A weekend with the Canon MP-E macro lens

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December 6th, 2010 Permalink

So as my one reader probably knows, I rented the Canon MP-E macro lens over this past weekend. I figured I’d love this lens since I really enjoy macro photography, but even though I wanted to love it – I didn’t.

I wasn’t too sad when I dropped off the lens today.  At best, I feel the pictures I got with it were interesting, but nothing you’d tear out of a magazine and keep.  That’s not necessarily the lens’ fault, of course, since the photographer makes the pictures, but what I found to be difficult to overcome was the visualization process with this lens.

Normally when I go to take my daily picture, I have a rough workflow that starts with the question “Am I going to be able to get out of the house for today’s shot?”  Since I work from home, more often than not the answer is usually “no”, or at least, “not before dark”.  From there I tend to poke around and look for interesting shapes, interesting subjects – anything really that can serve as a starting point, and then I start thinking about whether I want to make a picture from the whole object, a part of the object, or the object in a small scene.  With that decision made (at least, roughly), I pick a lens and grab some flashes and see what things look like.

The challenge with the MP-E is that the subjects I was shooting were so small, I had very little intuition about what they would look like through the lens, and so I didn’t have much of an idea of where I was going with the picture.  I knew that flowers – anything alive, really – would be a workable subject since they have fractal-like structure; i.e. there is interesting detail at nearly all levels of magnification.  Beyond that, I was disappointed with a few subjects that I hoped would be interesting, but turned out to be quite plain under magnification.  I tried to get an interesting shot of a raspberry, but it turns out, they just look like a red wall up close.  Neat, in a “look through a microscope” kinda way, but not exactly in the spirit of entering a tiny world.

I’ve seen a lot of fantastic images made with the MP-E on flickr, and for that reason I’ll probably revisit this lens someday in the future – when its warmer, and I can go out and search for bugs.

On the technical side, the MP-E was challenging to use, but overall not bad.  I also rented a set of Novoflex macro focusing rails, which should be considered a requirement with this lens.  I did not rent a macro flash, nor did I wish I had, since my existing speedlights had more than enough power to handle 5X magnification.  Maybe a macro flash would have been easier, but I didn’t miss it.  You do need some kind of dedicated flash for this lens, just not necessarily a macro flash.

Its hard for me to use a macro lens and not compare it to the Canon 100mm macro lens that I already own.  I’ve always been thrilled with the 100mm, so the bar was really quite high for the MP-E, and in that respect there wasn’t any sort of “wow” moment that would make me immediately go sell the 100mm macro and upgrade.  In the end, I guess that’s what I was hoping for, but it never came.  Maybe next time.

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