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

by Philip Greenspun, 2000 (updated February 2008)

This is a very 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 the photo.net macro photography primer). But very 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:

  • the viewfinder gets dark as you rack it out to 5X; the nominal maximum aperture is f/2.8 but that is a mythical aperture not even available at 1X. At 1X, the effective wide-open f-number is 5.6. As you rack the lens out to 5X, the effective viewing aperture is f/16.
  • focusing becomes critically important when photographing at high magnification and the viewfinder ground glass may not be precise enough; Canon has had to introduce a right-angle magnifying viewfinder to assist photographers. Note that the MP-E 65 is in an autofocus mount and only works with autofocus EOS cameras but has no focusing motor and requires manual focusing. How sloppy can you be? Depth of field at 5X is 0.05mm (one twentieth of a millimeter!) at an effective aperture of f/16. Stopping down to an effective f/64 gives you about 0.1mm to work with.
  • illuminating the subject with an external light becomes difficult because the lens is in the way (you're about one inch from your subject); Canon makes the ML-3 Macrolite ring flash to help with this problem
  • calculating exposure with external lighting is made difficult by Canon's failure, unlike the Nikon system, to show effective taking aperture in the viewfinder. Furthermore, the lens is not calibrated with exposure compensation for different settings. You'd think that you'd be able to succeed using TTL ambient metering, but the manual that comes with the lens cautions against using the in-camera meter with any body other than the EOS-1N and EOS-1! You have to remember not to use spot metering with those cameras, though, because it won't be accurate. The manual also reminds you to make sure to use an eyepiece shutter or cover if you are metering without having your eye over the eyepiece. According to the manual, if you install a "Laser Matte" focusing screen in the EOS-3, you can use the in-camera ambient meter. The only recommend approach with the average EOS body is TTL flash metering.
  • standard tripods don't allow you to move the camera/lens straight back and forth toward the subject; you'll probably need to buy a macro rail to make it easy to achieve the desired camera/subject distance

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 Pi Goddess Eve Andersson 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 EOS 1Ds Mark III, (buy from Amazon) (review):

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

Where to Buy

This lens is available from amazon.com, (buy from Amazon).

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.

Article revised February 2008.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

David Fourer , September 12, 2000; 01:35 A.M.

wolf spider

The author suggest you might not know what to use this lense for. See my upload on photo.net (above).

This is a wolf spider, 2.5x, Canon FTb and f3.5 macro lense mounted in reverse on 100mm extension tube, two electronic flash mounted on camera, hand-held, live subject.

The best feature of the MP-65 is the electic link from camera to lens diaphram.

I think the features of this lense make sense based on my experience. I have yet to buy one. Regarding working distance, a 50mm lense gives a 50mm distance from the lense's theoretical center to the subject at infinate magnification. in practice, you should get about the same working distance in real use (I hope!). This should allow for lighting at about a 45-degree angle, using electronic flash, which is enough angle. Use a flash with minimum 1/2000 flash duration. Then you can hand-hold the camera.

As for metering, don't use any. Calculate the required distance from flash to subject based on a neutral grey subject. This should be about 4 to 8 inches for the highest f-number, which works out well if you mount the flashes on the camera

I welcome any comments about macro or micro photography. Thank-you.

Allan Engelhardt , March 24, 2001; 06:01 P.M.

Macro lenses are fun, because they make the ordinary extra-ordinary.

Try using this lens with the 1.4x or 2x extenders for up to 10x magnification! Yes, it really works. Canon does not really advertise the fact, probably because your images at 10x will be a little bit soft. Depth of field is very, very shallow :-)

A very convenient outfit for real close-up photography.

Charles Chien , January 18, 2003; 01:29 P.M.

I was hoping to find some samples before I bought mine, but there really were not enough. I bought it anyway, and love it since! I thought I share a couple samples here that hopefully will help future perspective buyers.

Here are some samples. (Please click the thumbnails to enlarge.)
1x 5x 4x-5x plus 12mm extension tube

Happy shooting!

Jean Merlin , December 25, 2006; 05:55 P.M.

I have a few shots with this lens myself


With digital I do not see the issue of light measurement. I use AV mode on F16 all the time and speed between 1/125 and 1/250. I use the MR 14EZ canon ringflash. I have 1 keeper out of 30 pictures. Focusing is the most difficult part, but when it works, it makes great pictures IMHO.

Wim de Winter , July 19, 2008; 05:43 P.M.

It's my favourite lens, but I only use it in the studio. Mounted on the stand of a partly dismantled microscope, fine-tuning the focus is no problem.

Sharpness is the best at f/4 (as seen by the camera), above f/8 it visibly decreases.

Image Attachment: fileTxqsqE.jpg

Nima Koochek Shooshtari , September 29, 2009; 07:51 A.M.

HI I have recently used this lens. It's an amazing lens but because it's my first time I work with a macro lens, I have some problems with the focus. I know maybe this is not the right place for my question but I did not see any forum for macros. The photo I have attached is 5X from a shirt and the camera was mounted on tripod. Also, I have used a remote and mirror lock up for preventing the camera's shaking, I used f/3.5 @ 1/15 for capturing this photo, the lens surface was exactly parallel with the horizon. I believe I have done everything right yet it's still out of focus. I have it at 100% zoom on the montor yet I have no sharpness at all. Can anyone kindly inform me what is the problem? is it my focus or what? and what is the best way to focus on things with just one focus ring ? ( as you better know;the lens has just one focus ring ) Best regards Nima

Image Attachment: file5kRr6l.jpg

Gleb Klimshin , December 25, 2009; 09:29 A.M.

@ Nima Koochek Shooshtari At 1:1 magnifization Depth Of Field is very small, shallow, little, tiny - 0,3mm At 5:1 magnification it's razor thin. Or even smaller... :)

You can't have all strings of the fabric in focus, as the shirt surface has uneven surface. It's hard to see with the eye, but at this magnification you do see stuff like that.

The only way to make 'em all sharp you must have - good macro rails - good lighting - free software (don''t remember the exact name, can be googled)

This software combines sharp images of several frames in row 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 = very sharp image

it's the only way to obtain more depth of field cuz depth of field in 1 frame is limited by the physics of light...

Haim Srur , February 25, 2010; 01:40 P.M.

Thank you for this post. I agree with most of the critics, but still I wanted to have this lens. I already boought this lens and here some of the results. http://www.photoshelter.com/c/greatphotoshop/gallery/Macro-wonderful-small-world/G0000_1CX6LXibfY/

I took this shot in my home studio with 3 light heads most of the time some with two. i used main light in low level light and tried with no sucess backllight.

David Traish , June 20, 2011; 03:24 A.M.

I have an MPE 65 mm lens and it is fantastic. As others have said, it is relatively easy to identify an exposure set for good results, the biggest problems are finding suitable subjects and keeping them still. I don't injure any of my subjects, they are very much alive. My son made me a stand, a large metal base plate, a column that is welded to the plate, and a clamp at the top of the column to hold a macro slide. The macro slide can be raised and lowered thus easing the tasking of getting multiple depth of field slices. Selecting the slices is achieved through the use of a magnified live view, and using CZM to merge the images. See the amazing detail of a shield bug in http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidtraish/5842847047/in/photostream to

see what is possible.

Dave Traish

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