Tag Archives: Close-up

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.

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!

Mobile Macro Madness (Part 2)

I thought it might be worth returning to macro again immediately, having started touching on the subject yesterday.

When writing yesterday, I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras such as SLRs / DSLRs / CSCs or bridge cameras.  I thought, since this is a budget blog, I should return to the more accessible end of the market, using a mobile phone or cheap compact.  In both cases, many have macro modes which allow you to get surprisingly close to small subjects.

“I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras”

Here comes the science bit…  I have included this under the title “Macro” because it is generally used to refer to close-up photography. Strictly speaking, though, the term macro isn’t right for most mobile phones or compact cameras, but it is the technical difference which gives these cameras some interesting properties.

Macro: A technical definition. – The ratio of the subject’s size on the film or sensor plane to its actual size is known as the reproduction ratio – macro normally describes reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.

So – now we’ve got this out of the way, why are mobile phones not macro? And what difference does it make?

Well, if you’re old enough to really remember 35mm film, you’ll know it was called this because each shot was taken on a 35mm wide piece of film. This is the same size as the sensor in expensive DSLRs.  So, for a photo of a 20mm long insect to fill roughly two thirds of a photo, you would have needed a 1:1 (macro) reproduction.

Your mobile phone, though, will have a sensor which is considerably smaller, typically 1/3 inch, which is just 8.5mm across.  This changes the reproduction ration from roughly 1:1 to 4:1.  Don’t worry too much about the numbers themselves, but the point is that the insect you’re trying to shoot is now larger than the sensor you’re shooting it with, rather than the other way around.

Now, this reproduction ratio doesn’t mean you will actually be able to focus on something at very close distances (so you may struggle to shoot an insect which fills your whole frame, without some sort of adapter), but it will drastically increase the depth of field which can be achieved at the shortest distances your phone can focus at.

Here is an example, shot using my mobile phone, where you can see that nearly all of the flowers in the photo are in fairly sharp focus:

Honey Bee
A honey bee, shot with a Nokia Lumia 800.

This increased depth of field is, in my opinion, generally a bad thing in macro photography, where you often want to remove distracting backgrounds with a tasteful blur.  However, it does have some interesting applications, and you can have a lot of fun with them.

One of the great things about using a mobile phone is that you can often achieve greater depth of field from close-up of objects that otherwise would be impossible to keep in sharp focus when shooting at a short distance.  This might be useful when shooting models, dolls houses, chess boards, or other miniature environments or landscapes.  This can create some great fun opportunities to create some fun composite images.  (See my articles on software such as PhotoScape or GIMP for some free applications to do this).

Fungi under a tree
Fungi under a tree, shot from a few inches away using a mobile phone but providing a wide depth of field.

And the same shot after playing around with it in some software:

...and a fun guy under the fungi
…and a fun guy under the fungi

Maddening Macro (Part 1)

If you’re anything like me, you will doubtless have found yourself drawn in amazement to some of the photos out there of the very tiny, from very close up.

An ant in a wildflower
Wildlife can be found on your front doorstep, and shot with the simplest of gear.

One of the great things about photography, is that it allows you to see things which are very difficult to perceive with the human eye, either because you simply can’t get close enough to focus well, or because you can’t “freeze” something whilst moving, and your eyes can’t keep up with it.

This is where the wonderful world of macro photography comes in – and there are some true masters of it.  If you want to explore a vast array of images and techniques, the Flickr macros group is one of the largest on the site and is well worth a browse amongst its 300,000 or so photos (at the time of writing).

However, as with all things in photography, there is a catch.  If you start getting serious about taking macro images and read all of the magazines, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that you can spend a LOT of money on gear.  So is there any way to avoid this?

The short answer is yes – so long as you know and understand your equipment and its limitations.  I am therefore intending, over a series of articles in the next few weeks, to cover off some of the ways you can achieve great results without splashing too much cash.

Supplementary Lenses (also known as diopters, close-up or macro filters, or simply close-up lenses)

Being a stickler for technical accuracy, I’m not keen on referring to these little beauties as macro filters, as technically they don’t filter out any light – they simply act as magnifying glasses.  They are referred to as filters, though, as they tend to screw into the filter ring of your camera. (This is one of the reasons I recommend buying a bridge camera with a filter ring, or an appropriate adaptor).

As a general rule, you cannot use these sorts of lenses with more basic point and shoot cameras or mobile phones, which I will return to at another time.

There are a few reasons why I love these handy little tools, though, and why they formed part of every camera bag and setup I have ever owned:

  1. They are really cheap (under £10; definitely the cheapest way of getting into macro photography to start with).
  2. They can generally be fitted to any lens in a kitbag (either by choosing lenses with the same thread size, or a step-up ring, which can be bought for next to nothing).
  3. They hardly take up any space, so you can have them with you all of the time.

The third reason, although not technically a cost saving piece of advice, is definitely one about getting value for money.  One of the things I love about wildlife (particularly macro) photography, is that you can find things to take pictures of everywhere.  Ants, spiders, wasps, bees, even common houseflies become a hundred times more interesting seen from close up.  What you will find happens, is that you’ll go out with your camera and just stumble across things which you think are beautiful and interesting, and would love to take a photo of, but can’t because you don’t have the right lens, because it was too big or bulky.  With these little screw-on lenses, that needn’t happen, because they’re tiny to start with.

But seriously – are they any good?

In all honesty, yes they are – so long as you know their weaknesses.  Here are my “top tips” for getting the best out of your diopter lenses (with a few examples along the way):

Tip #1: Don’t just buy one diopter – by a set of three.

Or even a set of four!  You will normally find that these are sold in sets of +1, +2 and +4 (sometimes +3 or +5), and some sets come with +10.  I have a set of four, including a +10, but, to be honest, it’s a pretty crumby bit of glass, so stick to the lower numbers.  You will also read that you can “stack” these lenses (with the largest diopter closest to the lens) but don’t bother doing that either, as it will rapidly degrade your image quality.

Tip #2: Keep your subject centre-frame.

Unless you can afford to buy a two-element diopter lens (also known as an achromatic lens), which are quite a bit more expensive, then these lenses suffer from chromatic aberration especially closer to the edges.  This basically means that areas of high contrast end up with fringes of colour which should not be there.  With an out-of-focus and even background, this won’t matter, but if it’s a key element of the photo, you will begin to notice.  Therefore, when shooting (particularly in bright, high contrast conditions) try and keep your subject fairly central.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bombus terrestris in flight.
Shot with a +2 diopter from a £10 set of 4, on a basic canon 75-300mm lens (available new for about £70 and second hand, potentially a lot cheaper).

In this shot, you can see the chromatic aberration occuring on the right hand edge of the flower, though in the context of the shot, it detracts little from the action.

If you compare this with the following shot of a cricket, however, you can see how the image quality degrades as you reach closer to the edge of the frame:

A cricket
Shot, again, with a +2 diopter on a 75-300mm lens, but with a closer working distance (and a larger insect) filling the frame. You can see how image quality degrades further out (particularly around the legs).

However, if you shoot your subject dead centre, and against a low contrast (or single colour background) then you can hide the effect almost entirely:

Ladybird
A common English ladybird in a bush in my back garden. The same set up (75-300mm with a +2 diopter) but more even, green background without bright highlights.

Tip #3: Shoot on bright days!

There are a lot of comments out there about needing overcast light to shoot nice macro images, which is fine if you are able to shoot with an expensive ringflash or build complex artificial environments, but as a general rule, bright days are best if you’re on a budget.  This is because they allow you to shoot your subject at a high enough shutter speed to freeze your action, and to give you more flexibility on the aperture you use.

Tip #4: Try using a longer focal-length lens, with a lower diopter number.

Especially if your subject is moving! This approach should allow you to shoot your subject from a sufficiently distant position, without scaring the subject off – it also means you won’t block out too much light by casting your own, huge shadow over the subject thereby extending shutter speeds.  Also, the closer you get to your subject, the worse DoF problems can become making it hard to get what you want in focus.

Tip #5: Buy a mini-clamp tripod

These really are, cheap, low end bits of kit for about £5 – and would be rubbish for shooting birds, but for the small things they’re brilliant.  They’re also really good for quick snaps on a self timer and attach to pretty much anything (and have tripod feet if needed).  Again – they can be carried anywhere and used with any camera – so there’s not really any downside.

Mini clamp tripod
A mini clamp tripod you can just hang off your camera bag – available from amazon or ebay for around £5

Until next time – happy shooting!