It’s been bugging me that I only have a handful of decent insect photos, despite owning a macro lens primarily for that purpose. When they weren’t flying or running away from me, they were biting me, and when I tried the pop-them-in-the-fridge-to-cool-them-down trick – well, let’s just say Mr. Tarantula is still napping. I felt awful about that and vowed never to ice down a critter again unless it was a penguin with heat stroke. Still I’ve been seeing tons of great bug photos lately and it rekindled my interest. If I could just dial in the lighting, maybe I could start nailing some great macro wildlife shots.
Macro lighting can be tough because you and your camera are so close to your subject it’s easy to block out your light source. Ring flashes get around this problem by mounting on the front of the lens.
The Bolt VM-110 LED Macro Ring Light is designed to produce even lighting on close-up subject matter. At $79.00 it seems like it might be a good product for those getting into macro.
Let’s check out the features, but first a couple of quick disclosures:
1) my only experience with ring lights is having my choppers photographed by my dental hygienist.
2) I got to keep the review item after I tested it.
Table of Contents
First off, although the VM-110 features a “flash mode” this is not a ring flash and will not perform like one. It’s basically a ring-shaped flashlight that can attach to the front of your lens. It runs off of four AA batteries (not included). The flash mode is more a feature to conserve battery life and not constantly blind your subjects.
It has four modes: Light, Flash, L and R. The Light Mode provides continuous lighting so what you see is what you get. The Flash Mode turns of the light and produces a ½ sec burst of light at the moment you trip the shutter. L and R modes flash from only the left or right half of the ring respectively.
You can adjust the power from -1.5 to +1.5 in unspecified units (This would seem to suggest a three-stop range but my tests came up with about 0.9 stops from lowest to highest power setting).
It comes with four diffuser rings: clear, frosted, blue and amber. It can also be used without a diffuser.
It has adapter rings for 49, 52, 55, 58, 62, 67, 72, and 77mm lens threads.
It mounts to the hot shoe and also comes with a little stand for off-camera use.
When I first tried the VM-110 it immediately became obvious that this is a poor choice for shooting bugs or any moving subjects. In a word, this light is weak. The specs say it has a Guide Number of 15’ at ISO 100 and using a 50mm lens. Hmmm, GN = f-number x distance, so at one foot distance I could shoot at f/16 with the VM-110 (actually f/15, but to make the math easier I’ve rounded to nearest familiar f/stop). Most macro work is done at f/16, f/22 or smaller to get even a couple millimeters depth of focus. The catch is the flash duration of the VM-110 is a leisurely ½ second, hence why the VM-110 is called a ring light, not a ring flash. Your shutter speed needs to be ½ sec or longer for this ring light to take advantage of the specified GN. (Most electronic flashes have flash durations of 1/1000 sec or less, much quicker than the camera’s sync speed, so guide number calculations are used to set a given f-stop at a given distance and shutter speed does not enter the equation).
Obviously you won’t be handholding a macro lens at ½ sec and even if you’re on a tripod, the lightest breeze will move a subject or the subject might crawl away. 1/125 sec would be the slowest I’d try to handhold my 105mm macro lens, even with the VR on, as at high macro magnifications any camera shake is multiplied. So using ½ sec at f/16 and ISO 100, how far would I have to push the ISO to get to 1/125 sec at f/16? Yep, ISO 6400. In practice I found the VM-110 beat this, but still I had to shoot at ISO 2500 to get proper exposure at one foot distance and 1/125 and f/16. This was with the clear light diffuser on and a neutral power compensation. Bump the compensation up to full power (+1.5) and I could get it down to ISO 2000. Removing the diffuser to show just bare bulb I could further reduce my ISO to 1250. Unless you are using a very low noise camera like a Nikon D4s, I can’t recommend using this as a sole light source for any macro work that is handheld or of moving subjects, but it could provide some fill light to soften harsh shadows.
Okay, so the VM-110 lacks power. Furthermore, its all-plastic build keeps the weight and cost down but makes it feel a bit like a toy. As long as you don’t beat it up I wouldn’t worry about the plastic except for the adapter rings. These are plastic too, with the potential to cross-thread the rings or have them jam tight and be hard to remove – treat these very gingerly if you want them to last and don’t over-tighten them.
Instead of bashing this product for not being good for bugs, I set out to find some fun static subjects to shoot. I heard there’s decent money to be had in product photography so I grabbed my tripod and let the magic happen.
Note the nice even illumination. The VM-110 delivers a very soft light with the frosted diffuser on.
Ah, the classic peacock feather detail shot. This is shot at 1:1 magnification with a 60mm macro lens with a very short working distance. For a weak light such as this the shorter working distance is a bonus as the closer the ring light to the subject, the more you can lower your ISO or shorten your shutter speed.
With the longer working distance of the 105mm, there’s about a stop less light to work with. Not a big deal on a tripod, but could be if handholding.
