George Lepp
George Lepp

George D. Lepp is one of North America's best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers. His passions for natural beauty, technical precision, cutting-edge technology, and environmental responsibility are revealed in his beautiful and compelling photographic images.

Explore small worlds with the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens

November 18, 2013

The most compelling images reveal their subjects to viewers in unique ways. Macro photography accomplishes this creative and technical objective by taking both photographer and viewer into another world – one that explodes with startling detail or reveals previously unseen features. The throat of a delicate tulip, the eye of a dragonfly, the sharp contours of crystals — all are great examples of the beautiful and abundant macro subjects in nature. And there are plenty of tiny subjects to be photographed in commercial environments as well.

In the MP-E 65 mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens, Canon has offered an excellent and easy-to-use solution for higher magnification photography since 1999. This lens is an extremely versatile and powerful tool in the digital age; its uses range from point-and-shoot field macro to high-tech studio applications. It’s one of my favorite lenses.

True macro photography starts at 1x (when the subject is captured life-size, or 1:1 on the film or sensor) and this is the maximum capability of standard macro lenses. Most photographers have had the opportunity to work at 1x, but moving beyond that threshold is often perceived to be overwhelmingly complicated and difficult — perhaps even frightening! It’s true that capturing beyond 1x with most systems requires building a combination of lenses, tele-extenders and extension tubes until their capacity is reached at about 40x. Beyond that, we’ve entered the high-tech world of photomicrography, using a microscope in a laboratory setup! But you don’t have to go there to get awesome macro photographs in the 1x–8x range. All it takes is one lens.

A macro point-and-shoot

The Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is a unique tool for photographers wishing to photograph at higher magnifications. No other manufacturer offers a lens with similar capabilities. While it is classed as a “specialty lens” because of its ability to achieve images up to 5x the life-size, the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens works like a point-and-shoot high-magnification lens when paired with either the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX or Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash.

It really is that simple. Just attach a macro flash unit (to solve the biggest problem with high-magnification photography: light loss), choose a desired magnification on the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens and look for interesting things to photograph — nearly every common subject becomes extraordinary at high-magnification. The macro flashes help to control camera or subject movement in most situations, so you can easily work the system hand-held. The MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is magical for capturing my favorite nature subjects, such as flowers, insects, feathers and crystals. The lens is also extremely useful in laboratory settings for scientific applications and in studio-based commercial contexts, it’s great for photographing jewelry, coins, collectibles and small art pieces.

How it works

Physically, the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is compact, especially at 1x when the barrel is not extended. Note that this macro lens starts at 1x and will not focus to infinity so it cannot be used for traditional photography, such as landscapes and portraits (a magnification scale is shown on the lens barrel). As the photographer chooses higher magnification, the lens is lengthened from about 3-7/8 inches at 1x to nine inches at the maximum extension, 5x. As the magnification is increased, the working distance between the lens and the subject is reduced, from 5 inches at 1x to 2 inches at 5x. A Canon macro flash setup can still get light on the subject at the closest of distances and can even be adjusted to allow different ratios of light between the two sides of the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flashes to give better modeling of the subject’s shape.

Exposure with the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens

Canon SLR and DSLR cameras have through-the-lens (TTL) metering for both ambient or flash photography, so exposure is automatically calculated. Light loss is a critical problem when working at high magnification, when camera and subject movements are greatly exaggerated. While the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens can achieve beautiful images with only ambient light, getting more light on the subject is key to consistently stopping movement and attaining critical focus. At 1x, there is a loss of two-stops of light in the lens and at each corresponding increase in magnification, light is lost by about one-stop plus the magnification factor, so 2x loses three stops, 3x loses four stops and so on. For these compelling reasons, most photographers will opt for the use of a macro flash accessory when working with the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens.

Macro flash and the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens

Canon offers two macro flashes: the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX and the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. Both clip easily to a front flange built into the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens and the control module slides into the camera’s hot shoe. The flash exposure can be controlled fully automatically in the TTL Mode or manually in variable steps, from full power down to 1/64 of the power. Custom functions (seven in the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX and nine in the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX) automate some of the system’s special features. If you want to add light from other directions — say, to backlight a subject — additional Canon Speedlites can be managed wirelessly from the illuminated LCD panel on the controllers. Both macro flashes are powered by four AA batteries housed in the control module and they also accept high-capacity external battery packs to extend shooting time in the field.

The Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX circles the lens with two focusing lamps located at the top and bottom of the ring. The photographer can control the light difference between the right and left halves of the light to allow for variable ratios; different light intensities coming from different directions lend more dimension to a subject’s shape. The flash guide number for the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX is 14/46 (ISO 100, in meters/feet).

Two independent flash heads with modeling lights are attached to the controller of the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. The heads can be secured to the front of the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens via a furnished bracket or can be mounted to other types of brackets with ¼-20 threads. This configuration allows many options for directional lighting, giving the photographer the advantages of greater functionality and increased power. The flash guide number for the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX is 22/78 (ISO 100 in meters/feet), so it is significantly more powerful than the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX.

Depending on the brightness and reflectivity of the subject, the photographer may need to compensate to either the plus or negative side of the exposure to fine-tune the captured image. With DSLRs, the exposure can be checked by viewing the histogram of the captured image on the camera’s LCD and if the graph indicates over or under-exposure, detail is lost in either the light or dark areas of the image. This indicates a need to adjust the exposure by controlling the output of the flash. To do this, use the plus or minus settings on the flash or the flash compensation built into the camera.

