Tag Archives: Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM

Farewell, Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM

Today I sold my Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens.

For a month or two, I had been thinking of offloading it, and once or twice previously, I had entertained the thought of selling it.

I was recently put into contact with someone who might be interested in it, and today the buyer collected it.

According to my lens utilisation statistics, it was my least used lens apart from my one-month-old Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM.

Looking at my images, I have only shot 10 images with it in the last five years. Two images per year is not much, and I only published a total of 36 images during the time I owned it.

I am just not a macro shooter at all, and I find macro photography too frustrating for my liking.

It is a stunning lens and is in near-mint condition, but it just is not the kind of lens I use much or really need (despite having owned it for over nine years), so it is better for it to be in the possession of someone who will exploit its capabilities.

I will use the money from its sale to fund my NiSi 150mm filter system.

My original intention was to replace the lens with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, but as nice as that lens is (I inspected one), it makes no sense at this point in time.

If I ever want a macro lens in the future, I’ll go and pick one up; but for now, the lack of a macro lens in my rig is not a hindrance.

With this most recent sale and last month’s replacement of my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, that amounts to two lenses gone from my lineup in less than two months!

I have optimised my lens lineup in several ways, and I am content with what is now in my rig.

I would still like to replace my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM with a Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, but for the foreseeable future, that notion will remain confined to the realm of wishful thinking.

Overcoming the Challenge of Depth of Field in Macro Photography

As anyone who has experimented with macro photography will know, this style of photography, and more specifically the nature of the subjects and lenses used, makes achieving a suitable depth of field very challenging.

Some photographers may like to produce the style of image where only one small part of the image is in sharp focus, with the rest receding into a smooth, surreal blur.

This is well and good, but sometimes one simply wants all of the details in a macro image to be rendered in sharp focus.

Sufficient depth of field is quite difficult to achieve in macro photography for two main reasons.

Firstly, the subjects often shot are typically small, which means that one needs to get close to the subject, using a lens whose magnification is life-size (or greater); and secondly, a longer focal length is needed, especially if the subject is a critter which will run or fly away if a photographer gets too close.

Longer focal lengths and very short subject distances both reduce depth of field, and do so more dramatically when combined.

One counter-measure available is to stop the lens’s aperture down to a very narrow aperture.  This sounds good, but there’s a hidden danger: diffraction.

When a lens’s aperture is stopped down to an extremely narrow aperture, light rays entering the lens at various oblique angles must bend dramatically to enter the narrow aperture, and then find their way towards the focal plane.

At very narrow apertures, diffraction causes a loss of fine detail in images, resulting in a softer appearance.  In macro photography, where fine detail is often the very subject the photographer wants to capture, diffraction is more problematic than it would be in other forms of photography, such as landscape photography.

So, with a combination of a long focal length, short subject distance and a practical limitation to how far down one can set the lens’s aperure without degrading the quality of the image, how does one gain more depth of field?

It’s easier than one would think, and doesn’t require any special software if you already have Adobe Photoshop, and even works with Adobe Photoshop CS4.

The technique is called focus stacking, and it involves capturing multiple images of the subject shot multiple times with different focus distances, and digitally blending them.

Each image captured must be framed identically, but what differs is the field of focus.  After each image is captured, it is simply a matter of adjusting the lens’s focus ring by a small amount to render another part of the image in focus.

Perhaps there might be equipment available which can adjust the focus ring in precise increments, but I’ve never looked into it, in my experience of having produced three macro images using this technique, I’ve found that the adjustment of the focus ring can be done manually, and still produce excellent results.

At the capture phase, I recommend using a tripod so that precise framing can be achieved throughout the numerous images that will be captured.

Using the ‘live view’ mode on the camera allows for a much better view of the lens’s plane of focus, and also reduces any potential bumps resulting from contact with the camera’s optical viewfinder.

I also recommend the use of a remote shutter release to further avoid needing to make any contact with the camera.

Some contact with the camera will be required, as without a device to rotate the lens’s focus ring, it will need to be touched.  For that reason, care must be taken so that the camera is not bumped out of alingment.

How many images need to be captured?  That depends on the subject, the subject distance, the lens’s focal length, and how much adjustment of the lens’s focus ring is required to capture a series of images in which the closest subject matter is in focus, right through to the furthest subject matter.

Yesterday I photographed the intricate details of a rose laden with water droplets, and rather than opting for the arty shallow depth of field prevalent in many macro images, I wanted rich details in sharp focus throughout the image.

For my macro photography, I use a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens, which is challenging to use at the best of times, but I also attached my Canon Extender EF 2x II, which doubles the focal length.

I was therefore shooting a relatively small subject at a focal length of 360mm, with not a great deal of distance between the lens and the subject.  The result is not much depth of field.

One might think that I’d need to shoot a dozen or more images to capture the full field of focus, but in fact I only needed seven images.

To produce a focus-stacked composite image in Photoshop, the technique is as follows:

  1. After raw conversion, load all of the raw files into Photoshop.
  2. One at a time, and in sequential order (this is important), copy each image to the clipboard, and then paste it as a new layer into the first image.
  3. Rename the layers using a logical naming scheme (eg, IMG_0001, IMG_0002, etc.).
  4. In the layers pallette, select all of the layers.
  5. Click the Edit menu, and select ‘Auto-Align Layers…’.
  6. Set the Projection set to ‘Auto’ and click OK.  Photoshop will align the layers.
  7. Click the Edit menu and select ‘Auto-Blend Layers…’.
  8. Make sure that ‘Stack Images’ is selected, and click OK.

Depending on the bit depth, dimensions and number of images to be stacked, it could take a while for Photoshop to complete the focus stacking.

The result will be a stack of layers with layer masks on each.  Photoshop’s focus stacking algorithm selects the in-focus subject material in each image and masks out the out-of-focus areas such that the resulting image is sharp throughout.

The next step is to create a new layer for the composite of the stacked images.

From the top layer, press Cmnd-Alt-Shift-E on a Mac, or Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E.  This keyboard-only command will produce a new layer of all lower layers without discarding the layers.  This is not the same as the ‘flatten image’ command, which I never recommend.

Once the composite image has been captured as its own layer, proceed to apply any other post-processing as desired.

Now, let’s look at my results from yesterday’s rose image.

Firstly, here is a montage of my seven source images, and the resulting composite image Photoshop produced using the automatic layer blending option.

Focus-Stacked Rose

Focus-Stacked Rose

As can be seen in the above screen capture, images 1 to 7 all have different planes of focus.  The composite image in the lower right shows the raw result from Photoshop’s focus stacking algorithm.

One caveat of which to be aware is that the technique results in a softening around the edges of the frame, so it will be necessary to marginally crop the image.  For that reason, I recommend composing so that no critical subject matter is positioned close to the edges of the frame, as it may be damaged by the ‘soft border’.

Now, here’s the final image after I completed my post-processing, which included cloning distracting spots, detail enhancement using Calvin Hollywood’s ‘Freaky Detail’ technique, cloning out of distracting spots, and contrast and sharpening adjustments.

Petals

Petals

Hopefully this article has been helpful in illustrating how a macro photographer can overcome the challenge of very limited depth of field by carefully executing the capture of multiple frames of the same subject at different planes of focus, and using one of Photoshop’s in-built functions to digitally composite the in-focus subject matter in the multiple frames to produce a rich, detailed image with everything rendered in sharp focus.

Equipment I Use – Camera and Lenses

As a photographer I believe that the ability of a person to capture photographic images is more important than the equipment used in the process.

However, and somewhat at odds with that ideal, I also believe that quality equipment is a vital part of the ingredients that go into producing a great image.

Put simply, high-quality equipment will both reduce gear-induced limitations as well as produce images of better quality.  It is to be remembered, however, that the world’s greatest camera in the hands of the world’s worst photographer will produce an expensively bad image.

Philosophies aside, this first article of several is intended to explain the camera and lenses I use and for what applications I use them.  Further articles will go into the details of other equipment such as lighting equipment, filters, supports and other accessories, as these are equally important in achieving my images.

While I love good gear and have a significant amount of it, I’d prefer to be using that equipment to capture good images than sitting here talking about the equipment; but be that as it may, many photographers are interested in knowing what gear other photographers use, so without further ado, here’s a breakdown of my camera and lens equipment.

Camera

I use only one camera: a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR.   I purchased this in May of 2010 to replace my Canon EOS 5D, a camera I had been using since 2006, and which was destroyed by a dramatic encounter with the ocean at Kiama.

The biggest feature of the Canon EOS 5D line of cameras is the full-frame sensor.  A full-frame sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film (ie, 36mm x 24mm), and there are multiple benefits of a larger sensor than the smaller APS-C (1.6x crop) sensors in most of Canon’s other cameras; namely:

  1. less digital noise due to a physically larger sensor;
  2. easier composing due to a larger viewfinder;
  3. easier focusing due to a larger viewfinder;
  4. a brighter viewfinder due to the larger size; and
  5. no cropping of a lens’s native field of view.

One significant point needs to be made on the issue of digital noise.  One of the critical factors that comes into play is the pixel density.  Simply put, the more pixels you cram onto a given surface area, the closer they must be in proximity, and the higher is the likelihood of digital noise resulting from heat.

The 5D was known for its low noise, and likewise, the 5D Mark II also offers very low noise. I have shot a band at ISO speeds of 3,200 and 6,400 and landed very good results.  Granted, at 100% magnification, the image is very grainy, but it is completely impractical to view a 21mp image at full-size.  When viewed at more realistic sizes such as 1,024 x 683, the low level of visible noise is very acceptable indeed.

My first DSLR was a Canon EOS 20D, which I purchased in 2005; and prior to that, my first digital camera was a Canon PowerShot S45, which I purchased in 2002.  This was a high-end compact camera, which at 4mp, had the highest pixel count available at the time.  This camera also offered raw mode, video, and had manual exposure controls — all for the handsome sum of around $1,300.   A current-model, entry-level DSLR can now be bought for under $1,000. How times have changed!

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 5D and my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 20D for an insight into these cameras’ capabilities.

Lenses

More important than the choice of camera is the glass in front of it.  At the time of writing I have seven lenses, all being from Canon’s “L” range, and all having the widest apertures in their respective focal lengths.

I use my various lenses for different purposes, and the following paragraphs will provide some details on each lens.

1.  Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

This is my seascaping lens.   I use it exclusively for seascape and landscape work, and while it is a zoom, I tend to shoot it like a prime, rarely deviating from the 16mm setting.  I like the ultra-wide, 108-degree diagonal field of view this lens offers at 16mm, and for ‘scapes it produces wide vistas and allows a foreground subject to be given striking prominence in the frame.

I have also used this lens for an indoor band shoot, but I tend to prefer faster primes for their increased light-gathering ability.

The 16-35 is very sharp, and with the brightest aperture currently available in 135-format lenses, it offers a brighter viewfinder which assists with autofocus.   The f/2.8 aperture of this lens also allows creativity in non-landscape/seascape scenarios.

I mostly shoot it at f/8 or f/11, but as above, it can be used to somewhat diffuse the background in a photograph whose foreground subject is within close proximity.  Granted, producing much background blur with an ultra-wide lens isn’t going to be easy nor practical for most of the purposes for which such a lens is used.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

2.  Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM

This is a great general-purpose lens when a wide aperture is needed.  On a full-frame camera the 35mm focal length is quite useful, in that it is wide, but not too wide; and it is not too long such that the framing is tight.

I use it for bands and portraiture (when I want a wider view than my usual telephoto view), and any other general indoor photography.  It works well for over-the-table people images at dinner parties and the like.  I also used it for a wedding shoot.

It is extremely sharp, works very well in low light and produces nice background blur at f/1.4.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

3.  Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM

This highly desirable and excellent performer of a lens is desirable to many photographers, and it has a place in my rig.  I consider it to be a general-purpose, fast telephoto zoom.  I don’t use it a great deal, but it’s hard to beat when I do need a lens of its range.

My main uses of this lens include portraiture, bands, aviation, sports, wildlife and general photography.  I’ve also used it for a wedding.

It’s hard to comment negatively about this lens, as it is tack-sharp even wide open and is quick to focus.  It is also compatible with Canon’s tele-extenders, but I would not recommend using the 2x tele-extender, as image quality will invariably suffer, along with the light loss of two stops.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/1.8L IS USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

4.  Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

This extremely fast tele is my staple for portraiture.  The moderate telephoto length is perfect for portraits and the very wide aperture not only allows subject isolation, but produces a creamy background blur distinctive to this lens.

My other main use for this lens is band work or any other low-light indoor setting in which moderate telephoto reach is needed.  When shooting bands, even with an aperture of f/1.2 it’s still necessary to push the ISO into four-digit territory.

I have used this lens for the odd still-life image, but I have found that the combination of the 85mm focal length and the minimum focus distance (MFD) of around 90cm does not produce ideal framing, and instead I use longer lens with an almost identical MFD.

The very narrow depth of field and slow focus-by-wire autofocus of this lens makes it more challenging to use than other telephoto lenses, but when you get it right, it delivers magical results.

Unusually for a Canon L-series prime, the objective element extends from the barrel as the focus is adjusted.  The large, heavy objective element may explain the slower autofocus, as the motor has to push a very heavy piece of glass backward and forward.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

5.  Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM

The 135/2L is a mind-blowing lens on several counts:

  1. at f/2, it is very fast for the focal length;
  2. it produces very creamy bokeh;
  3. it’s light and small (for its specifications);
  4. it’s one of the least expensive L-series lenses;
  5. it has a very short (for the focal length) MFD of around 90cm; and
  6. its autofocus is stunningly fast.

I’ve never experienced a lens which focuses as quickly as this one does.  It’s ready before I am, and I daresay its AF is faster than that of my 300/2.8 super-tele.  That’s saying something!

My main uses for this lens include portraiture, bands, weddings and general-purpose telephoto photography, but I have found it to be a very good lens for still-life photography due to its frame-filling focal length and short MFD.  Quite a few of my still-life images were captured with this lens.

It would also do well for indoor sports, although a sports shooter  I am not.

The 135/2L is a ridiculously sharp lens and will deliver very pleasing results.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

6.  Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM

This is a specialised lens, and one I use for only one thing: macro photography.  I don’t shoot a lot of macro images, so it sits on a shelf most of the time, but when I need it, it’s hard to beat.  Its longer focal length provides greater working distance, but the down-side is the reduced depth of field, and macro lenses have inherently shallow depth of field in the first instance.

Even when shooting at f/11 at its MFD, this lens can be challenging to use.  However, it is extremely sharp, and I’ve found that images captured with it require no sharpening during post-processing.

A macro lens (focal lengths of 100mm and greater are typical for macro lenses) can also double as a portrait lens, although given I have four other telephoto lenses which get used for portraits, I don’t find that capability particularly useful in this lens.

Unlike all of the other macro lenses in Canon’s lineup, the 180/3.5L Macro is compatible with Canon’s tele-extenders, which allows even greater magnification than that 1:1 (life-size) magnification this lens natively offers.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

7.  Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM

This is my longest, largest, heaviest and most expensive lens.  It could also be considered my sharpest, but in my experience, all of my lenses are sharp!

It is one telephoto lens a lot of people want, and it sure delivers fantastic results.  I use it mostly for aviation, wildlife and astrophotography, but I have used it for portraits and band photography.

I often combine it with my Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and Canon Extender EF 2x II to provide 420mm at f/4 and 600mm at f/5.6 respectively.

Despite the size and weight, I almost always shoot hand-held with it.  I can quite comfortably shoot with a lens of its weight all day without issues.  However, for shooting subjects like the moon, a tripod is essential.  For sports, a monopod can help, but during the very little sports photography I have done, I still found hand-holding was more to my liking.

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.

Tele-Extenders

As mentioned above, I have the Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and Canon Extender EF 2x II.  I generally only use these on my 300/2.8 for the very useful and approachable reach they provide, but three of my other lenses are also compatible with these: 70-200/2.8L IS, 135/2L and 180/3.5L Macro.

I tend not to use the tele-extenders on these three lenses, as I don’t need the focal length increases the combination provides, and in some cases I can achieve the equivalent or a marginally longer focal length with a brighter aperture.

The 1.4x tele-extender is universally considered to be the better of these two units, with greater image degradation (and two stops of light reduction) occurring with the 2x tele-extender.

What convinced me to buy the 2x tele-extender was a set of images posted by someone who paired it with the 300/2.8L IS.  The images were very sharp, and image degradation was very minor to the point of being unnoticeable (if it even existed).  My own results with this combination have shown it to be a good match.  However, I’d only recommend the use of the 2x tele-extender with the absolute fastest of super-teles (eg, 200/1.8L, 200/2L IS, 300/2.8L IS and 400/2.8L IS).

See my gallery of images captured with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and my gallery of images captured with the Canon Extender EF 2x II for an insight into these tele-extenders’ capabilities.

So, there’s a summary of my camera and lens equipment.  I’ll discuss my other equipment in subsequent articles.