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Insect Portraits w/ Sigma 28-80mm II Macro

12-28-2012 · By PF Staff in Influential Photo Gear
Insect Portraits w/ Sigma 28-80mm II Macro

What if I told you that you could take remarkable nature photos outside of the so-called “Golden Hours” that bracket sunrise and sunset?  That you could take great shots with pleasing color and manageable dynamic range, requiring very minimal post processing, and that these shots could be taken under the harsh midday sun?  And what if I told you that you didn’t need to travel to faraway lands or lug around a bag full of expensive equipment to grab great wildlife photos?  Best yet, I’d tell you that there’s a dramatic new world waiting to be captured in pictures - a world of life and death struggles, of predators and prey, of great beautiful creatures with delicate wings of gauze and fierce venomous monsters with many eyes, and this world is waiting for you right outside your backdoor.  

 I’m referring of course to macro photography of insects and plants.  I’ve been an avid gardener for many years and the thought of taking close-up pictures of plants seemed like a natural synergy with my other favorite hobby, photography.  The question was what equipment to use?  I’m not a professional photographer, so an expensive macro lens like the SMC Pentax D FA 100mm F2.8 Macro is out of my price range.  First I tried a reversing ring for my kit DA-L 18-55mm.  The reversing ring produced impressive magnification, but exposure was almost impossible to control because the lens lacks an aperture ring.  Controlling the size of the aperture meant wedging a piece of cardboard against the aperture lever to lock it in place, or trying to adjust it by hand while taking pictures.  Both of these practices worked out just about as well as you’d expect, which is to say they really didn’t work at all and the reversing ring was officially relegated to the deepest darkest corner of my camera bag.  Next up was a cheap set of extension tubes affixed to my SMC Pentax-M 50mm film-era lens.  The lens’ aperture ring made this configuration much easier to manage, but I could only achieve the magnification I needed for good insect photos with the use of all three extension tubes, which blocked out too much light.  

Desperate for a few good bug shots while my wildflower garden was in full bloom, I scoured the lens review databases on for a macro lens that wouldn’t break the bank, and discovered the Sigma 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 II Macro.  It’s not often that a $35 eBay purchase leads one down a whole new avenue of creative expression.  Not often indeed that an inexpensive piece of used gear opens your eyes to discover a new world which has been right under your nose all along.  But such has been my experience with this lens, which offers 1:2 magnification in Macro mode, which is significantly better than many other all-purpose lenses that claim macro abilities.  

The Sigma 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 II Macro is at best a so-so walkabout lens.  It’s well built, but the images it produces are a bit soft and it can’t hold a candle to the kit lens when it comes to contrast.  But get down for a bug’s eye view of the world and the Sigma really opens up.  In fact, it’s weaknesses as an everyday lens become strengths for the kind of insect photography I like.  Instead of razor sharp entomology lessons I get soft, painterly images that make even the scariest looking wasp appear as a handsome member of a world filled with sweet nectar and heady fragrance.  Rather than high contrast and fastidious color rendition I get beautiful acrylic backgrounds that swirl and blend like an artist’s palette. 

Narrow depth of field is always a problem in macro photography, regardless of what lens is used.  While this can be overcome by focus stacking images in post processing, sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.  Bringing an insect’s entire body into focus might be desirable if you are taking pictures for a field identification guide, but if artistic bug portraits are what you’re after, you’ll appreciate the Sigma’s soft, almost romantic bokeh.  

The technique for capturing great insect portraits is not difficult.  I mount the Sigma lens directly to my Pentax K-r, or sometimes use a 16mm extension tube for a little extra boost.  With the 16mm tube, I get impressive magnification without sacrificing too much depth of field.  Choosing a higher aperture number greatly improves depth of field, so I set the aperture ring as high as I can get it without the need to slow down shutter speed too much.  On a sunny afternoon I can set the aperture at f16, ISO at 200 or 400, and let the camera choose the shutter speed, which can vary widely anywhere between 1/100th and about 1/1000th of a second.  With the lens switched to macro mode and the focus ring dialed all the way to its closest focus range, the camera is set for continuous shooting at 2 frames per second.  Focus is achieved by moving the camera closer or further from the subject.  I look for interesting insects framed against colorful floral backgrounds that will provide pleasing bokeh.  

