Renowned macro photographer, Paul Harcourt Davies, takes a look at the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG and shows us there are more uses for it than the obvious ones.
In my work I set out to depict what I see in nature, essentially from two viewpoints lying at opposite ends of the field of view.
In the last couple of years, living within easy reach of several sets of Italian mountains that go to over 2200m, I have had the luxury of treating the car as a large camera bag. On arrival at a suitable flower-filled hillside, full of butterflies I decant a much less ambitious selection into a smaller day sack.
In that time I have realised that by far the greater proportion of my images for publication and agencies are taken with just two Sigma lenses: the much lauded 150mm f/2.8 AF macro and the far less-well-known 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye.
First, those long focus capabilities of the 150mm f/2.8 AF macro have proved ideal for isolating a close-up subject from its background. This it achieves with biting sharpness and simultaneously produces a background with the excellent ‘bokeh’ that today’s trends demand. It is also the perfect lens to use when I am working on images for the MYN (Meet Your Neighbours) project initiated by my good friends Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt. Here, a translucent white acrylic panel is backlit by flash, both isolating the subject from clutter and producing a degree of backlighting that renders edges of petals, leaves and insect wings in a way that reveals details you did not realise were there. I love doing these pictures because so many things that I had come to regard as familiar have been revealed in a different light – and that really appeals to me.
The 15mm f/2.8 EX DG DIAGONAL FISHEYE however does something quite different. I have long used the wide-angle approach to show flowers in the context of their background: in fact it all began in 1978 when I purchased a 28mm f/2.8 lens to accompany my Canon F1 camera and used it to provide the images for a calendar for the Bank of Cyprus. Later, when I ventured into medium format photography I made sure that I always had a lens of equivalent angle of view plus an extension tube to get me that bit closer.
I have always sought to recreate the same visual impact that you get on seeing remarkable flowers in superb sites for the very first time. My reasoning goes something like this: flowers are the beacons that serve to attract pollinators and they also attract our immediate gaze before our vision ‘moves out’ to consider the larger picture. Wide-angle lenses used close to a subject offer a degree of perspective distortion which becomes more obvious, the shorter the focal length of the lens. This distortion can be distracting with human faces for it accentuates those elements (such as noses) closest to the lens surface. However, used with care on small animals – insects in particular – they can produce images with great impact, particularly when used from a low viewpoint.
Very few wide-angle lenses incorporate the degree of close-focus that I want – Sigma’s series of fixed focal length wide angles (20mm, 24mm and 28mm all of maximum aperture f/1.8) are a notable exception and they couple it with impressive sharpness. If close focus is hard to come by with fixed focus lenses it is a rarity with zooms. Typically, those with the shortest zoom range (e.g. 10-20 mm, 12-24mm and 17-35mm are the best: essentially 2x zooms
However, the 15mm f/2.8 EX DG DIAGONAL FISHEYE reigns supreme with a close focus capability unequalled by any other lens of this (or almost any) focal length. The designers were able to be more generous with close-focus when relieved of the need to produce a flat field and eliminate edge curvature. The beauty of this lens is that it is designed to cover a full frame sensor(FX) where the curvature of the field is obvious at the edges of the frame However, when used on cameras with a smaller sensor (APS-C) just the central portion of the image circle is utilised and edge distortion is limited. Thus, with this lens, you have an ultra-wide angle objective with an amazing close-focus that, unaided, gives a reproduction ratio of 1:3.8 (x 0.26 magnification).
I must confess that I have a lifelong fetish for sharpness and place near impossible demands on any lens I use when it comes to sharpness: this lens fits the bill superbly. On the 27″ screen on my iMac I examine detail at 100% when viewed in Lightroom and, unfairly, sometimes at 200% – just for the hell of it. The detail retention with this lens is staggering and the balance of colour and contrast superb.
So, the 15mm f/2.8 glowing reference then – you bet! I am an uncompromising user who pushes equipment to the limits and I love this lens.
Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye
A ‘real world test’
Some of the images that accompany this feature are of alpine flowers and they illustrate the capabilities of this lens – in fact, they are the perfect subjects for the ultra-wide “macro” approach. They are often low-growing to resist wind and rain and the flowers are large, compared with the plant, to attract whatever insects are around: economic use of resource available! Plants that survive in the harsh conditions imposed by high mountain existence have just a short window of opportunity between the snows to grow, flower and set seed.
