Buck's Macro Flash Bracket Project

I recently got a Sigma 180mm macro lens that will finally do true 1:1 macros, and ran into the problem of needing more light in order to get the most optimum settings I could squeeze out of it.  I'm still working out the sharpest aperture to use (f/22 is looking pretty good), but in the meantime, I wanted to be able to stop it down to the full f/32 with an ISO of 100 and a shutter speed of 1/250 (fastest shutter sync on my Canon 40D).  That's as deep as I could have to go, but even at less than that, I'm gonna need more light - no two ways about it.  So, I got determined to deal with it head on.

First I looked at ring flashes.  Commonly used and apparently adequate, I read as much as I could in the way of reviews.  What I found is that if I was going to get a ring flash for macro work, I should get the Canon MT-24EX, a twin light wonder that is very versatile and doesn't have the common problem with ring flashes: Flat light.  Here's a photo of it:

Turns out the thing's about $650.00 new.  Okay, so I go to EBay...  Incredibly, there are people there bidding up to $850.00 on used ones!  WTF???!!!  Okay, I want one, but not THAT bad!

Still, I'm now convinced that the two lights mounted in such a way that they can be repositioned in a versatile way is a great idea.  Hmmm... I could get a 2nd Canon 580 EX II for about $320.00 and that would be even MORE versatile because I could use it for more than just macro shooting (I've been reading the Strobist blog lately too.)  Well, there's TWO good reasons to get a 2nd flash, so I go ahead and order it.  I figure I can work out SOME way to mount them later...

Back to digging around on the internet for bracket ideas to hold my 2 flashes, I found this really cool bracket setup:

Those are Wimberley Flash Brackets.  VERY cool, very versatile, very efficient, very excellent.  Also, VERY expensive @ $169.00 each, and I'll need 2, plus a new Arca Swiss type mount ($85), plus shipping, handling, tax - I figure it'll run me about $500 altogether, which is just plain more than I want to spend on just the bracket to hold my two flashes.

Okay, I go with plan B, and I'm off to the nearest Home Depot...

After having a look through the hardware, I come up with a plan, buy a few parts, and have a go at it...

What I came up with is this:

That's one "T" strap, two spring clamps, two 1/4"X 3/4" bolts, two 1/4" fender washers and two 1/4" wing-nuts.
Total cost: $8.51 (plus tax).  That's WAY closer to what I wanted to spend!

The clamps have holes in the handles, hidden under the orange plastic grips.  I simply pulled one grip off each to expose the holes, and I had a way to bolt them to the T strap as shown.

I bent the T strap as shown because it allows me to gain versatility in positioning the spring clamps and, thus, the flashes.

Here's a closer look at the assembly of spring clamp to T strap.  Not much to it.

When I bent the T strap, I made sure that the result would clear the lens.  I didn't want to mar it in any way during use.  I've since replaced the 1/4"X 3/4" bolts with shorter 1/2" long ones, and replaced the wing-nuts with simple hex nuts to trim the whole thing down.  The wing-nuts simply weren't as useful or needed as I thought they'd be.  Bolted tightly, it won't move at all on it's own, but with a little pressure, I can still twist the assembly by hand to reposition as needed.

Next, I position the mounting hole on the newly completed Macro Flash Bracket (MFB) over the lens' mounting plate.

I used a spare tripod head quick release plate to clamp it down which also serves the purpose of giving me a way to mount the whole thing onto my tripod.

Next, I clamped the flash holders of the Y adapter flash wiring harness into place.  These spring clamps hold them GREAT!  No slipping at all!  They are INCREDIBLY strong!

So, here's the whole assembly, mounted on the lens and ready to go onto the tripod and have the flashes placed and positioned for firing.

Mounted on the tripod, with everything nice and tight, I made sure to leave enough clearance associated with the clamps for the flashes to mount nicely and not to pinch the wires.

Finally, I place the flashes and lock them in place.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the whole rig with camera, lens and flashes is balanced fairly well at the lens' mounting plate.

Between the twisting and turning capabilities of the flashes themselves, and the twistable versatility of the clamps because of the way they're attached to the bracket, I've got a LOT of ways I can arrange these, just what I'd hoped for!  I can see that it wouldn't take much to bolt on an extension bracket to the T strap either, should I find a need to do so.  Of course, that would cost me another 3 or 4 bucks maybe!  ;>)

I played with it hand-held quite a bit before I decided to shoot these photos and document the whole thing.  It all stayed tight and right for me - a very workable system.  And at under $10, I'm VERY happy!

Just a look at it from another angle.  I've got Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce diffusers on there right now, and they help a lot, but I'll get some polarized film to work with soon - I've read that's much better for cutting glare and shiny flash-back (makes sense).

One last look from another angle, showing how easy it is to get to the controls.

This is really just a starting point for me, and I fully expect that it'll evolve as I modify it over time.  Still, I think it's a pretty good starting point, and the best thing that I've learned here is that the inexpensive but effective "T" strap works great as a "base" platform to work with and build on.

Okay, so after some initial technical tests, I headed out to the field for the real deal, and here's the first field test shot using my new MFB:

This test photo of a bee working in a field of clover was shot hand-held at ISO 100, shutter speed 1/250 (flash sync), aperture f/22, both flashes set to auto TTL.  No crop was made on this test shot, just a slight curve adjustment, resized to 800px wide, then typical USM.  I usually strip out the EXIF info to make my online files lean, but I've left it intact on this one, in case you want to check it out.

First, I confess the composition itself is nothing to brag about, with the bee centered and the clover flower behind it competing for attention - it would have been much better had I isolated the bee working a single clover with that nice, green OOF background behind it and positioned to the right of the frame; some things for me to keep in mind for future shots of this nature.

Having acknowledged that, for my test purposes, this will work just fine to analyze the performance of my new lighting rig.  There are some shiny bits in there on the reflective surfaces of the bee, and hopefully my future experiments with polarized film will help tame stuff like that.  The depth of field looks pretty good at f/22, I've got good, sharp detail at a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second even though it's hand-held, clarity is optimum at ISO 100 with no noise to speak of, and the lighting is quite nice I think, with diffused light and shadow providing a sense of depth to the image, and good color and white balance provided by the twin 580 EX II flashes.

Overall, I'd say it's a success, and I'm very happy with my new sub-$10 MFB and the results!

So now, there's just one thing left to do - make it pretty!  And here it is with the shorter bolts, no wing-nuts, and nice black finish:

By the way, you can see the rest of the gear I use HERE, if you're interested.

That's it!  Hope you found something useful in all this!  :>)

Happy shooting!