Importance/usefulness of flash/ring flash

Discussion in 'Accessories' started by jamespetts, Dec 3, 2013.

  1. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    For about two years, I happily used an E-P3, which had a built-in flash. I replaced that with an E-M1 after a burglary; that camera, of course, has no built in flash, but does have a little external unit that is somewhat fiddly to attach but is just as good as the built in unit on the E-P3.

    I am wondering whether it would be worthwhile to invest in a more serious flash. I have tended to prefer natural light photography generally, but am curious as to whether I am missing out on anything significant. The little flash is enough for fill-in use on reasonably close subjects and for lighting snapshots in the dark for reasonably close subjects, but I am interested in what can only sensibly be done with a larger flash gun, such as the FL-600R or one of the Metz units compatible with Micro Four Thirds.

    Does anyone have any examples of photographs that could not have been taken (or would have looked a lot worse) without a more substantial flash than the tiny in-built or bundled units? I should be interested to see such photographs to see whether those are the sorts of photographs that I am ever likely to want to take.

    I am also very fond of macro. Generally, I tend to take macro photographs in daylight, but I sometimes take photographs indoors, and have generally used the in-built flash or bundled flash, as in this photograph of a house spider:

    Domestic house spider by James E. Petts, on Flickr

    I am also interested in taking macro photographs of butterflies and other such things outside or in a butterfly house in a zoo. How much difference would a ring flash make? Does anyone have any photographs that could not have been taken (or would have looked a lot worse) without a ring flash? I should be most interested.
  2. bassman

    bassman Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Apr 22, 2013
    New Jersey
    Real Name:
    A ring flash would minimize the shadows from the spider on the background.
  3. 0dBm

    0dBm Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 30, 2011
    Western United States
    A ring flash unit may reduce the shadows; however, there are other factors to consider such as the light source's angle of incidence (AOI) upon the subject, the background reflection coefficient that affects background light scatter, the distance of the light to the subject, the light source's intrinsic dispersion properties, any collimating device (parabola, i.e. reflector), and any dispersion film or filter in front of the light source.

    A more serious flash (I own and use two Metz 58s) would allow more control of the output. I use gels to simulate "natural" light by altering the color temperature. The sun gravitates to the blue end of the color spectrum in the early mornings while headed to the red end in the late afternoon.

    When you state "daylight," I interpret this as approximately 6000 Kelvin (mid-day). Early morning sunlight can go to 7500 Kelvin, while late afternoon light is around 2900-4000 Kelvin.

    Sorry, boring engineering stuff...
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  4. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    "Boring engineering stuff" is actually very interesting. Thank you both for your input. Does anyone have any photographs that could not have been taken without a more serious and/or ring flash?
  5. mf100

    mf100 Mu-43 Regular

    Aug 26, 2012
    Sawbridgeworth, England
    Real Name:
    I've got the FL600R and have found this very good for lighting shots from a different angle to the camera (I.e. It's does not need be attached to the camera) which gives it many more options to that of the small clip on flash. The clip on flash is only really useful for subjects up to 12ft away, maybe a little more, where as an external flash offers considerably more power.

    I'm no flash photography expert, but if you're interested in the art of the possible read Bryan Peterson's 'Understanding Flash Photography' which is really well written and loads of photo comparisons etc.

    I've never used a ring flash, but if your into macro photography this might be an important addition, if you have the funds to pay for it.
  6. photo_owl

    photo_owl Mu-43 Regular

    Nov 8, 2013
    I'm not sure if the question is about shots that require an RF or shots that require flash?

    The practical answer revolves around a mix of expediency and the nature of the subject IMO.

    You can illuminate most subjects given enough flash guns, and can produce generally more striking and interesting images than with an RF, OTOH many subject won't just sit there and let you set up your mini studio around them, so an RF is an excellent way to get a fast factual capture.

    The best RF shots will correctly position the subject relative to the light source in all 3 dimensions. This minimises the shadows and illuminates the subject all round - eg

    you get detail, but you don't get an interesting image IMO.

    where flash really scores is in bringing out detail (well any lighting actually, but it's the easiest to carry around!) the RF can be just as usefull for larger subjects in certain situations
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  7. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    Thank you for your reply and your examples - the question was about both, separately. I thought that it would be a bit much to post two threads!

