As part of the Photography Gear Lending Library experiment, I rented the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5X Macro lens. This is an ultra-high magnification macro lens unique to Canon, designed for extreme macro photography. This lens is equally powerful as it is difficult to use. Lets start by how the lens works and go on to how to use it.
While most macro lenses have a maximum magnification of 1X, this is the minimum magnification of the MP-E 65mm. Its maximum magnification is an incredible 5X. This means the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5X Macro can fill the frame with a subject which is five times smaller in size or 25 times smaller in terms of area compared to a 1X magnification lens.
The MP-E 65mm fits all Canon DSLRs. Like a handful of modern specialty lenses, this is a manual-focus only lens. It does transmit focus-distance information to the camera though. Given how razor-thin depth-of-field is at very close focus distances, it is natural to focus manually when doing macro photography, so the lack of autofocus should be considered part of the craft rather than a limitation.
The complete specifications of the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5X Macro lens hide a few oddities. The first one, which may be obvious to some, is that this lens has a maximum focus distance in addition to a minimum – which all lenses have. Also, this one reaches its maximum magnification of 5X at its maximum focus distance and its minimum magnification of 1X at its minimum focus distance, which is the opposite of most lenses. Remember that focus distances for DSLR and other ILCs are measured from the sensor plane. Fixed lens cameras normally measure focus distance from the front lens element which is what Canon calls working distance.
The working distance of this special lens starts at 101mm at 1X magnification and drops to 41mm at 5X magnification, which follows conventional logic since the lens extends significantly while focusing. This is a critical aspect of using the lens as will be detailed further. This very short working distance precludes the use of a lens hood which the MP-E 65mm does not support. However, it does support 58mm screw-on filters.
While this lens reports a maximum aperture of F/2.8 regardless of focus-distance, and a minimum of F/16, its light transmission varies significantly with magnification. Going from 1X magnification to 5X requires roughly 8 times (3 stops) more light to maintain the same exposure. This produces a similar effect, but less pronounced, than using extension tubes to increase magnification.
Using the MP-E 65mm is more involved than using a standard 1X macro lens. The extreme magnification of this lens poses the most challenges. Magnification not only makes your subjects bigger, it also magnifies the effects of movement. When framing a subject, the lens must be positioned with great precision. Being a few millimeters off causes the entire image to blur out, making it rather difficult to fine-tune composition. As the lens is adjusted, the subject distance changes which often requires the camera to be moved as well.
Unlike most lenses, changing focus with the MP-E 65mm drastically changes framing. This means that it is easier to focus first (which sets the magnification) and then adjust the camera-to-subject distance. Of course, knowing which magnification to set ahead of time is not easy. It can be estimated knowing the size of the camera sensor. For example, full-frame DSLRs have sensors which measure 36mm x 24mm. At 2X magnification, a subject of 18mm x 12mm would fill the frame, while at 5X a 7.2mm x 4.8mm subject would fill it.
Ideally, precise positioning requires a tripod. This keeps the camera in a set position while adjusting settings. Although a tripod isolates the camera from the photographer’s movements, it remains susceptible to vibrations which are highly amplified by the magnification of this lens. The use of a remote trigger and mirror-lockup (MLU) are absolutely essential to diminish shake.
This Canon lens comes with a tripod collar which is normally found on long telephoto lenses. However, this lens extends significantly (by about 13cm) while focusing which adds strain to the tripod head and can easily cause drift. Using the supplied collar improves balance, reduces shake and makes the whole setup easier to maneuver.
The challenge of obtaining a good composition is different in a controlled environment than hand-held. Given the choice, shooting from a tripod is clearly better. However, with sufficient light or astronomical ISO sensitivities, it is possible to use this lens without a tripod.
To shoot hand-held, it is probably easiest to start with a good estimate of magnification. After setting magnification on the lens, move the camera back and forth until the desired subject is in focus. Should framing not be perfect, magnification must be adjusted again and the camera focused by moving towards or away from the subject. Repeat until a satisfactory composition is found with the right focus point.
Tripod shooting follows the same principle except that camera movements are much more restricted. At the very least, an easy-to-adjust tripod head is required. A good quality ball-head makes a big difference here. The most recommended accessory would be a macro focusing rail which attaches between the tripod head and the camera. This is a device that moves the camera parallel to the lens by adjusting a knob. It saves a lot of time and aggravation compared to having to reposition the entire setup.
In some cases, one can move the subject to get the right composition but not all subjects can be moved or convinced to do so. Moving the subject also highlights the challenge of macro lighting. The simplest but least flexible is to use a dedicated macro flash which mounts to the lens. The great thing about this is that illumination always follows the camera. This limits results to front illumination which is far from ideal for most subjects. The more flexible and challenging approach is to use off-camera lighting.
Illumination power is not usually a problem for macro photography. The true difficulty is in the positioning of lights. The biggest obstacle to light placement is the lens which easily projects a shadow onto macro subjects. To avoid this, lights must be positioned very precisely or very diffused. Using desk-lamps is one option but it is difficult to get predictable automatic metering and white-balance with those. Instead, the solution I found was a flexible LED lamp called a Gorillatorch. The model which I acquired two of outputs 65 lumens and has bendable magnetic legs which can attach to almost any surface. A joint below the lamp-part makes positioning a breeze. The whole thing is waterproof and runs up to 80 hours on 3 standard AA batteries.
The Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 1-5X Macro lens is an incredibly powerful macro lens which rewards patient photographers with a fascinating view of things. It provides an all-in-one solution for high magnification photography without as much reduction in light transmission as extension tubes. The lens leaves a lasting impression of quality in both its construction and the images it produces.