July 14, 2017

Macro Photos at a Bargain for Sony E-Mount APS-C Cameras

Since some time I think about getting a macro lens for my Sony 5100 (E-mount, APS-C). The reason is quite simple: you are not always at interesting places where it is worth taking photos. But with a macro lens you can take nice pictures of insects, flowers, small objects, leaves, mushrooms, … quite everywhere.

My problem has been so far that there is no lens for my camera that really excites me. You can either get the Sony 30mm macro lens for something like 250 EUR, or two Sony macro lenses for full frame cameras. These should work on a crop sensor camera as well. As much as I know there are no further alternatives to these lenses either made by Sony or other brands. Unfortunately, the “full frame” lenses cost more than I am willing to spend, and the 30mm has the huge drawback that you need to get very close to your object to get a macro shot. With “close” I mean 3cm-from-object-to-lens-close. Try that with a shy insect. Or try that without casting a shadow on your object. Furthermore, the 30mm lens is not optically stabilized, which I think is quite bad for a macro lens. Typically, you do not use macro lenses “wide open” as the small distance from object to lens causes an extreme shallow depth of view. Hence you have to step down to something like ƒ/12 (or less) to increase the depth of view. But this trick causes longer exposure times which increase the risk of shaky photos when there is not much light. Hence, an optical stabilization system would be beneficial…

So what are the alternatives to a real macro lens?

Years ago when I still had my Nikon DSLR, I bought myself an achromatic close-up lens. Such things are screwed on top of a “normal” photo lens like an pretty fat UV filter. The effect of achromatic lenses is that your normal photo lens is still able to focus when you are very very close to the object you want to photograph. Although I bought the best achromatic lens I could get (Marumi DHG achromat, around 60 EUR in 55mm size), I did not really like the results. The pictures were not really sharp, and there were strange ghosting effects and chromatic aberrations. Another drawback of such a screw-on lens it that you can only use that thing on a lens with the matching diameter. As I wasn't happy with this thing I sold it together with the Nikon camera.

These days I stumbled upon something that was entirely new to me: macro extension tubes. These things are placed between the camera and photo lens like a tele converter. In contrast to a tele converter, the extension tube is just a hollow tube without any optics in it. Hence, you can get these tubes for less (!) than 30 EUR. As the achromatic lens discussed above, the distance rings allow you to get much closer to your object resulting in a macro shot. I immediately ordered a set of extension rubes manufactured by a company called Meike. So far I am pretty impressed with the results.

The best thing about these tubes is that they can be used with every photo lens you own. Furthermore, there are contact pins allowing the camera to communicate with the photo lens. Hence, auto-focus, optical stabilization, motor zoom, and data transfer from lens to camera (like focal length) works.

The manual is a little poor and I do not understand it fully. As you can see in the picture above, the extension tube is actually a pair of two extension tubes detachable from each other. When detached, you have a segment labeled with 10mm and a second one labeled with 16mm. In the manual I read that the 10mm segment shall be used together with photo lenses that have 10-15mm focal length. I tried that with my 12mm lens and couldn't focus. Odd. As I was not sure if the numbers used in the manual need to be converted to APS-C by multiplication by 1.6 (12mm x 1.6 = 19.2) I also tried this lens with the 16mm segment, which shall be used with lenses between 16-25mm focal length. This did not work as well. Very odd.

Luckily, both segments combined work with my other lenses: Sony 16-50mm pancake, Sony 55-210mm tele zoom, and Sigma 30mm prime. I had some problems getting sharp shots indoors with the not optically stabilized Sigma. Many photos were just shaky due to the long exposure times. The other two lenses produced good results even indoors with low light. The first two photos were taken with the optically stabilized Sony 55-210mm tele zoom. The first one was shot at 76mm and ƒ/10 at a quite close distance to the basil leaf, maybe 8cm, …

… the second one was shot fully zoomed in to 210mm at ƒ/10 in at about 40 cm distance to the object. That distance should be fine for shots of insects on flowers, etc.

I was surprised how well the combo tubes + pancake lens (also stabilized) works. Here a photo zoomed in to 50mm at ƒ/11…

… and here one at 39 mm and ƒ/11. Apparently, zooming in to 30-40mm and getting really, really close to the object produces the best magnification results.

The last image is a cutout of above photo in full size. The detail is not outstanding but also not too shabby when taking into account that I only stepped down to ƒ/11.

Conclusion: After some initial tests I think the “extension tube work around” is a quite viable solution for Sony users that want to take macro shots. Furthermore, I prefer the extension tubes over an achromatic close-up lenses.

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