Canon 100mm Macro – Part I

Not your father’s macro lens.

For a preamble on macro lenses, please click here.

Over the past five years anytime I wanted to get really close to something meant using my Olympus C5050Z five megapixel digital. Quality is decent, it focuses postage stamp close and framing using the built-in LCD screen is dead accurate. Rack the lens out to maximum zoom and you also get reasonable subject-to-lens clearance for illumination purposes.

If nothing else, it has been used to list any number of film cameras and lenses on various auction sites, so it has paid for itself many times. Most digital cameras, especially the point-and-shoots, focus easily into what we think of as the macro range, so the Olympus is nothing special in this regard. Handy, though, and easy to use, with auto everything – focus, flash, exposure.

By contrast, here’s my latest Canon lens addition – macro with a vengeance.

Canon 5D and 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens, with funding source

With modern multi-coated glasses, charging extra for a lens hood must be as big a scam as ethanol, and I never use one on any of my Canon lenses except on the fish-eye and the 400mm, where they are non-removable. Why? Because they add bulk and make no earthly difference to the picture. And if you have seen the hood for this Canon, you will not want to buy it either. But I do use an UV filter on everything and have recently convinced myself that the German B+W ones are better made than their Japanese counterparts, so I paid up a few dollars more for the real thing. Seems I’m still a sucker for that ‘Made in Germany’ thing. The main reason I use a filter is that I think any decent photographer should throw out all his lens caps.

Not a Japanese filter…. As you can see, that Olympus has no issues with getting in close.

Now no one could accuse the Canon Macro of being pretty to look at – not like in Leica Summicron or Contarex Planar pretty – but its inverted cone design speaks of the Bauhaus, function and funky form. Construction is typical Canon prime – meaning good if not ‘L’ quality and a whole lot better than their crappy kit zooms. Best of all, at under $500, if you drop it you are upset but not destroyed. Try saying that about your Leica lenses….

Everything about the ergonomics of this lens is right. The 100mm focal length means you get a nice long subject distance to simplify lighting. You are twice as far away as with a 50mm macro, at the cost of depth of field. The short (about 135 degree) focus throw from infinity to 1:1 (the lens goes down to life size on a full frame camera) is very smooth and full time manual focusing is included if you use autofocus – very handy for a macro lens where small focus adjustments are the order of the day. The bulk and weight of the lens make for perfect balance on the 5D, meaning hand holding is easy.

Best of all, unlike all those macro lenses I illustrated yesterday, the length of this one does not change as it is racked out – meaning that no new obstacle to proper lighting presents itself. And auto exposure means no more figuring of light loss as 1:1 reproduction is approached – a loss of two stops in brightness owing to the extension of the lens from the sensor. That holds whether the lens is made by Canon or Ballspond Roadski optics.

How accurately does the lens focus on the 5D? I am using the center rectangle here which is the most sensitive focus point in the camera’s design. Placing the camera and lens on a tripod on the high tech Pindelski test bench with the camera at 45 degrees to the tape measure, here is the result with the lens autofocused on the line just above the numeral 3 with the lens at full aperture of f/2.8, set at its closest focus distance:

That looks pretty spot on to me.

Not convinced? Here it is much larger:

Far better than I could do with manual focus.

Now I am an empiricist by nature, not a test bench nerd, but with a lens whose primary use is for the very close-up subject, a few seconds doing this determines whether the lens is a keeper or not. Clearly, this one is a keeper. Thank you, B&H and thank you, Canon!

The Dr. Pindelski optical test bench? High tech at its best:

Because of the internal space needed to allow those elements to be racked out when focusing close, the 100mm Macro is necessarily quite a bit longer than that greatest portrait lens I have ever used, the 85mm:

Comparable in weight, the 100mm Macro is much longer than the 85mm. Lens hoods NOT included!

So ergonomics, autofocus accuracy and sharpness are not going to be an issue with the Canon 100mm USM Macro lens.

