I’ve never written specifically about the equipment I use before. To make some sweeping generalisations: Like almost anyone else photographing wildlife, most of the time I’ll use some sort of camera with some kind of long lens attached to it, or maybe a macro lens of some description if I’m photographing something small. Like almost anyone else, I sometimes wish that one or more of those were something different or “better”, but, like almost anyone else, what I have has been chosen because it suits most of my needs most the time and, crucially, cost what I could pretend I could afford when I bought it. In my opinion going into any great detail into what’s in your bag versus what could be in your bag/what is in someone else’s bag results in a sort of weird game of “Camera Top Trumps”, which is ultimately boring, pointless and probably a little bit frustrating when you realise that, in your mind at least, you’ve been out-played. With that in mind, I generally take the view that it’s best just to enjoy what you have, and to work to get the best you can from it.
Sometimes, though, you use something that’s so different to anything you’ve used before, and so good into the bargain, that it feels worth writing about. That something for me recently was this lens – the Sigma 15mm f2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye:
If you search for the lens on a photo-sharing site such as Flickr the results, as you’d expect for a wide lens, are dominated by landscape and architectural shots. The subjects I had in mind were quite different though.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, small subjects have always fascinated me. In my early days of camera ownership, it was all about getting as close as possible to all types of creepy-crawly. One of my first lens purchases was a macro lens, and that was soon followed by some extension tubes and an inordinate amount of time spent lusting over the idea of owning Canon’s MP-E 65mm with it’s potential of 5x magnification. I still love getting in close to things, trying to show details not easily visible to the naked eye. Lately, though, I’ve found myself wanting a different result as well.
The “problem” with photographing insects and other small things with a macro lens is that, while it’s great for showing the detail, it doesn’t show a lot of the situation. Generally, if you do it “right”, you’ll have some beautiful, clear, sharp insect detail against a soft, out of focus mush of a background. Even if you back off a bit you’ll lose a lot of the background to depth of field. Back off too far and your subject is going to start getting a little lost in the frame. Basically, if you want to give a real idea of habitat, you’re going to struggle, and habitat is what I was after.
It’s a similar situation as you can find yourself in photographing larger wildlife with a long lens. The thing that makes something like a 500mm f4 so desirable for wildlife (apart from the obvious fact that it allows you to be a good distance from your subject) is its ability to isolate the subject from its surroundings so it really stands out in the photo. Depending on your desired result, that can be as much of a flaw as it can a positive, as you can end up losing elements of the habitat you maybe wanted to keep in due to the inherently narrow depth of field such lenses have. Stopping down to a narrow aperture may help to an extent, but not a lot. To use a 7D + 500mm f4 combination as an example; with your subject at 20 metres (about 65ft) at f4 you’ll have about 25cm of the frame in sharp focus. Stop down even as far as f16 and you still have less than 1m that’s actually going to be fully in focus.
In general, the larger a subject the more in proportion it is to things that we can use to identify its habitat. Say you photograph a deer in a wild-flower meadow – even if most of the meadow is out of focus, it’s going to be a clearly different scene to a deer photographed amongst trees in a woodland. However, if you scale your subject down even to a relatively large “small” subject – maybe a frog, a lizard, even a large beetle or spider – and you make those figures for depth of field proportionality smaller too, differences in habitat can quickly become much less apparent. Take this moth:
Canon 7D + 100mm f2.8 USM Macro lens – f10, 1/80, ISO 320
It shows a lot of detail, but there’s very little you can tell about the habitat. It’s on a twig, but that twig could be in any number of locations – there really aren’t many other clues.
So, how to solve this? My first step was to follow the lead of a number of other wildlife photographers and reach for my wide-angle lens. This is something that’s being done quite a lot now to great effect by photographers aiming to show more of the habitat their subject is living in. Generally used in conjunction with some kind of remote triggering system to overcome the problem of getting close enough without much reach, a wide angle lens can allow the subject to dominate the frame but simultaneously show a lot more of the world around it than may otherwise be possible with a longer lens. Most of the photos I’d seen using this technique were of animals much larger than the ones I had in mind – foxes featured particularly frequently, insects and spiders less so.
