benchmarks that I researched, which is an average 2.2x speed improvement. 

Next, I downloaded a 50-megapixel jpeg file from Canon's new 5DS camera. I performed a single Tonal Contrast adjustment in Color Efex Pro, which caused my old iMac to churn for some time. But on the 5K, with the larger file, the performance increase was now almost 3x. On top of all this, the Fusion Drive (a SSD and mechanical drive hybrid) adds considerable snappiness to boot-ups, shutdowns, and program launchings.

Besides the previously mentioned heating issue I found on the Internet, another common complaint was from some Lightroom users about extremely slow response times in the Develop module. There was even a complaint about Photoshop (that mentioned Selective Color in particular). Apparently the thinking was the 5K of pixel updating was too taxing. I don't use Lightroom, but I was concerned that the equivalent Camera Raw may be similarly effected (though no one complained specifically about Camera Raw). In any case, I quickly performed a few adjustments in Lightroom as well as PS's Selective Color, and they all performed normally in my opinion. 

As a last note, there was one mystifying observation. Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen on my old iMac took forever to complete, which always seemed odd for a sharpening routine (“smart” or otherwise). On the 5K, Smart Sharpen is completed in the wink-of-an-eye — go figure.

Monitor Calibration
I was able to successfully calibrate my 5K using the Spyder 3 Elite. There is no problem lowering the display's luminance to a level necessary for calibration. (First generation iMacs were too bright and couldn't be calibrated.) I use a level of 120 cd/m2, but you can dim it lower if necessary. Gamut is still sRGB and the results are pretty much the same as my older  iMac. Note: make sure the 'Automatic adjust brightness' box is unchecked in the System Preference monitor setup.

Monitor Experience
Text looks like offset printing! But, some fonts are now a tad smaller and I found it necessary to move in a little closer to read them (probably not an issue for younger eyes). That resulted in a little more neck craning to take in the whole screen (IMAX lovers will be use to it). The high resolution also allows you to better assess a print in terms of noise and sharpness when displayed at actual size. However, I found it best to judge the appearance of an inkjet print output before sharpening. The high-resolution display may show more of the exaggerated sharpening effect that is necessary to compensate for the inkjet’s inherent blurring. In other words, a displayed sharpened image won't look like the printed output. (That assumes, of course, the image was properly sharpened in the first place.)

The appeal of the Retina display has more to do with the “wow” factor than actually helping you produce a better image. It’s better software and the honing of your editing skills that ultimately matter. In the end, I’d have to say that a Retina display falls more in the luxury rather than necessity category. Furthermore, giving the iMac’s rather languid performance improvements over the last few years, you can probably cruise along with your current machine for a while longer without being denied any significant productivity improvement.

So, if you’re hot for the latest-and-greatest computer and your pockets are bulging with money then, by all means, go for the 5K. But if money is tight and your computer suddenly exploded into a mushroom cloud, you’ll do just fine with any of the lower-end iMacs. Your edited pictures will look the same no matter which machine you use. (Note: I would, however, not recommend the $1,099 budget 2-core iMac. You want a higher-end model to keep up with newer software and the next-generation of higher-pixel cameras.)

[Update: After upgrading from OS 10.2 to 10.3, I began having stability issues with large jpeg files on my iMac 5K. There have been other similar reports on Apple's Support Forum. If you work with large jpeg files and haven't upgraded to 10.3 yet, I suggest you research the issue first. The problem may not be limited only to iMac 5Ks.]

[23-Apr-15 Update: Apple has released a fix. Go to the App Store to download it.]

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Photoshop's New 'Focus Area' Tool

One advantage of Adobe’s subscription service is you always have the latest-and-greatest version of Photoshop. As such, you need to be diligent in keeping up with the constant update of new features or else, as in my case, you’ll miss out on a potentially dandy feature. Usually, Photoshop displays a splash screen at start-up to inform you of new features. But I always seem to be in a rush and I more often dismiss the tutorial than read it. In Photoshop CC (2014), Adobe added a new feature called Focus Area, which I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know existed until I stumbled on it. (In my defense, I reviewed the splash screen that listed all the new 2014 features and I couldn’t find anything about Focus Area. I’m sure it’s buried somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.)