    Was the second photograph shown here taken with ring flash or ordinary flash?
  8. photo_owl

    photo_owl Mu-43 Regular

    Nov 8, 2013
    ring - with any other illumination there would be shadows from the feathers and the eyelid lobes clearly visible. This isn't inherently a bad thing, as the image would have more character!

    more generally here's a simple example of where the use of focused lighting (here I would now use a couple of guns in the style of the macro twin flash setup) could bring up the detail on the stems and inside caps to great effect (but obviously didn't)- the trick here would be to use flash such that it was actually difficult to detect it had been used! this was taken with a much older generation 43 sensor and I would expect the modern ones to do a much better job on the shadow detail now.

    however, you can't get away from the more light the more detail; and the more light sources the more you can be creative.
    whilst one good (big&clever) flash is great for events/people shooting you can pick up 3 cheap old flash units (reasonable power and a range of manual outputs being the important features) on ebay for pennies, add a set of wireless triggers for about the same, and really have fun!
  9. hazwing

    hazwing Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 25, 2012
    I mainly use my fl-600r occasionally for on-camera bounce flash, with my subjects usually being family/friends. I find it gives me a nicer look than direct flash. I don't pull it out very often, but I do use it when it starts getting very dim, or if I need to stop down the aperture so I have adequate DOF to get everyone in focus.

    I find the fl-600r relatively large for the em5 (especially if I'm using a smaller lens). It might be better with the em1, especially if you ues the battery grip too.
  10. Dave in Wales

    Dave in Wales Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 5, 2011
    West Wales
  11. ckrueger

    ckrueger Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 16, 2011
    I'm sorry I don't have the abliity right now to go grab some flash macro photos (and I sadly haven't had time to shoot much macro since switching to M43), but I'll throw my hat into the "macro flash is fun" ring.

    If you shoot handheld macro, I highly suggest a flash. All those photos where you were pushing ISO and shutter speed limits are suddenly feasible at any settings you desire. You can shoot in conditions dark enough that you can barely see to focus, but still maintain f/8, ISO200. Flash duration becomes your "shutter speed" (since it's your main light source), so the technical limitations of aperture and ISO are more geared towards keeping your flash duration short enough to avoid image blur.

    If you're shooting flash in macro, the biggest things to consider are the apparent size of your flash, and the direction of illumination.

    Say you use a mini flash head like your EM1's clip-on flash. If you're shooting a 20mm subject and the flash is 30cm away, the light source will be relatively small, and directional. Imagine a flash light shining on a fence post from 10ft away, casting a harsh shadow.

    Conversely, if you could somehow get your clip-on flash 5mm away from a 10mm subject, the light would be relatively large, and give more flat, uniform lighting to the subject. Imagine the flat lighting from an overcast sky illuminating a tree.

    Direction is important too. A front-lit subject with an apparently large light source would give lighting like the (beautiful!) photo of the bird's eye you saw earlier--flat and uniform. A single light source to one side will create a more 3D image by lighting protruding elements of the photo on one side and putting shadow on the other side. Two side-light sources can manage these shadows by filling them in.

    It's all very much like studio portrait shooting, if you're familiar with that, it's the just the scale that's different.

    There are a few types of flashes to consider:

    1) Bare hot shoe flash ON camera. You'll get highly directional, shadowed light as you experienced when shooting your spider. Where a big hot shoe flash would be better is in your ability to fire follow-up shots more quickly, the ability to shoot lower ISO (more powerful flash), and in a slightly larger light source. But the big advantage of a hot shoe flash is....

    2) Diffused hot shoe flash ON camera. There are all kinds of contraptions to accomplish this. Here's an old thread with some good examples from my old haunt ( Basically, you're making your flash head closer and (sometimes) bigger, to make the light more diffuse than the "bare bulb". This kind of setup can create some extremely high-quality light, and is the preferred method of many talented macro photographers. The downside is that the rigs are sometimes clunky, heavy, fragile, and difficult to pack, many of them aren't easy to adjust (ie: top-light only, no side-light), and they are generally single light only, so you don't always have good shadow control.

    3) Hot shoe flash OFF camera. This lets you adjust your lighting more than if you're stuck on camera. The advantage is more creative control over lighting. The disadvantage is that this is a very bulky and heavy way to shoot, and you'll have to either DIY a bracket or pay decent money to buy one. I found this really annoying to use, but it's the cheapest route to controllable, directional macro lighting.

    4) Ring lights. These are the ultimate in a "clinical", evenly-lit look. If you want a ton of easy-to-manage light on your subject, this is the way to go. It's easy to handle (because the light is on the lens, and you can shoot any orientation without adjusting), and with the light so close you won't have to worry about flash power or objects (like leaves) shadowing your flash. The downside is that it's a one-look setup, so if you don't like that look, you're out of luck. (Some ring flashes do have a left/right control, so this isn't always accurate.) This is mostly a problem of budget, because most people don't want to buy a flash JUST for macro.

