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This petal was one of my first reversed lens shots, and still a favourite

This petal was one of my first reversed lens shots, and still a favourite

I’ve long had a largely theoretical love of macro photography but never really managed to do it properly.

Many years ago I learned to delight in the reversed lens, and I’m a sucker for taking a wider lens as close as possible, but I’d never got a proper macro lens until now.

It’s simple enough: at every buying moment there was always something more important, and macro is a purely self-indulgent area for me.

Finding myself (all too briefly) more affluent than expected though, and given my recent lurch into food photography, I’ve taken the plunge.

The toy du jour, then,  is the Sigma 105mm f2.8 OS XYZ WHATEVER which I hope to attempt a sensible review of before too long (hah!) but initial impressions are . . . well, mixed, if I’m honest.

It’s hard work. Harder than I’d expected.

As I said, previous history is a reversed (dirty cheap kit) lens or shooting at minimum distance with wider stuff – not least the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, which is just a [profanity] joy.

The joy of 35mm RIGHT UP CLOSE

The joy of the Sigma 35mm RIGHT UP CLOSE. Manual focus, I might add!

But I think doing that – fudging it – carries lower expectation and you (ok, I) have a much higher tolerance for failure. A proper macro lens carries far greater expectation but also brings a whole bunch of challenges.

If anyone out there is my recent position, let me be clear: they say the depth of field is narrow? YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW NARROW. A reversed lens gives damn-all in focus and that’s the fun, so I fully expected to shoot this puppy wide open.

A reversed lens gives you no (or very very little) control, and you learn to roll with it and take what you can get.

At least as much luck as judgement with a reversed lens

At least as much luck as judgement with a reversed lens

However a proper lens suggests you can and should be more refined, yet in practice – for a newbie – it’s actually little less random.

Of course because it’s a BRAND NEW TOY I’m pushing it right to the extremes of minimum focus distance, maximum stabiliser and so on. I’m sure – or rather, I sincerely hope – that I’ll get a bit more sensible when the novelty wears off.

So: far from shooting at f2.8, I find myself at f8 and beyond and still thinking, “what the . . .”. And focussing? Don’t even mention focussing.

On the other hand you know the possibility is there and that, to me at least, is a really cool challenge. It has to be doesn’t it, if it’s going to be fun…?

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Travelling Heavy

Gear review – Lowepro Flipside 400

We’ve got a big trip later this year – we’re off to Burma, which is very exciting. And if you’re spending 20+ hours to get anywhere you really want to make the most of it photographically, so I’ve been bolstering my kit a touch in readiness but the thing I was really struggling with was a bag.

I narrowed the options down to 3 or 4 candidates but was dithering terribly for months when my wife – bless her – resolved it by getting me a Lowepro Flipside 400 for my Birthday. It’s a great bag – capable of holding all the kit I want to take, really comfortable to use, should (just) fit airline carry-on and – most importantly for me – the Flipside design means you don’t have to take it off to get at the contents: the opening is in the back of the bag and there’s a huge waist strap meaning you can just slip it off your shoulders and swivel round your waist to get access.

I’m a prolific lens changer and my bugbear with backpacks has always been the faff of taking it off and plonking it on the floor to get inside. And before that you have to spend 10 minutes trying to find a quiet corner free of running children, dog turds and stray lens-kicking feet in which to do it – by which time you’ve likely missed the shot anyway. The Flipside lets you do it in a few seconds with no fear of dog turds. With practice you can probably take out a couple of kids while you’re at it.

So the Flipside looked pretty much perfect, and a recent trip to York gave me the opportunity to give it a proper run-out. Well it just didn’t work.

Partly it was the size of the thing – it sticks out about a mile behind you. The first morning, I put it on in the hotel room and then found I couldn’t get through the door – I wedged like a long truck trying to turn into a narrow alley.

The crowded Steam Museum wasn't ideal for bulky kit

The crowded Steam Museum wasn’t ideal for bulky kit

Then we spent most of our days pottering around dinky streets, fighting through swarms of people (York is not short of tourists!), and nipping in and out of buildings; it was just too bulky to manoeuver comfortably. Burma I expect to have even more cramped situations in markets and temples and things so I started to wonder just how practical it’s going to be.

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster's tower isn't the best fun I've ever had

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster’s tower isn’t the best fun I’ve ever had

Also the weight got to me – it’s a big bag and I crammed in two bodies, five or six lenses, a flash (you never know), various filters and batteries and so on – so that should be no surprise. Worn properly across both shoulders with the waist belt done up it’s heavy but perfectly manageable, if hot (all that padding is wonderful for protecting my kit but within 100 yards my shirt back was soaked with sweat, which made for a soggy and somewhat fragrant day – though it did help secure space in crowded pubs). But given the bulk of it and the places we were going into, I tended to have it just slung over one shoulder – doesn’t make for a happy spine.

 

So at the end of each day I was just sick of carting it all around, and at least one reason I got no lovely night shots was the urgent need for beer to recuperate (the other reasons being all the less urgent beers that followed).

After a few hours, it's all I really wanted

After a few hours, it’s all I really wanted

The Lowepro is a tremendous bag for transporting a lot of kit around, and I can see it being great (if hard work) for landscape hikes, and it’s already done sterling work on a couple of kit-heavy events. But for Burma, for me, iI’m not sure it’s right.

Of course the appallingly obvious answer is that it’s not a bag issue at all, but simply that Too Big + Too Heavy = Too Much Damn Kit. Thing is, I used all of it.

So now my choice is clear: either take the full Flipside and live with being burdened and sweaty and cross, or go back to one of my trusty shoulder bags and sacrifice stuff I know I’ll need (or at least want). Luckily I still have a few months in which to dither.