When I had a giant digital SLR, I only used one lens. It was a terrific wide angle to big zoom (28-300 mm equivalent). It was so versatile I never took it off. I did buy other lenses, like a “nifty fifty”, or 50mm equivalent because all the cool kids had them. Photography is like that, you hear about a lens and then you need that lens. You may not know why but you do. I hardly ever used that lens. It took beautiful photos, and was super fast so I could take photos in low light but the focal length just didn’t work for me. I loved it for portraits but I had to be right in their faces to get a good shot so they usually had a look of horror on their face because I was so close to them!
When I got my mirrorless camera (the Olympus E-M10) I bought a lens much like it, the Tamron 28-300 equivalent. I love that lens, all the versatility of my old lens but at less than half the weight and about 40% of the volume. I didn’t need any other lenses.
But one day in a bored moment I went out looking at the Wirecutter to see what kind of lenses I might want. I will blame Steven Goetz for this, because he probably made me do it. He loves making me spend money on camera gear. If you haven’t used the Wirecutter I can highly recommend it. Think of them as the modern day consumer reports. Need a dishwasher, a bicycle, a camera, a lawn mower, they’ll tell you what to get. Instead of just reviewing items (they do that too) the cull through others reviews and simply tell you which one to buy. They tell you why, and then they suggest a less expensive option if you can’t afford the one they chose, and if you’re made of money they show you one that’s more expensive and even better.
I discovered by reading the Wirecutter that the lens I really wanted was a portrait lens. These are around 90mm equivalent and give that lovely shallow depth of field in a portrait that I was looking for. I bought the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45 mm f/1.8 they recommended and it’s fabulous. I love this lens. So light, so sharp, fabulous depth of field.
But now it was time to make my Christmas list, so back to the Wirecutter to pick out something else. Next to people portraits, my next favorite thing is taking macro shots. One trick Bart taught me was that I could use my telephoto lens to achieve the macro effect, and that works but I couldn’t get close enough. The closest focal distance on the Tamron 14-150 is 19.7inches, so the subject of my macro shot would be pretty small in the photo.
The Wirecutter recommend for Micro Four Thirds cameras is the Olympus MSC ED M. 60mm f/2.8 Lens and Steve got me one for Christmas and I absolutely love it. We talked about the nearly 20 inches away I could get with my zoom lens, this macro lens can get up to 7.4 inches away from the subject. It’s a very small and yet surprisingly long lens, at 2.2 inch diameter and 3.23 inches long. Like all of the micro four thirds lenses, it’s incredibly light at .41 lbs.
Now a true macro lens can get you so close that you get a 1:1 magnification of the subject. I had to write to Steven to get some help understanding exactly what this means. He sent me a link to an article on DPReview that helped me understand. It sounds obvious but it confused me at first. It seemed to me that the size of the object in the image would be dependent on the resolution with which you view the photo. Turns out it’s not in the photo, it’s on the sensor.. If you are photographing a 1 inch object, it would be 1 inches on the sensor. That still confused me because I don’t HAVE a sensor that’s that big so how does that make sense? The author of the DPReview article explained that your sensor will simply crop the image, not change it’s scale. This means that a 1:1 macro lens is completely independent of the size of the sensor in your camera. If you want a much better and more detailed explanation of magnification, I put the link Steven sent me in the shownotes.
Ok, so I’ve got this swell new lens that does 1:1, how do I make it do that? On the side of the Olympus 60mm lens is this very unusual dial. Unusual to me, maybe other lenses have this but I’ve never seen this before. The dial shows a default position that says .19m to infinity. Our first clue is that .19m, because that just happens to be 7.4 inches which we know is the closest we can focus. There are 3 other positions, .4m to infinity, .19m to .4m, and 1:1. Luckily the lens came with a manual, which was completely worthless in explaining this dial.
I went to the Googles and found out that by setting the distance to one of these ranges allows the camera to focus MUCH more quickly because it doesn’t have to check the whole distance from zero to infinity. If you’re between .19-.4m, then why bother checking all the other distances first. In practice I found the ability to focus quickly and accurately AMAZING compared to my other lenses. I’ve taken a lot of shots of butterflies and caterpillars this summer and sometimes I’d have to step back 3 feet to get the auto-focus to even acquire the bug and then slowly walk closer . With the macro lens set properly it finds the correct subject immediately.
Now we’ve got that 1:1 setting which is handled differently on the dial. Before I explain how it works, there’s another indicator on the lens I need to explain. On the top of the lens is a curved glass area with a red line that jumps up and down showing you the magnification you’re achieving. The dial goes from 1:1 to 1:1.3, to 1:2 to 1:4 on the left, with corresponding distances in both inches and meters on the right. I’m not entirely sure why this is valuable if you’re using the viewfinder, but maybe real macro photographers use a tripod and the display flipped up so they can look down on both the indicator and the screen.
Anyway back dial. If you rotate it to 1:1, it flips itself back .19-.4m, but you can see the indicator jump to 1:1 and stick there. Evidently this is a one shot deal and has to be reset every time you want a 1:1 photo. Now here’s the cool part. You auto-focus the camera by moving the camera closer and farther away from the subject. That sounds really hard but it works great! I got a great shot of a Monarch butterfly caterpillar where you can actually see the hairs on his FEET! I put a link into the shownotes on Flickr of the image so you can see the high res version and zoom way in.
So I understand 1:1 and how to force the lens to it, and I understand that the indicator tells me I’ve temporarily forced it, but for the life of me I don’t know why I care about the other magnfication factors. Why would I care whether it;s 1:1.3 or 1:2 or 1:4? I’m sure a clever NosillaCastawaysor two will tell me why. The ads for the lens say “Built-in working distance window for subject distance confirmation”. Ok…
This Macro lens is an f/2.8 which is pretty fast but not so fast that it will break the bank and it lacks image stabilization but my camera has that built into the body. The Olympus MSC ED M. 60mm f/2.8 Lens is $399 on Amazon and I’m in love with it. I put my favorite photo so far from it in the shownotes. I call it self-portrait, and it’s a photo of Kyle’s eyeball filling the entire image with my reflection in his pupil. It’s creepy and fantastic.