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Monday, 4 September 2017

A New Lens - August, 2017

For the past couple of years I've been using a Sigma 50-500 lens on my camera for all my photography. It's a lens I'm more than pleased with as it is extremely versatile and gives good results. The versatility is not just because of its range of zoom but also in that, most unusually for a larger lens, it has a very useful macro capability - it's possible to focus down to 3 or 4 inches (75 to 100 mm) from the end of the lens hood if the focal length is wound back to around 150 mm! However, for a while now, I've had a hankering for a dedicated macro lens. The reasons for this are several:-
  • The 50-500 will not allow the use of on-camera flash for macro work as the objective end of the lens is so large that the subject would be in shadow from the flash.
  • The 50-500 is quite heavy, and a long session out in the field can be quite tiring.
  • The 50-500, whilst good, does not give the level of detail that can be obtained with a dedicated 'prime' macro lens.
  • When shooting in macro mode, I tend to spend quite a lot of time on my knees. When getting up, from a kneeling position I find that these days I need to use my hands to help me up. This left the lower end of 50-500 resting on the ground/mud or in the vegetation.
On Friday 18th August, I took delivery of a Sigma 150mm F2.8 APO Macro EX DG OS lens. Sadly, I was at Birdfair that day, all day, so didn't get to try it! I chose this lens because:-
  • The relatively long focal length for a macro lens would give me the 'reach' to enable me to take photos of 'timid' subjects such as dragonflies and butterflies.
  • I could use on-camera flash without obscuring the subject.
  • It has the reputation of allowing really crisply detailed macro images.
  • It is 820 gm lighter than the 50-500, which doesn't sound a lot different, but makes all the difference at the end of a long day!
  • It is 21 cm shorter than the 50-500, so doesn't tend to end up resting in the mud.
On the negative side, the 150 macro obviously doesn't have the versatility of the 50-500.

I got my first opportunity to use the lens in my own garden the following day (19th August), when I found an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar on the lawn in the early morning. The lawn was in shadow, but the sun was shining brightly elsewhere in the garden, so I moved it onto a low garden wall. The first thing to strike me about using this lens was that I was now having to adjust my position in order to frame the subject as I wanted it, rather than wind the zoom lens in or out - an obvious situation, but something that I'd not thought about, and takes a bit of getting used to. I had mixed feelings about the results - I was expecting a relatively shallow depth of field, but not that shallow! For some reason I seemed to be getting more contrasty results too. In the images where the sun was shining I've had to apply a significant degree of 'shadow protection' to the images to bring out the detail in the shadows. For those not familiar with this species, the caterpillar has an extremely large body, coupled with a very small head.

The images I show below are of a relatively mixed quality and the poorer ones are included to illustrate a point. All were taken with the camera handheld.  

Elephant Hawk Moth (Deilephila elpenor) (caterpillar) - ISO 1,000 ; 1/200s ; f16 ; -0.7 EV
ISO 1,000 ; 1/400s ; f7.1 ; -0.7 EV
ISO 1,000 ; 1/200s ; f7.1 ; -0.7 EV
I then looked for another subject to practise on and found this 3rd instar nymph of  a Common Green Shieldbug. This was probably only about 8mm long. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to see that it was possible to see the elements in its tiny eyes. The second image below is a tighter crop on the first image.

Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina) (3rd instar nymph) - ISO 250 ; 1/1,250s ; f7.1 ; -0.7 EV
I then tightened the aperture to f14 in order to get a greater depth of field. It helped considerably. 

ISO 1,000 ; 1/160s ; f14 ; 0 EV
On reflection, I prefer the first image, with the out-of-focus area adding to the effect.

I next found a slightly larger (about 10mm long) 4th instar nymph. The legs are quite badly out of focus in this image.

Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina) (4th instar nymph) - ISO 1,000 ; 1/200s ; f14 ; 0 EV
Whilst the caterpillar had been on the ground, the shieldbugs had been on a fuchsia plant and were being blown about in the breeze somewhat. Many of my attempts had, as a result, turned out totally unusable.

