Category Archives: Lenses

Easy macro lens for less than £50 – Canon only (sorry!)

I promised in Maddening Macro to return to the subject a few more times.  For a while, I have shied away from writing about this particular approach, because it is only of use to Canon EOS users (either SLR or DSLR) and I try not to be too brand-specific.  In this case, though, I think this is well worth writing about because it is one of the best and cheapest ways I have found of getting into Macro since buying my first DSLR.

The whole thing works because of the specific construction of one common lens, the Canon EF 35-80mm 1:4-5.6 USM (particularly the Mk I version) – available for well under £50 second hand.  The lens looks like this:

Canon EF 35-80 1:4-5.6 Mk I.
Canon EF 35-80 1:4-5.6 Mk I.
Easily identified by the black plastic front ring with a “nick” in it, for a screw driver to unclip it.

I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of how or why this works, but basically, you can very easily turn this lens into a macro lens, simply by removing the front element.  This sounds really drastic (and like it would do irreparable damage to your lens) but in this case, it is really quick, and simple, and the front element can be put on in a matter of seconds.  (You don’t even need to undo any screws).  The lens will then function perfectly normally again as a standard lens.

To use this lens for macro, you simply need to pop a screw driver into the nick shown in the photo, flick out the plastic ring and twist off the front element, as shown in this video:

It really is as simple as that!

While the front element is off, the autofocus function will not work, but this is actually not too much of a problem, because the zoom still does, and at this level of magnification (macro of more than 1:1) means the focal distance is very short.  It is generally much easier, therefore, to focus by moving the camera physically closer or further from the subject.

Absolutely key to the success of this “hack” is the fact that the electric connections are still fully functional, and you can therefore set the aperture for your preferred shot, increasing or decreasing the depth of field as you see fit.  Below are some examples of the type of photo you can take with this lens (with no other added filters etc.):

Baby orb weaver
Baby orb weaver (which could not have been much larger than 4mm across).
Adult orb weaver (backlit by the sun).
Adult orb weaver (backlit by the sun).
A common hoverfly
A common hoverfly.

When you’re done, you simply twist the front element back on, and replace the plastic ring (again, the work of seconds):

For more information on using these lenses for macro – there is a long-term thread on the Canon user forum thread here. This also talks through the use of other lenses (such as the Mk II and Mk III version of the 35-80mm Canon lens) which can be used for macro in this way, but these lenses tend to be slightly more expensive – and you need to undo some screws.  The Mk 1 version here can easily be carried and used on the go for macro, because of the ease with which the front comes off.  It really is almost as easy as changing a filter!

When using the lens normally (i.e. with the front element in place), it is a perfectly serviceable little autofocus lens.  It’s focal length on a APS-C sensor gives a slightly odd range of zoom, but it sits quite nicely alongside other common lenses like the 18-55mm kit lens or 75-300ish tele-zooms, as a reasonable portrait length lens.  If you want to use if just for this, you will find better (but not many cheaper) lenses.  If you want to shoot macro on a Canon camera, I have found few lenses that exceed this in terms of image quality and none which are anything like as cheap!

WARNING:  This is something new I have recently found on the internet – there are a number of ebay sellers and other websites which are now selling these lenses “already modified” for macro – charging a huge premium (around £90 – £100 rather than the more common price of £30 – £50 for an unmodified Mk 1 lens on Ebay today).  These modified lenses do not normally retain the full front element and therefore they can’t be used for non-macro work.  Some have been modified to allow limited autofocus, but the extra cost you would pay is (in my opinion) not worth it.

As ever – happy shooting!

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The £200 challenge… A full DSLR kit for a range of situations, for the same cost as a bridge camera?

A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?

I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful.  Not deliberately, mind you.  It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes.  After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.

Everything.” He said.

Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations.  Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.

To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.

My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range.  (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).

Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder.  However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.

But is there another option?  Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?

The challenge

I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between  Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable.  Here are my ground rules for the challenge:

  • The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
  • The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
  • The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
  • The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
  • The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
  • The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
  • Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
  • The kit must be capable of macro.

So here goes…

Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons.  Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.

The Camera: Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D.  Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:

Canon EOS 400D
Canon EOS 400D – The evidence, listed on Gum Tree for £100 with a Mk II 18-55mm kit lens (the type with no image stabilization, but one I own and have used a lot).
Canon EOS 1000D
Canon EOS 1000D also with an 18-55mm kit lens (the first DSLR I ever owned!) – this one is £120, though I have seen them on sale for less occasionally.  They are available for around £80 without the lens on gumtree today.

The Lenses and adapters:

  • Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
    Canon 18-55mm
  • Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):

    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6
    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6 Lens – available for around £45 (or less if you have patience bidding on ebay).  Also look out for the excellent Tamron 70-300mm lens.
  • Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands).  WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain!  Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.

    2x teleconverter
    Jessops 2x teleconverter
  • Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50.  In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses.  If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.

    Diopter lenses
    Set of four Diopter lenses (+1, +2, +4, +10)
  • 0.45x fisheye / wide angle conversion lens – £8.75, (also 58mm thread size)

    0.45x Wide Angle lens
    0.45x Wide Angle lens for use with the 18-55mm lens.

So, that gives us:

  • Camera and 18-55mm kit lens – £100
  • 75-300mm lens – £39.50
  • 2x teleconverter – £40
  • Macro lenses – £7.29
  • Wide Angle lens – £8.75

Total Cost: £195.54

The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.

But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?

Yes it does (just!):

The full kit - for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).
The full kit – for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).

But is it any good?

Well – I think it is!  A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site.  There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before.  Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:

Red Robin
Shot with at 600mm on a Canon EOS APS-C sensor camera, which gives a 35mm equivalent focal of a whopping 960mm. This was achieved with a cheap 75-300mm tele zoom and a 2x teleconverter

Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:

Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – which is too big and surrounded by trees to be conveniently shot without a fisheye – in this case a cheap 58mm screw-fit adapter on an 18-55mm kit lens.

To the moon (on an economy ticket)

There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off.  And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.

It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky.  But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.

“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”

Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).

Exposure

Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky.  It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.

Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation.  For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob.  For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).

The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification).  To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second.  Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).

If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.

Equipment

To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach.  Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)

The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x  optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject.  At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses.  Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.

If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens.  These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design).  You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach.  The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc.  Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.

Waxing (Gibbous) moon
Waxing (Gibbous) moon – shot using a manual Optomax 500mm f/8 lens (at f/16) and a 2x teleconverter, on an APS-C DSLR. This gave a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1600mm. The exposure was 1/15th second.

An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful.  They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image.  They can be picked up new from around £50:

Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame).  The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon.  While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:

Full moon
Full moon – shot at 600mm on an APS-C camera, using a 2x teleconverter and a 75-300mm Canon zoom lens at full extension.

While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).

Tested... a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens
Tested… a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

A final piece of advice…

No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically  when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full).  This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).

Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!

Bee brilliant (or bees on a budget)

I love bees, and I love taking photos of them.  True, I am interested in all wildlife I really enjoy the challenges of macro, but bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.

For anyone who is interested in bees in general (and for some lovely video footage), I recommend checking out the excellent swiss movie, A Taste of Honey, (narrated in English by John Hurt).  For anyone who wants to check out some photos of bees (taken with varying degrees of success) there is an enormous Flickr group, Bees, bees bees! which is a great place to start getting some ideas.

“…bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.”

So how should you approach shooting bees?  What gear do you need?  And how much will it cost?

