Tuesday, May 1, 2007

My Macro Lens Search

The past few days I've been spending a lot of time scouring eBay for a 50mm lens suitable for reversing for macro photography. Since I've wasted so much time on this, I figured I might as well write up a post to share what I've learned and a few relevant links. A good place to start learning is Flickr's Poor-Man's Macro group.

Basic Theory:

If you take your 50mm lens off your camera, turn it around, and hold it up to the lens mount opening while you snap a picture, you'll get a close-up photo which renders around 1x life size (a 1 cm object will cover 1 cm of your film or sensor). Lambert Smith's Insecta has a great description (with illustrations) of why this works. Wider angle lenses cause greater magnification (but more problems and artifacts in the image).

The more advanced application is to place the reversed lens in front of a lens (normally mounted) with a longer focal length. This allows you to reach 4-5x life size or more, and addition to having full metering and aperture control in the lens attached to the camera (the reversed lens should have a wide-open aperture).

Why I Want a New Lens:

I already have a Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 II and a reversing ring which has produced some decent photos. So, why do I want another lens (incidentally, I literally just won an auction on eBay and now have a lens, more on that a little further down the page).

Well, I have the following problems with the current setup:

  1. To set the aperture on the Canon 50mm, I have to put it on the camera the right way, push the depth of field preview button, then take it off (while holding the button), turn it around, and stick it back on. It makes it very difficult to change the aperture on the fly and pretty much ruins any camera positioning I have done.
  2. Working with the lens stopped down constantly makes the viewfinder very dark and focus is hit or miss (mostly because I can't see it). Furthermore, if I'm not working with a flash or tripod, camera shake is pretty bad and it is nearly impossible to get a shot.
  3. Lets face it, the Canon 50 F/1.8 II is a pretty cheap plastic lens. Awesome optically, but a piece of crap as far as durability. So constantly reversing the thing and mounting it on the camera with the focus mechanism holding up the weight of the lens isn't such a great idea. The focus barrel was pretty lose when I got it, and my accidental bashing of the lens against other things isn't helping.
So, if I get an old manual focus lens for under $40 (with manual aperture control), I can eliminate problem #1, maybe deal with problem #2 (getting focus set, then stopping down before shooting), and avoid breaking my $70 F/1.8 II. But which manual focus lens should I get?

Lens Choices:

When searching for a lens, I wanted to get F/2.0 or faster (mostly because slower 50mm lenses are special purpose), 52mm thread size (since I already have the adapter), quality optics, and manual aperture control. Furthermore, when searching on eBay, I wanted to avoid lenses with fungal damage, large scratches, damage beyond cosmetic to the lens body, or oil leaks. Since many of the lenses that fit this criteria are older than I am, checking condition is worth it. But, I'm willing to take on some risk on the condition of the lens if the price is right. But which lenses should I look for on eBay?

Nikon: Nikon has made manual focus lenses for three quarters of a century and their standard filter size is 52mm. As a side benefit, most of their old lenses still fit on the newer SLR bodies (in manual mode). This is great, and if you have a Nikon body, get a Nikon lens for sure. The down-side is the lenses aren't completely obsolete yet and prices tend to be a bit higher. Generally I look for non-AI lenses because they are older and don't mount on some newer cameras (so they are a bit cheaper).

Nikon 50mm Lens Resources:
Nikonlinks (concise intro)
Malaysian Internet Resources (extremely detailed history)

The specific lenses I looked for were:
  • Nippon Kogaku Nikkor-S 50mm F/1.4 non-AI. Approx $35+S/H (or more) on eBay. This is a fast lens, excellent quality, but a bit expensive. Super common. Usually searching for Nikkor-S 1.4 50mm works well (or omit the mm).
  • Nippon Kogaku Nikkor-H 50mm F/2 non-AI. Approx $20+S/H on eBay. Slower lens than the 1.4 but a bit more common since it was a kit lens for many cameras. Search for Nikkor-H 2 50mm.

Canon: Canon current EF line was preceded by the FD and FL lines. The FL line is getting a bit rare and never really standardized filter sizes -- neither the FL 50mm F/1.8 nor the FL 50mm F/1.4 take a 52mm filter, which makes them unusable for my needs. If you have a Canon camera, you probably already have the EF 50mm F/1.8 II, so it is worth getting a 52mm reverse mount adapter. The FD line does have a 52mm thread (for the F/1.8) BUT FD lenses have mechanical mechanisms that don't open up the aperture unless it is mounted correctly. It is possible to modify a Canon lens cap to do this though.

Canon 50mm Lens Resources:
FL Lens Guide (at MIR)
FD Lens Guide (at MIR)
FD eBay Price Guide (a bit old)
Another FD Page
Aperture Issues With Reversing an FD Lens

The specific lens I looked for was:
  • Canon FD 50mm F/1.8. Approx $10+S/H (or more) on eBay. Very common, very cheap, good optics. The downside is you'll have to rig up the mechanism to allow manual aperture control -- MAKE SURE you get an FD lens cap made by Canon in the auction (third party caps don't work!). Search for FD 50mm 1.8.

Other Brands:
I briefly looked into other brands, but none of them had a 52mm filter size.

What I Chose and Why:

At first I was looking for a Nikkor-S F/1.4 but I decided that the 1.4 would be more aperture than I needed (stopped down, the max aperture won't matter) and the weight of that extra glass could stress a second lens if I decided to stack them. Plus, the F/2 was cheaper :)

But, the FD F/1.8 was cheaper still, so I decided to look for an FD F/1.8 too but for a lower price and it had to have the genuine Canon end caps. Personally, I preferred the Nikkor, but I'd settle for an FD to save money if I needed to.

It turned out that I won this auction and got a Nikkor-H 50mm F/2 for $11.37 + $7 S/H an hour ago. Yes, it is highly hypocritical that I bought from someone with one bad image and very little information about the lens. But, I asked him a question about the condition (he responded promptly and it sounded ok), it was clear he didn't know much about cameras (he was only buying car stuff to this point), and it looked like he was selling off the lenses of a dead relative. So, for half the price that the lens was usually going for, it was worth taking a shot ($15 + S/H was my limit I'd pay).

I'll let you know how it goes :)


Here's a handy eBay search for the 50mm Nikkor lenses. Sadly, eBay has recently updated their editor kits and ruined some of the functionality. So, to really look for a Nikkor-H f/2, plug "Nikkor-H (50mm, 50) (f/2, f2 2)" in the search box and you'll get better results. For the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4, try "Nikkor-S (50mm, 50) (f/1.4, f1.4 1.4)".

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