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Photoshop Tutorial - Macro with the Canon MP-E 65mm


Macro photography technically starts at 1:1 magnification. This means that the subject appears at life size. Anything less than 1:1 is strictly speaking close-up photography rather than macro. Some macro lenses (typically 100mm and over in focal length) can achieve 1:1 (1x) but some of the shorter 50mm macros frequently only reach 0.5:1. However, greater magnifications are obtainable by adding extension tubes or bellows. To read about choosing and using macro lenses click here.

Canon also makes a lens called the MP-E 65 mm macro which begins its work where the other macros finish and it is capable of covering the range 1x to 5x magnification without using extension tubes. It is a very specialised lens as it cannot focus to infinity and it is manual-focus only. At these magnifications autofocus is more of a hindrance than a help, so that is no bad thing.

The working distance of this lens can be very restrictive - around 4 inches at 1x, down to just 1.6 inches at 5x magnification, so subjects have to be very tolerant and co-operative. The depth of field (DOF) at these magnifications is unbelievably shallow (down to less than 0.1mm at wide apertures at x5). To see a table of DOF vs aperture click here. The image in the viewfinder becomes pretty dark when the lens is extended out to 5x.

As can be seen in the tests performed below, the lens suffers badly from the effects of diffraction at small apertures so you have to choose between depth of field vs image softness when selecting the aperture to use. Finally, when working at high magnification at small apertures, you see every dust or oil spot on your sensor with irritating ease - so be prepared to do lots of work with the healing brush in post-process !



Canon Mp-e 65mm macro

The lens is therefore not for the faint-hearted and is challenging to use successfully. At high magnification, every movement or vibration becomes amplified enormously and unless the subject and camera/lens is clamped totally still - such as in a studio environment you will get motion blur or poorly focussed shots. You will probably also need to use a remote cable release and lock the camera mirror up as well to reduce vibration. Many macro shooters therefore tend to opt for the much easier option of using high-speed flash as the sole light source. This enables a great deal of freedom by permitting handholding, as the very short flash duration arrests all movement.

I have used a Canon 580exII flashgun fitted to the hotshoe angled down slightly in the bounce position with a Lumiquest Ultrasoft diffuser fitted with good results. Alternatively off-camera flash can be provided by a single regular flashgun held on a pivot arm close to the subject (fed by an off-camera lead).

Finally there are the MR14-EX ring flash and the MT-24EX twin flash which are the perfect partners for the lens. All images in this article were taken with the MT-24EX diffused with Stofen omnibounce diffusers. I use the flash heads in the position shown below, adjusted 1 click up from the fully down position.

When flash is the sole light source, black backgrounds become the norm unless the background is very close behind the subject. (You can use a coloured card close behind the subject if the subject will let you). The dedicated ETTL (evaluative through the lens) flashguns are fantastic as they take away the need to do a lot of complicated and laborious calculations to work out the exposure. It becomes possible to use the camera as a very sophisticated point-and-shoot when set up as follows:

Camera to manual mode, flash metering set to evaluative (on the flashgun), the flash synchronisation speed set to e.g. 1/250th sec (see your user manual) and the aperture to your own preference (say f11 for starters). ISO to 100 for maximum quality if your flash is powerful enough to deliver sufficient light, otherwise use a higher ISO. However, the bit I skirted around here was "focus" because this is where the user's skill comes in. More on this later. I should also add that the camera's flash metering is excellent but not foolproof - so you may have to consider appyling positive or negative flash exposure compensation (FEC) just as you would have to apply exposure compensation in general (available light) photography when the scene does not equate to a midtone grey.

What do these magnifications look like ?

The following images are uncropped except the last one, which is a 100% crop (i.e. as the image would appear on the computer screen in Photoshop at "Actual Pixels" size.)

Butterfly's wing 1x
Butterfly's wing 2x
Butterfly's wing 3x
Butterfly's wing 4x
Butterfly's wing 5x
Same 5x image at 100%

What aperture to use - the effects of diffraction.

