Someday, when I’m a real boy, I’ll be better at photography

Mary, again…she was out in the garage, and spotted a pair of P. tep. getting frisky. The male kept approaching the female and waving his forelegs for attention, and Mary told me I should capture some of the action (she’s an amateur pornographer, too? She can do everything). Of course I rushed out to set up a tripod and my biggest lens to see if I could get some real wildlife photography. Unfortunately, this was the best I could do.

That’s the lady spider, near the center right; her suitor is the darker, smaller spot to the left. That’s all the oomph my Canon t5i with the EFS 17-85mm lens has. It’s not enough. This is what I’m using to photograph spiders outside the lab.

The big thing hanging off the end is a nice bright LED ring light.

If I want to get any good at this, I know I’m going to have to practice, practice, practice, but I’m also going to need a better lens. Any photography experts out there want to give me some advice? I’ve been eyeing the Tokina at-X 100mm f/2.8 PRO D Macro Lens, or maybe these Macro Lens Extension Tubes which are much more in my price range, although I wouldn’t just stack lenses in my microscope to get a magnified image, so I’m a little leery. I’ve also read that the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens is kind of optimal for my purposes, but that’s way out of my price range.

Actually, everything is out of my price range, because I’ve still got that vile SLAPP suit hanging over my head. If that would go away, maybe I’d have a little room in my budget.

But hey, advice and dreams are free, right? Aim me in the right direction.


  1. davidc1 says

    Hi Doc ,i have a Sigma 105mm 2.8 Macro lens for my Nikon .Don’t know if you have considered that lens ?

  2. says

    Not until now! I see I can get it with a Canon mount, but it’s still more expensive than the Tokina. I have time to comparison shop, at least.

  3. whheydt says

    You’re basically on the right track. You need a macrofocusing lens (the faster the better). Extension tubes, including macro extensions will also help. Two things to watch out for… First, close focusing with a large apperture means very shallow depth of field. Second, adding extensions reduces the size of apperture possible. E.g. double the focal length, lose 2 F-stops (an F2.8 becomes an F5.6…at best).

  4. Kevin Karplus says

    I’m no expert on photography, but I’ve been learning a little in order to get photos of small pieces of electronics for my book and my blog.

    I think you want a telephoto lens rather than wide-angle lens for doing macro photography. A telephoto lens with macro extension tubes to allow closer focus generally works ok, though not as well as a custom-designed macro lens—I’ve been doing most of my photography with just the “macro” setting on my digital camera, which does not have changeable lenses (I used to use a 35mm SLR for which I did have both macro extensions and macro lenses the screwed into the filter mount, but that was decades ago—the extensions worked better than the lenses).

    Lighting is often the biggest problem with any sort of macrophotography. I’m considering getting a portable light booth to make the photography easier—so far I’ve mainly been using the floor of my front porch, which gets enough light for photographing non-moving objects. I stop down to about f/8 to get adequate depth of field, but you might find that results in too long an exposure for spider photography unless you have very bright lights.

  5. says

    Let’s just say I had less than stellar experiences with Tokina lenses, so something else might be a better choice.

    Extension tubes are an inexpensive way of getting closer to your subject, ie, lower the minimal focus distance, but there are drawbacks. There is a significant decrease in depth of field, and you can no longer focus to infinity. Please note that EF and EF-S lenses are somewhat different beasts, so make sure if you go down the extension tubes road that they in fact support EF-S.

    As for the aperture, this is an issue with extenders as they work differently in that actually contain optical elements. They decrease the maximum aperture, make the image softer (the cheaper ones may yield artistically lovely results, but might lack the sharp/crispness you want), and at smaller apertures autofocus no longer works meaning you’ll need to manually focus.

    As for me, the few odd times I did macro’esque stuff I used my Canon EF 12 II extension tube in combination with either a prime lens (85mm f1.8) or zoom lens (70-300mm f4~5.6), and I was quite happy with the results.

  6. says

    I recommend this website for advice on macro photography. They have really great tutorials.

    I also suggest you to look into Raynox DCR-250. This thing is cheap enough and can be stacked on top of any lens to give some extra magnification. I own it, and I like it.

    Personally, I own Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens and Raynox DCR-250. Both of those, with Raynox stacked in front of the Canon lens, is what I used for getting this shot

    Whatever macro lens you choose to buy, the longer the focal length, the better, because this way you will have more working distance and spiders won’t feel disturbed by the lens being too close to them. You probably don’t want anything less than 100mm.

    Assuming a spider is motionless and stationary for a while, you may want to take multiple shots and focus stack them digitally. My photo of the dead fly was focus stacked from about 20 or so individual photos.

    If you need lots of magnification, Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro lens has lots of it, more than any other lens out there. Of course, it’s also sort of expensive and tricky to use.

    If you are on a tight budged, you may consider purchasing a used lens. That saves at least some money.

  7. says

    For lighting you can use a regular speedlite. Macro flashlights tend to be overpriced, and also unnecessary. You can do just fine with a speedlite with a small softbox in front of it.
    here and is a photo of the kind of setup I have in mind (what I use is somewhat similar). You don’t need an expensive speedlite, something cheap like Godox will do just fine (personally, I use Godox speedlites).

    Here are some more examples of the setups people use for macro photography.

  8. kaleberg says

    I swear by those moderately priced ($200-$500) ultra-zoom cameras. I use them to photograph flowers, animals, birds and insects. They typically give you a 12MP image, and its been highly processed since it is actually impossible to make a non-distorting lens that small. Still, the image quality is pretty good, especially with decent light. They have a built in flash and macro modes for most close work, but I tend to keep my distance. Marmots bite, and I don’t want the national park rangers on my ass.
    You probably want to get a good lens, especially for academic cred, but a good lens will probably cost as much as one of these cameras.
    P.S. What are you doing with those pictures? If it’s photogrametry, I take it back, otherwise go to and see what’s out there in your price range.

  9. beardymcviking says

    I’ve got the Sigma 180mm f3.5 macro, and had great results with bees. I find the extra focal length over a 100mm lens is really helpful when you want to keep your distance from the subjects, and getting the f3.5 rather than the f2.8 makes it affordable (as long as you’ve got enough light to make it work).

  10. davidc1 says

    The Doc wrote “Not until now! I see I can get it with a Canon mount, but it’s still more expensive than the Tokina. I have time to comparison shop, at least.”
    Ah ,didn’t know that ,people have mentioned about lighting ,have you considered a ring flash ?
    PS have you consided a good secondhand lens ?

  11. says

    Used is a possibility. I should try a flash setup; I’m used to microscopy, where flash just isn’t used, and I also want to record video now and then, so the Neewer ring light is useful for that.

    Specifically what I want to do soon is document spiders in my survey project. For that, I probably don’t need an IS lens, since they’re often quite still in their webs, and I’m not averse to using a tripod.

    That Raynox sounds like an interesting option, too.

    But again, living with a million dollar lawsuit (which won’t happen, but lawyers cost money) really puts a damper on the gadget spending spree.

  12. martincohen says

    Olympus TG-5 (now TG-6) has very good macro capabilities plus an inexpensive ring light.

    Total cost less than $500. Also water and shock proof.

  13. stroppy says

    I’m not an expert either, but I look at it from a slightly different angle (‘angle’… get it?).

    Aaanywayy, with sufficiently high density of information you can make up for a world of photo sins on your desk/laptop. Right now I’m discovering Affinity Photo (on a Mac) as an alternative to Photoshop. It’s less expensive and seems to be more than adequate for most tasks. There is a bit of a learning curve and of course practice, practice, practice.

    I copied your web-ready jpg and took a look at it. I’d say a tighter (i.e., come in so that the spiders fill the frame a little better) shot and increased depth of field (aperture setting– the black spider is out of focus) would be the simplest things you can do to improve your raw material. I did a couple of quick adjustments and compensated somewhat for exposure. There was some improvement, but lack of detail was apparent. Things should be better using the original file (raw or tiff). Since detail is critical, I’d avoid jpg until you’re done and ready to post to the web.

    Just my 2 cents…

  14. stroppy says

    Re #6
    Ditto on focus stacking.

    (Other forms of “stacking” like HDR might be fun to play with…)

  15. Larry says

    I just checked one of my favorite photo sites,, and saw several used Canon 100mm lenses for sale for ~$350. New, they go for $600. There are both “L” series lenses and regular so you need to check. The “L” lenses are going to be quite a bit more expensive. I have bought gear there before and they have a good reputation for weeding out frauds and scamsters.

  16. dentalflossbay says

    I use the Canon 60mm prime macro lens (no zoom), for photographing moths. It means that I need to get quite close to the subject, but forgoing the ability to zoom gets you a lot more light and crispness for your weight and money.

  17. says

    I picked up an old Canon Powershot (SX120IS 10mp 10x zoom) compact camera, does excellent macros and cost me well under a hundred off ebay. No-one wants them any more due to smart phones getting better, so they are now excellent value for money. It’ll just about full screen a postage stamp. Also the earlier ones take a couple of AA batteries so no fancy dedicated rechargeable thingys to lose.

  18. gobi's sockpuppet's meatpuppet says

    Hi PZ – I notice the lens in the photo is an EF-S mount. Have a look at the EF-S 60 f2.8 macro from Canon. The EF-S range are specially designed for APS-C sensors which I am assuming your camera has.
    Buying a standard EF lens is like throwing half your lens away for more money.
    BTW, this is a true macro lens not the pretend macro you get on zooms, but you will have to get in closer. A dedicated macro prime lens will give you MUCH sharper images than a zoom!
    If you are using a tripod, an image stabiliser is next to useless as it is designed to compensate for the shaking of your hands. They are also useless for moving subjects.
    Hope this helps.

  19. marcoli says

    OMG, this is right in my wheelhouse. Sorry to be late here. You probably have good advice up there already, but here is mine (which is possibly redundant).
    1. The main way to get images in the macro range that combine image quality AND is cost effective is to get extension tubes. Get the ones that have electrical contacts between the lens and camera body. You don’t need the more expensive Kenko brand extension tubes, as cheaper ones will work just fine. For example, this one: I promise this will work with your camera body.
    2. The lens should be a small prime lens, not a zoom lens like you have. Get a used 50mm lens, like this (note the used ones): Any small prime will do. There is also the Canon 40 mm which is nice and the shorter size means more magnification.
    There are the cheap Chinese knock-offs: I don’t know how good these are. They might be equivalent. Another option is to get an antique fully manual lens and to fit this to the extension tubes with an adapter. The aperture control will be manual, and you should shoot at f/11 or so. An accessory light will help you to see while focusing.
    3. If you can possibly manage a true macro lens, then get it. Even an old non-Canon and discontinued lens from Tokina or Tamron would be great. You cannot easily go wrong with a real macro lens. They are all terrific. Shop on ebay or Craigslist.
    4. If you are significantly shakier than the average person, then the tripod would be important. But if you are as unsteady as the average person your age (we are about the same age), then you don’t need a tripod. A simple steadying stick does just as well and is a lot less fussy. 3/8″ wooden rod from a hardware store will do. You will know what to do. The camera shutter (1/200) and the flash will do a good job at freezing camera movement.
    5. The above set up, Canon t5i body, small prime lens on extension tubes, and a steadying stick, plus external diffused flash is the rig I used when starting out with this kind of photography. This is what this camera and tubes and a 50mm can do: (this was a staged shot on our dining room table. You know how Salticids are!)

    I see you are advised to go to the True Macrophotography section of the Ugly Hedgehog web site. I hang out there a lot. The folks there will give you a lot of good advice, and some mght offer to sell you something. They are all great people.

  20. says

    If you’re looking to save money on a nice lens, look at and their “bargain” rated used lenses. These have some sort of physical defect or damage, but the optics are clear and clean. I picked up a 300mm EF-L lens for half what new goes for. The only defect is a couple of small boxes on the lens tube where the previous owner had scratched out a name or some other identifying mark not related to the lens. It takes fantastic pictures.

    As others have said, lighting is very important for macro photography so you can use the smallest aperture possible to get the largest depth of field possible. Maybe look at a ring flash that attaches to the end of the lens barrel. The kind your dentist uses to take pictures of your mouth.

    Again, as others have said, I’d steer clear of Tokina. Ideally, Canon L lenses will be the gold standard, but pricier. Again, look at for L lens bargains. Sigma makes nice 3rd party Canon lenses. Don’t get a zoom. Get a prime focal length macro in the 85 to 100mm range that can do 1:1.

  21. says

    Lighting! The on-camera flash will cause problems in your images; direct light on the spider’s eyes will cause white-outs, for example. If you must use on-camera flash, aim it away and bounce the light off a light wall or umbrella or sheet of paper, or whatever you can come up with in the location. And use an extra source or two; not the expensive studio lights; an ordinary LED trouble light really helps. Move them around; experiment.
    Extra light before you take the photo also helps with focusing, whether you’re doing it automatically or manually. Even a spare student with a flashlight helps; spiders found in garages do tend to find darkish corners.
    (Note: I’m just an amateur, but I’ve taken oodles of photos of spiders; my latest, processed last night was just the eyes, straight on. A bit blurry, but next time, I’ll do better.)

  22. says

    I got the EFS 60mm 2.8 Canon macro (got it used from a guy who found out that macro isn’t his thing after buying it and I love it. I also have some cheapish close up lenses and they’re great fun as long as
    -the object doesn’t object to your presence
    -the object keeps relatively still
    – you got a steady hand or tripod.
    But they together occasionally dive you something like this:

    I promise I’ll help raising money when the holidays are over in August.

  23. blf says

    It sounds much easier just to make the spider bigger. Suggested methods include irradiation, toxic waste, and pinning four extra legs on the evil cat.

  24. says

    Whoa. I already own that Canon 50mm. I also have a Canon EFS 24mm. I’ve ordered a set of extenders. Now I’m eager to sit down and try these out.

  25. Scott M says

    You need a pencam for your next spider hunt. I’ve been using my pencam to film ants and flies trapped inside pitcher plants (sarracenia).

    The camera i use is the Teslong MS100 pencam. Without it, none of my insect pictures would have been possible. I found the pencam shortly after I got my carnivorous plants. I wanted something that get closeups of the insects stuck to my drosera. A little googling around and i found the pencam and it’s specs looked amazing:

    The pencam packs 8 adjustable LED lights around 200 X magnification 1.0 Megapixel CMOS camera into a 7 mm stainless steel tube. (For comparison, a dime is 18 mm.)

    Oh yeah, and it’s waterproof too.

    I looked at the specs and I realized that it would work not only to photograph the unfortunate insects stuck to my drosera, but it should be able fit into the the mouth of a sarracenia pitcher plant. And when I stuck the pencam into the mouth of a S Luecophylia i saw dozens of panicked ants looking back at me. (My comment at the end of the first ant video was: “Well, that was disturbing”) From then on I was hooked. It is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
    I have a small review posted here.

    The Teslong pencam would be ideal to help you chase down your spiders. In fact, I recently posted a spider video. A spider set up shop in one of the newer pitchers. I guess he was looking for an easy meal in there.

    The pencam has allowed me to see all manner of things inside a live pitcher plant: giant wasps, flies, bees, and ants, tons of ants. (sometimes they form ant ladders in the failed attempt to escape the pitcher one of my favorite pictures show the quality of the pictures the pencam can take. A large fly had been trapped and the pencam captured its compound eyes in great detail. It also showed a white blob walking across the eye. That turns out to be one of the commensal mites that help the plant digest its prey. (The mite is about 0.5 mm)

    Admittedly, the pencam will not take as good of a picture as a high end DSLR. But can you squeeze a DSLR into the 1 inch mouth of a pitcher plant and then film under water once inside? Plus its relatively inexpensive. At around 40$ you could get 10 of them for the price of a high end lens. (or 19 pencams for the price of one Canon EF 100mm lens) (Click the amazon button on the pencam review page and Jeff Bezos might give me a dollar

    Another handy tool for your spider hunting is the backyard safari bug vacuum. Sometimes the best research tools say “For ages 5 and up” on them.

  26. clsi says

    Lots of good advice here, but I’ll just second what Marcoli said @20. Don’t fear the extension tubes–they add no glass between the subject and sensor, so they don’t diminish image quality that way (you do need to watch for loss of quality from using too small an aperture, but the aperture/depth-of-field/image quality tradeoffs are an issue with any macro setup, not just extension tubes). Extension tubes are tricky with zoom lenses, though; you’ll be much better off with them on your 50mm prime.