Exploring Extreme Macro Photography with the MP-E 65mm Lens
April 4, 2019
CLOSER & CLOSER
The world of macro photography has a magical characteristic that leaves those who explore it always wanting to see and experience more. Whether it’s the hypnotic geometry of a mushroom cap or a lifeform the size of a period (.), the microcosms that surround us are a playground for discovery and wonder unlike any other. When I studied science in grade school and college, I always adored the days when we would get to use the lab microscopes. These tools would allow us to observe a drop of water from a flower, a pinch of soil, or a piece of pond scum, and give us access to entire worlds that were right beneath our noses. I had always hoped that someday technology would lead to a similar tool for using out in the field…
As I honed my focus in macro photography, my go-to lens became Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. An integral part of my professional kit for every shoot I’m on, this lens allows me to capture scenes in 1:1 true macro while also performing as a great portrait lens. However, I’m always looking for ways to see the world closer, and when I learned about Canon’s MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens, I knew I had to have it. This lens was the missing link I had been hoping for, and the tool that I always dreamed of while cooped up in a science lab with my eye to the microscope.
Being a beast of a macro lens, the 65mm 1–5x comes with some challenges. One of the biggest is the extremely shallow depth of field (DoF). Having a fraction of the scene in focus at such a small scale can cause a lot of frustration during the shoot itself, but if you can get the area you want in focus using some of the methods discussed in the “Shooting Techniques” section later on, the payoff is worth the effort.
Another challenge this lens brings is the fact that it’s a fully manual-focusing lens. This means that there are no internal focusing motors for autofocus functions. By twisting the barrel of the lens, you change the magnification, not the plane of focus. As a result, when shooting with the MP-E 65mm you have to adjust the camera’s position in space to adjust your focus.
The third most common hurdle that users of the MP-E 65mm are faced with is light. When viewing scenes to shoot through the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens, you’ll find the process of seeing what’s in the scene somewhat difficult without an external focusing light. If you’re using one of Canon’s Macro Twin Lite units (such as the MT-24EX or the MT-26EX-RT), there’s a built-in focusing lamp that can assist with this process. However, I would recommend always carrying an additional light source with a stronger output (such as a small LED unit) for situations where the onboard focusing lamp may not be bright enough (i.e. — when shooting at 5x with the Twin Lites diffused).
Once you’ve got your scene pulled into focus and your composition dialed in, the next goal is to light the scene for the exposure itself. How you do this will vary depending on your subject, shooting environment, and the style of light falling onto your subject.
For subjects to have even lighting with little to no shadows, I would recommend utilizing a ring flash (such as Canon’s Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II). This lighting solution comes with a built-in diffusion panel that spreads the light evenly over your subject to create a smooth light. I find this type of lighting works well with flatter scenes such as rocks, soil or bark. For a more dynamic, directional look to your macro lighting, using a Twin Lite (such as the MT-24EX or the MT-26EX-RT) would be a good option. This will allow you to attach the lighting directly to the front of the lens barrel and (with TTL functions enabled) maximize your battery life of the flash. But one thing to keep in mind is that you might want to diffuse the light coming from this twin flash. Without doing so, the quality of light will be much more harsh on your subject.
When shooting at such extreme magnifications, stabilizing your equipment setup is very important. Traditionally the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is used in a lab setting, where the camera is mounted on a tripod via the rotating tripod mount on the MP-E 65. With a solid base and controlled environment, it greatly minimizes the risk of external factors throwing off the shot (i.e. — the slightest breeze moving your subject).
However, the process of shooting in a lab setting takes away from the fun of exploring the outdoors and documenting subjects in situ. This limiting factor is why I like to get outdoors with my MP-E 65, and get my camera off of the tripod. By removing my camera from the tripod, I can position the camera all the way down at ground level, where many of the subjects I document call “home.” When shooting without a tripod with the MP-E 65, there are a few different ways to keep a steady hand to get a sharp shot. The first is to simply rest your whole camera on the ground. I like to do this because it gets me the most intimate angle for the tiny creatures I’m observing, and the stability of the ground prevents camera shake (see the image below).
Another method I use to get sharp shots when shooting with the MP-E 65mm off-tripod is to control my breathing. This practice is something that I concentrate on all of the time when making images (whether macro or not), because controlling your breathing helps you balance your thoughts and center your mind. Firing the shutter at the height of an inhale will provide the best stability when shooting freehand macro.
Holding your subject with your left hand and moving the subject further and closer from the camera is also a good way to stabilize the scene you’re working with. What I like to do in this case is sit on the ground with my knees scrunched up to my body. I then rest the MP-E 65mm between my two knees, and wrap my left arm around my left leg for stability. This works especially well if the ground is wet, or if your subject moves a lot.
One of my recent developments in how I shoot my extreme macro freehand with the MP-E 65mm is to utilize Canon’s Angle Finder C. This periscope-like accessory allows me to fully rest the camera setup for freehand macro right on the ground. With the Angle Finder C, I can look through the top while on my knees, rather than having to lay on my stomach on the forest floor. This is better for my back, stability of shooting, and safety — when you lay on your stomach to shoot, you’re more likely to get ticks and other harmful creatures in places you probably don’t want them!
What about Live View?
The trouble with Live View when shooting with the MP-E 65mm is that there is so little depth of field and lack of light to see what’s going on that it makes using Live View in a situation like that nearly impossible.
JOURNEY FROM 1X TO 5X: CASE STUDY - GERBERA DAISIES
Let’s look at a case study where we examine a single gerbera daisy from a standard view (what the naked eye sees), all the way to five times life size (5X)...