The wide-angle in my bag at the time was a Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6. It’s a very solid performer generally – on the rare occasions I’ve tried my hand at landscapes I’ve always been more than happy with the performance. Put to this new use, it just didn’t quite work as well as I hoped. It did well in some situations, for example with this particularly large Stag Beetle:
Canon 7D + Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6 lens. 20mm, f8, 1/200, ISO 320
Most of the time, even with subjects of a similar size, I found myself just a bit further from the subject than I wanted to be, which often resulted in it becoming slightly lost in its surroundings.
While searching for other solutions, trawling through figures for minimum focussing distances and maximum magnification ratios, I came across some really interesting photos taken using the Sigma 15mm Fisheye. I’d never really given much consideration to owning a fish-eye before. I’d, possibly naively, written them off as being slightly gimmicky – something that would be fun for a week or two and then sit in the bag gathering dust and regret, so it was with some trepidation that, after much deliberation and a frustrating session with the 10-20mm, I finally succumbed to the temptation of the “Buy it Now” button.
At this point I should possibly confess that I’ve not yet owned it for two weeks, but having had a good few opportunities in that short period to use it, I can very happily say that it has done everything I’ve hoped it would so far, and that I can see it becoming an integral part of my lens line-up.
The largest of my subjects so far have been Common Lizards (Zootoca vivipara). At no more than about 5 inches (10cm) long, these are still pretty small. There’s an excellent population of them around a length of board-walk on some local heathland which is surrounded by dead trees and rough grasses. With the macro lens, the lizard was beautifully clear and sharp, but all the background detail was either cut out completely or blurred beyond any recognition. However, with the Sigma the lizard was still large enough in the frame to clearly be the subject, but all that interest from the habitat was still there:
The first of these three photos shows the lens working at it’s closest focussing distance. It has an impressively small minimum focussing distance of just 5.9in (15cm) – some 3.5in shorter than that of the 10-20mm and a good couple of inches shorter at least than most similar lenses in this range. In terms of working distance, this means you’re very close to your subject – certainly less than an inch away when you’re focussed all the way in. For subjects as skittish as lizards, this can sometimes bit a bit of a problem, but it really does mean that you can get a good, up-close view of your subject.
While photographing the lizards I also happened to stumble across a Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) sunning itself on one of the boards. At less than an inch long it would definitely usually be on the receiving end of the macro lens, but I decided to see how far it was possible to push the fish-eye. :
Even with something that small, it’s possible to get close enough to clearly make out details whilst giving masses of habitat in the background.
The lens also coped admirably with an Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia). Despite only having a wingspan of a couple of inches, using the Sigma it was possible to get close enough to clearly see details such as the scales on the wings, yet still have an entire landscape in the background:
From a technical point of view, it’s obviously crucial when working with small subjects to be able to capture small details and, whilst I was working with the lens stopped down most of the time, there’s no doubt the Sigma is a very sharp lens. Chromatic fringing is noticeable in contrasty scenes, but is at a level where it is easily dealt with in Lightroom. As you can see in all the images above there is, as would be expected, a certain amount of distortion – none of the photos featured in this post have had any correction applied though and, for me, the distortion is not at a level such that it detracts from the overall photo. It’s a really solidly built lens – the metal hood is a particularly nice touch when working close to ground level as it feels like it’ll stand up nicely to the job of protecting the bulbous front element from any accidental bumps and scrapes. Focussing is a bit slow and noisy, and it doesn’t have full time manual focussing. Because I was working with small subjects I was using manual focus most of the time for maximum control and accuracy, and, for a small lens, the focus ring is a nice substantial size which makes manually focussing nice and easy.
Overall, my first impressions of the lens are overwhelmingly positive. It’s opened up a whole new way for me to approach photographing small things. Realistically, using the lens to do wide-angle “macro” shots is only going to be possible down to a certain size of subject – it’s certainly not going to be able to produce an image of an ant, and the macro lens is still going to keep its place in my bag, but on what I’ve seen so far it’s going to be more than capable of producing some really interesting, eye-catching images of larger insects as well as small reptiles and amphibians. I am really excited with the potential I feel the lens has and really look forward to using it plenty more in the months ahead.