In macro photography, the question on the minds of many often revolve around “how close can you get?”. This is where the concept of magnification comes to play and I was fortunate enough to be able to take this extreme macro lens out for a spin, so here’s my quick review about the lens to address the concerns of many users on whether this lens is more suitable for studio work or field work. I would not be touching on the technical specs but rather more of what really matters when you shoot outdoors. I’ll be making comparisons with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS Macro EF L IS USM, which is the primary lens I use for my macro work.
Housefly – ISO125 f6.3 1/125sec, 29 images stacked, 5x magnification
Jumping Spider (Plexippus Paykuli) – ISO100 f9 1/200sec, Unstacked (handheld), 3x magnification
If you have ever considered macro photography as a genre to explore, you would have probably heard about the concept of 1:1 magnification. In a nutshell, dedicated macro lenses (generally 1:1) are capable of projecting the subject at life size on the camera sensor. 2:1 means twice of life size and so on.
The Canon EF MP-E65 f2.8 1-5x macro lens is one exceptional macro lens that allows users to achieve 1 to 5x life size magnification, enabling users to really get up close. .
The lens has a fantastic built and is very well constructed. Its is slightly heavier than the 100mm and when extended to 5x, its approximately 4 inches longer than the 100mm prime. It also has a 58mm thread and an unusual looking front element. The lens is not weather sealed, has no image stabilisation as well as tripod sensing as compared to the 100mm f2.8L. It does however, come with a removable tripod collar for better balance. You can separately purchase the Canon tripod mount ring D for the 100mm f2.8L if you find the need for one.
As you probably would have noticed by now, it’s a full manual lens with no aperture ring and focus ring. Just like how most macro photographers focus on their subjects, you set the magnification you desire and move the camera forwards and backwards to focus. A good point to bring up here is that the lens doesn’t function like a regular 65mm lens and doesn’t support infinity focus, unlike the 100mm f2.8L which many also use as a portrait lens. Focusing distance of this lens is extremely short, at 5x, expect your subject to be approximately 1.6 inches away from your lens, which means that finding your subject and skittish subjects would also be a huge challenge. I recommend setting the lens at 1:1, frame your shot, before adjusting the desired magnification.
Sharpness & Depth of Field (DOF)
The first thing I wanted to test was ‘exactly how sharp is this lens?’ I mounted the lens on my 80D together with my diffuser and headed out to the garden for some test shots. Using various fstop values, I found that the sweet spot of the lens was around f8-f10. Even at 1:1, images were softer even when focus was on point at small apertures (f11-16). This was also after experimenting with higher shutter speeds/using a tripod (which I don’t really use much for macro) to minimize any shake. The lens also has a minimum aperture of f16.
Comparing this to the 100mm f2.8L at 1:1, I could easily get away with sharp images at f16 before diffraction kicked in. This was when I realised that my usual way of shooting will not work with this lens.
Shooting at a larger apertures would mean that you will be working with a shallower DOF which is not ideal for macro photography if you want to achieve the most detail at high magnification. As a general rule, aperture and magnification both have an inverse relationship with DOF.
I started photographing subjects at f9 from 1-5x magnification. The DOF does indeed get drastically shallow (possibly a millimetre or less at 5x) and you need A LOT of light to illuminate your subject if you are using a DSLR system (optical viewfinder). It’s important to note here that shooting at high magnification would mean that any shake, regardless of how minor, would be magnified and this will affect the shutter speed you will set as well as making it extremely difficult to get your shot in focus of you are shooting handheld. With the razor thin DOF at magnifications higher than 3, focus stacking is inevitable to achieve a compelling image, getting more of your subject in focus.
Getting equipped for field work
It was definitely more difficult finding the subject and getting the stack right when moving in and out due to the magnified movements. There’s a reason why most people who do extreme macro have multiple light sources, a sturdy tripod, use macro focusing rails and dead subjects.I’ve never owned a macro focusing rail cause I never saw the need for one. However, when using this lens, getting precise with your focus planes are of utmost importance and a rail would save you much time and it’ll definitely be less frustrating.
So is this lens suitable for work in the field? Simply put, this lens is not for the beginner just starting out in macro photography and it’ll only bring about more frustrations. I wouldn’t call this a go-to lens and I’ll pick my 100mm f2.8L and Raynox DCR250 (2.5x diopter) for field work in a heartbeat. You probably realised that the lens extends quite a fair bit when adjusting the magnification levels, this will affect how you diffuse your light. It will not be easy designing a diffuser for this lens for field work if you are using standard on-camera speedlights. The length of the lens will affect how your light travels down to the subject (usually just a few cm away from your front element) and the lens also blocks off a fair bit of light. Placement of your focus light would also be an issue to think about.
This is also why most people who use this flash tend to go for the expensive ring/twin flash units that are attached to the front element or in the cases of strobe flashes, it gives more flexibility for light placement. The lens has a mounting ring in the front that allows compatibility to Canon’s twin flashes. Diffusing light in the studio should not be a problem, you have all the time in the world to get your lights set up.
Getting out on the field would require a stable and reliable set up as you never know what you will come across and hardly any wild subject will stay put for you to stack 20 or more photos of it. Consider that you will be doing this handheld as well. Some who have had much practice with this lens are able to stack handheld at 3x should the subject allow. Having powerful flash units that can keep up with high shutter speeds and frame rates make it easier to stack due to the high recycling speed.
As you can see from the images above, when shooting at high magnification (2.5x & 3x respectively), any sort of sensor dust would also be picked up! Remember to do some spot healing for your final product!
Some alternatives to this lens should you still desire more magnification is the Laowa 25mm f2.8 2.5-5x, released in January 2018. An in-depth comparison has been done by Nicky Bay on Petapixel, check it out here:
The $399 Laowa 25mm Macro Lens vs the $1,050 Canon MP-E 65mm
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