    5) Twin macro flash. The Olympus STF-22, Canon MT-24EX, or Nikon R1C1 are examples of these. They're a hot shoe controller/battery unit, and two mini flashes mounted to a special ring on your lens. These give great directional light control (ie: one light to the side, two lights on top, "butterfly" lighting on both sides), lots of power (because the flash heads are VERY close), and the ability to hand-hold the little flash heads for some cool creative control (I can handhold my kit and backlight a subject). The disadvantage is high cost, and the general difficulty of diffusing the small flash heads if you want very soft lighting.

    Since you sound like you're interested in using a flash not just for macro but "normal" use as well, I suggest buying an FL600R or FL50R. You can use that bare on the hot shoe, and add a diffuser if you like. Either make your own, or buy one (I bought a Lumiquest Mini Softbox). You'll have a LOT to learn about macro before this kind of setup will limit you as a macro photographer... indeed, this is how FM forum hero LordV ( shoots, and National Geographic would be happy to print his photos. So that might be all you ever desire.

    The FL600R also has the advantage of getting you a nice flash for shooting other subjects. Bounced flash is GREAT for candids, and with your EM1's clip-on flash as a wireless flash controller. This gets you a cheap entry into off-shoe portrait lighting. Check out for information on learning to use hot shoe flashes for quality portrait flash lighting.

    As for the size of the unit, I have an EM1 and FL600R, and the two balance nicely. The grip makes all the difference in the world. Hazwing, you might try adding the grip to your EM5 if you want to shoot with flash. You won't need a death grip on the camera anymore!

    Long story short? Yes. In my opinion, you need a flash. High-quality light and a kit lens will beat poor ambient light and a $8000 Leica lens every time.
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  12. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    Thank you very much for all your help! That is most useful. Looking at the ring flash pictures, I see that, as explained by many, the lighting is very flat, whereas I rather prefer directional lighting (I rather like the lighting effect on that spider, for example).

    When I had my E-P3, I was generally quite happy with the way that the little flash would render macro subjects:

    Pudding by James E. Petts, on Flickr

    Ring in oyster shell by James E. Petts, on Flickr

    although I found that good ambient light was the best:

    Bee's tongue by James E. Petts, on Flickr

    Winter flower by James E. Petts, on Flickr

    Ambient light is not always good, however, and the spider pictures taken at home at night (or even during the day) usually needed the help of the flash. I tried taking pictures this morning of a ladybird ("ladybug" to Americans, I think) that had got into my flat somehow - I have not uploaded them yet, but I was somewhat disappointed with the results: the light seemed too harsh and in many cases they were overexposed (I had to resort to a technique that I had learnt using compact cameras for quasi-macro work of covering the flash with a white pocket handkerchief to diffuse the light), but even then the light was not ideal. The trouble, I think, is that the clip-on flash on the E-M1 is right in the centre directly above the lens, whereas the pop-up flash on the E-P3 was off to one side. I had not thought about this before, and does present something of a difficulty for illuminating macro with flash.

    The Flickr account to which you linked of the chap who uses diffused on-camera flash for his macro work seem to have a pleasing sort of lighting, and that might well be a good way for me to go. Incidentally, is there any particular reason that you recommend an Olympus FL-600R over, say, a cheaper Metz flash? What can it do that a Metz cannot?
  13. ckrueger

    ckrueger Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 16, 2011
    You might try shooting in M mode, if you aren't already. I find it easier to control exposure. Set the camera to M, and then:

    1) Set shutter speed to 1/200sec (or whatever max sync speed is). You can slow the shutter down if you want to bring in ambient light, but go too slow (aka "dragging the shutter") and you'll get a well-defined flash impression and a blurry ambient representation in your photo, mixed together. Rarely desirable.
    2) Set aperture to whatever you like for creative effect. I find f/11 tolerable, and much smaller starts to cause diffraction softening.
    3) Set ISO to balance ambient and flash light. If you look at your display, you'll generally see a "-3.0" in the exposure compensation reading. If you set the ISO high enough that you see "-1", your flash will only fill in one stop of light, giving you a mostly-ambient shot. -3 or more is going to be mostly flash.
    4) Set FEC to determine exposure. It's the only control that will determine the exposure of your image, assuming you aren't overexposed by a too-high ISO.

    Shooting this way is pretty quick once you get used to it. The advantage over P/S/A modes is that each control affects only one thing, and nothing changes on you unless you make it happen. Also, you can work pretty effectively with a flash that doesn't have on-board power controls, which the clip-on doesn't.

