Camera lenses are a big discussion topic in photography forums. Are prime lenses (meaning a fixed lens that doesn’t zoom) the best way to go for sharp image quality? Is the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens necessary for wedding photography? Do you really need a dedicated macro lens to do close-up work? This last question is one I have been asking myself over and over again the past few months. As a small business owner, every dollar I make (that doesn’t go to paying rent or buying kitty food) is being reinvested into the company. And while I am prospering, I don’t want to make any foolish or rash decisions with my investments. Last year, it was super-easy to spend the money for the Canon 35mm f/1.4 prime lens. I love this lens. It almost never leaves my camera so it was pretty easy to rationalize making the purchase. It’s been less easy trying to decide if I want to continue to rent, let alone purchase, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. So I decided to give myself a homework assignment this past weekend.
A few years ago, thanks to the suggestion of a photography friend, I had purchased these Kenko Extension Tubes as a cheaper way to do some macro work. Extension tubes fit between your camera body and your lens, effectively shortening the minimum focusing distance of the lens. This lets you get closer to your subject and still get a sharp image. They have worked really well for me over the years, but the more I got into wedding photography, the more I kept reading about the 100mm lens being used for details shots. To aid in this homework assignment, I rented the lens from Adorama and set about testing it against my Canon 35mm and 85mm lenses with and without the extensions. My goal was to see if I could achieve the same macro results with the tubes as I could with the dedicated macro lens.
Step One: Get some jewelry together and style the shot. I love this charm bracelet. It was a gift from a talented painter friend a few years ago, a thank you for helping her photograph her oil paintings. I use every excuse possible to wear it!
Step Two: Compare overall coverage. Below, the image on the left is using the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Lens. The image in the middle is using the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens and the image on the right is using Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. Overall, it was easiest to get an overall image using the 35mm lens. I could fit every last edge of jewelry in the shot, with some air, and I didn’t have to be too far above the set to get it. With the 85mm lens, I was balanced above the tabletop very precariously on a chair, on my tiptoes, and still barely fit everything in. Not too safe. And with the 100mm, I couldn’t help but crop out some of the edges of the jewelry.
Step Three: Try out the macro capabilities. Below, the image on the left is the 35mm lens with the 12mm extension tube. This allowed me to get pretty close to the ring for a detail shot. However because of the ability of this lens to already focus pretty close to a subject (about 12 inches), I felt like I was on top of the ring and had to worry about my own shadow being cast into the shot (which you can see in the front right corner of the image). The middle image with the 85mm lens, (also with the 12mm extension tube) was much easier to obtain at a “normal” distance to the subject and still get a good deal of detail, but this was about as “close-up” as I could get. The image on the right is made with the 100mm lens set at .3-.5mm focal depth. It definitely has the ability to capture beautiful macro detail. I could have gotten even closer if I had wanted…
In the comparisons below, I decided to abandon the 85mm lens + extension tube setup. I just couldn’t get quite close enough for a good detail shot. I did try the 85mm with the 20mm extension tube but really struggled to get the camera and lens to lock focus. When time is of the essence shooting a wedding, I don’t have time to mess with this! The image on the left is the 35mm with the 12mm extension tube. Once I figured out how to stand so as to not cast a shadow in the image, I was really quite pleased with the macro capabilities of this hybrid setup. The image on the right is with the 100mm macro, set at .5mm to infinity and is equally pleasing.
My overall analysis: Is the 100mm macro lens worth the investment? Yes, most definitely. It’s a tack-sharp lens that gives you a good overall ability to capture the whole scene as well as the nitty-gritty details with a simple flick of a switch. Does that mean I need to buy it right away when my hard-earned dollars could be invested in other parts of the business first? No. I was pretty happy with the 35mm lens and 12mm extension tube setup. I can get a full overview shot with the 35mm, pop on the extension tube and move in for some great detail shots quickly enough. Focusing was never an issue, I just have to keep my body away from the main light source to avoid having my shadow in the shot. If I need a mid-range detail shot, the 85mm + 12mm extension tube is brilliant as well. It does mean having to swap lenses so it isn’t as convenient as the 100mm lens alone, but for budget-minded people the $199 price tag* of the extension tubes is a lot easier to swallow than the $1000 price tag of the 100mm lens. Someday, I may opt to spend the money on it, but for now, I’ll stick with my trusty 35mm lens :)
*As a side note, I have discovered a cheaper alternative to Kenko – Vello also makes a similar set of extension tubes for only $80, seen here at B&H.