Focus speed? Simply startling, with little noise. The only time I could trip it up is by focusing at the closest distance then recomposing on a subject at infinity with poorly defined details. The lens would hunt back and forth before locking in. For non-macro use Canon thoughtfully provides a focus limiter switch to prevent this kind of silliness. In practice, I have found that setting the 5D to servo-focus is ideal when this lens is used in the close-up range. This setting makes the lens focus continuously even after the first pressure is taken up on the shutter release button and you can hear the stepper motor working away to maintain the subject in focus. As I said at the beginning of this article, this is not your father’s macro lens.

As I already own the fast 85mm non-macro, I have little interest in using the 100mm Macro lens for any but macro subjects. To do otherwise would be like using an f/1 lens at f/4 – a waste of money. If, on the other hand, this is your only portrait-length lens, then use in the studio should be just fine.

The challenge now is to see whether I can take any snaps remotely up to the technical standards of this optic. Subsequent articles will determine that.

Click here for Part II.

Canon’s big guns

Watch how they are made.

A reader posted an interesting comment (scroll down) with a link to Canon’s videos showing how lenses are made. (That same reader was very helpful in resolving a problem that prevented Internet Explorer users from commenting – thank you, Ben!).

Click on Lens Assembly Process (click through to get there – I cannot find a specific URL) and you will see how the monster 500mm f/4L IS lens is assembled – I still don’t feel good about the price tag, but this helps.

There’s lots of great historical information regarding Canon’s products – click Camera Hall for a history of cameras or here for great historical details on Canon.

Canon 400mm f/5.6 ‘L’ lens – Part II

Simply the best 400mm lens I have used.

Refer back to Part I for the design and handling aspects of this lens.

Now for some pictures. These were snapped with the camera/lens mounted at the lens ring on a Bogen 2016 monopod, one of the greatest bargains for any photographer. The monopod is fitted with a Manfrotto QR head, another tremendous bargain. Absent use with the very fastest shutter speeds, a monopod, as a minimum, makes great sense as it eliminates vertical movement of the camera. The long tube of the lens, with its attendant high turning moment of inertia, reduces rotational movement. That leaves fore-and-aft movement, something that can be greatly reduced with a solidly planted, wide legged, stance and support of the long end of the lens’s barrel with the other hand. Remember the lens has no IS – a shame, but that would add $500 and 8 ozs to the price and weight. I can live without it.

These snaps were easy. I drove 21 miles west to California’s wonderful Highway One with the sun having a couple of hours of gambolling about left, before its date with the far east. Early and late light always conveys the best drama. Add a lens that is inherently dramatic, and the rest is easy.

ISO was set to 400 for shorter shutter speeds. All snaps were underexposed by 1.5 stops, as these late lighting conditions are simply an opportunity for highlights to burn out with the 5D’s sensor. Underexposure and a little use of the ‘Shadows’ slider in Aperture makes for a far better dynamic range. The aperture makes no difference to resolution with this lens – the aperture controls only light and depth of field. Definition remains unchanged. Meaning superb.

All pictures were processed in Aperture, meaning RAW conversion and default 5D sharpening settings. The lens does not need additional sharpening, unlike its two Leica predecessors. Focus was automatic, with a first pressure on the button locking the central rectangle focus point, pending recomposition. Forget matrix focus and all that marketing gobbledegook – there is so little depth of field at short distances that critical focus must be on the key part of the image – meaning the eyes, where animals are concerned.

First, driving north on One, a quick stop at Moonstone Beach to catch the pelican doing his thing. This one is actually one half of the image, cropped for drama. So it’s as if I used an 800mm lens here! You can’t tell – there is no grain with the 5D’s sensor at ISO 400.

Pelican at take-off. 1/1500th, f/8

10 miles further north, just past Hearst Castle, is Elephant Seal Beach and a stop to enjoy sunset with these big boys was just what the doctor ordered. Just stay upwind of these fellows if at all possible. The lens is completely flare free, even directly into the sun. And who said fish don’t make you fat?

Elephant seal pup. 1/180th, f/8

Elephant seal. 1/250th, f/8

Finally, with the sun three-quarters of the way down the horizon, driving back home, Hearst Castle glows in all its splendor. This one had the camera resting on the car for support.