The peacock feathers were shot with the clear diffuser on. Now a comparison of the amber and blue diffusers. Bolt does not provide specific K temps for it’s various diffusers, instead just saying it can vary from 3000 – 15000K. For comparison, I set all these at Lightroom’s default flash setting of 5500K then balanced out the exposures in post.
This is how it looks with the frosted diffuser.
With the blue.
With the amber.
The colored diffusers cut light output a lot so I didn’t find much use for them (I could just shift the WB in Lightroom to get a similar result with out the light loss) other than adding a splash of colored light to something lit with other sources.
I snuck this pic of what I think is the camera modulara prototype sitting on a light table at Mansurov Enterprises. By using the blue diffuser I could give it a more interesting techy look.
Here’s the same shot, but with the frosted diffuser on.
Bottom line: I would rarely use anything but the frosted or clear diffusers (or none at all) and I would be sure to shoot in RAW as the WB changes a lot between the clear and frosted diffusers.
According to Bolt, the L and R modes can be used for “more dramatic lighting”. If darker = more dramatic, then I guess this is true. These modes turn off half the LEDs (either the L or R side of the ring) and of course cut your light output in half, turning a weak light source into a very weak light source.
Here’s a shot in L-mode.
Here’s a shot in R-mode.
I don’t find either all that dramatic.
Far better I think to remove the light from the lens mount and use it off camera at full power (flash or light mode) and then just point that from one side of the subject, or in this case from above. Now that’s the most dramatic rubber duck shot I’ve taken in weeks.
Though the VM-110 mounts to the hot shoe of your camera, it is not TTL capable. The only communication with the camera is the ability for the shutter to trip the ½ sec flash mode. You need to manually set your exposures to work with this light in flash mode. If you try to shoot in A,S or P modes your camera will adjust exposure based on the conditions before the flash goes off and the flash will create overexposure. Used in the constant light source mode, you can shoot in A,S or P modes at as high a frame rate as you want, but you’ll draw down the ring light batteries quicker.
The manual says the VM-110 can even be a great product for lighting portraits at close range.
Hey, Benji looking good! But seriously, the ring lit portrait can be a cool trendy look with punchy highlights and dark shadowy rims on the subject and even a background halo (assuming no other light source). So I grabbed my favorite model to try it out. Quickly I learned why ring lights suck for portraits – having the flash mounted on the lens really blinds your model.
Switching from 50mm to 60mm lens, taking a step back and adding some ambient light helped. The “Three Monkeys” series below was done with various diffusers. I tweaked the brightness in post so they’d roughly match, but left the WB at 5500K.
With no diffuser.
With clear diffuser.
With frosted diffuser.
Uggh, the skin tones go from light jaundice (no diffuser) to full liver failure (frosted diffuser). As well the frosted diffuser is horribly flat and if you check the metadata it’s ISOh-no territory. I had to go back in and tweak both temperature and tint (using Lightroom’s WB picker tool) to get something resembling healthy skin.
Even then, the frosted shot would need a lot more contrast tweaking in post to be usable. If you choose to use this ring light to illuminate humans, I suggest creating some LR presets for WB and sticking with the clear diffuser.
Another portrait trick you might recognize from the fashion mags is the ring-shaped catchlight in the model’s eyes. These however are the result of using very large-diameter ring lights. A lens-hugging ring light like the VM-110 will only give such a catchlight in extreme close-up.
When used at tight head shot distance the catchlight reduces to a point.
As you can see, ring lights aren’t the most flattering for portraiture. Good thing I have access to supermodels who look fabulous without makeup.
As a constant light source, the VM-110 might be handy for close-up video work, but I haven’t tested this yet.
With the 50mm, 60mm and 105mm lenses I had no vignetting issues. However they all have small barrel diameters. I checked the VM-110 out on some lenses with 77mm filter threads and discovered the following. With a 24-120mm on a full frame sensor I had vignetting through the entire range, but of course more severe at the wider focal lengths. With an 18-300mm on a DX-sensor, there was vignetting at the wide end, but this disappeared after 38mm. Good news there, now if I can just get that darned plastic adapter ring off (yeah I mentioned this before, but these really need to be made of metal).
Hmmm, perhaps I could use this extreme vignette for fake periscope videos. The white ring is the light itself, the black outer ring the plastic adapter ring.
Despite it’s numerous shortcomings I had fun playing with the Bolt VM-110. On the plus side it’s inexpensive, lightweight, gives even illumination, and as a constant light source, WYSIWYG. For shooting static close-up subjects from a tripod it works fine. Its biggest downsides are how weak it is, the funky white balance issues, and the long “flash” duration. It’s a very poor choice for handholding and/or moving subjects. Because it lacks TTL, you should be comfortable with manual metering techniques to get the most out of this product.
Where to Buy
You can purchase the Bolt VM-110 LED Macro Ring Light Review from B&H for $79.
Bolt VM-110 LED Macro Ring Light
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