“Mask” of the Red Death
Creating masks or selections is often the most frustrating task you’ll ever do in Photoshop. A classic example is trying to create a selection around someone’s frizzled hair. Even if all you do is landscape photography, there'll always be a need to create a mask at some point in time. Fortunately, Photoshop has added features over time to help out with this problem. You have Pen Tool, Magnetic Lasso, Magic Wand, Color Range, Refine Edge and many other ways to reduce the drudgery of making complex selections or masks. Now Photoshop has added a new one: Focus Area.

Focus Area
This new tool is found under the Select menu. It simply selects all focused imagery within an in-focus range that you either specify or let Photoshop do automatically (Auto mode). When the selection is made, you have options to add or delete portions of the selection as well as use the Refine Edge tool.

Though this tool has immense potential in general photography (portrait photography in particular comes to mind), its usefulness in landscape photography may largely depend on the nature of your subjects. The objective of most my landscape photography is to maintain as much sharpness from fore to background as possible. So seldom would I need to select only a focused portion of a traditional landscape scene in Photoshop. However, macro and wildlife photography may greatly benefit from this tool. The reason is you often want to isolate the main subject from any distracting background.

In wildlife photography, you often use a telephoto lens at wide apertures that already blur out the background. But there are times you need to stop down for more depth-of-field and that may increase background clutter. In my case, I don’t do much wildlife photography, but I do occasional macro work and that’s where I often encounter problematic backgrounds. Trying to keep a background that is inconveniently close to the subject sufficiently blurred while keeping the subject in sharp focus can be a challenge at times.

With Focus Area, you can quickly select the sharpest portion of the image, invert the selection (select Inverse under the Select menu), and then run Blur Gallery under the Filter menu. With Blur Gallery, you can now vanquish the background to whatever degree you wish.

Focus Area Example
Below is an example of a cactus flower that competes with a distracting background. This photo is a difficult problem due to the cactus needles, especially those that are slightly out of focus but still part of the main foreground subject. Even if those needles aren’t tact-sharp, I don’t want them caught up in the background blur or else the cactus may look a little “plucked” of its needles.

Original Photo
The background is too busy and competes with the foreground cactus.

To address the problem, I selected Focus Area from the Select menu, which resulted in the screenshot below. To control the selection range, you either adjust the In-Focus Range slider or click the Auto button. In this case, due to the spiny needles, I had to manually adjust the slider for the best results. This accomplished most of the heavy lifting, but I still needed to edit a few small portions of the selection. Initially, I used the Add/Subtract brushes (left of the In-Focus slider) to fix a few of the major offenders (note: to change brush size, use the bracket keys). The Add/Subtract brushes work similar to a Magic Wand in that you don’t need to be exact, just click or roughly paint out the desired area and Focus Area figures the rest out for you.

Screenshot of Focus Area

How perfect the selection should be depends on how much background blur you intend to apply. Obviously, extreme background blurring will reveal selection flaws more, but generally I don’t think you need to be too obsessive about it. In the cactus example, I did improve the selection a bit more by selecting Refine Edge. I enabled Smart Radius and applied about a 6.5 pixel radius and 1 pixel of feathering. Refine Edge will likely be a necessity when shooting wildlife and having to deal with the fine detail of bird feathers or animal fur.

If your image is noisy, then under Advance is an Image Noise slider that may improve the selection. Since I always shoot at low ISOs, I didn’t have any noisy images to test this feature out. Leaving it at Auto should suffice for most of my work, but wildlife shooting often requires high ISOs to freeze subjects with fast shutter speeds. In those cases, you may need to experiment with this adjustment to see if it helps.

After I touched up the selection in Refine Edge, I clicked OK. Back in Photoshop, I inverted the selection and then called up Blur Gallery. Using the Field Blur option, I cranked in about 150 pixels of blur, resulting in the third image below.

Background be Gone!
Results after applying Field Blur

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Handy App for Landscape Photography

In a previous blog on Apps for the Landscape Photographer (click here), I reviewed the CameraAngle app by Geometery (iOS only). This was a clever app to measure the elevation of any subject such as the sun, moon, mountain peak, a building, or whatever. This is an important part of preplanning a shot to determine, for example, when (and if) the sun or moon will be in the right position for a preconceived composition. You can read that blog to see an example where I determined when a full moon aligns alongside the lantern room of a 19th century lighthouse. To accomplish this, I determined the required moon elevation by measuring the height of the lantern room with an inclinometer. There are many inclinometer apps, but CameraAngle was unique because it used the phone’s camera to sight the elevation. Once I had determined the elevation, I used PhotoPills to predict the date and time the moon would be in the desired position. Unfortunately, CameraAngle stopped working when I upgraded to iOS 8 and also is no longer listed in Apple's App Store.

I since discovered Theodolite by Hunter Research and Technology (iOS only at $3.99). There may be a similar (but not the same) android app called Theodolite Droid at Google Play. Theodolite also uses the phone’s camera to sight the elevation, but also incorporates many additional features besides an inclinometer. One important feature is the ability to sight a compass heading through crosshairs. Typically, when determining the azimuth position of either the sun or moon with a conventional compass, you really need a compass with a flip-up sighting mirror (I’ve used my Silva compass for years to do just that). Theodolite, however, allows you to measure a heading by using the camera’s image as a substitute for the sighting mirror. Now, you can position a crosshair within an image and determine the exact elevation and azimuth of that point. You also have the option to read the heading in true or magnetic north.

Below is a screen shot of Theodolite making the same elevation measurement of the lighthouse lantern room that I performed using CameraAngle in my previous blog example. Though there's a lot of screen clutter, you can see the lighthouse lantern room in the center. You have the option to enlarge the image, but it becomes more difficult to hold it steady. The upper crosshairs are positioned next to the lantern room and the elevation angle is shown on the right (red circle) at about 10.4 degrees. Note that this elevation reading differs slightly from my CameraAngle example since I wasn’t standing in the exact same location. Below, circled in blue, is the azimuth angle of 103 degrees (which is true north in this example). 

Theodolite does the job, but not without some annoyances – mainly the cluttered screen and small digits. Most times I had trouble reading the azimuth or elevation digital readouts, especially under brighter ambient light. Admittedly, younger eyes may be less bothered by this. The analog scales are easier to read, but I wish they would just reduce screen clutter with simple digital readouts with larger digits. That aside, Theodolite (or its Android cousin) is a handy and inexpensive swiss-knife utility that I would recommend to any landscape photographer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

iPad for Photo Backup Alert

The problem described below has been fixed in iOS 8.1.1, which was just released Nov. 17, 2014.

In my eBook, I discuss some options to backing up photo files when out in the field. My method was to use my iPad for both backup and viewing (but not editing). I validated that I could connect the camera to the iPad (using Apple's photo kit) and retrieve them on my desktop using any import program (such as Adobe Bridge or iPhoto) or wirelessly using the Photo Transfer app. There was no problem reading my Canon 5D MKII raw files (.CR2).

Since I've yet to have a memory card failure (knock on wood), it hasn't been necessary to use the iPad to retrieve files. Instead, I usually import them to my desktop directly from the memory card. Recently, I upgraded to iOS 8.1 and decided to revalidate the backup procedure. It doesn't work!

JPG files still import to the iPad with no problems, but the raw files are in someway corrupted by the iPad. The desktop import software as well as an iPad-based raw editor see the raw files, but flag a file error when trying to import them. I can't directly blame iOS 8.1 since the last time I validated this procedure was a number of iOS versions ago. Web research so far has only turned up a similar problem reading Nikon raw files after updating to iOS 8; but in these cases the problem was extremely slow read times.

