Novoflex Macro Flash Lighting System

An awesome TTL ringlight setup. The flash generator on a Canon A2 body, 100mm f/2.8 Canon macro lens, and the Novoflex flash system.
Photos © 2001, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Macro photography seems to be in a golden age. Maybe it's the proliferation of digital point-and-shoot cameras with incredible macro focusing capabilities. Maybe it's the new breed of inexpensive macro zoom lenses, or maybe it's just a desire to reveal the beauty of items only possible in extreme close-ups. Regardless, dedicated macro photographers are usually focused nearly exclusively on lenses.

It's the lens that gets you close, make no mistake. I routinely use 50mm f/2.8 and 100mm f/2.8 macro lenses on my EOS bodies, and to those I add a bevy of close-up filters, extension rings, and a Canon extension bellows. The really serious close-up shooters have always relied on Novoflex, the German manufacturer of lenses, tripods, ball heads, and all things macro. I've used Novoflex extension bellows and lenses for a number of assignments, always with stellar results.

Here is the whole Novoflex system. Clockwise from top left: the two duo flash heads, the flash generator, ringlight, flash bracket, and the amazing Flash Panel.

One of my biggest problems when shooting extreme close-ups is lighting. While a gorgeous flower in late afternoon sunlight might not need much in the way of ancillary light, nearly every macro image will need a source of main or fill light. Your on-camera flash is almost useless when close-up, since it is sitting so far away from the lens. Tiny reflector cards and mirrors have always been favorites of macro photographers, but they rely on a main source of light to do their job.

In my studio I shoot a lot of small detail shots for clients. I rely on the smallest softboxes I can find and dial my strobes down to 1/32 power. Even then I'm often faced with way too much light, since the softboxes are only a couple of inches away from the subject. For some shots I'll try my Profoto ringlight hooked up to a Balcar pack, but even at 1/32 power for macro work I'm at f/64 at ISO 100--just not practical with a 35mm or medium format camera.

Here I put one duo flash head on the bracket and handheld the other head way behind the robot (a 2' high toy). This kind of lighting looks just like great studio lighting, but it's totally portable and repeatable. Great stuff!

These problems in mind, I jumped at the chance to review what I thought would be a new Novoflex ringlight unit. To my surprise, the box Novoflex shipped included not only the ringlight, but their two-head duo flash unit and a revolutionary new flat light panel called the LP-100 Light Panel. This is a formidable macro flash system, and it really is a true system. Central to the system is the flash generator unit. This looks like a small Sunpak swivel head flash, but with no flash tube installed. This unit houses the batteries and all electronics, and can be used in auto, manual, or true TTL modes with most popular cameras. You can plug in any of the flash heads to the generator and instantly create the kind of light that your shoot requires.

There's nothing like a ringlight. I love the total shadow surrounding the subject, and of course the tons of detail revealed.

Ringlight Beauty
My first test was with the ringlight. No surprises here. It operated similarly to other battery-powered units, with plenty of punch for close-up work and just enough to squeeze out a couple of interesting headshots if needed. The rotating knurled collar makes it easy to attach to any 52mm thread lens, and step up or down rings are available to mount on other lenses. The beauty of the ringlight is of course the subject is surrounded by equal amounts of light. This creates the telltale ringlight shadow, which is exactly the same all around the subject. For people like dentists and forensic photographers ringlights also bring out a lot of details that other forms of lighting just can't.

Two light heads placed on either side of the subject couldn't get any easier with the Novoflex duo flash heads. Here you can see that I have removed one diffuser from the head on the right side, which creates about one more f/stop of light.

Duo Flash Setup
Next up was the duo flash. Since our test units had shipped directly from a trade show, we didn't have a chance to mount the two tiny flash heads on the Novoflex adjustable bracket that normally comes with these units. That bracket and an entire catalog of adjustable arms makes it possible to set up practically any two-head lighting setup you wish, and instantly make it portable. Without the bracket I mounted one unit on the heavy-duty, beautifully machined Novoflex camera bracket and held the other one in my outstretched arm. Doing this I could actually get one head behind the subject and create some very interesting studio-type lighting. Not only can you place these heads practically anywhere, but by installing or removing a series of translucent Plexiglas diffusion panels you can alter the amount of light generated by either head. It's a foolproof and incredibly practical system. I found with the diffusers installed that the quality of light was gorgeous, and I could get remarkably crisp, saturated close-up images.

While I was impressed with the ringlight and the duo flash setup, the propeller on my beanie really started spinning when I got my hands on the Flash Panel. What a great idea! A slim flat panel with a 4x5" flash element. The result is like a tiny softbox that is only (check this out) 1/2' thick! Now you can get just the right amount of soft, luscious studio light into the tightest spots. Not only that, but you can bolt it down securely to the flash bracket and wander around a meadow shooting amazing softbox-lit flower close-ups. Frankly there is nothing like this, and I've been using it on all sorts of stuff in my studio with terrific results. (It's awesome for small jewelry shots!) Amazingly I also shot some wild close-up portraits using fast film. Again, this is a totally unique lighting device, and once you use it, it is pretty addictive.

Close-up lighting just doesn't get any better or easier than this. Here I detached the Flash Panel from the camera and placed it off to one side of the block. The light is soft but strong and directional and just look at that color saturation!

Ideal Macro Setup
The flash generator unit accepts either a standard hot shoe or a series of dedicated modules. I tried the module for Canon EOS cameras, which was compatible with my EOS-1N and EOS-A2 cameras (though not with the D30 and other E-TTL EOS cameras). Exposure when in the auto mode was sporadic at best. As with all macro flash systems, the parallax error between your lens and the flash sensor is just too great, and the flash gets fooled. However, when dialed in as a fully auto TTL system with my EOS cameras exposure was almost perfect. I exposed an entire roll of Fuji Provia and almost every frame was right on the money. If you shoot macro you've got to be impressed by that.

There is little not to like about this system. The individual components are not horribly expensive given this level of versatility. The flash generator lists for $239, the ringlight for $135, the duo flash heads for $160, and the amazing Flash Panel for $641. Surely there are cheaper units out there, but nothing that is as versatile and practical as this Novoflex system. Nothing is perfect of course: we wouldn't mind a little bit better construction on the flash generator and hot shoe modules, and the front mounted battery compartment is a bit difficult to access. That said, I'd buy this stuff in a heartbeat. If macro is your thing, then this is the kind of stuff that really should be in your camera bag.

For more information, contact Novoflex, c/o HP Marketing Corporation, 16 Chapin Rd., Pine Brook, NJ 07058; (973) 808-9010;