Well – clearly, I’m not going to tell you to go out and spend lots of money!  There are loads of different setups you can use for macro, and the most important thing is that you familiarise yourself and get comfortable with the one that you have chosen.  One of my preferred setups is pairing a +2 diopter supplementary lens with a telephoto lens (such as a 70 – 300mm zoom), but you can also use supplementary lenses with bridge cameras, you can try using reversing rings, extension tubes or there are various macro lenses that you can pick up second hand.  What I would like to talk about today though, is free.  And that’s technique.

Many incredible macro shots are taken in studios with artificial environments and complex lighting arrangements – all of that costs money and to my mind means that you lose some of the natural simplicity and beauty of a shot.  I’m therefore going look at natural environments in natural light (since specialist macro flashes are also very expensive).  I thought it would be useful to reduce it all down to a few simple rules.

Rule 1: Shoot on cool bright days (or in the early morning)

This first rule goes directly against the advice that you will read in lots of books and magazines – which often say that it is preferable to shoot macro on overcast days because you get fewer burnt out reflections and you better contrast… Well, that maybe true if you’re shooting things which don’t move – but for insects which can be fast moving it’s complete nonsense.  You need to be able to shoot handheld and at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.  Bright days are definitely best. However, insects (which are cold blooded) have a faster metabolism and are faster moving in warm conditions, so cool days (spring and autumn) and early mornings are absolutely ideal.

The bee in buttercup
The bee in buttercup – shoot on bright days so that you can shoot handheld using fast shutter speeds without a flash

Rule 2: If the bee is on a flower, get really close and try to shoot sideways on.

To really get fine detail with budget equipment, you want to get up close and personal with the bee with a focal distance of just an inch or two.  Reversed lenses, macro extension tubes or powerful diopters on shorter lenses are a good way of achieving this. The important thing, when shooting bees like this, is not to get nervous. Bees are very placid animals and are very, very unlikely to sting you unless they feel threatened.  Often, when getting very close to them, people get scared and react unpredictably.  If you feel this is likely to happen to you, it is important to master your instincts.

Getting really close means you will have a reduced depth of field which is great for throwing your background out of focus – however it also means that if you shoot with the subject facing directly towards you with the eyes in focus, the abdomen will be out of focus.  Therefore try to get the bee side on (or nearly side on) so that you make the best use of the plane of focus.

A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed.  This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.
A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed. This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.

Rule 3: If shooting bees in flight, stand back!

Getting really close to a bee is all well and good when they’re almost stationary, but when they’re flying it’s totally hopeless.  For starters, they will actively try to avoid you, but in any case, your focal distance will be so short that you will never be able to keep track of their movements – therefore you need be able to stand back a few feet.  In this case, you probably want a smaller diopter on a longer lens or a shorter extension tube on a longer lens.  This setup should allow you to still get a big enough enlargement of the bee to be the subject of the shot while still being stood far enough away to track its movements.  Another advantage is that bees in flight tend to look much better if shown in relation to their environment, such as the flowers they are flying around – so you can be sufficiently “zoomed out” to include the environment:

Bee in flight
Coming in to land… A honey bee on (what I believe to be) Loosestrife flowers, in Kent.

Rule 4: To get sharp focus, pre-focus, try to be nearly side-on and “pull back”

A really big problem when shooting flying bees is that they tend to fly too fast for most autofocuses (particularly on cheaper lenses) and too fast for you to rapidly re-focus the lens manually.  You therefore need to get a bit clever about predicting the movement of bees.  Try to remember that they tend to hover on approach and take off from a flower so they will be nearly stationary in flight for a fraction of a second – and that they “back out” from flowers having collected the nectar.  This last point is critical, since it is easiest to “choose” a bee to photograph, while it is in a flower already.

Like my advice above, about shooting stationary bees side on to make the best use of the plane of focus, the same is true for flying bees.  If you can get the trumpet of a flower in perfect profile, when the bee flies out  backwards, it should remain in the plane of focus.  If you want to compose the shot so that it is not perfectly sideways on, then remember, still that the bee will come out backwards.  What you need to do, then, is focus on the part of the flower closest to the camera lens, and as the bee backs out tilt backwards (roll back on your heels) trying to keep the bee in focus by moving the camera with it.  It sounds simple, but can be really quite tricky!  As with all things, practice doesn’t exactly make perfect, but statistically at least, the more times you try, the more likely you are to get it right!!