Is the problem just my iPad setup or with Canon raw files? Who knows. If I had to guess, I suspect that the new Camera app in iOS 8.1 has a bug in importing some raw files. My advice is if you use an iPad to import raw files and haven't upgraded to iOS 8.1 yet, I'd hold off until you research the problem enough make to sure you don't get burned.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Adobe Camera Raw's New Upright Tool

When dealing strictly with landscape photography, perspective and distortion are less an issue due to the often lack of a visual cue (such as a structure) to alert the viewer that something is askew. However, shooting tastes vary and some landscape photographers (including myself) like to include structures in their landscape scenes. With wide-angle lenses as a popular choice among landscape photographers, sooner or later you’ll have a cockeyed image that needs some straightening. Unfortunately, fixing these problems in software can at times be challenging, especially to the novice. So to make life simpler, Photoshop introduced a new automatic correction tool in Version 8 of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) called Upright.

Of course, you can avoid much of the problem if you use a tilt-shift (aka perspective control) lens on your DSLR. In the years I used a large format camera (that has built-in perspective control), I can’t recall ever a need to use a Photoshop transform tool. But I use a DSLR now and tilt-shift lenses cost a minor fortune, so occasionally I need to call on Photoshop to fix an unintended "Leaning Tower of Pisa" look.

More the Merrier? 
One thing about Photoshop is there can be many ways to accomplish the same task, and correcting perspective and distortion is a prime example. The options available are:
  • Photoshop's Transform: Found under the Edit menu, Transform’s options are: scale, rotate, skew, distort, perspective, and warp. These classic tools have been enhanced over time and continue to be a powerful way to correct all manner of image problems.
  • Adaptive Wide Angle Filter: Found under the Filter menu, its main intent is to correct the lens distortion from an extreme wide-angle lens. I nonetheless find it extremely versatile for almost any type image problems. I especially like the ability to make localized adjustments while the other tools are more global in nature.
  • Perspective Warp: Useful, I feel, when the subject is dominated by a building. I don’t believe it’s that useful in correcting the smaller visual cues you typically encounter in general landscape photography. 
  • Perspective Crop: This basically combines cropping and perspective correction in one operation. However, since you don’t see the correction in real-time until you perform the crop, you sometimes have to iterate back-and-forth with the Undo command to get the desired results. Unless the correction is very basic, I prefer the other tools. (On the other hand, the Crop's Level tool is very handy.)
  • ACR Transform: Similar to Photoshop’s Transform, this is found in the Manual tab in the Lens Corrections panel. Control is strictly through sliders, which I find limiting and useful only when the corrections are basic.
  • ACR Upright: Now to the reason for this post. In Photoshop CC's new ACR 8, Adobe introduced a pushbutton approach to perspective control. Upright is located just above the Transform sliders in the Lens Corrections panel (see screenshot below). This addresses the problem with the other tools (at least for some) that correcting images with complex problems is anything but simple. With that in mind, it does beg the question if Upright can really work? The answer seems to be: maybe so! 
ACR's Upright
Upright has four options: Auto, Level, Vertical, and Full
  • Auto attempts to achieve a "balanced" perspective correction for both vertical and horizontal. Auto is in a way redundant to the Full command that also corrects both horizontal and vertical perspective. However, the "balanced" part of Auto essentially means less aggressive correction. Both Auto and Full also attempt to level the image.
  • Vertical corrects only vertical perspective and level.
  • Level attempts to only level the image, that is, it doesn't correct convergences. Since there are other easy ways to level an image with far more precision, I'm not sure why Adobe bothered with this option.
Each option is just a one-click operation, making them an all-or-nothing affair. However, you can subsequently make further tweaks using ACR’s manual transform sliders. Note that if you first make manual adjustments and then choose to use an Upright command, the manual adjustments will reset. If you want to retain those manual adjustments, hold down the Option/Alt key when selecting an Upright option.

If you are correcting a series of images for HDR with Upright, you don't want Upright to auto-calculate perspective correction on a per image basis. Instead, you want a single correction applied to all images. When you select all the images to synchronize their settings, don't enable Transform in the list of items to synchronize. Instead, with all images selected, click Sync Results, which is located under Upright's Disable and Auto buttons. This ensures that a slightly different correction on one image doesn't cause a registration problem with the other images in the HDR software.

ACR's Upright Buttons and Transform Sliders
Original Image
I compared Upright against the Photoshop and ACR Transform tools, and the Adaptive Wide Angle filter in Photoshop. For a test image, I chose an interior shot of the Santa Barbara Mission church in California (right photo). Though certainly not a landscape image, it has the type of problems to make a suitable test case to compare all the tools. It was shot at 32mm and exhibits perspective error in both axes. Now, when it comes to old mission architecture, what is plumb and what isn’t can be a matter for debate. But plumbed or not, for the purposes of this comparison I attempted to straighten all lines regardless. Results are noted in the captions.

Upright Level: Essentially no change
Upright Vertical: Significant improvement in
vertical convergence, but horizontal is still off.
Upright All: Excellent correction, though
obviously not perfect. Definitely better 
than the Vertical option.
Upright Auto: Similar to All, but with a bit
less correction. However, on the plus side
there is slightly less cropping.

ACR Manual Transform Sliders: I find the ACR
manual sliders a bit frustrating to use. The aspect
ratio also suffered a bit, which I could have
corrected with the Aspect slider (but I didn't
bother since that further increases the cropping).
I feel Upright's Auto or Full did a better job.

Photoshop's Transform Tool (Skew):The
results are excellent and better than the 
ACR transform sliders. I find I have more
control with Photoshop's Transform than
ACR's. The results were similar to the
Adaptive Wide Angle filter (below), except the 
image is a bit squatter (which can be fixed
with a slight adjustment using the Scale
tool). Cropping does suffer a little due to the
more aggressive correction.
Adaptive Wide Angle Filter: Though it lost more of
the painted column on the left due to cropping, I
feel the results were a little better than Upright's 
Full option and similar, but slightly better, to
Photoshop's Transform.Though far from pushbutton
convenient, the Adaptive Wide Angle Filter is
relatively easy to use after a short learning curve.
The following video can help you get started: click here.
Image problems vary all over the map, so you can’t form a conclusion as to the best tool based on one image. Furthermore, before you get carried away with too much perspective correction, there are some pitfalls. For one, manipulating an image in this fashion means you are compressing and expanding various portions of the image. When expanding, you are essentially scaling up and, thus, sacrificing some image detail. When I do any image manipulation such as this, I always work with a file at its highest resolution. And also remember, the more aggressive the correction the greater the amount of cropping. 

Another problem is misrepresenting the image by distorting the aspect ratio. For example, a door or window may appear wider than it actually is. Unfortunately, correcting the aspect ratio may lead to further cropping or, instead, create a print with an oddball dimension that requires custom matting or framing. Often, you have to find a balance between some perspective distortion and maintaining a standard aspect ratio or preventing excessive cropping.

My preferred workflow, when it comes to perspective correction, is to first try the Upright tool. ACR is the first step in my software workflow anyway and I can cycle through each option quickly to see if one works out. Based on what I've seen so far, Upright may easily handle the majority of problems. If not, then I'll defer the problem to either Photoshop's Transform tool or Adaptive Wide Angle filter. Which one I choose depends on the complexity of the problem. However, I'm more likely to try both, but in the end I really do like the Adaptive Wide Angle filter. If I were to make a print from one the above test images, I would choose the Adaptive Wide Angle filter version.

By the way, you can use the ACR Upright tool within Photoshop via the new Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop CC. However, it is recommended you first convert the layer to a Smart Object so you can change it if you later determine you don't like the results.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Macro Photography on the Cheap

I’ve never been big on macro photography, but lately I decided to get a bit more serious about it. Since I lacked any current macro capability for my Canon 5D MkII, I needed to spend anywhere from $750 to $1,800 (and easily more) for a 100mm macro lens and ring flash. But whoa—I didn’t intend to get that serious about it! I needed a more practical approach, but one that would still yield high-quality results.