One problem when working close to the subject (a matter of a few centimetres from the front lens element) is that the front of the built-in lens hood creates shadows. You can use diffused flash – either from a gun held off-camera and to the side or, as I do, holding the ring of a macro light around the lens barrel. Each of the flash heads is fitted with a light diffuser and you have to be very careful not to allow the units to intrude into the picture edges. For a diagonal fisheye lens the 180° coverage lies along the diagonal – horizontally it is over 150°.
With mountain flowers I tend to work very near the ground using either a small Novoflex minipod or by simply resting the camera on a beanbag or piece of plastic on the ground. A right angle viewfinder is a useful accessory down at this level – or a camera with a screen that tilts.
Images of flowers with impact are one area in which this lens excels thing but it is also superb for shots of insects and other small creatures that almost leap out of the screen when you view them. The obvious problem with most insects is that a lens front just a few centimetres from them is far too close for their comfort and they escape before you can press the shutter. No, this is certainly not photography for those who demand the instant fix but,, if you can muster the patience and live with the frustration then the joy of finally getting your image makes it well worth the effort.
I started using this technique by honing my skills with larger, more accommodating insects such as beetles and praying mantids that do not get lost in the frame. Surrounding my home in Italy is an area of rough ground that we affectionately call a “garden” though it has become an outdoor studio. In autumn, we find numerous adult praying mantis that, as well as being highly photogenic, exhibit a degree of curiosity and will just stare you out. It may be my fertile imagination but sometimes it seems as if they are saying “if I were just that bit bigger…”
With patience, you can get close enough for one shot at least by advancing slowly towards them: butterflies are another matter – but then I like a challenge. In fact, in the summer of 2011, I envisaged an image of a lovely butterfly that frequents high mountain regions and has long been one of my favourites – the Apollo (Parnassius apollo). Although not a powerful flyer it can quickly elude a photographer by floating away on the ever present breezes at high altitudes.
It takes almost 3 hours to get up into the heights where the Apollo flies and on my first trip I had managed a few images – enough to give encouragement. However, it was not until the fourth trip that I achieved what I had dreamt of doing. On that day I had set out at 5.00am from home and was out on that stony hillside as the sun was coming over the ridge above me. Breezes were incessant and clouds scudded across the sky producing patches of light that were short lived and not enough to warm the air and set the butterflies to flight.
I was happy to be on that hillside for there were numerous other butterflies around, several species of orchid and some spectacular aerial displays from peregrine falcons. By 4:30pm I began to convince myself that this was enough, reluctantly packed up and started a long and weary trudge to a ridge above me from whence it was a couple more kilometres to the car.
Serendipity has often proved a good friend to me when I have almost given up and suddenly I saw a female Apollo with open wings in the grass in front of me. I set down the bag as calmly as I could, put the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 diagonal fisheye on the camera and advanced slowly. In fact, I had to drop to my knees on stony ground with lots of spiky debris and shuffle. It is not unusual and I have found that the excitement and the adrenaline suppresses the pain until later! I managed a single shot before she flew and landed on a mullein plant close by. I approached again – another shot or maybe two and away she went. The problem was that the sun had dropped behind the ridge above me leaving parts of the foreground in shadow and light sky in the distance. Things are never easy and I used a macro flash to boost light levels and colour contrast in the foreground. Later, at home in front of the Mac screen I worked carefully in Adobe Lightroom 3 using the graduated filter adjustment and, I must admit, that for once I was happy with the results of the day.
If you would like to read more about the approach to wide-angle ‘macro’ using this and other lenses then my latest book (Digital Close-up photography Q&A) has several spreads that provide details on this and other techniques such as Image Stacking.
And…very soon, at truly modest cost, you will be able to download the first of a series of eBooks that I am currently preparing with top US photographer and conservationist Clay Bolt. The very first is on Wide-angle macro and the series will cover all aspects of close-up work. It will be advertised on the blog I share with Niall Benvie (Images from the Edge, Pixiq and MYN.
Blogs: Niall Benvie, Clay Bolt, Paul Harcourt Davies
Pixiq Contributor: http://www.pixiq.com/contributors/45
Meet Your Neighbours (MYN)