Reverse-Macro Part II: The Ultimate Field Reverse-Zoom Lens
(Please Read This First)
As a hiking nature photographer, I have always been on a quest to find, “The Single Best Lens for the Macro/Hiking Enthusiast.” Or maybe I should say I am after, “A Macro Lens that Can Do Everything.” Regardless of the title, the reader should understand that my motive for writing this article comes from a desire to get the most possible uses out of the least possible gear—and I have a bias toward macro photography. My needs and wants may not match your own, and that’s okay, but it’s important to understand my motives so you can adapt what I am saying your own preferences. That said, when I first started photography, I shot Canon, and I would hike for hours with only 1 camera and 1 lens: a 7D and 100mm macro, and I had a blast. I just worked with what I had.
After 10 years of nature photography, I now shoot Nikon, I have found myself hiking with 2 cameras, a tripod [one long (heavy) bird lens slung over my shoulder on the tripod, with a high-end wide-angle lens holstered at my hip]. I also carry a shoulder pack with 3-5 other lenses contained within. My justification for carrying all this gear around is “so that I can photograph anything possible” when I hike. Call me “slow,” but it has beginning to dawn on me that I have actually created a condition where it is no longer fun to hike. Going out has become an arduous chore, where I am lugging 50-lb of gear with me, and I feel more like a pack animal—a beast of burden—than a photographer who is going out to enjoy nature 🙂
Without wanting to lose my options, I started contemplating on how I could pair down—how I could discard the superfluous and pair-down to what is truly necessary. In mulling the issue over, I came to realize that I use some gear all the time … it is indispensable … while other gear I hardly use at all. I slowly came to terms with the fact Less is More when you’re hiking. Don’t get me wrong: I still want to be able to capture “anything I can,” but I want to be able to do so with less tools and thereby less weight. In essence, I wanted to figure out a way where I could capture any landscape image I wanted, all the way down to being equipped for extreme macro (1:1 and beyond), and to be able to do so with the fewest lenses possible. Thus it is from this perspective (and motive) I write.
In mulling over the available choices, I realized wide-angle lenses are a dime-a-dozen. However, high-mag (beyond 1:1) lenses were very scarce. So I decided to investigate the well-known high-mag macro choices first. I then became acutely-aware of those wide-angle Nikkor lenses that could reverse, and act as macro lenses also, and so (if the reader is unfamiliar with reverse-macro photography), I strongly encourage you to read my Reverse Macro Photography article first, before proceeding any further.
Macro Super-Zoom History:
Before we proceed, let’s take a little walk back into high-mag, macro-zoom history. Let us also realize that 90% of most commercial ‘macro’ lenses only shoot at 1:1. Limiting macro shooters to a 1:1 reproduction ratio is a severe impediment to many a macro-nature photographer’s goals, so (over the years) some companies have taken the initiative to provide some exceptional alternatives for their customers:
High-Mag Macro Shooting (Beyond the ordinary):
While having a true 1:1 macro lens is the ideal macro tool for most, as such lenses of this description capture the most common subjects people are interested in (butterflies, grasshoppers, bees, wasps, flowers, etc.) … unfortunately, as the macro-passion progresses, the enthusiast-turned-specialist quickly realizes that, many times, even true lifesize (1:1)-magnification is not enough. Sometimes a macro-shooter needs to go 2:1, or 3:1, and even beyond this extreme magnification, in order to capture the tiniest of organisms and such to-camera. For example, what if you wanted to photograph a tiny 9mm spider? Even with a 1:1 macro lens, at its closest proximity, your subject is only going to take up 25% the frame (9mm is 25% of the full 36mm sensor). It is in situations like these where the macro shooter quickly realizes that even a true 1:1 macro lens is not enough.
I give props to the original pioneer in this effort, to expand ‘beyond’ the traditional macro lens, when Minolta introduced the Maxxum Dynax 3x-1x AF Macro Zoom. Introduced nearly 30 years ago (1990), Minolta Maxxum Dynax 3x-1x AF Macro Zoom was ahead of its time–and was produced during an era where optimal product quality actually meant its description. Beautifully-presented in a full case, and other high-class accouterments, I feature this lens on my blog post out of my respect for its innovation as the original. That said, while the lens itself was of great quality for its time, optically as well as in construction, as a field tool it was a little too stiff, and a little too inflexible, to seriously-consider taking on a hike. For studio, however, it remains a nice choice. Since this blog article has to do with field macro gear, providing the ultimate flexibility, this great pioneering lens actually earns last place as a result (see below).