Many of these shots will be discarded because focus is off, but it’s easy enough to hit the Delete key and very little post processing is required for those that are kept.  As with people portraits, our eyes are drawn to facial features, so I select those shots with the best focus on the bug’s face.  A little light cropping to properly frame the subject is usually all that’s necessary for some really great insect portraits.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford a high performance dedicated macro lens.  But in the meantime, my Sigma 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 II Macro lens continues to yield beautiful glimpses of the amazing parallel world which exists unseen all around us.

Click on the first image to open a gallery with larger versions:

- pericombobulation

PF Staff's avatar
About the author: Various writers regularly contribute articles to the Pentax Forums homepage blog. More recent articles are published under each author's forum username. We hope you enjoy our guides and news coverage!

Tags: macrp, lens, pentax, sigma, 28-80mm

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pericombobulation [Delete] Dec 29th, 2012 12:14PM

Thanks robcorl, I'll have to try hypnotizing them. The funny thing is, I did the exact same thing with my kids when they were babies. Made them giggle every time! Cheers!

oldMElove [Delete] Dec 29th, 2012 4:21AM

my first real "macro" , not just "close focus" experiwnces have been with a Olympus OM-2 with the 1,8/50 reversed and -this was for me the principal feature at the time, why I bought that 70s-camera- its quickAuto310 flash on a 60cm-chord. Man, could I at last be sure that the flash wouldn't completely whiten my Kodachromes!!
close-focussable lenses PLUS dioptre attachments bring at f:8 also very good results, at the cenbtre of the image. Now, some years later, and on the slides I didn't write down on the slide holder which lens etc. I was using, I don't see big differences.
Philosophy: go for it and try to make the best of every lens !

lguckert79 [Delete] Dec 29th, 2012 12:34AM

there is also the quantaray 28-90mm lens and it is a rebaged sigma lens and the other is a 70-300mm quantaray with a 1:2 and this one is a rebaged tamron lens magnafacation and both are very cheap on either ebay or found sometimes here on the fourm

neuropol [Delete] Dec 28th, 2012 7:52PM

I have a copy of this lens for a Fujifilm S3 Pro (nikon f mount.) Even with a 6.1MP camera (a 12.2MP 'Interpolated' CCD Sensor,) the lens produces sufficiently sharp images for the investment. I can't judge the color as I've modified the S3 for IR but it has to be decent enough for every day walk around photos. I think I paid around the same for mine, about $35. It's definitely been fun to use. I don't currently have a macro for my K-5 but I've been using a Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7 with a thread-on +2 filter which produces decent results, considering what it is. You've gotten some nice shots. The middle-right image has good color, detail and composition in my opinion. I bet the one of the head looks really cool at full size.

robtcorl [Delete] Dec 28th, 2012 4:03PM

I enjoyed your article and your photos!
The first and last photos of the hover fly brought back memories.
My grandpa called them corn tassel flies, and taught me how to hypnotize them.
Start with your hand about 2 feet away, index finger pointing at the fly.
Move your hand in small circles slowly closing in on the critter.
Usually it can be trapped between finger and the object it's sitting on.
PS, I have the same lens and need to try my hand at bugography!

joey_kickass [Delete] Dec 28th, 2012 3:20PM

Having used both a reverse ring mount and a couple of inexpensive macro lenses, there are definitely lenses with better image quality out there. I have the Sigma 24-60 and it performs similarly to this lens when shooting macro. For around $200 they also make a 70-200 that does takes very nice macro shots. One thing this article failed to mention was Pentax's catch in focus feature and how awesome it is for shooting macro. Props on the flick of the bee on the purple flower. That's definitely a decent shot.

madbikerbob [Delete] Dec 28th, 2012 2:55PM

Id say these are a fine example of doing macro on the cheap, the composition is good and the photos are good. I do have to say though the quality is really lacking, the colours are soft as are the photos, with no real sharpness in any, I shoot with a great sigma ex dg macro 105mm and the quality is remarkable and it does not cost a fortune to buy at £250. You cant beat a macro lens but I have seen some impressive work with a cheap Raynx converter, and id go this way if wanting to shoot on a budget.

david94903 [Delete] Dec 28th, 2012 2:53PM

Nice article. I too was reverse ring macro guy before I got lucky enough to get the Pentax FA100mm Macro, which is just a wonderful lense. But I still find myself playing around with old lenses, stacking tubes and reversing rings, various lens attachments (Raynox, macro filters, etc) for all the reasons you described - painterlyness, romantic bokeh, etc. I'm not big on more than basic post processing, so I like to see what I can do with the camera. I'll have to hunt down one of these Sigma's and play with it. At $35 it'll help satisfy my LBA while not breaking the bank.