Handheld Macro

This article discusses handheld macro photography and why I prefer using my Olympus E-M1X and M.Zuiko 60 mm macro lens over the full frame gear I owned in the past.

As regular readers know, I very much dislike using a tripod and only do so when it’s absolutely necessary. In the past when I tried to create handheld macro images with my full frame equipment I would very seldom get any useable images. I simply could not hold my full frame equipment steady enough. It was an exercise in frustration. My full frame gear always seemed to get in the way of my creativity.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/10, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Like many people I had to rely on a tripod set-up, and invest the time necessary to stage individual macro photographs. I found the process time consuming, and very restrictive. Quite frankly I hated everything about it. As a result my dedicated full frame macro lens collected dust most of the time.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/60, ISO-80, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 300 mm

I appreciate that when it comes to macro photography there are a wide range of approaches and opinions on the subject. This is to be expected as our individual photographic objectives can vary, as can our choice of camera gear. Some folks have the patience and technical knowledge to create absolutely stunning images through the use of complex macro set-ups. Other people are more free-wheeling in their approach.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/100, ISO-250, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 305 mm

Since switching to the Olympus (now OM System) micro-four-thirds system my interest in and enjoyment of macro photography has increased exponentially. My E-M1X provides me with incredible IBIS performance, computational photography technologies, and wonderful ergonomics that are ideal for my handheld macro photography needs.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/20, ISO-200, cropped to 3692 on the width, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 270 mm, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

One of my favourite computational photography technologies offered by my E-M1X is in-camera focus stacking. As you can see from the first four images in this article it has become my preferred method to use for handheld macro flower photographs. I regularly use this technology at fairly slow shutter speeds of 1/50th of a second or less.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/5, ISO-800, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 450 mm

Earlier today I was doing some handheld macro tests using in-camera focus stacking, and achieved a new personal best of 1/5 of a second (see image above). My E-M1X was set for 10 focus stacked images with a focus differential of 4. Even after using my E-M1X for almost four years I still am amazed with its IBIS performance.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/30, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 275 mm

Being able to shoot macro photography handheld at slower shutter speeds has opened up all kinds of photographic potential for me. It also instills a huge amount of creative energy.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/60, ISO-1250, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 275 mm

From the very first day that my E-M1X was launched it faced intense criticism regarding its full body, double gripped design. I find the ergonomics, comfort and handling to be outstanding… and very well suited for handheld macro photography. It makes composing and capturing vertically oriented macro images a breeze, especially when using the articulating rear screen.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/400, ISO-5000, subject distance 240 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

The E-M1X’s double-gripped stability and IBIS performance is so reliable that on occasion I’ve shot Handheld Hi Res macro images while only holding my E-M1X in one hand.  That’s a fingertip from my left hand in the photograph above.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/400, ISO-6400, subject distance 250 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

While I seldom need Handheld Hi Res macro images, this technology not only delivers increased levels of detail with its 50 MP RAW files, but also provides increased dynamic range that clearly outperforms my previous full frame gear at ISO-6400.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 300 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

Since Handheld Hi Res combines 16 images in camera to produce its 50 MP RAW file, the output is also quite clean in terms of noise at ISO-6400. There are some limitations when using the E-M1X’s Handheld Hi Res function in terms of selecting subject matter that is motionless. This typically isn’t an issue when doing macro photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro with STF-8 Twin Macro Flash, f/11, 1/250 ISO-200, subject distance 270 mm

When we were building our Olympus M4/3 kit we included two M.Zuiko flash units, including the STF-8 Twin Macro Flash. I’ve found it to be small, flexible and easy-to-use. It further extends my handheld macro capability.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-200, subject distance 225 mm

Standard, non computational handheld macro photography is almost like falling off a log it is so quick and simple to do. I never use manual focusing as the auto-focusing with my E-M1X and M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens is very fast and very accurate.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-400, handheld in-camera focus stacking used, subject distance 200 mm

The auto-focusing performance of my M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens is far superior to the Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8 full frame macro lens that I used to own. When mounted on my previous Nikon D800 that lens would constantly hunt for focus and was very frustrating to try to use handheld for macro photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, efov 120 mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-3200, extension tube used, subject distance 235 mm

I’ve always loved to experiment with my camera gear and from time to time I ‘ve captured handheld macro images with the addition of extension tubes… and did not experience any difficulties doing so.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/250, ISO-2000, subject distance 200 mm, handheld in-camera focus stacking

Handheld macro photography will not appeal to all photographers, as some folks prefer working with tripods. It does take some time to develop handheld macro technique as there will be some nuances to learn based on the specific camera equipment that is used.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 365 mm

The M4/3 format is well suited to macro photography as a photographer can leverage the depth-of-field advantage that comes with the use of shorter focal length lenses to achieve an equivalent field-of-view with full frame gear.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/7.1, 1/15, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 460 mm

There is some bias against smaller sensor cameras in many photography chat rooms. Some of that stems from a lack of familiarity and knowledge on how to adapt one’s technique to use smaller sensor cameras effectively. Some of it seems purely emotional. And, some of it may find its roots in gear snobbery. The bottom line is that if you don’t think smaller sensor cameras are a good fit for your style of photography then use something else.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/6.3, 1/30, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 510 mm

Photographers who are looking for flexibility, computational photography options, and handheld freedom may find their macro photography solution in the same place I found mine.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from out-of-camera jpegs and RAW files using my standard approach in post. This is the 1,244 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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