    I mention the FL-600R out of familiarity, mainly. I've always used first-party flashes for no good reason, and the FL-600R is a competent flash (although it seems to drain batteries a lot faster than my Canon 580EX). I suppose if I had to come up with a reason for first-party flash, it would be the higher likelihood of compatibility with future models, but I have heard that Metz is pretty good in this regard, with firmware updates.

    My only hard recommendation would be to stick with a system flash, so you get TTL lighting rather than a thyristor or manual power control. People split on which method they prefer, but since you don't have experience with hot shoe flashes, I recommend getting one that can do TTL, in case you prefer that method. I prefer TTL because it gets very close most of the time, and when it's off it's off consistently, so FEC is good enough to bring it in line.

    Oh, and yeah, we call them ladybugs. I've never heard of that particular difference!
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  14. hkpzee

    hkpzee Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 5, 2011
    Hong Kong
    Real Name:
    This is a great read from Robin Wong:

    I generally follow his setup when shooting handheld macro. I used a Metz 58 before the FL-600R was launched, but bought the FL-600R after seeing how small and nicely built it was. I've had problems with the Metz not firing in remote setup sometimes, but not with the FL-600R. Safe to say, I've been using the FL-600R much more often than the Metz, especially as an off-camera macro flash. The lighter weight makes it much easier to hold the camera in one hand, while the flash is handled by the other hand. In fact, I leave the flash in my everyday camera bag as you never know when a flash will come in handy...

    The following shot was taken with an E-M5 with remote flash, but with a diffuser (DEMB Flash Diffuser Pro) instead of the shoebox setup since I was on a trip. It was shot in the evening outdoor when the sunlight was dim. The flash allowed me to shoot at the lowest ISO (200) and a small aperture (f/8) for increased DOF:
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  15. keith1200rs

    keith1200rs Mu-43 Regular

    Nov 8, 2011
    North Yorkshire
    I agree that you can get flat lighting from a ring flash. I had one with Nikon SLR for macro and sold it and used a small flash on an extension cable which produced far better results. You need to get the angle right to get a good modeling effect. There are some macro flashes which have two flash tubes and you can use one, the other or both. I would probably look at one of those if I wanted a macro flash.

  16. ckrueger

    ckrueger Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 16, 2011
    I used Canon's MT-24EX twin flash for a long time, and recently switched to Olympus' STF-22. They're great units for macro flash; they make handheld flash shooting less bulky (read: a pain in the wrist), put a good, controllable light (although you sometimes have to diffuse them to avoid harsh light), and have tons of power for follow-up shots.

    Only problem is they are very expensive. Unless you do a LOT of macro shooting, you probably won't want to spend >$500 on a flash that is ONLY good for macro (or small lightbox work).

    On the other hand, I'd recommend a hot shoe flash for any photographer; they have many uses, and can greatly improve the quality of your indoor images. They can even perform as off-camera strobes for portrait work (just did this last week using a couple cheap optically-triggered flashes) and as macro flashes when used with a diffuser.
  17. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    Thank you all very much for your thoughts. May I ask - what do people think of the Metz 15-MS 1 quasi ring flash? It seems on the face of it to be a serviceable alternative to the STF-22 at a far more modest cost. Would this be able to be adapted to the 60mm macro lens with its 46mm filter thread?
  18. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    photography is about capturing light

    if there is not enough natural light you have to add light

    If you use the popup flash its like shining a torch in the eyes of a subject

    if you have a flash you can take off the camera and bounce it off a large surface or through a diffuser you can better replicate a more natural light

    this is a big subject...

    suggest you visit

    that ill give you a better idea about what flash photography

  19. jamespetts

    jamespetts Mu-43 Top Veteran

    May 21, 2011
    London, England
    I have had a long look at the Strobist website (in particular the "101" series of posts), which was extremely interesting. However, that seemed to be predominantly, indeed, almost exclusively, aimed at photographs of people in circumstances and locations where it is practical to spend at least 15 minutes on a single photograph and set up lighting stands and umbrellas and the like. There was no real discussion of flash in macro photography, landscape photography, nature photography and the like, which is of far more interest to me.
  20. Dave in Wales

    Dave in Wales Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 5, 2011
    West Wales
    After some thoughts since my previous post on here I have ordered a Ring 'Light' not flash, to play around with.®-Macro..._text_y/176-2726209-1890415?tag=5336653530-20

    They are very cheap, and sections of the ring can be masked off giving the effect of two individual lights, as well as turning each half on/off.

    For $34 it's something to play around with after the Xmas turkey and been demolished.