Sunday, February 28, 2016

Extreme Macro with the Canon 65mm 1-5x Lens

Extreme Macro with the Canon 65mm 1-5x Lens

Most high-end macro lenses can focus from "infinity" to about 1x magnification (where the image is projected on the sensor at "life size").

The Canon 65mm f/2.8 1-5x  is a very special macro lens that starts at 1x and continues all the way to 5x, allowing for some extreme closeups!

I rented this lens for a week to give it a test drive.  In this "impressions" review, I talk about my experiences with the Canon 65mm and provide a number of sample images I captured with the lens.  My goal is to give you a clear idea of what it's like to use this lens and what is possible with it!


These two images show the lens at both magnification limits: 1x all the way to 5x!

The build quality of this lens is very impressive.  The lens appears to be a nearly 100% mix of metal and glass.  The lens body has a good "weight" to it.  Tolerances are extremely fine. There is just enough dampening on the focus knob and no wobble or loose parts to speak of.

A tripod collar is included on the lens.  I don't think it's included because the lens is heavy but instead to make composition tweaking a bit more balanced.  The collar also allows for a convenient change to portrait framing.

The street price of the lens as I write this is around $1000.

There is no auto focus on this lens.  One might argue there is no focus at all.  More on that later...

Sample Images

Here are a few images I captured with this lens, just to get an idea of what it can do in the hands of someone who is experienced with macro photography but not extreme macro:

Blueberry at about 2.5x

Moss, at about 3x. Note the cell walls!

More moss, at about 4x
Tiny Flower, at about 2x


The magnification possible with this lens is impressive.  The lens will reveal features and details that you will never see with a normal macro lens.  For example:

In this tight crop, note that we can actually see cell walls on this tiny piece of moss.  Also note the single cell white "sphere" on the moss.  I'm not sure what it is, but it looks like an egg to me.

To show a more intuitive view of the magnification possibilities, I photographed a LEGO brick at magnifications between 1x and 5x.  Note that the 1x setting is the farthest focus possible with this lens - it can not focus from further away.

1x (the minimum)




5x (the maximum)


As a specialized lens, the Canon 65mm has many limitations.  Here I try to list the major ones:

Focus is Basically Fixed

With a normal lens, you can focus using a focus ring.  While you can sort of do this with the Canon 65mm, it's not too practical for the following two reasons.
  • The in-focus range is so small, that it's hard to know how to position the camera
  • The magnification changes fairly dramatically as you "focus", thus composition changes as well
For these reasons, it's good to have a macro rail on hand.  You can then use the macro rail to focus and work around some of the challenges.

Here is focus distance by magnification that I grabbed from the manual:

No Infinity Focus

The above point implies that you can't use this lens to photograph anything larger than a penny.  This means no portraits, no landscapes, etc.

Light and Diffraction Issues

The lens specification sheet claims it's f/2.8 but, due to the extreme magnification, the "effective" aperture is smaller (this is thanks to physics, there's nothing the lens can do about it).  The more you magnify, the smaller the effective aperture will be.  The reduced aperture causes light loss, which affects metering.   The reduced aperture also causes diffraction-based softening.  This chart (from the manual), gives the light loss in stops:

As an example, if you are shooting f/8 and 3x magnification, you will really be at f/8 + 4 stops, or f/32.  On a modern camera, diffraction softening at f/32 is quite noticeable when "pixel peeping".

The light losses mean that you will need powerful lighting to illuminate your subject.

You can try capturing images without flash, but this will likely mean several second exposures.  Note that even the slightest movement at these magnifications will cause blurring.  I tried 0.5 second exposures and saw small shifts that blurred the image slightly.  I saw the best results using flash in a setup like this:

In the setup above I am using a LED light for framing, then a flash for actual exposure.

Tiny Depth of Field

If shooting at f/8 and really getting f/32 wasn't challenging enough, you also end up with tiny depth of field.  Here is the breakdown from the manual:

As the chart shows, you get about 1 mm at f/8 and 1x magnification.  If you go 5x, you only get 0.13mm (!).  To me, this means that focus stacking is almost mandatory for satisfying results.

I ended up using Helicon focus for my stacking.  You can also try the free Combine ZP, although I think that Helicon is worth paying for (especially if you get a $1000 specialized lens like this one).

As an example, here is that blueberry photo again - the stacked version verses a single frame:

A single frame from the lens, showing the natural depth of field

A stack of many frames in Helicon Focus
Of course, stacking is easiest if the object does not move.  If you want to capture something that might move, prepare to get creative with tiny depth of field or more advanced alignment techniques.

Final Thoughts

Like most things, this lens has it's trade-off.  It can capture images that other lenses simply can not provide.  But, in doing so, it brings a long list of limitations that other lenses do not have.

I personally tend to forgive the limitations in light of the fact that the images you can produce are so different than people normally see.  I think that in today's environment, where images are flooded on the internet every day, anything one can do to create distinctive work can make a difference.  For those who's creative energies resonate with the macro world, it's a great option to explore further.

If you are just getting into macro, I recommend starting with a 1:1 macro lens that can focus to infinity.  It's simply more versatile.  Even if you own the Canon 65 mm, you'll also want a general-purpose macro to compliment it..

I personally do not own a Canon body that can mount this lens (which I rented).  Thus, it would be quite an investment for me to acquire one permanently.  In light of this situation, I'm going to wait and possibly write down ideas for compositions - it would be interesting to see how many I can come up with as fuel for "justification".

In summary, if you can mount this lens and are into macro photography, I definitely recommend renting it for a week or so, you'll have fun :)


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