Shooting Super Close with the Canon MP-E 1-5x Macro 65mm Lens: Guest Article by Steve Russell
First off, I love my Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 lens. I’ve shot thousands of quality macro images with it, but I began hungering to get closer still and discovered the Canon MP-E lens, which delivers extreme close-up images of up to five times (“5x”) the magnification of the standard macro 1:1 lenses. Amazing! But along with the promise of phenomenal images comes a test of one’s patience, persistence, strength, and skill. Here’s why.
The focus distance on this lens is miniscule. At 1x magnification the lens is 4 inches away from the subject; at 5x magnification it is 1.6 inches. You can either choose to zoom the magnification by turning the ring until you find your focus or set your preference and move the camera in and out. The amount of magnification is well marked (1x-5x) and the zoomed barrel holds its place even when pointed downward. The short focal distance may be no big deal when shooting flowers, but there are lots of bugs out there that can be scared away when you get so close, especially when you’ve got a flash on the end of the lens, too.
Focusing with the MP-E is all manual, which is the usual way I shoot up close anyway. Finding and holding the focus of your subject at such a close range can be particularly trying without the use of a tripod and slider, but it is possible if you’re willing to try and fail many more times than you are successful. Of course, using a tripod and slider is preferred if your subject is stationary and accessible, but if not then your best chance is using live view to find your focus, using a flash (Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX Flash works best for me), and bracing yourself and/or camera against something when shooting. Oh, and remember to breathe – it’s only natural to want to hold your breath while you wait for the subject to come into focus.
Shooting at such a close range also means a very shallow depth of field, which makes it that much more important to shoot with your lens in the same plane as your subject if you want as much of it in focus as possible. The slightest angle can mean that, for example, the head of a bug will be in focus but the rear part will not. It’s really hard to tell if you’re in the same plane when you’re shooting, so take lots of shots and always zero in on the part you absolutely want in focus no matter what (usually the eyes) and hope for the best on the rest.
The MP-E has an aperture range of f/2.8-f/16, but the manual will tell you that the “effective” aperture is much deeper. I won’t try to explain why, but the manual will. A reviewer I read finds its “sweet spot” somewhere in the middle, but I’ve only shot at f/16 and can’t say for sure.
The MP-E is heavy, so heavy in fact that it comes with a tripod collar. Where it will try your strength is when holding your SLR and lens out from your body as you wait for the subject to come into focus.
Capturing the extreme detail of something you’ve never been able to get before makes it all worthwhile. Just for fun one of these days when I have a static subject, there is no wind, and I can use my tripod, I’ll take it to the next level and add some extension tubes to my MP-E. Imagine that.