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Backcountry Photography

The Raynox DCR‑150 Close‑Up Lens —
Conversion Made Easy
Partridge Berries

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

May 1, 2012

If you learned of a secret wilderness, a little‑visited place ignored by guidebook writers and television producers, yet easily reached by nearly anyone, whatever her age or physical condition, what would you do? Would you want to explore this hidden treasure? I'll bet you would. Now here's the good news: Just such a place exists. It's the miniature world at your feet. A world of intricate plants, exotic fauna, and strikingly varied topography. And your passport to this unknown land? Your camera.

Too good to be true, you say? Well, maybe it is. If the only camera you own is the one in your cell phone, it almost certainly is. But if you have a single‑lens reflex (SLR) camera — digital or film, it makes no difference — your passport's made. All you need now is a suitable lens. To be sure, this may prove something of an obstacle in itself. Good macro lenses don't come cheap. They take up a fair amount of space in a dry box, too. And even if you already own one, you may not want to subject it to the dangers inherent in exploring the watery world, with mud underfoot and a risk of capsize around every bend in the river. (Yes, I'm exaggerating. But when you have hundreds or thousands of dollars tied up in camera gear, you can't help but feel a little paranoid.)

Of course, we can't afford to be ruled by our fears. If we were, we'd never get out of bed in the morning. Happily, though, there's a way to have the best of both worlds. You can outfit your SLR for …

Macrophotography Without Spending (or Risking) a Fortune

The trick lies in something called a close‑up converter (aka conversion lens). It allows you to use your regular ("primary") lens to explore the secret world at your feet. The cost? Less than a hundred bucks. I got my converter — a Raynox DCR‑150 Macro Close‑Up Conversion Lens — for just USD80. It's a versatile piece of kit, designed to work with any primary lens that accepts filters in the 52‑67 mm range. And once it's fitted, you can bring your camera within eight inches of your subject. Nor will the DCR‑150 compromise image quality. While single‑element close‑up lenses are plagued by optical aberrations, the DCR‑150's three‑element, 4.8‑diopter assembly produces wonderfully sharp pictures. As we shall see.

First, however, a few technical details: Here's a close‑up of the Raynox. The left‑hand panel identifies the component parts (the UV filter was purchased separately); the right‑hand photo illustrates how they go together:

Naming of Parts

The entire assembly then clips to the front of your camera's primary lens. The spring‑loaded clamps (see the left‑hand photo below) engage the exposed filter threads on the primary lens in the same way that a lens cap does (right‑hand photo).

Ready for Duty

The primary lens in this case is a Pentax 55‑300 mm zoom telephoto, and the pairing certainly makes a pretty picture. But this beauty is more than skin‑deep. Consider the DCR‑150's advantages:

Low Cost  As I've already mentioned, I paid less than USD80 — and that included the price of a separate UV filter. A new macro primary lens would have set me back at least several hundred bucks.

Small Size and Negligible Weight  The DCR‑150 slips easily into a shirt pocket, and it adds no noticeable weight at the end of a long lens.

Simplicity  Other than the spring‑loaded clamps on the adaptor ring, the DCR‑150 has no moving parts. In other words, there's nothing mechanical to malfunction. The Raynox also comes with front and rear lens covers and a sturdy, well padded hard‑plastic case.

First‑Rate Optics  The DCR‑150 is a fully‑corrected, multi‑element lens. This translates into very good image quality. If you pair the Raynox with a good primary lens, you'll get good pictures.

Versatility  As noted, you can mount the Raynox converter on almost any primary lens that accepts filters in the 52‑67 mm range. And if your lens doesn't measure up, you can always use a step‑up adapter ring. These are cheap and light, and they make it possible to mount larger filters on smaller lenses. You can also go the other way if your primary lens is too big, using a step‑down adapter ring, but in this case you'll likely see some vignetting. I'll have more to say about vignetting in a minute, but for now just think of it as tunnel vision.

What about adding a filter to the Raynox itself? No problem. The DCR‑150 accepts any 49 mm filter: UV, polarizing, or neutral density.

Autofocus? OK!  Unlike teleconverter tubes, the Raynox doesn't prevent you from using your camera's autofocus capability.

A Hard Case

That's the good news, and there's a lot of it. But there are also a few areas where the DCR‑150 falls short. Here's a list:

Vignetting Happens  While not invariably a problem, this optical corner‑cutting (see photo below) may appear when the Raynox is paired with short‑focal‑length primary lenses. In making the photo of the aspen leaf, I used a Pentax 50‑200 mm telephoto at 77 mm.

Cutting Corners

 

Of course, vignetting isn't often a fatal flaw. It's even used deliberately by many photographers. Just take it into account when you frame a shot. Or edit it out later in your digital darkroom.

Fiddly Bits  You can't fit the lens cap over the rear element when the lens is in the adapter. The remedy? Carry the lens and adapter separately, putting them together only when you're ready to shoot. Or put the assembled DCR‑150, sans rear lens caps, in a CLEAN heavy‑duty ziplock bag.

Fussy Focusing  This can't really be laid at the DCR‑150's door. Close‑up photography is necessarily a fussy business. Framing your subject is difficult. Focus is critical. (Raynox suggests using your camera's LCD monitor, rather than the optical viewfinder, but this option isn't available on many digital SLRs.) And any movement — even the gentle jar of your SLR's mirror pivoting out of the way when you make an exposure — will blur an image. The only cure is meticulous attention to detail. A tripod and remote shutter release are often essential, and a mirror lock is extremely helpful.

Shallow Depth of Field  Another problem that goes with the territory. Adopt a make‑lemonade strategy: Exploit the limited depth of field when framing your shots.

 

The bottom line? The Raynox close‑up converter has many advantages and few drawbacks, and most of the latter are inevitable in any close‑up work, even with purpose‑built primary macro lenses.

 

So much for the preliminaries. It's time to see …

How to Get the Most From the DCR‑150

Though it seems counterintuitive, the Raynox converter works best with zoom telephoto lenses, whose longer focal lengths yield higher magnifications. (The zoom capability also facilitates "fine tuning" magnification as needed.) I made two studio shots of a wet seashell to illustrate this. The left‑hand photo was exposed at 18 mm with a typical 18‑55 mm "kit" lens (the dark‑gray object is a pebble), whereas the right‑hand picture was shot at 300 mm using a 55‑300 mm zoom telephoto. I got as close as I could with both lenses when using an aperture of ƒ/8, and I didn't crop either picture. I did resize both to fit within the constraints of this column, however.

Shell Game

Several things are immediately obvious. The left‑hand photo (made at a focal length of 18 mm) exhibits severe vignetting, and shows little apparent magnification. The shot made with the zoom telephoto, however, is a true close‑up.

Having demonstrated the superiority of zoom telephotos in converter macrophotography, let's now explore several other important questions. I've treated these subjects at some length in an earlier article, but here are the highlights:

Lighting and Background Matter  For best results, macrophotography requires bright, diffuse light. Unfortunately, nature doesn't always cooperate. The pros often use a flash, but I prefer working with whatever nature provides, and in any case Raynox discourages attempts at flash photography with the DCR‑150, at least when using a camera's integral flash. So what do I do when the natural light lets me down? Well, sometimes I can solve the problem by reflecting light onto my subject. At other times, however, I just fiddle with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO until I find a combination that yields an acceptable image.

Background is of great import, too, as any Harvard girl or old Etonian will tell you — though they've probably got something else in mind. If you shoot a white flower against a slab of sun‑bleached driftwood, you'll have trouble locating your subject in the resulting image. Contrast is critical in close‑up photography.

Steady as She Goes  A steady hand is needed in all areas of photography, and nowhere is this more important than in close‑up work. Getting sharp, well‑defined images requires that you avoid even the slightest movement. While the magic of the digital darkroom can rescue many less‑than‑perfect photos, it won't turn a blurry abstract into a crisp copy. But prevention is better than cure, in any case. Use a tripod — along with a remote shutter release and your camera's mirror lock — when you can; hold 'em steady and squeeze 'em slow when you can't.

Focus, Focus, Focus  Shallow depth of field is a constant challenge in macrophotography. You have to find the sweet spot — the place where your subject stands out sharp and clear against a pleasing bokeh backdrop. Luckily, digital technology makes trial and error both cheap and easy. Take multiple shots, moving the sharply focused sweet spot forward and back by increments till you get just the result you're looking for. If conditions permit — if, for instance, you're shooting a pebble on the beach — you can maximize depth of field by stopping down the aperture and lengthening the exposure to compensate. Moving targets — insects, say, or flowers tossing in the breeze — don't permit this, however. You'll need a faster shutter speed, and that means opening up the lens. (You may even want to move to a higher ISO.) The result? Depth of field and sharpness will both suffer.

What about autofocus? I mentioned earlier that the DCR‑150 permits you to use your camera's autofocus capability. This is welcome news, but there are good reasons for preferring manual focus when shooting macro close‑ups. For one thing, many autofocus lenses "hunt" noisily for prolonged periods when finding the proper focus — if they ever do. I'd rather focus manually, then fine‑tune the result by making tiny changes in the camera's position before snapping the shutter.

 

This hands‑on approach takes time to master, of course. In macrophotography, as in nearly everything else, practice makes perfect. But while I've a long way to go before I can boast that I've nothing more to learn about the art of using the Raynox converter, I'm already making progress. Don't take my word for it, however. See for yourself …

How the Raynox DCR‑150 Performs

I've got to admit that I really didn't know what to expect from the Raynox. I hadn't had much luck with single‑element converters in the past. But the DCR‑150 is in another league altogether, and it's now made a convert of me. Check out this handsome fellow, for example:

Family Portrait

He lives in my desk, and he's only about one‑quarter of an inch long (that's about the size of a deer tick after it's had a good meal, but this guy's a lot better company than a tick). In making his portrait I used a tripod and indirect natural light from a nearby window, with a four‑second exposure at ƒ/27.

Few creatures are as patient, of course, and I don't often bother bringing a tripod along on paddling trips. This often limits the scope of my macrophotography. Then again, the light's usually brighter outdoors than it is in my office. So things sometimes work out in my favor. And here's a close‑up of the unknown wilderness on the forest floor to prove it:

Moss Side

I shot this backlit close‑up of inch‑long moss setae ("stems") and their terminal capsules from the prone position — the next best thing to a tripod — using the Raynox converter with my 55‑300 mm zoom telephoto, at a focal length of 77mm. I chose ISO 100 to minimize noise, and I selected an aperture of ƒ/8. I then set the camera to aperture priority mode, with an EV (exposure value) of ‑1.0 to compensate for the bright background. The camera decided on a shutter speed of 1/125 second. Notwithstanding the smallish aperture, the depth of field was still shallow: Only one seta and its associated droplets are in sharp focus. But this was exactly what I was looking for.

Now let's scramble to our feet and get the big picture:

The Big Picture

Needless to say, I wasn't using the DCR‑150 when I took this shot. The carpet of moss whose capsules were my subject in the preceding photo is what gives the forest floor here its roseate hue.

Finally, as a sort of royal send‑off for this week's column, here's a close‑up of a troop of British soldiers kitted out in full fig. And don't they look sharp!

 

The Thin Red Line

 

If you own a digital single‑lens reflex camera, you've got most of what you'll need to explore the hidden wilderness of the forest floor. The only other thing you'll have to get is an add‑on lens called a close‑up converter. Luckily, these are both cheap and light, so they're perfect for penny‑pinching paddlers. I just acquired one, and I've been putting it though its paces. The results have exceeded my expectations. Make no mistake: I'm a convert. The little Raynox DCR‑150 will be coming along with me on a lot of trips this year.

 


 

Related Articles From In the Same Boat

And an article from my own website:

Plus a look at what Raynox lenses can do in the hands of skilled shooters:

  • "The Raynox Club"

     

    Copyright © 2012 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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