Bumblebee backs out backwards...
A bumblebee backs out backwards… Pre-focus on the nearest section of the flower and roll back on your heels as the bee backs out to keep it in focus.

At the time of writing (late September) there are still some bee species active, and conditions are good, as the days are now a little cooler.  Try and get out this weekend and give it a go!

Do big numbers mean big cash? Shooting super-telephoto images

Today, I thought I would turn away from macro and taking photos from really close-up, to taking photos of things from really far away…

Like macro, taking shots with “super-telephoto” lenses can very easily be written off as a rich man’s game – and there are definitely plenty of rich boys’ toys out there if you have bottomless pockets.  For example, a story recently surfaced of a £99,000 telephoto lens going on sale!

If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably looking for a solution for under £100.  Okay, so that’s hardly free, but this is a specialist area.

But what are your choices? Well, actually – there are quite a few.

In the case of the (slightly daft) £99,000 lens, the focal length on offer was an enormous 1,200mm – and the lens (as a result) was totally impractical for most purposes.  However, there are times when you’re shooting wildlife, sporting events or some specific scenery when you may want something which is pretty far reaching.  In these cases, it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens, relative to a 35mm SLR or full frame DSLR.  This basically means that you get more magnification in your final shot from the same lens.  In the case of most Canon EOS cameras, you get a magnification (known as a “crop factor”) of 1.6X.  For a Nikon you get 1.5X.  For some bridge cameras, the crop factor may be as high as 5X to 6X!!

“it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens…”

But what does it really mean?  Well – I’m going to look at focal lengths of between 500 and 800mm (equivalent for a 35mm camera).  This is because there are lots of ways of getting lenses of around 500mm of an APS-C DSLR which, because of the crop factor, will give the same level of overall magnification in your final shot as an 800mm lens on an old film SLR.

I’ll mention five options, and test four:

  1. Supplementary telephoto lenses
  2. Teleconverters
  3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount)
  4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount)
  5. Superzoom bridge cameras

1. Supplementary telephoto lenses – from as little as £10 on ebay 

I said I’d mention but not test one option – and this is it.  Supplementary telephoto lenses screw in front of the lens of your camera (like the diopters I tested for macro), or many wide angle or fisheye adapters.  I have already tested diopters on this website, and I will return to supplementary fisheyes in the future – but I’m not going to test the telephoto version because they are simply too rubbish.  My three pieces of advice would be avoid, avoid, avoid.  The real issue is that, unless you have a tiny aperture (and therefore have to push up the ISO and exposure time up beyond a practical level), you get terrible focus problems anywhere outside dead-centre of the frame.  If you would like to see some tests demonstrating this – I would point you to Keith Cooper’s article here.  (Seriously, though, even for £10, don’t bother.)

2. Teleconverters – Prices vary a lot, though if you shop around you can start from around £25 second hand.

In terms of intended outcome, teleconverters do the same thing as supplementary lenses – in so far as they work with an existing lens and increase its effective focal length.  The mechanism by which they do this is far more effective, though.  Rather than acting as a “magnifying glass” at the front of the lens, they work as an additional lens element stage between the sensor and the lens.  While it is obviously not as good as an expensive, dedicated telephoto lens, it is still pretty effective and a lot cheaper!

Now – one clear challenge here, is that in order to use a teleconverter to reach super-telephoto length, you will already need to have a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 250mm to start with.  These can also be expensive, but there are some cheap second hand options out there.  A few examples are:

  • Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Nikon / Canon and other fits available.  Second hand for £50 – £100.
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, Canon fit only. New from around £70 (this is the lens tested below).
  • Nikon AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6, Nikon fit only. New from around £70
  • Nikon AF 70-300 mm f/4.0-5.6, Nikon fit only. Second hand from around £80

In my test case, I have coupled a second hand Jessops (Kenko) teleconverter (bought for £25) with a Canon EF 75-300mm lens, bought second hand for £50, so £75 in total.  I also have the Tamron lens, which works equally well (perhaps a little better).  The photos used in this test aren’t terribly exciting, but they were all taken at the same time, in the same light so give a fair representation of capabilities:

x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom
Test – 2x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom.
Shot at around 500mm on an APS-C camera (800mm equivalent on a full frame camera). At this focal length the auto-focus stops working.

The focus achieved, given the long focal length is acceptably sharp, and chromatic aberration is not too noticeable (though from experience, this gets a log worse as contrast in your image increases).

Pros:

  • Pairing a tele-converter with a zoom means you can have an enormous range of zoom available to you by simply adding / removing the converter.  In this case, all the way from 75mm – 600mm.
  • Very space efficient, and can be paired with several different lenses.  It can simply be kept in your kit bag alongside your main lenses.
  • Reasonable quality results, retaining aperture control for depth of field control.

Cons:

  • While auto-focus works at shorter focal length, once you have gone up to super-telephoto lengths it gives up, so manual focus only.  Focus confirm should still work, though.
  • Adding a teleconverter reduces the light which reaches the sensor, so you will need to up the ISO, or lengthen exposure time unless it’s very bright.  At long focal lengths, this can be tricky.  You will probably want a tripod! (Though I would recommend it for all of these solutions really…)

3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount) – cheap 500mm lenses from around £70

Until recently, I had never tried a mirror lens, and I had always been fascinated by the idea of them.  If you look at a mirror lens from the “front” they really mess with your mind.  How can you get a full image from a lens which looks like it still has a small lens cap stuck in the middle of it?  (I’ll let you ponder that on your own).

Mirror lenses used to be very popular as a cheap way of getting up to super-telephoto focal lengths, without enormous costs.  Their relatively simple construction, basically consisting of two carefully aligned mirrors, means that there is far less complicated and heavy glasswork to create the image.  The lenses are also much, much shorter than multi-element telephoto zooms.  High grade mirror lenses remain very popular with astro-photographers, because they are virtually free from chromatic aberration and some of their weirder properties (donut shaped bokeh and “double vision” either side of the optimum depth of field) disappear at infinity focus.

But can they be used for day-to-day use? – On this occasion, I can’t exactly say that I’m convinced.  I should say that I have only ever used one (so not a statistically brilliant sample), but it is a very common one – the Opteka 500m f/8, t-mount (don’t forget to buy the right adapter!) I bought mine new and I believe it to be in “perfect” working order – but there are some serious limitations to optics of this type.

The major problem is low contrast (caused by the shadow of the front mirror), but this in turn makes it very difficult to find focus and, to be honest, I am not convinced that the sharpness of this sort of lens is ever really up-to-scratch.  That said, I have managed to get a few nice shots, and the low contrast can be corrected in post-processing.  For a fair comparison, below is an unprocessed shot, straight from the camera:

Opteka 500mm f/8 lens test
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror lens. The shot shows the low contrast caused by the mirror’s shadow, which can be corrected in post-processing, and the “double vision” background, which cannot.

Pros:

  • Virtually no chromatic aberration (so good for astro-photography).
  • Very small for a dedicated super-telephoto lens.
  • Cheaper than buying a standard tele-photo lens plus a converter

Cons:

  • Donut bokeh and double-vision backdrops
  • Low contrast and can be hard to focus
  • Can seem a bit soft generally (though that could just be me!)
  • Normally fixed f/8 aperture, so no control over depth of field.

Before moving on, though, it would be wrong of me not to show an image of something I believe that they are good at!

The moon with a mirror lens.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount) – new from around £80

I should start this section by saying I think I got an absolute bargain, having picked up an Optomax Telephoto 500mm f/8-f/32 lens for just £25.  In my case the rear element (closest to the camera) has gone a little bit milky, but even with this problem it seems optically very good (so I would love to try a mint one!) Keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand bargain.

The costs of this sort of lens (often M42 to t-mount, so again, don’t forget the right adapter) vary quite a lot – but these generic lenses are much, much cheaper than branded auto-focus lenses.  Rokinon are the modern makers of a basically identical lens, and you can buy them new from around £80 if you shop around.  They are manual focus, and have manual aperture control (but this is important, as they aren’t fixed at f/8).  They also make a super-tele zoom (Rokinon 650-1300mm, normally sold with a 2x tele-converter), which you can pick up from around £150 new. You will need to shop around for this.

The construction is pretty simple, and they can be taken apart almost completely, simply by twisting and unscrewing (which can be handy if you want to pack them away somewhere not at full length).   They are pretty long and unwieldy and normally come with their own tripod mount.

The image quality from these is pretty good if you are patient enough and good at manual focus.  Shooting handheld can be very tough though because of their length – so if you are trying to catch fast-flying birds, it may be a bit difficult.

Optomax 500mm f/8-32 test
Optomax 500mm f/8-32 tele-photo, showing acceptably sharp results and bright colours.

Pros:

  • Good optical quality at a very reasonable price
  • (Manual) aperture control
  • Can be paired with a 2x teleconverter to make enormous focal lengths

Cons:

  • Big and unwieldy – difficult to use handheld
  • Fixed focal length
  • Manual focus only

5. Superzoom bridge cameras – used from around £50

All of the other options I have looked at today assume that you already have a camera to attach a lens to.  This is a one-stop-shop solution and is therefore very convenient for travelling light.  I am a big fan of bridge cameras as “good all rounders” and the modern superzooms are truly impressive in their equivalent focal-length range.

You will see in the photo below, that the equivalent focal length is not quite as large as I was able to achieve in the tests above, but I was using my old fuji Bridge camera (with an 18x optical zoom) and some newer bridge cameras can come with up to 50X optical zoom.  In this case, my Fuji S8000fd has a focal length of 4.7 – 84.2mm which doesn’t sound much, but with a 5.6X crop factor, it gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-486mm, which is pretty impressive.  You can buy newer version for under £100 with 30X zooms which is equivalent to 24-720mm so the numbers are getting pretty big!

Of course, the downside is that the sensor is small and therefore the ultimate clarity and light sensitivity of the camera will suffer, and if autofocus doesn’t lock on, manual focus can be a dead-loss, but in good conditions, things are pretty good.

Fuji FinePix S8000fd test
Fuji FinePix S8000fd at full zoom (84.2mm, equivalent to 486mm full frame). Newer bridge cameras can zoom in even closer.

Recommendation?

As ever, your final choice is up to you – there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution. Here are my thoughts in summary though:

  • Never buy a supplementary lens for your filter ring.  You may as well burn a £10 note.
  • Personally, I would never build a DSLR camera bag and not include a 2x teleconverter.  Sure, they may not be as good as a massive, expensive lens, but they’re cheap and portable, so you can take them with you everywhere.
  • Unless you’re into astro photography – don’t bother with a mirror lens. They’ll only frustrate and annoy you.
  • If you don’t mind the length, the fixed focal length M42 mount lenses from Rokinon and Optomax etc. are really good for the price.
  • Bridge cameras remain great all-rounders provided you aren’t too fussed about retaining total control (or taking portraits with lovely narrow depth of field at shorter focal lengths).  Plus, the lens and the camera come together, so if you don’t mind an old 8 megapixel one they’re an absolute bargain.

As ever – happy shooting!

The lenses tested:

Lenses tested here
Tested… Top to bottom: A 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens