Handheld Macro Photography with the Bolt VM-160 Ring Light

Handheld Macro Photography with the Bolt VM-160 Ring Light

2000 1125 Stephen Hennessy

I will make it clear from the outset that macro photography is a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole. And for newer photographers who are still grappling with the more general principles of depth of field and exposure, specialized macro equipment and lenses purpose-built to capture very small subjects represents not just a mental hurdle, but a financial hurdle as well. The shopping list will probably start with a dedicated macro lens capable of life size (1:1) reproduction, because while cheaper zoom lenses and wide-angle primes might show a “macro” region on their focus scale, these lenses typically render their subject no larger than 25% of their real world size. And while photographers of all sorts can benefit from owning a durable tripod, those who are macro obsessed might consider upgrading their tripod’s head to a geared unit that will permit very fine adjustments in three axes, as well as a macro focusing rail that moves the entire camera toward/away from the subject without changing the focal point (and therefore, the magnification power) of the lens.

But you need not descend this hole-within-a-hole! At least, not the financial hole.

As was recently covered by Hemant here at Casual Photophile, getting into macro photography can be as simple and inexpensive as flipping around a favorite lens, or even fitting a lens with close-up filters, as James showed in this long-ago-written article. Extension tubes that mount between the lens and camera body are another affordable option—though these can be a touch more expensive than the mentioned methods, especially for vintage lens shooters seeking discontinued products. But that’s because extension tubes allow us to approach life size reproduction without introducing more glass to our kit.

Yes, there are plenty of ways to shoot macro on the cheap. But once you pick your weapon and you’ve managed to get close to your subject, you notice another roadblock – things have gotten dark. That’s because your lens is obscuring a good deal of available light. If you had spent a few hundred dollars on your tripod rig, it would be no problem at all to dial in your framing with total precision and simply increase your exposure time with no fear of tiny perturbations in your setup ruining the image. But if your tripod isn’t up to the task, this can be a downright annoying process.

What if you could bypass the need for a tripod altogether? What if you had enough light to shoot handheld?

Pew-pew: the Canon T90 with 50mm f3.5 macro, 25mm extension tube, and Bolt VM-160 ring light with amber diffuser.

Traveling Light

While expensive hardware will ultimately be necessary for clinically sharp macro captures, one can still capture the beautifully small without carrying around the bulk of a tripod. In any situation other than the brightest days, you will need to generate your own light. Your standard flash unit can be up to the job, and the internet has resources for modifying a standard flash to create a more gentle and diffuse glow, but a small purchase can get you a dedicated light that will raise your macro game at the next level. While lighting units specifically built for macro photography can easily cost far more than many very nice tripods, the Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light is among the least expensive and compact options for getting you started.

Two common form factors of macro light exist: those with light sources suspended by flexible arms, and those that mount onto the lens’ filter threads. The former allows for fine control over how the light falls onto your subject, and has the benefit of not interfering with the installation/removal of any filters and lenses. Ring lights have the upper hand as far as compactness and efficiency is concerned, as most modern units have an array of LEDs housed within the ring itself instead of the older style, where two flash units protrude from either side of the ring like elephant ears.

The obvious benefit of using one of these lights is that you drastically reduce the shutter time necessary for a good exposure, thus permitting a much sharper image. But in addition to sharper focus, having such direct light allows for the colors of your subject to pop with a vibrancy that longer exposures can’t guarantee.

Already, the Bolt unit shows a lot of promise as a device that lets you be creative in the field, allowing you to approach macro photography with spontaneity and—perhaps—let you turn your brain off and better enjoy taking pictures. One of my first outings with this kit was in my parent’s garden, where I was able to capture subjects that had minds of their own, and might not have waited for me to get my tripod situated.

Another less obvious benefit of using artificial light is how well foreground subjects are isolated when night falls. I was delighted to find that the Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light allows you to illuminate your subject to the exclusion of background elements, giving the impression that it is emerging from nothing—anti-bokeh?

Here the catch light of the Bolt VM-160’s individual LEDs can be seen in the frog’s eye; caught on Kodak Ektachrome E100 and processed at home in Cinestill’s D9 kit.

Sony a7III with Canon FD Macro 50mm f/3.5.

Additional Uses

If you have not explored macro lights until the year 2020, Bolt’s unit might remind you of the USB powered ring lights that folks have been adding to their home offices in order to look their best during the now ubiquitous video conference. While the Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light kit includes a plastic bit serving as a cold-shoe that allows you to mount the ring to a separate tripod (using ¼”-20 screw mount), the light is not a reliable candidate for frequent Zoom calls, as it can only be powered by four AA batteries. But it is these other accessories that make Bolt’s light useful for other sorts of still photography.

The box includes four flavors of diffuser: clear, frosted, amber, and blue. I believe the clear diffuser is to provide some level of protection for the light itself, as it does nothing to change the quality of the light. The frosted diffuser, however, will soften the ring’s many point light sources into a more uniform glow that lends itself to portrait use, catch light and all.

I’m hardly a portrait photographer, and am pathologically introverted to boot, so the past few months with the Bolt were spent agonizing over how I was going to source folks willing to let me test the device on them in the middle of a pandemic after moving to a strange town. That said, I can not speak to how the Bolt might be useful in a studio situation or not. It is, however, the light that I am more likely to have on me at any given time, so it is good that it can be used as a shutter-synchronized flash as well as a constant light source. It should be noted that using a ring light on certain lenses with very fast apertures can result in an awkward anti-vignette, where the light of the unit bleeds into the corners of the image frame unless you are stopping down significantly (in the case of the Canon 85mm f1.2L, all the way to f5.6).