Working hand-held with the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens

When photographing natural subjects in the field, it’s absolutely liberating to be able to work with hand-held equipment. You can easily and quickly position and reposition yourself and the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens setup for the best compositional advantage.

The lens is manual focus only and when working at such close distances and with such limited depth of field, changing the focus/magnification while framing can be awkward and may disturb your live subjects. I find that the best way to work with this system is to preset the magnification and then move the entire camera/lens/flash combination towards and away from the subject until the desired focus is achieved. To add stability, I try to get into a position where I can brace my elbows on the ground, or on my knees, and then move my body slowly forward and backwards to seek the focus. As mentioned earlier, very fast flash duration will help to stop any motion of the photographer or the subject; the flash needs to be concentrated at the zone of focus on the subject. Note that at 5x, the macro world seems to move at 100 miles per hour, so think about lighting and exposure in the context of stopping action.

Tripod and studio techniques

If you’re photographing stationary subjects, such as details of a flower or moss, a sturdy field tripod that can be positioned near ground level can be very advantageous. Coupled with a good ball head, this setup allows for precise focus and deliberate framing. Using a third-party focusing rail under the rotating lens collar will help you make slight adjustments in the camera/lens position for focusing and framing without moving the entire tripod/camera system. The tripod is also useful in the studio, as are a copy stand and moveable stage, for capturing stationary subjects at higher magnifications and when using stacking techniques for added depth of field. If you’re ready for these more complex applications of the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens’ capabilities, read on!

Achieving higher magnifications

The Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is a perfect tool for working at magnifications greater than 5x. First off, simply using the lens with a body equipped with the smaller APS-C sensor – such as the EOS Rebel T5i, EOS 60D, EOS 7D or the EOS 70D – will increase the apparent magnification by a cropped factor of 1.6x. Coupled with the body’s 1.6x “crop factor,” the apparent magnification range of the lens becomes equivalent to 8x*.

But you can further increase the lens’ capabilities with either type of camera body by adding a Canon EF 1.4x or 2x tele-extender**, increasing the maximum magnification to 10x on a full-frame camera. This is definitely a range of magnification that requires stable support, electronic flash and the controlled environment of the studio. Remember that both the Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX and the Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX can wirelessly control additional Canon Speedlites through the slave function. So, you can add a light from another angle to rim the subject or place a flash underneath a staged subject to create backlighting – the additional lights add new elements of dimension and drama.


* Please note: actual close-up magnification is based strictly upon the size of the image hitting the imaging sensor or film vs. the size of the actual subject in real life. With the smaller APS-C size sensor cameras, the size of the subject at this lens’ maximum magnification remains at 5x and the “apparent” magnification increase is strictly because the camera’s smaller sensor crops the image, compared to what would be captured with a full-frame digital SLR.

**The Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens is not officially compatible with Canon’s 1.4x or 2x tele extenders, so certain features (such as conversion of effective lens aperture display in the viewfinder, etc.) will not be possible if either extender is attached to this lens.


 

Expanding depth of field

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of higher-magnification photography is the diminished depth of field in three-dimensional subjects. Your purpose is to reveal previously unknown details, but the area of sharpness is so small that much of the subject will be rendered out of focus. At 1x with the lens stopped down to f/16, there is less than 2.5mm of sharpness. At 5x, the depth of field is measured in fractions of a millimeter and a larger lens opening is needed to minimize diffraction. In the past, all we could do was work within the limitations, precisely placing the focus zone to emphasize the most important feature of the composition, such as the eye of an insect.

Now there is an answer that promises nearly unlimited depth of field — and it’s even fun to do. We can move the focus through a composition, capturing at each position a slice of focus that will overlap with the previous and following images, then “stack” the slices together in post-production software that retains only the sharp aspects of each capture. You can use Adobe Photoshop 4 (www.adobe.com), Helicon Focus (www.heliconsoft.com), or, my favorite, Zerene Stacker (www.zerenesystems.com) to compile the images. When properly accomplished, this “stacking” technique yields a composited photograph that is not only highly magnified, but also sharply detailed throughout. At lower magnifications, the images can be accomplished through careful, manual movements of the tripod-mounted camera along a focusing rail, or by moving the subject itself as it’s positioned on a microscope base. Remember, you can’t have too many images, but you can surely have too few slices that will not have overlapping sharp images.

When I’m working at the highest magnifications possible with the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens, I employ a motorized focusing rail that can be controlled to the smallest incremental movements. It’s called the StackShot (www.Cognisys-inc.com). It really helps to use Canon’s “Live View” feature and the Canon EOS Utility software when working at these levels. I can connect a laptop computer to the camera via a USB cable. Select “Remote Shooting,” then “Live View Shoot” will bring up a window on the laptop that shows the camera’s view. From the computer, I can monitor the StackShot’s progress or I can make the small incremental movements and captures myself, adjusting the settings and firing the camera without touching it.

The Conclusion: I love this lens

Since its introduction, the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1–5x Macro Photo lens has been one of my favorite lenses. I’ve pursued high-magnification photography for some forty years and, before this lens arrived, it was much more difficult to achieve the kind of clarity and detail that I demand. I love to astonish the viewers of my photographs and enable them to explore previously unseen facets of nature, so the combination of this extraordinary lens, the power of digital capture and post-production software has greatly expanded my high-magnification repertoire. To be able to view this work on high-resolution monitors and in gigantic, finely detailed prints has opened up a new realm of creativity and fulfillment for me in the big/small world of macro photography.

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