Lens and lighting comparisons

I’ve had my macrophotography rig for one year and a summer now, and while I still hesitate to regard myself a bona fide insect macrophotographer, I’ve learned a lot, feel I’m on the right track, and have had immeasurable fun in the process. I’m a tactile learner – i.e., I do best just trying different things for myself and seeing the results. The photos I show here are some “comparison” shots that I did during my recent giant desert centipede white box photo shoot.

For my photography, I use two macro lenses, both Canon, with almost equal frequency: the 100mm lens (up to 1X), and the MP-E 65mm lens (1X to 5X).  Although the choice is clear if I am much above or below 1X, I find that a large part of my shooting is right around the 1X level.  I’ve often debated which lens I should use in such situations – the longer working distance of the 100mm lens makes it easier to use in the field and less likely to spook the insects I am photographing, but lighting is also more problematic since the flash units are farther away from the subject.  One thing I hadn’t thought about, however, is the possibility of differences in image quality between the two lens (all other things being equal).  The white box session gave me an opportunity to look at this, since the use of indirect flash largely eliminates subject-to-flash distance as a variable.  The two shots below show 1X shots of the centipede – one taken with the 100mm lens and the other with the 65mm lens.  The photos have not been post-processed at all (except size reduction for web posting) to give the truest comparison possible – normally I would do some levels adjustment and unsharp mask (and for these, clone out that annoying blue fiber that ended up on its head!).

Canon 100mm macro lens @ 1X

Canon 65mm macro lens @ 1X

I think one can easily see how much more detail is captured by the 65mm lens (click on each for a larger version, as always), even despite its more limited depth of field (f/14 for the 65mm versus f/22 for the 100mm). This makes me re-think my strategy of using the 100mm when I can and switching to the 65mm only when I have to. In fact, I’ve occasionally opted to add extension tubes to the 100mm when I needed just a bit more magnification, but these photos make me think I should use the 65mm when I can and reserve the 100mm just for sub-1X shooting.

Both photos in the second comparison were shot using the 65mm at f/13, the only difference being the use of indirect flash in one photo and direct flash in the other. I’m not quite sure what to make of this – the direct flash photo is better lit and shows more detail, but this could be an artifact of insufficient flash unit power in the indirect photo. I probably should have done this comparison (or both, for that matter) using E-TTL rather than manual mode on the flash unit (and I may have to do that).

Canon 65mm macro lens, indirect flash

Canon 65mm macro lens, direct flash

Anyway, nothing earth-shattering here, and I may just be figuring out what others have learned long ago. Although I prefer the field for photography, I’m finding the white box – or at least a controlled, indoor environment – valuable for this type of experimentation.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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10 Responses to Lens and lighting comparisons

  1. Interesting comparisons, Ted. I can appreciate the process of honing your technique – I am definitely going through my paces with learning how to get the best results with my 105mm. I have not used flash and so far all shots have been in the field. The lens is amazing, but at the mercy of a macro-newbie. Thanks for sharing the tips you’ve learned!

  2. MPE65 is better lens, but more difficult to use, I know very few people who get good results beyond the 3X with this lens. You have greatly improved your technique, bravo!

    • Thanks, Javier – appreciate the comment. I’ve found 2-3X to be the real sweet spot with the 65mm lens – above that, as you note, it is difficult to work with. Still, it is the only option if you wish to go to those high magnifications – knowing that your depth-of-field will be severely limited.

      I have, at least, gotten more comfortable with using it in the field and quickly finding my subject – at first I couldn’t find things in the viewfinder with that lens to save my life!

  3. Bob Abela says:

    I see you shot the MP-E 65mm at f14 but the 100mm at f22. May wish to test each lens for their sharpest aperture. I suspect, at f22, you are noting effects of diffraction with your 100mm. If so, might get better success around f11 or f16. Experiment with it, be curious to see what results you get.

  4. Affirms my desire for one these lenses. The MP-E65 is most drool-worthy…🙂

  5. Alex Wild says:

    An intriguing comparison, Ted. I hardly ever shoot my 100mm above f/16, for reasons of diffraction.

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