Ring Flash-o-riffic

Gallardia Bloom With Ant
Ant on Gallardia

As I had mentioned before, my ultra-cool Mom & Dad gave me a ring flash for my birthday. The Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring or the “battery eater”, as I call it.

Wow! Talk about steep learning curve! Lots of stuff to learn to effectively use this flash.

I did a bunch of research, including reading through troves of material linked to in my original post, and have compiled some random notes that would have been useful upon unboxing. Not sure if they are exactly right or not, but it is a starting point, at the least.

I also headed over to the garden and did some random ring-flash, hand-held, macro photography last weekend. Nothing formal and certainly would have been aided by a tripod, but I dig ’em.

At left is an ant wandering across a gallardia bloom. At full size, the ant wandering across a field of little flower peaks is quite striking.

Gallardia Blossom

Gallardia bud By using a relatively fast shutter speed, the background becomes nearly black as the macro optimized flash only illuminates the subject blossom.

So, toss the manual. Instead, spend your time reading the Flash Photography with Canon EOS Cameras on photonotes.org. An absolutely amazing resource. I promptly tossed a $40 donation in their direction as I would have happily paid $40 on Amazon for a book that covered half as much. My only criticism? Too damned much information spanning the entire recent history of Canon’s products — lots to wade through prior to knowing “just enough” to get the job done. (In the “more like a weblog” vein, strobist is awesome, as Eric commented and I have mentioned before).

Bottom line: when you slap a flash on your camera, the rules change. The only mode that remains consistent is full-manual mode.

Purple Bearded Iris

Into the Iris MawOne of the few Iris that blooms in December. A striking flower. The ring flash illuminates the throat of the flower.

Specifically, some random points (all highly opinionated and likely incorrect):

  • In [P] (program) mode, the Digital Rebel will set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Good enough for a dark room, but too damned slow for hand held shots in bright light using the flash as a fill flash for the subject.
  • In [Av] (Aperture Priority) mode, the camera will set the shutter speed to whatever is necessary to normally expose the entire scene sans flash at the given aperture. This is typically surprisingly long. Why does it do this? Because, on a tripod, you can have a normally lit background — i.e. visible — with a subject that is brightly lit, even though reality is actually quite dark. Neat idea, but stupid for a macro optimized flash.
  • The flash unit has a maximum duration. It is considerably less than 1/60th of a second, more like 1/700th of a second or so. Thus, you can crank the shutter speed up quite a bit in conjunction with the flash and still have the foreground correctly exposed.
  • Which really means, “go manual” and experiment. And, as Duncan has repeatedly reminded me (sorry, man, I’m dense), use the damned historgram. Seriously. For macro photography, it is likely that the subject will mostly fill the frame. As such, the shutter speed isn’t really going to impact the exposure terribly much. Aperture and distance from the subject are far more critical. Have a look at the histogram after each shot. If the curve is too far left (underexposed), move in closer and/or open up the aperture. Too far right? Expand that depth of field or move in closer. Or adjust the ISO — that works well, too and such tight, fast, and bright illumination seems to avoid the noise problems associated with higher ISO.

Anyway. I’m still semi-clueless, but having an awful lot of fun with this flash! I post these notes more as a collection of my observations, not as a collection of facts. I look forward to various folks-with-a-clue-stick whacking my errors.

5 Responses to “Ring Flash-o-riffic”

  1. eric soroos says:

    Read Strobist.com. It’s the best thing out there for learning how to get the most from the flashes that you have. (and those that you will buy soon enough after reading).

  2. ManxStef says:

    Another option aside from using the histogram is to bracket the exposure. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to reframe your shot, which can sometimes be tricky after looking away. (Then again, sometimes this can help get a better shot, as you may spot a framing fault while chimping.) The disadvantage is that you take three shots instead of one, which flattens the battery even faster 🙂

    Those are some lovely shots, by the way, keep ’em coming!

  3. Charles says:

    I probably wouldn’t describe your ring flash as having a “steep learning curve,” it might be better to think of it as having an extremely narrow range of capabilities and it takes a bit of knowledge to know where to use them. If it had a wider range of abilities, it would have a much worse learning curve.

  4. bbum says:

    If I were content to leave it in fully automatic mode and simply point/shoot, letting the flash meter things appropriately, I would agree. And, certainly, for the “fill flash” style of photos attached to this post, the number of variables is somewhat minimized (though, even with this simple images, there is still quite a bit too learn to balance exposure across the subject versus exposure of the background).

    However, this flash has quite a few variables that can be tightly controlled to impact the look/feel of a photo. Things I haven’t really touched much like the ability to control the ratio of light coming from opposite side of the flash or switching out of E-TTL mode or really exploring the depths of manual mode.

    Certainly, being a special purpose unit limits some of the applications, but the ring flash has considerable flexibility — complexity even — within its designated role.

  5. Macro Photography for Beginners says:

    Ring Flash are often criticised for taking images with a very flat appearance. This is quite a strange arguement against them because they were specifically designed to take flat shadowless images (originally in dentistry and medical applications). I use the Sigma EM-140DG which is very similar to the Canon MR-14 EX.

    There are some situations where only ring-flash will work such as looking into the “trumpet” of a flower. I find that the ring flash is excellent for capturing still life images of small objects such as stamps and coins. It is not the best choice for insect photography even when you master the manual settings (M). It would probably be best to use a diffused flash gun on a bracket for insect photography.

    Marvin Africa

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