There is only one lens on the market that can take this shot

Only one lens can take this shot.

If you’ve paid attention to insect photography over the past decade, you’ll likely have noticed that a single lens, Canon’s MP-E 1-5x macro, has come to dominate the market.  Every professional insect photographer I know owns one, and many of the dedicated amateurs do as well.  Indeed, some photographers have even switched from Nikon to Canon just to be able to use it.

Yet the lens is also a throwback, possessing few of the electronic features of modern camera technology.  It is largely manual, with no auto-focus or image stabilization, and is notoriously difficult to operate.  So what’s the deal?  Why has a cantankerous retro lens become the glass of choice for macro?

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Canon's MP-E 65mm f2.8 1-5x macro lens mounted on an EOS 20D camera body, in many respects the ideal back for this specialized lens.

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The business end of the MP-E.

To answer this question, it is helpful to understand that most macro lenses are essentially standard camera lenses with a movable element inside that allows them to focus close to the camera in addition to their standard reach out to infinity.  They can shoot a distant mountain and effortlessly zing back to capture the flower at your feet.

These lenses have plenty of flexibility, but at a cost of low magnification.  Standard macros do not go past 1:1, a ratio that indicates the size of the projected image on the sensor to the size of the subject.  That is, a 1:1 lens takes a centimeter long bug and projects it as a centimeter long image on the sensor.  That is not really magnification per se, which is unfortunate from an entomological perspective.  The vast majority of insect species are less than a few millimeters long, much too small for most macro lenses.

The MP-E is an entirely different beast.  It functions only as a macro (no mountain vistas for this glass!) starting at 1:1 and going to 5:1.  It is a microscope strapped to a camera, capturing the hairs on the leg of a beetle or the crystalline edges of snowflakes.   Below is an example of the MP-E’s range on an APS-C size sensor (that in the Canon’s EOS rebel and 10/20/30/40/50D cameras):

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A trap-jaw ant at 1x, 3x and 5x, demonstrating the range of the MP-E lens on an APS-C sensor.

Before the MP-E, photographers achieved magnification beyond 1:1 through creative stacking of lenses, bellows, or extension tubes.  Extreme macro was possible but required more effort and planning. The MP-E is an all-in-one system. Optically it performs like an old-fashioned bellows, except the cumbersome bellows have been swapped out for a convenient twist-ring.  The success of the MP-E stems in part from an ability to reproduce the power of the earlier Rube Goldberg macro contraptions in a much simpler unit.

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The MP-E extended to 5x

When the ring is rotated the tube extends, pushing the lens away from the camera.  The farther the glass moves from the camera’s sensor, the closer the focus distance approaches the front of the lens.  At full extension the front lens element focuses a mere couple centimeters ahead, and the effect of a small lens sitting practically on top of the subject is extreme magnification.  The subject is projected at five times its size on the camera’s sensor.  A 4mm ant nearly fills the 22mm APS-C frame.

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The MP-E lens looks and behaves differently at the opposing extremes of its range.

Simple as it may be, the MP-E is not for the faint of heart.  For one, focusing is not what you’d expect.  As the focal distance is fixed by the magnification level, focus is achieved not by turning a ring on the lens but by moving the whole camera back and forth. Pretty ghetto for an $850 lens. At higher magnifications, the focal plane is so tight that slight tremors of the hand swing the subject wildly in and out of focus.

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Peering down the rabbit hole through the MP-E.

Furthermore, the lens is little more than a long dark tube with a small opening.  The effective aperture at 5x and f/16 is an astoundingly small f/96.  The result approaches that of a pinhole camera: little light reaches the viewfinder or the sensor.

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In practice, the view through the lens mostly looks like this.

The greatest difficulty with using this lens is orientation.  Not only is the viewfinder dark, but at high magnification the macroscape becomes an alien world devoid of  recognizable landmarks.  Typically I’ll put a beetle on a rock, plainly visible to the naked eye, and spend the next 5 minutes hunting fruitlessly through the murky viewfinder trying to locate the thing, careening blindly about in the dark with objects swinging in and out of focus.  The first time with the lens can be disconcerting.  I spent months developing a proper sense of how to aim and steady it.  I’ve also started using a flashlight to illuminate the subject.

Forget about using the MP-E without a flash. In ambient light you’d have to mount it on a tripod (the lens does ship with a rail mount) and shoot motionless subjects under long exposures to get enough photons to the sensor for a workable exposure.  Canon sells two excellent flash units, the MR-14EX ring flash and the MT-24EX twin flash, both designed to work with the MP-E lens, and aficionados of the lens often rig other lighting solutions using various brackets, speedlites, and diffusers.

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100% crop of an ant at 5x and f/13, illustrating the softness of the lens at high magnification and small apertures.

The small aperture has the advantage of extending depth of field, but the trade-off is image softness.  By 2-3x, the image is fuzzy enough that even an older 6 megapixel sensor starts to out-resolve the lens.  For this reason you won’t gain much by pairing the MP-E with the newest 15+ megapixel cameras.  If all you shoot is extreme macro, you can save a pile of money buying older camera backs with lower resolution.  The image quality won’t suffer.

Another problem with the small effective aperture is sensor dust.  Every little hint of a speck on the sensor becomes visible and is brought into sharp detail by 5x.  Users of the MP-E spend most of their free time cloning dust constellations out of their photos.

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You'll get to know every speck of dust on your sensor with the MP-E lens, especially at high magnifications. I took this shot only a few hours after swabbing the sensor, and new dust had already stuck.

With all the trouble of a quirky lens that takes weeks of practice to use, why bother?

Well, the image quality is superb.  No other lens on the market can compete with it beyond 1:1.  I’ve assembled some sample shots below:

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Click to play slideshow of sample images

The sturdy build of the MP-E is also excellent, equal in quality to Canon’s pricey professional “L” lenses.  It is a solid, meaty lens that weathers abuse well.  The front element is difficult to damage as it sits retracted behind the rim.

The MP-E is a specialist’s lens.  It produces astounding results, but only for those with the patience to practice it like a musical instrument. If you shoot a lot of macro, you either own it already or probably should.  For those who dabble in macro or are just starting out in photography, the MP-E’s steep learning curve may not justify the price.

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