Overcoming MP-E lens failure

I mentioned earlier that my photo expedition through Ecuador’s astounding ant fauna was interrupted part-way by a tragic failure of my kit’s centerpiece: the Canon MP-E macro lens. The iris was stuck full open, inert, and the lens lost all depth-of-field.

Once plan B- an attempt to ship in a new lens- failed, I settled on four strategies.

1. Change the subject

I was still functional for shooting larger insects with my 100mm f/2.8 lens, as well as an extension tube + 35mm lens. I abandoned plans to photograph small ants in favor of, for example, grasshoppers:

Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens; ISO 800, f6.3, 1/160/sec, ambient light

2. Free form jazz odyssey

When rock legends Spinal Tap lost their lead guitar player, the band didn’t throw in the towel. They made a stylistic change to suit what remained. My broken lens wasn’t useless- it still functioned at f/2.8. Wide open, the lens captures dreamy, almost hallucinogenic images. Most of these f/2.8 photos won’t be economically viable in the stock photography market, but they’ll make fine art prints. A free-form jazz odyssey of bug photos, if you will:

Ectatomma tuberculatum worker cradles a droplet of honeydew in her mandibles
Ectatomma ruidum, male ant

3. MacGyver a solution

Some ant species were so important I absolutely had to photograph them, lens or no. The Allomerus from the Monday Mystery is one such species.

While the iris on my broken MP-E lens was out, the iris on my 35mm f/2 prime worked fine. So I stopped that lens all the way down to f/22 and reverse-mounted it with masking tape to the front of the stricken macro:

With radio-fired remote strobes for lighting I had a satisfactory work-around. The contraption was so dark I had to use a 100 light LED array to illuminate the subject just to line up the shot, and the final image wasn’t quite as crisp as the MP-E on its own. But with patience I was able to capture usable photographs.

Allomerus, in the brood nest, photographed through a reverse-mounted 35mm on a Canon MP-E macro lens

The same contraption also served for shooting these photos of Myrmelachista devil’s garden ants.

4. Extend and crop

The single extension tube I packed was a godsend. Inexpensive & lightweight, the tube added just enough oomph to my 100mm macro that I could make up the magnification difference on larger ants by cropping slightly, rather than severely. For example, this cropped image comprises 70% of the original pixels:

Ouch! Yet, I didn't need the MP-E for this shot.

The resolution is not the maximum that the 7D is capable of capturing, but the resulting image is still 4000 pixels wide, well more than enough for the stock photo market. Plus, it’s a great shot. It wouldn’t exist at all if I’d just given up and spent the rest of my trip hiking about and drinking Pilsener.

I finished the expedition with a remarkable new collection of natural history images. In fact, most content for Army Ant Week was taken post-failure. I salvaged the trip because I carried just enough redundancy in my equipment- I had two macro lenses, two camera backs, an extension tube, and extra flash units- to be able to recover from malfunctions.

All the same, I’m buying more extension tubes.

13 thoughts on “Overcoming MP-E lens failure”

    1. That’s really a question for Mrs. Myrmecos. She was doing most of the field research on our trip. I was either assisting her project, or doing photography.

      1. Wow, didn’t know you were married! Not to sound creepy but, if you would like to share her name, I’ll look her up.

  1. He calls his image of Allomerus in the brood nest “usable”.
    My best ant photograph isn’t half that good.
    You rule!

  2. I’m interested in the first natural light shot – I note you cranked up the ISO and opened up the lens, yet it doesn’t look grainy and has reasonably good DOF. Is that all there is to it? My limited attempts at natural light always come out looking soft and with a blue color cast.

    1. One reason why I love photography in the tropics is that cloudy weather at mid-day is still brighter than it is up here in the northlands. The sky for that shot was an enormous, bright, neutral diffuser. No blue sky reflecting on the insect. That was just luck of the time and place.

      The original image does show an amount of noise you might expect at ISO 800 (well, somewhat less on the 7D than what you’d get on a 50D), but it just doesn’t register for the sizes I use in blog posts. If I was shooting only for the web, I’d spend a lot more time up at ISOs of 800-3200.

  3. James.C. Trager

    Taped the lens on backwards — Never would have thought of that. Can you explain how you came to that approach?

    1. I needed an iris, and the 35mm lens (which is small & light) had one. Reverse-mounting lenses is a standard technique for inexpensive macro.

      The setup was *almost* unworkable- you’d typically want your relay lens to have the iris so you can operate it wide open (to see through the viewfinder) and then have the camera constrict the iris just prior to taking the photo. A reverse-mounted lens is inert, so the iris is stuck wherever you’ve set it. The fixed small aperture made everything very, very dark, and almost impossible to line up a shot.

      Plus, I couldn’t mount the MT-24EX flash on the lens front as the back end of the 35mm doesn’t fit the mounts. So my standard lighting system wasn’t an option. My reverse-mount hack ended up being a studio solution only. I could direct a 100-LED video light right on the subject so I could line up the shot, and then use bounced remote strobes to light the actual photograph.

      I mostly used strategies 1 & 4 in the field, and collected vials of the small ants that I absolutely had to photograph (especially, the Devils Garden ants) to shoot later back at the hotel.

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