The blue and amber diffusers struck me as odd initially. After all, the effect of washing out a scene with unnatural blue light is pretty dubious if you’re not producing a Smurf documentary. But thanks to an infographic that was widely circulating around Halloween time, which revealed that the original Addam’s Family set was awash in cheery pinks and yellows, I recalled the impact that color has on different types of black and white films. Just as the pink set resulted in a paradoxically drab exposure on motion picture stock, Ilford HP5 has decreased sensitivity toward the red-end of the spectrum of visible light, causing red objects to appear darker; this also permits a radically altered contrast in landscape photography when shooting with a red filter. By that same token, using a light source of a skewed temperature allows for starkly different exposures with black and white. To try this out, I tested how a few different subjects would render on certain emulsions when illuminated with the Bolt light’s blue and amber diffusers. While the effect is subtle, the ability to experiment with this non-linear response to certain colors does allow for a bit more creativity when shooting in night-time landscape, low-light interior, and macro situations, where the use of a colored filter would require even longer exposure times.

Earlier stages of the orchid plant caught on Film Ferrania’s P30 – Left: amber light, Right: blue light. One temperature certainly renders hotter than the other.

Flavor comparisons on HP5

Concluding Thoughts

While the Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light kit is highly versatile—having allowed me to take photographs I would never have imagined before—the execution of the product leaves a little to be desired. While the LED ring itself is robust, I was somewhat dissatisfied that all of the diffusers fit very loosely onto the ring and are prone to falling off mid-shoot. The unit attaches itself using a proprietary, plastic adapter that screws onto the lens’s filter threads, meaning that you have to keep track of eight different size adapters (49, 52, 55, 58, 62, 67, 72, and 77mm) if you’re adamant about using this light on many different lenses (which, I’ll admit, is a weird choice).

Battery life seems fairly reasonable, and I’ve only changed them out once in the past few months. Most of the time that I’m shooting, I keep the light on continuously, and often favor turning the brightness up all the way. If I were to use this more as a traditional flash, I am sure the original batteries could support shooting through all of next year—gotta love LED technology. But of course, the plasticky build quality of this light makes this point about battery life sometimes moot, as the door securing the AAs in place doesn’t always seal tight enough to keep the electrical contacts stable. This hasn’t been a deal breaker in the field yet, but I think it will be down the line.

Despite these gripes, with its gentle pricing and compatibility with lenses of various sizes, the Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light is an excellent tool for anyone casually interested in macro photography and hoping to make better pictures without too much investment. I am not always the most gentle with my gear, but I feel confident enough to keep it packed up in my kit along with the adapters for my macro and portrait lenses, as it is the quickest and simplest way for me to spontaneously capture tiny things.

You can get your own Bolt VM-160 LED Ring Light at B&H Photo here

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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy
  • great and this is one American brand 😉
    Considering that one old famous classical reviewer reviews some lens which are very cheap without telling why they are so cheap !!!
    It is important to know why some lens cost only 10% of a German equivalent or 50 % of a Japanese one ?
    Work cost, taxes, social insurances, quality of workers, … and so on, … I do not check the price, I check from where it comes,
    some “made in …” have already broken too many factories and business. So Thank to introduce a pure American brand which has also good price.
    We have to select our buyings according to many criterias : because some “made in ..” which attack others by saying they dump, they are the first one to dump, and we do not speak about who work inside the factory, do they choose to work there.
    This macro system has at the end the great merits to be nice, useful, light and made in USA, … now I repeat I only buy made in : USA, Canada, India, Australia, NZ, Japan, Russia, Europe, Southe Korea, but nothing from the big factory …
    Thanks to promote these kind of products, because I can not unerstand when some do not explain why some lens are so cheap …

    • I only buy things made in the Aleutian Islands. From Bob.

      On topic – Nice article Stephen! I’ve always wanted one of these, but more for portrait photography.

  • What a coincidence – I just ordered one of these a few days ago (a different brand, but I suspect they all come from the same factory in China). I plan on using it for close-ups of model railroad locomotives. I had been assuming that I would use a tripod, but now maybe I’ll try handheld. Should be fun.

    • It’s not at all expensive to shoot macro with vintage gear! I bought a set of m42 tubes for $13 shipped to my door. M42 helicoid is $20 gives you some of the advantage of bellows w/o the bulk. Vintage 50mm macro lens $50-100. Nice t90, always wanted one.

      • Heya Viktor! That’s an option I haven’t considered either, but that is not a bad cost of entry. My next article will be on the T90, it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had with an SLR since I’ve started!

  • Quick review after one ten-minute session:
    I was right – mine looks exactly like yours, except that where yours says “Bolt” mine says “Ring Flash”. These come in two power levels – yours is the higher and mine is the lower. Yours cost $60, mine $35. I immediately found that it would not stay straight on the attachment ring, the cord pulling it about 90 degrees out of alignment (the smooth plastic nubs don’t grab the smooth plastic ring). This would only be an issue if you are using the light on one side rather than both sides. I solved the problem by stretching a rubber band in the ring groove so that the nubs have something to grab onto (not the kind of design flaw I would accept in a more expensive product, but for $35 . . .). I tried handheld but quickly found that I wasn’t getting sharp photos (camera movement), and besides, a tripod is as much about composition as it is about sharpness. I made one fairly decent photo of a vintage Marklin locomotive, mostly just to see if the flash worked. I set my Fuji X-Pro2 on aperture priority and got what looks like a correct exposure with soft, even light. Seems like it will be a useful tool.

    • Thank you for your thoughts Tom! I think you’re right that these lights are rebadged as multiple brands. I ran into the same issue with the coiled cord interfering with the orientation of the ring, but didn’t really touch on it as I neglected to detail the Left/Right functions.

      I can see how the details of miniature trainsets might demand the stability of a tripod! That at least gives you the opportunity to freehand with the ring light to experiment with different angles…

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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy