Drones are the latest rage among nature photographers these days. It is easy to see why, they provide unique perspectives of the world that were previously impossible to get, or at the very least expensive. They keep getting better too, the DJI Phantom 4 drone has a 20 megapixel camera sensor!
There is a downside, of course. As of this writing, the DJI Phantom 4 retails for around $1,300, and the soon(?) to be released DJI Mavic Pro retails for $999. For photographers used to shelling out a lot of hard earned money on lenses, that actually doesn't seem too bad. But still, I would like to offer a cheaper if not perfectly equivalent alternative: A macro lens!
I know, a macro lens is not the same thing as a drone, and it is certainly not a replacement for one, but it does provide a similar function in that it offers a new and different perspectives on the everyday world around us. When concentrating on abstract patterns and shapes, perspectives a few hundred feet in the air can look very similar to those just inches away from the ground.
Best of all, great quality macro lenses are (relatively) cheap! My favorite macro lens, and the sharpest lens I own, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L ISM 1X macro lens, is only $799 (all photos in this post were taken with that lens) If you truly want to get microscopic the Canon MP-E6 1-5X Macro Lens is even more crazy, providing a 5X magnification (though it's slightly more expensive at $1,050). 1X magnification means that a subject that is the same size as your camera sensor will fill the frame. 5X magnification means an object 5 times smaller than your camera sensor will fill the entire frame.
Other advantages of a macro lens over a drone:
- Macro lenses do not need to comply with FAA regulations!
- Macro lenses do not sound like the world's most annoying hair dryer
- Macro lenses are permitted everywhere photography is permitted, including National Parks
- Macro lenses easily fit into your existing camera bag
- Macro lenses do not need their own batteries
- Macro lenses do not fly away from you never to return again
- Macro lenses can take long exposures at low ISO when using a tripod
- Macro lenses can work with the latest camera sensors, which can be upgraded independently
Macro lenses also have benefits over traditional lenses. Macro lenses have a closer minimum focusing distance than equivalent focal length non-macro lenses (which is how they achieve 1X and higher magnification). The Canon 100mm macro has a focusing distance of 1 foot, the Canon 100mm prime f/2 (non-macro) lens has a minimum focusing distance of three feet. This means that with a macro lens you can get closer to your subject matter and still have everything in focus, giving you a different photographic perspective. Remember that cropping a photo does not change perspective, it only decreases resolution, so having a closer minimum focusing distance opens up new creative possibilities. The Canon 100mm macro (and many others) can also focus at infinity, allowing you to use the lens as a normal prime lens in addition to as a macro lens.
Macro lenses are often used to photograph small subjects, allowing you to easily modify light and have it affect the entire scene. Most typically this involves shading your subject on a sunny day using a reflector or diffuser or just the shadow of your own body. This means that you can photograph macro subjects during more hours of a day than might be suitable for a wide-angle grand scenic.
Most of all, like drones, macro lenses are fun!
So by all means, purchase that drone (we will get one at some point when we have a place to store it), but also get a macro lens, even if it isn't as sexy these days. They both can provide opportunities that are not available with traditional lenses.
For more on small scenes and macro photography, please see our e-book Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature's Smaller Scenes. Colleen Miniuk-Sperry also has a recent blog post on gear and accessories for macro/wildflower photography that is well worth reading.
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