Approximately 9 years after Minolta came out with their great entry, Canon’s legendary MP-E 65mm f/2.8 Macro Photo lens was born, bridging the extreme macro gap even further than the Minolta, losing some of the former’s rigidity, and adding an even greater amount of macro magnification potential. Introduced nearly in 1999, to this day the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 Macro Photo remains, quite simply, the single-greatest tool for extreme macro image-making ever produced by any camera/lens company. The MP-E 65mm offers a range of between 1x and 5x lifesize magnification (1:1 to 5:1), all in one instrument. In fact, since switching from Canon to Nikon, I have noticed (and sympathized with) many Nikon users, who enjoy this kind of extreme macro image-making, who are often dismayed when they had to forgo this lens. I have heard, many times, Nikon users lament the fact they “have nothing to use” that is equivalent to the above-two lenses … but the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that is not true 😎
The “Ah-ha!” Moment (The MP-E is just a doctored zoom, reversed):
When I realized that Canon’s MP-E 65mm is really nothing but a doctored zoom lens, reversed, and after I had been shooting Nikkor primes, reversed, I then began to search-out some quality Nikkor AI-S zooms. Second, I also realized, quality-wise, the MP-E’s actual optics are no better than good Nikon glass. Third, and most important, for any other kind of shooting, the MP-E 65mm is useless. This lens can’t go to infinity; it can’t focus; it can only take extreme close-ups. The greatest thing about the MP-E 65mm is 1) its macro-range versatility, but only as a macro lens; and 2) the fact it has a tripod collar, which allows you to compose your shot in any number of orientations. And that’s it. If you want to take a landscape shot, or any other kind of shot, the MP-E 65mm can’t do it.
The following article will discuss, in great depth, not only how Nikon users “can make do” with the tools Nikon offers, but how they can actually surpass Canon users, in any number of ways, with a literal multitude of reverse-lens macro zoom options, which offer a much better overall value.
The Best Nikkor Zooms (To compare to the MP-E and Maxxum Dynax):
I decided to purchased five (5) of Nikkor’s best zoom lenses, and to reverse them, comparing each with the other for the following key characteristics: (1) Range.
FIELD MACRO COMPARISON
|LENS SELECTION||INFINITY||@1:4||@1:2||@1:1||@2:1||@3:1||@4:1||@5:1||IMAGE QUALITY||PRICE|
|Minolta Maxxum Dynax|
|Can't||Can't||Can't||40mm||???, but yes||25mm||Can't||Can't||**** (4/5)||$1,500|
|Canon MP-E 65mm|
|Laowa 60mm f/2.8|
3rd Best Total Package
|Yes||???, but yes||???, but yes||???, but yes||50mm||Can't||Can't||Can't||**** (4/5)||$380|
|Nikon Series E 36-72mm||Yes||184mm||70mm||114mm||64mm||Can't||Can't||Can't||*** (3/5)||$40|
|Nikkor 35-70mm AI-S||Yes||184mm||70mm||139mm||63mm||Can't||Can't||Can't||*** (3/5)||$75|
|Nikkor 28-50mm AI-S|
2nd Best Total Package
|Nikkor 28-85mm AI-S|
Best Total Package
|Nikkor 25-50mm AI-S||Yes||Can't||Can't||Can't (1.6x)||38mm||29mm||21mm|
FIELD REVERSE-LENS MACRO COMPARISON
|MODEL||REVERSE MAG. RANGE||REPRO @ CLOSEST-FOC DIST.|
|FILTER SIZE||WEIGHT||REVERSE RING(s) NEEDED|
|36-72mm Nikon Series E|
|1.8x to 1/10 lifesize||1:18 @ 1.2m (47 in)||f/8 to f/11||52mm||380g||BR-2A|
|35-70mm Zoom-Nikkor AI-S|
|2.1x to 1/6 lifesize||1:4 @ 0.35m (14 in)||f/8||52mm||395g||BR-2A + BR-5
(62 - 52)
|28-50mm Zoom-Nikkor AI-S|
|2.4x to 1.1x lifesize||1:4 @ 0.23m (9.1 in)||f/8||52mm||395g||BR-2A|
|28-85mm Zoom-Nikkor AI-S|
|2.9x to 1/35 lifesize||1:3.4 @ 0.23m (9.1 in)||f/8 to f/11||62mm||510g||BR-2A + BR-5
(62 - 52)
|25-50mm Zoom-Nikkor AI-S|
|3.4x to 1.6x lifesize||1:10 @ 0.6m (24 in)||f/8||72mm||600g||BR-2A + SenseiPRO
(72 - 52)
** UNDER CONSTRUCTION ** (Anticipated completion date: October, 31)