Although this is an f2.8 lens, I have not used f2.8 or f4 as the depth of field is so thin at these aperures as to be virtually useless for macro work unless you are after something very "arty" so I have excluded these apertures from the tests below.

1x

f5.6
f8
f11
f14
 
f16
 
2x  
f5.6
f8
f11
f14
 
f16
 
3x  
f5.6
f8
f11
f14
 
f16
 
4x
 
f5.6
f8
f11
f14
 
f16
 
5x
 
f5.6
f8
f11
f14
 
f16 - The ring is an oil spot from the shutter lubricant on the camera sensor
 


Conclusions on aperture

At all magnifications the wider apertures provide the sharpest images. F16 provides much greater depth of field than f5.6 of course but loss of sharpness due to diffraction is significant and gets progressively worse as magnification increases. The user will have to juggle the choices between the depth of field required to get sufficient of the subject in focus vs sharpness at each aperture

From these results I would recommend using the following settings if you are after high quality and reasonable depth of field:

Magnification
Maximum aperture
1x
f14-f16
2x
f11-f14
3x
f8-f11
4x
f8
5x
f5.6-f8

 

Alternatively, you could try using f16 up to 2x magnification and f11 thereafter. It is easier to remember and will still yield great results biased slightly towards depth of field.

Focusing the lens

There are two methods of focusing on your subject. You can either set the lens to the desired magnification and just move the camera/lens in and out by moving your body until the subject comes into focus or start at the lowest magnification and gradually increase it by turning the focusing ring while simultaneously slowly moving your body toward your subject. I tend to do the latter as it can be very difficult to locate the subject in the viewfinder at high magnification - it is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack down a dark, out-of-focus tunnel !

In the field, unless your subject is static and you have time to set up the camera on a sturdy tripod, hand-holding with flash is a far more practicable option as most macro subjects have a habit of scuttling away or flying off. The difficulty is focusing on the subject as the image continually moves in and out of focus in time with the photographer's swaying. You get a lot better with practice, but it is very difficult to work freehand above 2x magnification unless you are very steady indeed.

There are a few things that you can do to increase your chances of keeping the camera still. Firstly, I hold my breath at the critical time, secondly, I brace the camera or camera arm on my knee or against a tree/log/rock/the ground or anything nearby if possible. Also, some creatures will allow you to hold the stem or leaf that they are on while you twist it or move it backwards and forwards into a better position.You do this with one hand while holding the camera with the other hand. It's not as bad as it sounds. It may also be possible to simultaneously rest your camera hand on the arm/hand that is holding the stem/leaf or whatever the creature is on. This additional bracing can be very effective. It is even possible to slide the camera backwards and forwards along your arm or hand to focus it. This all sounds a bit impossible until you try it, but it is really not as bad as it seems.

If you have a very static subject which allows you to set up the camera on a tripod you will find that a focusing rail or a long quick release lens plate that enables you to slide the whole lens/camera back and forth will make life much simpler as the only alternative is to move the tripod itself.
A right angle finder is a great aid to focusing and prevents a stiff neck if working at ground level, but if your camera has "Liveview" it is incredibly useful as a focusing aid. Ensure that exposure simulation mode is switched to off in the custom functions or the image will darken excessively as you stop it down at small apertures. You can then get the manual focus absolutely spot-on at 10x view in the screen. This is exactly what I did to obtain the images of the butterfly scales in this article.

In summary

The MPE-65 is tricky to use, but the potential rewards are very high for those prepared to master it. It is an incredible lens as it enables you to explore the world in an entirely different way. Familar subjects such as common insects reveal that they are covered in hairs or have flight stabilisers or extra eyes that you didn't know that they had. For example, the hornet below has three extra eyes (occelli) on the top of its head - and even wasps have them too. When focused correctly and used at the correct aperture for the subject, this lens is capable of very sharp and vibrant images.

For all the reasons covered in this article, I would not recommend this lens to a beginner - I would suggest getting getting used to handling a normal macro at up to 1:1 first. For my other tutorial on choosing and using macro lenses, please click here.