There are several options to choosing macro equipment: close-up filters, extension tubes (or bellows), reverse lens adapter, and of course macro lenses. A set of three close-up filters are about $80 (more or less depending on filter size) and about $200 for a set of extension tubes from Kenko. I have used both in the distant past and you can score some surprisingly good results. This time, though, I wanted a true macro lens; but I was leery about the cost and lugging around an extra lens that I'm unlikely to use often.

Go Short
To solve my problem, I decided on a macro lens in the 50mm range rather than in the more preferable 100mm range. The advantages are a substantially lower cost, lower weight and size, and better depth-of-field. The disadvantage is the more restricted working distance and less flexibility in using a flash. I chose the Canon EF f/2.5 Compact Macro lens for $269 (after a mail-in rebate). It weights less than 10-ounces and is so small I can toss it in my bag and hardly notice it's there. But this particular lens comes with a major concession: it’s a 0.5x and not a true 1:1 macro. I reasoned that wasn’t a problem since my macro tastes lean towards backing off the main subject to show more of the surrounding environment. In retrospect, though, a 1:1 would have been nicer; but this lens has so far satisfied most of my needs. For $80 more, you can get a Sigma 50mm macro lens with a true 1:1 ratio.

Choosing a "Lite" Touch 
The next consideration is a flash. I favor a ring light over dual-opposing flash heads, but in either case you’re staring at several hundred dollars. A flash is the best way to freeze a jittery subject and makes handholding the camera possible. On the other hand, the flat lighting it creates may not suit all subjects. Since I was looking for the “el cheapo” approach, I picked using a combination of two devices. To provide fill-light I bought a Sunpak LED ring light for $28, and to tame wind motion, a $43 Wimberley Plamp II. In addition, I bought a $20 Westcott Pocket Pack that includes a reflector and diffuser.

The only other necessity was a $3 step-up ring to fit my existing polarizer to the macro lens. I already had a spare 52mm UV filter for lens protection, but that’s totally optional. The front element is deeply recessed and well protected and, after all, it is a relatively inexpensive lens. So for a total outlay of less than $350, I was prepared to do some serious macro photography. But as always, there are concessions.

The Downside
If you’re itching to capture a busy bee on a rose petal, this setup isn’t conducive to that. The working distance is too close (which may scare off the bug—or get yourself stung!) and no flash to freeze the motion. And in my case, the lack of a 1:1 lens prevents me from turning a bug into horror-movie size. But for the majority of plant and flower close-ups, it’s more than adequate.


Canon EF f/2.5 Compact Macro (full-frame), $269 after mail-in rebate
(Note: Canon always seems to have some sort of rebate program going on). Besides the previously mentioned Sigma, Nikon also has a similarly priced lens with 1:1, but isn't full-frame. The Canon, despite its cost, is well built and a very sharp lens. Its low cost is due in part to its 15-year old design that uses a dated non-USM focus motor; and of course, its lack of 1:1. It is very small and lightweight and unobtrusively occupies a small recess in my camera bag. Canon does offer an extension tube to convert this lens to a true 1:1, but its cost would make the total package a poor value. If you’re hard-over on wanting 1:1, get the Sigma (or the Nikon if you have a DX camera).

Sunpak LED Ring Light ($28)
This isn’t a “flash”, but instead a 12-LED “flashlight”. It does not communicate with your camera and it’s not normally bright enough to be the main light source. But it works well as a fill light, especially when it’s difficult to maneuver a reflector near the subject. It is very lightweight and fits easily into position. It has two light intensity settings, though you’ll likely use the highest setting most often. The only problem I’ve encountered is to remember to shut it off.

Wimberley Plamp II ($48)
This is the only commercially available device I found for the express purpose of holding a flower or leaf steady. It is an articulating arm that clamps to a support (usually your tripod) while the other end clamps to whatever you’re trying to hold still. In addition to holding the subject steady, it can also reposition the subject for a better camera angle. Make sure to buy the Plamp II version with a redesigned clamp that is more versatile and holds flower stems without damaging them. The Plamp can also be used for any other “third hand” need, such as holding a reflector.