The next day (20th August) I had another brief session when I tried to photograph a butterfly for the first time with the lens. The weather was dull and the subject was in fairly poor condition so I didn't try very hard! The results were, from my point of view, 'below average' - the body hairs don't show.

Peacock (Aglais io) -  ISO 1,000 ; 1/400s ; f11 ; -0.7 EV
I had better results, however, when I attempted to photograph a tiny 'flea beetle' on a fuchsia (I'd been looking for the shieldbugs again) with the same settings - although I was using auto-ISO and the light was better so the ISO came down. This beetle is only 5 mm long, and again I could see the elements in the eye in the image.

Altica species (possibly Altica lythri) -  ISO 500 ; 1/400s ; f11 ; -0.7 EV
My first session with the lens, out in the field, was on 23rd August when I went to Alvecote Wood for a Wednesday evening 'open evening'. Sadly there was little sun and a strong breeze, so I saw very little to try the lens on.  I did manage to get some usable images, but it was extremely difficult as everything was moving around in the breeze, and the results were well below par - I'd possibly have done better with the 50-500.

fly species (possibly Nemorilla floralis) -  ISO 800 ; 1/640s ; f13 ; -0.7 EV
Six-striped Rustic (Xestia sexstrigata) -  ISO 1,000 ; 1/250s ; f10 ; -0.3 EV
A bit disappointed at how little I'd seen, I headed homeward. However, I did appreciate the benefit of carrying the lighter lens for the evening.

I arrived home to find another subject for my camera. A Vapourer caterpillar was on the doorstep! It was dusk by now, so I popped up the on-camera flash. Although it does not look natural, I'm quite pleased with the result.

The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua) (caterpillar) -  ISO 1,000 ; 1/250s ; f10 ; -0.3 EV ; on-camera flash
On Thursday 24th August my wife, Lindsay, alerted me to a 'beautiful moth on the mint'. It turned out to be a relatively common micro-moth - the Small Purple and Gold. This species is around 8 mm long, and was another useful subject to try the lens on. As it was partially in the shade, I used the flash again to fill in the shadows.

Small Purple and Gold (Pyrausta aurata) -  ISO 1,000 ; 1/400s ; f11 ; -0.7 EV ; on-camera flash
By now, I was feeling that I needed a more intense session somewhere in order to really assess the lens, and learn how to correct any mistakes I'd been making. I'd been getting very mixed results, and I needed to understand why. Fortunately, I did not have to wait too long before such an opportunity came along - but that will wait until a later post. 

I have already come to the conclusion that the optimum aperture for the 150 macro lies somewhere between f10 and f14. Larger apertures, with their smaller depth of field, have their place, particularly if I can get the subject flat-on. However, for some reason that I've yet to figure out, small apertures (f22 for example) seem to frequently give poor-quality images - dreadful lack of sharpness in spite of what should be adequate shutter speed. I have a suspicion that I might have a fault with the lens (possibly with the image stabilisation), or an incompatibility factor with the camera, particularly as I sometimes hear a buzzing noise from the setup as I'm shooting. This will be an ongoing investigation until resolved.

With regard to the 50-500 lens, that will, I believe, remain my lens of choice when going out on a birding or general nature watching session. However, when the prime target is uncompromisingly butterflies and/or dragonflies, the 150 macro is already proving its worth and will be favourite.

Thank you for dropping by. My next post will probably revert to catch-up mode and feature pre-macro images.


  1. Interesting post. I use my Nikon 55 -300mm telephoto lens for almost everything, but if something is very small I struggle as it will not focus if I get too close. On the other hand I do not want to keep changing lenses so I have not really decided what the answer is.
    On September 1 I took a photo of what I identified as Pyrausta purpuralis in the garden. It does look slightly different to your Pyrausta aurata and having double checked I think we are both correct in our identifications.
    Hope all is well. have good week Diane

    1. Hi Diane. I share your aversion to changing lenses - particularly out in the field, where draughts can give dust problems. However, with sensor-cleaning funtions on most modern cameras, I'm a little less fussy these days although I do try to be very careful.

      We get Pyrausta purpuralis in these parts too. They are somewhat larger than P. aurata.