Hearst Castle at sunset. 1/180th, f/11

The striking thing about this optic is that, for the first time in my experience with a 400mm focal length, absolutely no excuses need be made for micro-contrast. Meaning the resolution of fine detail with high contrast is equivalent to a fixed focal length prime (OK, excluding the lousy Canon 20mm!). That statement alone should have you rushing to your favorite vendor to buy yourself one for the holidays. Sure, you may only use it a few times a year, but when you do …. Wow! Canon’s megabuck f/4 and f/2.8 optics of like length may be better, but at that price I neither care nor propose to find out. This lens is a stunning bargain.

Canon 400mm f/5.6 ‘L’ lens – Part I

First, the ergonomics

Ergonomics are vital to all effective machine design and nowhere is this more true in photography than with really long lenses. The user is already confronting slow apertures and a high risk of camera shake. A poorly handling lens does nothing to help.

So in this first of two parts (the second will deal with performance) I take a look at my latest Canon lens addition, the 400mm f/5.6 ‘L’ telephoto which I have been using for a while now. And let me start by saying that I have not used a lens of this length with better ergonomics.

First, a few notes on my long lens history. I started with a 280mm f/4.8 Telyt on a Visoflex II mirror housing mounted on my Leica M3. An ergonomic nightmare. The big glass front elements of the lens were so heavy that the brass focusing collar would bind if the front of the lens was not supported. The collar was also very small, the lens had neither auto focus (this is 1975!) or an automatic diaphragm, overall contrast was low dictating the use of contrastier grades of printing paper and, well, it’s a miracle I managed to make any good photos with it.

Hyde Park, 1975. Leica M3, Visoflex II, 280mm f/4.8 Leitz Telyt, Tri X

Later, when the Leicaflex SL came along, it was joined by an 180mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt R. Great if not superb ergonomics, more than made up for by fabulous optics. This is the lens Leitz designed for NASA for use on space flights. It shows.

Lake Elizabeth, 1995. Leicaflex SL, 180mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt R. Kodachrome 64

Later, I added a 400mm f/6.8 Telyt which was a fine, if failed, attempt at improving the ergonomics of long lenses. It was very long being a true long focus lens rather than of telephoto design, unscrewed into several pieces and came with a weird shoulder mount (redesigned many times, all awful) which would connect to the base of the lens with the stock for your shoulder, like with a rifle I suppose. So time consuming to set up and so impossible to carry around, I never used this add-on contraption. Focusing was original too, using a sliding trombone mount locked with a small button on the side of the lens. Remarkably effective as long as the slide had fresh grease. The maximum aperture was slow at f/6.8, resulting in a very light lens which was always used at full aperture – not least because the lens lacked even a pre-set diaphragm. Click stops only. It had but two elements and lost definition off axis quickly, but the center was dead sharp and the results satisfying.

Hearst Castle, 2006. Canon 5D, 400mm f/6.8 Telyt, monopod, ISO 400

But my latest long lens journey bears documenting, if for no other reason than that someone has finally got the ergonomics as right as they can be on something so ungainly. The Canon lens I am writing about has been around for ages and ages, but this is my first experience with a fully automatic 400mm lens.

Who needs a 400mm lens? Well, the fellows at sports events for one. Intrepid wildlife snappers and paparazzi swear by them. I am none of these. However, for landscapes, there is nothing to beat them for drama and impact. And I photograph landscapes.

I sometimes think Canon must have two lens design teams. There are the geniuses who design the wonderful optics and mechanics of their big guns and their ‘L’ glass, and then there are the guys who couldn’t make it in the bean counting department and were relegated to the sub-basement, only to churn out truly awful cheap zooms and ultra wides.

Looking at the long focus lenses in Canon’s catalog, you gets lots of choice in the purportedly better ‘L’ glass – with a 100-400mm zoom, the 200mm f/2.8, two IS-equipped 300mm optics (f/2.8 and f/4), no fewer than three 400mm choices – f/2.8 IS, f/4 IS DO (non-’L’) and the f/5.6 non-IS. At 500mm there’s an f/4 IS and a 600mm f/4 IS monster rounds out the range. Most of these run well into the thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately this lens adopts the garish cream coloring seemingly de rigeur for the polyster set to whom nothing matters so much as displaying their possessions. Don’t wildlife photographers just hate this? The lens has no IS but is small and light instead, in as much as any 400mm lens can be thought of in those terms. Add a monopod and a quick release tripod plate and you have a very effective combination which can avoid the worst of the shakes. It bears emphasizing just how long a 400mm lens is – any shake is magnified eight times compared to a standard 50mm optic. The grain free nature of the 5D’s full frame sensor goes a long way to beating the shakes by simply cranking up the ISO to 400 or 800. That makes for short shutter speeds.

Why is this the best 400mm I have used from an ergonomic standpoint? Simple. First the autofocus is deadly accurate (when used with the center focusing rectangle in the 5D), it is super fast and no focus collar (Did I get that right? Maybe a little more this way? No, maybe the other way?) twiddling is required. This is a good thing as the longer you have to hold any heavy lens at eye level, the more fatigued and unsteady does your hold become. Secondly the lens is auto aperture permitting full exposure automation. Finally, for its length it’s compact, coming in at 10.1″ long and only 2.8lbs in weight. (Compare with the 16″ or so inches of that f/6.8 Telyt). That weight is perfectly balanced on the 5D and the lens comes with a superbly designed tripod collar – more of this later – and a (not so superbly designed) built-in lens hood. The latter is a pain until you get the hang of it. It’s nicely flock lined and is pulled out and rotated counterclockwise (and counterintuitively) to lock. The front of the hood is cleverly surrounded with a rubber protective ring. Try to collapse it and you quickly learn there’s a right amount to rotate it clockwise before trying to slide it down the barrel. A click-stop or two would have been welcomed here, Canon. New price is some $1,100 but I bought mine mint, if used, for just under $900. Check the used listings – these come on the market periodically and most seem to have had light use. I would definitely avoid pros’ beaters. Mine came with the tripod collar and expertly designed pouch, both standard with the lens.

Perfect balance at the tripod mount on a Canon 5D

This flock-lined tripod collar is a true masterpiece. The knob operates a short-throw cam to lock the collar in place after clicking it onto the lens. The click-lock is bypassed on removal by turning the knob CCW then pulling gently. No force is needed to lock the ring and it remains very stable in use. I have fitted a Manfrotto QR plate to the foot for quick mounting on a tripod or monopod.

A design masterpiece – the locking tripod mount ring

As an added feature, if you want to use the tripod collar on the 200mm f/2.8 ‘L’ it fits perfectly, so long as you reverse it to clear the camera’s front escutcheon when mounting the lens. This provides a far better mounting point for the front-heavy 200mm lens compared with the one on the 5D’s baseplate. Stress, of course, is greatly reduced also.

Tripod mount ring mounted on 200mm f/2.8 ‘L’, reversed to clear body

Snugging up the collar is easy with the generously sized cammed knob provided. This is a magnificent piece of engineering design clearly thought through by a real photographer-designer.

Top view. The ring is snugged up when the line is aligned with the focus indicator

The focus range switch purportedly makes for faster autofocus when set to the narrow range. I cannot tell the difference and simply keep it on the broad range setting. In either case, the focus is blisteringly fast. This is not your grandfather’s Leica Telyt! Given that focus can be locked with a first pressure on the shutter button, I have yet to use manual focus, though it has to be said the focus collar is very smooth and devoid of any of the raspiness afflicting Canon’s garbage non-’L’ zooms – you know, the ones from the boys in the basement.

Focus range amd auto/manual switches, just like on the 200mm

Canon did not stop there. They did the case right. Instead of some dumb drawing room display tube of shiny leather (thank you, Leitz Wetzlar – ‘Echte leder’ as they used to proudly claim) they give us something in pure vinyl (the better to ward off rain and much harder wearing) with an ingenious velcro plus 2 linked zipper flap design which really works. The case needs a shoulder strap to make sense (buying an oversize camera bag to accommodate this monster does not) but, boy!, does it work!

Canon’s bag easily accommodates the quick release plate from Manfrotto

Ingenious double zipper opens velcroed flap for quick lens removal from the LZ1132 case

In Part II I will take a look at performance in the field with some snaps to illustrate. Suffice it to say that if my specimen is typical, you should be rushing out to get this lens if the need dictates.

Canon 20mm – some further thoughts

Not perfect – you get what you pay for, I suppose.

I wrote in somewhat lukewarm terms of the underwhelming definition of the Canon 20mm lens here.

I took a more objective view of the vignetting issue by banging out four snaps on the old estate, camera and lens dutifully mounted on a tripod, at the four largest apertures:

To best assess vignetting, look at the bottom right corner. The sky is misleading as the changing azimuth angle will provide some natural vignetting with any lens this wide. You can see that at full aperture, f/2.8, the vigneting is pretty awful, but rapidly falls by f/4 with full coverage at f/5.6 and below.

So unless you want to use the Photoshop CS2 Filter->Distort->LensCorrection->Vignette->Amount, (does anyone at Adobe have the remotest iota of common sense when it comes to designing menus – who would guess it’s under ‘Distort’?) f/2.8 is simply not useable. Realistically, if it’s a low light situation, vignetting is no big deal and tends to enhance the drama of a picture. But if you want full coverage to the corners, forget it. Regard the maximum aperture as useful for focusing only.

How about definition? Well, I concluded that my first sample was just not good enough, especially after nothing but great experiences with the 15mm fisheye, the 85mm f/1.8, the 200mm f/2.8 and the 24-105mm zoom. If I can get way better definition from the fisheye after doing all that pixel stretching with ImageAlign (making the lens like a 12mm rectilinear hyper-wide) then all cannot be right with my 20mm sample which clearly has poorer definition than the fisheye. So I bit the bullet and returned the lens to B&H. Moses, of that estimable store, didn’t understand when I explained the lens sucked, but when I pulled Schlecht on him he cottoned on and was very good about it. I had a replacement (with an older serial number, strangely) in my hands in seven business days. Thank you, B&H. Was the result a quantum leap in definition? No. However, overall the ‘bite’ of the image is improved, if still not up to any of the other lenses which, frankly, easily surpass it in this regard. Vignetting in both samples at full aperture is just awful.

The right answer, I suppose, is to get a used Leica 21mm Super Angulon R and adapt it to the 5D. That lens may only be f/4 but it’s fabulous, like all Leica glass. I used one on my Leicaflex SL for years. Unfortunately, the sheer bulk of the lens, compounded by a heavy brass mount and a huge front element, not to mention a complete lack of focus or aperture and exposure automation on the 5D, rules it out. The M Elmarit will not, of course, achieve infinity focus owing to the need for a short flange-to-sensor distance mandated by the rangefinder design. Plus, it’s way overpriced.

So mediocre definition would seem to be the Achilles Heel of this optic – that or I have been an unlucky victim of poor quality control. Canon has little incentive for improving the lens, with everyone being sold on bulky, slow zooms. Shame. Still, at f/8 it’s decent and it’s dirt cheap, too, at $400. If it was much more I would return it.

You can get an idea of the relative size of the 20mm in this picture where it is side by side with the 50mm f/1.4 – it’s not too bulky.

Notice that the 72mm Canon UV filter on the 20mm lens says ‘Sharp Cut’, implying a sharp cut off prior to the infra red range of the spectrum. By contrast the 58mm filter on the 50mm lens bears no such designation. This is rather mystifying (the 77mm filter for the 24-105mm is also ‘Sharp Cut’) as the sensor in the 5D (and probably in their other DSLR offferings) has a built in IR filter – something Leica should have learned before mistakenly releasing the M8 with no IR sensor filter, only to have to issue free lens filters to all buyers as IR rays wreaked havoc with color accuracy. No biggie – Canon’s filters are inexpensive and do the job of protecting my lens’ front elements.

Update: I ended up selling the lens – too much bulk for too little performance. Read all about it here.