The first stage of our scene is the standard view. This image was created with Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. The scale of our overarching subject (the gerbera daisy) can be seen in its entirety, and this size is a good representation of what our eyes can see before needing specialized equipment. We’re not focused at life-size (1:1, or 1x) magnification here.
At this scale, photographing the daisy handheld with a diffused Speedlite and high shutter speed (1/320th sec., with Hi-speed Sync engaged) can be achieved fairly easily. With the naked eye and this style of lighting, we can see the basic texture of the petals, their general shape, and a cluster of smaller structures in the middle. This center section is where I chose to dive deeper and explore this subject with my 1-5x lens.
1X (1:1 MAGNIFICATION)
At 1x, where true macro begins, the subject’s actual size is exactly the same as it is on the sensor when the image is recorded. For example, if we photographed a 1-inch bug on this flower, the in-focus bug would take up 1-inch of real estate on the sensor itself.
When shooting with Canon’s MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens, you’ll often find that you can’t fit entire subjects that make up the bigger scene in the frame. A example of this would be the entire daisy in the previous section. The 1-5x lens starts at 1:1 magnification, so keep that in mind when you’re heading out on your shoot. Often times I’ll challenge myself by only shooting my entire walk with the 1-5x, but it’s a good idea to keep a backup (such as the 100mm f/2.8L) in case you come across a scene that you want to fit the entire (larger) subject in frame.
At 1:1 magnification, the center is no longer a fuzzy cluster. We start to see the particular shapes that make up the flower’s center crown, large clumps of yellow pollen, and signs of life moving about. These little critters are called springtails. They’re extremely small, very beneficial for your garden, and incredibly beautiful! Let’s have a closer look...
2X (2:1 MAGNIFICATION)
At 2x, things start to get a little shaky when shooting without a tripod, but shooting this way is often how I achieve really unique shots because I can get my camera places that my tripod won’t reach height-wise. In this situation, I had my flash camera mounted and diffused, while supporting the flower with my left hand for stability. This allowed me to push and pull the flower towards/away from the lens for easy focusing. At this level, we can start to see clusters of yellow pollen, detailed shapes that make up the flower’s center crown, and a slightly closer view of the little springtails crawling around.
3X (3:1 MAGNIFICATION)
At 3x I decided to get low to the flower, resting the front of the lens on the flower petals and getting eye-level with the springtails. Doing this allowed me to show the dimensions of the center of the flower, while revealing more detail in the springtail bodies (such as pattern and color). One of the big challenges you start to face at 3x (and higher) is stability while shooting freehand (flash, again, will be a huge benefit here). At this magnification, I have to sit on the ground (or lay belly down) to keep my micro-movements like breathing and heartbeat from affecting the shot. One of the things that I like to teach in-person during my Canon workshops are the different shooting poses that yield high-stability freehand macro. I like to think of it like “macro yoga,” and it turns out that they are much more easily shown than explained.
4X (4:1 MAGNIFICATION)
At 4x, the clustered bits of pollen start becoming more defined and the details that make up the center crown of the flower become crisp. We can now see a pattern on the springtails too. One of the biggest challenges for the higher magnifications of extreme macro photography is getting enough light on your subject to actually see what you’re doing before clicking the shutter. Although Canon’s lighting products often feature modeling lamps built-in, I would recommend a strong external LED accessory to pull tack-sharp focus and compose your extreme macro scene. Since I often shoot at shutter speeds of at least 1/200th sec to freeze the action in the scene, the light from the external focusing LED doesn’t really affect the final exposure (because the flash overpowers it).
5X (5:1 MAGNIFICATION)
5x (or 5:1 magnification) is the highest native magnification you can achieve with the 65mm 1-5x lens without modifying your setup for additional magnification (such as extension tubes). At 5x, even the slightest movement (including your heartbeat) will throw off the focus of your scene. When combined with critters like these springtails the length of this comma, you’re presented with quite a challenge for shooting (tripod or no tripod). Shooting at 5x reveals an incredible amount of detail in the scene we’ve been observing. This magnification illuminates the individual pollen grains on the petals and shows the springtail’s pattern, and even hairs, in clear detail.
The MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens travels with me all over the world, and continues to be an integral part of my professional macro photography kit. From humid tropical rainforests to arctic conditions, this lens has never let me down. The 65mm 1–5x delivers consistent results without the fuss of issues I used to have when I used previous setups such as extension tubes, close-up filters, or reversal rings. Although adaptations such as those may help you achieve the same level of magnification that the 65mm 1–5x offers, I often faced challenges such as lack of sharpness, distortion, and chromatic aberration.
Keep in mind, while the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is built like a tank, it’s not built like a submarine. This lens is not weather sealed, and this feature should instill some caution in you when deciding what environments to use it in. If you’re going to use this lens in humid ecosystems, it’s a good idea to keep a desiccant packet (to dry out any moisture in your kit) in your camera bag after the shoot.
It’s also important to remember that this lens does not have any autofocus functions, and is completely manual. This is a very challenging (but rewarding) lens to have in your arsenal of glass. Although it will take many hours of shooting to start becoming comfortable shooting extreme macro without a tripod, the results are well worth the effort.
When combined with shooting methods and lighting techniques such as those described in my previous article, Macro Photography: How to Look Sharp! , the 65mm 1–5x lens becomes a portal into the alien worlds that can fit in the palm of your hand.
All Canon contributors are compensated and actual users of Canon products promoted.