Photographing small products at high magnification with the Rokinon (Samyang) 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. Tight on White.

The Old State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, La.

The photo above is just for decoration. It was taken with an iPhone. It really has nothing to do with this blog post. Just thought I'd provide a disclaimer for the painfully literal...

It's been a raucous week for me. We spent the first three days in what ultimately turned out to be a successful photographic assignment in Baton Rouge. We hightailed it back home on Weds., by rental car, and hit the Austin airport in the middle of the night to pick up my car. I needed to get back so I could do pre-production for the job we did in Georgetown, Texas today. That and needing to be home to instruct the tree service that was scheduled to come by and thin out the jungle surrounding our place...

Today was spent photographing tiny ampoules for a subsidiary of Merck. It's a follow on to a shoot we did nearly two years ago and much has changed since then. On the first go-round I was using an early Fiilex LED unit and a Sony a900 camera, along with a Sony 50mm macro lens to do the work of shooting these tiny glass bottles against white. This time I used a Sony A7ii and my newest acquisition, a Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens. The (much brighter and equally well color corrected lighting came from two of my CooLED lighting units used in Photoflex soft boxes. The EVF enabled camera made shooting tight on white less of a challenge and much more of a pleasure.

Let's first talk about selecting the right background. When you shoot in tight any type of seamless paper is to ungainly to set up and too prone to deformation from humidity, etc. I prefer to use a stout gauge of Bristol board because the surface is very smooth and the (less UV brightened) quality of the white surface is visually superior while being physically stable. I'm using the #700 pound version. You could buy a large tablet of good Bristol stock from Bienfang or Strathmore and it would be more than big enough for your shots. I prefer the 30 by 40 inch sheets because they are easier to hand from a cross stand at table height. Before every white background macro shoot I head to Michael's Art Supply store and stock up. I bring multiple sheets in case we need to substitute in a clean sheet. 

The lighting is largely from a 24 by 36 inch Photoflex softbox illuminated by one of my big LED lights. Used close in we were able to stay at ISO 100 and use f16.5 at something like 1/15th of a second. The hell with diffraction, we needed the depth of field...

But the real story today is about the new lens. It's from Rokinon which is one of the nameplates used by Samyang for lenses marketed in the U.S.A. I bought it about a week ago and today was my first opportunity to put it through its paces. I brought along a Nikon 55mm f2.8 Micro lens as a back-up but the Rokinon was so easy to use and so sharp that the Nikon never came out of the bag. 

We weren't shooting at 1:1. It was more in the range of 1:2 to 1:4. The lens feels great and is a polished piece of manufacturing. People complain about Rokinon lens hoods but I was able to attach and use mine with no difficulties and it held in place well. 

I had the lens attached to the Sony A7ii and I've come to the conclusion that the A7ii is as sharp a camera as anyone, even the owner of an A7r2, could ever want. The AA filter is weak and the sensor is pretty darn capable. I am still thinking that the 24 megapixel sensor size in a full frame camera is more or less the optimum choice for most people, myself included. The icing on the cake is that the dynamic range is very comparable to what I get from the A7R2, which is one of the highest rated DR cameras around. Considering that I picked up a used A7ii for under $1200 I am amazed at the level of performance the camera delivers. Even more impressed when using it in a macro, studio setting. 

With the Nikon D810 I could use the live view mode but the refresh rate made it sub-optimal in available light situations. With the A7ii I was able today to shoot down to a quarter second and see a great electronic viewfinder image. The A7 series cameras are the perfect tools for shooting in macro settings. 

I was shooting on white and wanted the white to still have a tiny bit of detail. In this way I could assure myself of preserving the highest of the highlights in the images. I set the zebra function to give me the wacky zebra lines right at 100% (or 255) this meant I could easily make perfect exposures by lowering the shutter speeds until the zebras appeared and then back off by one third of a stop; just enough for the zebras to disappear. Then I knew that my white background was 1/3 of stop under 255 (or "blow-out"). Can't imagine an easier way to keep tabs on exposure!

I was using a manual focus lens for today's job because it just makes sense when shooting non-moving macro images. I enabled the focus peaking (I prefer yellow) and here's how I would proceed: I'd compose the shot using the finder and then using the two axis level on the back finder. Once I had the comp roughed I would hit the trash button which, in shooting mode, I have configured as the zoom/magnification control. Once I zoomed in on the image at 11x I'd rock the focus ring to get the focus peaking indications exactly right. No more Canon/Nikon back focusing adventures!

The combination of the right lens with the right focal length, the practicality and efficiency of the EVF, the quick confirmation of exposure via zebras and the ability to be sure you got what you wanted in focus, made this particular shoot much more efficient than the same basic shoot done with an old school, mirrored camera. 

I was going to say that the star of the day was the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 (which focuses down to 1:1) but in truth it was the blend of the Rokinon with the workaday, mid-brow Sony that made mis smile as I lined up one and a half inch ampoules and photographed them both singly and in small groups. 

The Rokinon 100mm Macro is about $550 while the OSS, AF Sony 90mm G lens is right around $1,000, but I've owned enough macro lenses to know that I'll probably be using them on tripods and also manually focusing them. I've been burned too many times by the slow focus acquisition of autofocus lenses across brands...and image stabilization isn't usually necessary for tripod mounted gear.

In my book, for my money, the third party lens does exactly what it is supposed to do. How do I know? Well, I get paid to do this and I've done it for a long time. When I look at my 27 inch screen, at an image from this system, and I can feel my pulse quicken a bit, I know I'm looking at something that's more than just the ordinary image from an ordinary lens. This one is one of the best bargains around. I'd buy one again in a heartbeat.

Next up...looking with renewed interest at Rokinon's 50mm DS Cine lens. Each successful encounter with the brand just pushes me to want more...


Anonymous said...

I would have thought the 6300 or one of the mFT cameras, if you still have them, might have been a better body for Macro as you get more DOF for a given aperture and FOV. This seems to be an advantage that is generally complained about for other work. What is the advantage of the FF over the smaller sensor for macro work?

Nigel said...

Shooting macro on mirrorless (unless you're after bees in flight) is a gentle reminder that the DSLR is obsolescent.

I can't afford a Sony right now, but the hi-res files mode from the OMD EM5ii are truly excellent in terms of dynamic range, detail and colour (& I'm surprised by how little detail is lost to diffraction at f16 with a decent lens). Just takes slightly more time & eats batteries...