Though this device sounds like a great idea, in practice it has limitations. For one, even if the stem is kept still, the flower petals will still move if it’s breezy enough. Even the Plamp’s articulating arm is sensitive to a strong breeze. There is also an important precaution to take when using this device. You need to use either a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer. Wimberley warns that even mirror slap can vibrate the articulating arm. I thought that was an exaggeration at first, but for certain the slightest touch to the camera does set off vibrations through the Plamp (unless the Plamp is clamped to something other than your tripod). I have all my camera’s custom functions set to enable mirror lockup and the 2-second self-timer. If I’m extremely careful, I can get by with just that, but using a remote shutter release in addition is the best procedure. Though far from perfect, the Plamp is nonetheless the next best tool to a flash to combat wind motion—and it's a lot cheaper!
The redesigned Wimberley clamp has a screw adjustor, an inside notch to hold a reflector, center
soft-rubber pad to gently hold a stem, and a larger cavity near the outside to hold thicker items.

Westcott Pocket Pack $20
This includes both a 12-inch diffuser and reflector, which is a good deal since you can easily pay $20 each if bought separately. Most important is the diffuser that you’ll need to tame contrast when forced to shoot under sunny conditions. The reflector can be a handy adjunct to the Sunpak, and mandatory if you decide to opt-out on the Sunpak. The Plamp can easily hold either device in any position if the need arises. However, when a reflector exceeds 12-inches in size, the Plamp becomes more limited.

This shows all the items in action: Overhead 12-inch diffuser screen, Plamp II,
Sunpak Ring Light, and the Canon 50mm macro lens fully extended. 

Parting Shots
The following are a few "lessons learned" so far.

Red Herrings
Regardless if you’re shooting only raw, make sure to set your camera’s Picture Style (Canon) or Picture Controls (Nikon)—or whatever your brand camera calls it—to neutral. The reason is to prevent the histogram display from being significantly and erroneously skewed. Macro photography often entails bold colors and the histogram may mislead you by indicating excessive channel clipping (especially the red channel) that doesn’t actually exist in the raw file. Also, never rely on just the luminance histogram since that may hide any clipping in an individual color channel.

Portable Rain
If you want that nice fresh-morning dew look on your flowers, don't forget to pack a small water-spray bottle with you. I use a tiny 1-oz atomizer that goes a long way. However, I suggest you shoot a dry shot first just in case the wet version turns out, well—all wet. Also, avoid spraying your camera like I've almost done a few times.

Holy Macro
Macro photography requires a lot of ground-level work, and that means a lot of kneeling. Kneeling on wet, or worse, rocky ground can range from annoying to downright painful. The cheap solution is to pickup a pair of gardener's knee pads. I found a nice pair at Target for only $13. Admittedly they can look a bit dorky, but hey, we're photographers not fashion models.

Reclining on the Job
If you're starting to get jazzed about macro and also happen to be in the market for a new tripod, I have a suggestion. Look for a tripod that allows the center column to be positioned horizontally (for example, my Manfrotto 055CXPRO3). This allows you to cantilever the camera away from the tripod legs for more flexibility in framing a subject, especially when it's embedded within other foliage. Otherwise, you're apt to damage the surrounding foliage while trying to cram the tripod's legs into position (this will make you very unpopular at arboretums or other public gardens).

Annoying Backgrounds
Background foliage can be a distraction to any main foreground subject. Of course you can shoot wide-open to blur it out, but that doesn't leave you much DOF to work with. Another option is to insert a background. I bought a 9 12 inch piece of stiff black felt (less than $1 at any craft store and other colors are available) that in many cases supports itself by resting on any background branches or leaves. However, if you want to avoid a "studio look", then you can address the problem in Photoshop using either the Blur filter tools or Blur Gallery. In addition, I find heavy vignetting further helps isolate the background. (Update: Photoshop has added a new tool called Focus Area that can be a major help when using Blur Gallery. Click here for further info and examples.)