      We're doing fine here thank you. I hope your back isn't causing you too many problems. Take good care, and enjoy the rest of your week. With my very best wishes - - - Richard

  2. Replies
    1. Dank u, Herman. Best wishes - - - Richard

  3. Hi Richard and wow, certainly an improvement on the 50 - 500 which as you say is still a wonderful lens. On the Shieldbug to be able to see the elements in the eye and the Vapourer is a stunner. Great post, all the best. John Hopefully see you Thursday

    1. I'm hoping to get some better results when I get used to the lens, John, but it's showing potential!

      Weather forecast doesn't look to good for Thursday at the moment! - Fingers are now crossed.

  4. Enjoy working with your new lens, Richard. I am sure that as you continue to experiment you will achieve results hitherto undreamed of. I was chatting to Franc the other day about lenses and I was staggered by the cost of some of them. He has a hankering for a 600mm lens that would cost the equivalent of three international vacations for two and would take up so much of his baggage allowance that he would barely be able to take it with him! I suspect he will pass on the lens!

    1. I hope that you are right about my new lens, David. It's still to be proven.

      Tell Franc that at least the considerable extra weight of a 600mm lens would be compensatated for by the lightening of his wallet! On a more serious note, I suspect he'd find it somewhat harder to maintain the high standard of flight shots that he currently achieves - he'll need extremely strong arms (Popeye comes to mind!).

  5. Welcome to a wonderful world. I don't know what the lens will stop down to but f16 is about the largest for any DOF, I use f20 and ring flash more often than not. I try to hold the leave in my left hand and rest the lens on my left arm. I hardly ever use auto focus for tiny creatures but sort of shuffle the the camera using my arm as a steady. I did try a Chinese ring flash but eventually coughed up for the Canon one........Floods of tears that day.

    1. Hi Adrian. The Sigma 150 macro lens has an aperture range from f22 to f2.8. I've not had the occasion to use it lately as the weather has been iffy or I've been out photographing birds with the 50-500. The 150 has a useful feature in that in auto-focus mode, with the shutter release half depressed, you can manually tweek the focus ring to achieve a better focus. I've yet to get used to this feature, but it has helped when intervening bits have fouled up the focus.

      Ring flash is on my wish list, and I have taken note of your comment about Chinese offerings.

      Thanks and best wishes - - - Richard

  6. The macro world as you are finding out is not just a point and shoot job. It took me time with this lens to get the results I wanted but I would never go back now. I still think it's one of the best lenses on the market. Your shots seem o be quite good to me but it will take you time to get used to what settings work best on your camera. Still with it Richard. That great shot us just around the corner.

    1. Thank you for those kind words of encouragement, Marc, which are much appreciated.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  7. Hello Richard,
    I've had a macro Sigma 150 for 3 years and am very happy with it although I use a lot more the 200/500 lens nowadays.
    But each lens - whether zoom or tele - reacts differently.
    Also (to answer Diane's comment) there is a minimum distance between the lens and the subject; a few cms too close and we're out of focus.
    I have read carefully all your settings under each pic, and they seem excellent.
    As I already mentioned, I set mine on manual and automatic Iso's so the setting I fiddle the most with is the exposure, keeping the speed quite high if the subject can move fast and if the light is enough. I usually keep the Aperture between 8 and 10, preferring to increase sligthly the distance to the subject in order to get a better focus on all of it.
    I think you are very right to have chosen this Sigma lens, you'll be very pleased with it.
    Warm hugs and enjoy you afternoon :)

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words and advice, Noushka, which are very much appreciated. Sadly, we are now heading into a period when opportunities to use the lens on wildlife will diminish!

      In spite of your good wishes, this afternoon has not been a happy one as it was the funeral of a very dear friend. In other respects you have been a good luck charm as I've recently had close encounters with Hoopoe and Kingfisher - all within 15km of my home!

      With my very best wishes - - - Richard

    2. Sorry to read about such bad news, I know all to well how one feels.
      Concentrate on birds and photos...., it helps.
      Warm hugs to share with Lindsay :)

  8. Oh wow, that is a beautiful lens, perfect in any way, well done Richard.

    1. Thank you, Bob. I'm looking forward to improving my performance with it!

      Best wishes - - Richard


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