Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X Macro Lens

by Philip Greenspun; revised February 2008

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This is a strange lens that will test your creativity as a photographer. Most people find it challenging to identify an interesting scene when it is right in front of them, at a familiar scale. Some people have developed the skill of finding interesting forms that are getting close to the size of a 35mm negative (see my macro photography primer). But few photographers have ever thought about hunting for interesting subjects that are a fraction of the size of a 35mm negative.

This lens from Canon, released late in 1999, is a hunting license. The world according to the MP-E 65 starts at 1X with a subject the same size as a 35mm frame (24x36mm). Subjects get smaller from there until their linear dimension is only one-fifth the size of a 35mm frame (at 5X, a 5x7mm subject will fill up the photograph).

There are a bunch of mechanical problems with using this lens:

You can solve the mechanical problems with extra thought or extra equipment. But you'll be left with a deeper aesthetic problem: when was the last time you saw something really really small whose form and color you wanted to record?

Anyway, I've had the lens for four months now and have only exposed one test roll of Fuji Provia 100F. For lighting I used my standard Canon 540EZ flash with a Stofen diffuser connected via an off-camera cord. I kept the setup on my kitchen table and hunted for household objects, then hollered for Domestic Senior Management to come and hold the flash while I squinted and moved the camera back and forth. Here are a few examples from that sample roll:

Orchid Flower Beads on African doll Shutter on Rodenstock lens on Linhof Master Technika

Update for 2001 (Digital): This lens makes an interesting companion for the Canon D30 SLR. The four images below are (1) low-voltage living room light (3 seconds at f/11), auto white balance, (2) same light and exposure but tungsten white balance set explicitly, (3) 380EX off-camera flash, (4) 380EX off-camera flash plus reflector.

Digital photo titled jelly-ambient-awb Digital photo titled jelly-ambient-tungsten Digital photo titled jelly-just-flash Digital photo titled jelly-flash-plus-reflector

Digital is definitely the way to go with extreme macro photography. You get instant previews that tell you whether you have an exposure problem. If only 1 in 100 images turns out to be interesting, you've not wasted a fortune in film and processing.

With the Canon Macro Flashes

The Canon MR-14EX Ring Lite and MT-24EX Twin Lite are convenient companions for this the MP-E 65mm lens. The Ring light is especially helpful in illuminating objects at high magnifications, where the working distance between front element and subject is minimal. Here are a couple of examples with the Ring Lite, with the lens mounted on a full-frame canon_eos1ds_mark3:

The bottom line

Alex (0.02X) Alex (2X)
Nick Gittes and Alex. 1998. Alex
Alex at 18 months Alex's eye


Construction: 10 elements in 8 groups, 1 UD element
Focus motor: --none (manual)--
Focusing range: 1X to 5X magnification
Filter size: 58mm
Lens Hood: E-58
Length: 98mm
Weight: 730 g

Film images from PhotoCD scans
Text and pictures (c) copyright 2000-8 Philip Greenspun, except for the product photo of the lens, which is from Canon.