Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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Doing lots and lots of research I have a hard time time finding the ultimate answer to this question. I would like to shoot macro and products and aim for maximum sharpness and reproduction. Maximum detail reproduction. The amount of megapixels is not important per se.

It would be great to learn the best combos in two or three different price ranges. I understand that this is a rather subjective question and that quality somewhat lies in the eye of the beholder. But there should be a rather accurate recommendation out there.

I start with information from DxoMark. Scoring highest from their tests (simply numbers...) seem to be the Nikon D4 camera coupled with the Nikon 105mm 2.8G VR lens. A rather pricey combo.

Going down the list, I see the chance to score a second-hand old Canon 5D (1st gen.) and coupling it with a Canon 100mm f2 USM to get amazing results for a cheap price.

Your thoughts and opinions would be really appreciated and interesting. Looking forward to the discussion.

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Is this theoretically speaking or do you actually need some extreme sharpness at a macro level? Can you give us a use case to make this more practical? I am thinking something like the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens might even make sense depending on your usage. –  dpollitt Nov 6 '12 at 3:53
    
Well that's the thing... There are these theoretical reviews online allover, but I hoped someone could give real world results and comparisons to aid in purchasing a setup giving maximum real world image quality and sharpness. –  Henrik Söderlund Nov 6 '12 at 3:57
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You did not state what magnification you need. If you require beyond 1X, then @dpollitt suggested you the only lens that can do it without image-quality-reducing accessories. On the other hand, this lens cannot do less than 1X magnification... but at least for less there is plenty of excellent quality options. –  Itai Nov 6 '12 at 4:28
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Putting HIGHEST POSSIBLE Img Quality alongside price range and budgets will result in a questions that is really hard to answer –  Gapton Nov 6 '12 at 6:47
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If you are wanting maximum detail reproduction you may want an electron microscope ;) –  Dreamager Nov 6 '12 at 12:01
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3 Answers 3

If you're after ultimate image quality and detail under controlled (studio) settings, then the "usual suspects" are not what you're after. There is a reason why commercial shooters use medium format cameras, and it's not just about the megapixel count. Of course, a Hasselblad H4D/H5D or a Phase One IQ back is going to put your "pricey combo" remark into a whole new context, but that's not the only solution out there.

On a per-pixel basis, the best out there at the moment is arguably the Sigma SD1 Merrill with any of Sigma's very nice macro lenses. Honestly, the camera is the next best thing to useless at ISOs above 400 (and is best kept to its lowest ISO), it has lousy general-purpose handling, and is missing a lot of de rigeur features when compared to just about any other current DSLR out there. Oh, and you have a limited number of lenses to choose from, have to special-order just about everything, and are stuck with Sigma's RAW processing software for conversion (to 16-bit TIFF so you can finish the job in something that's actually worth using). But, my goodness!!! the image quality. Between the Foveon sensor (which means that each pixel completely determines its own colour values) and the lack of an AA filter, the amount of colour purity and per-pixel detail is something no Bayer-filtered sensor can even approach.

Again, the SD1 Merrill is only really useful under controlled conditions and would be a disappointment for general photography. And at about $2000-2300, it's arguably more expensive than it ought to be, considering its paucity of features and APS-C-sized sensor (but not nearly as much so now as it was at the original $10,000 price tag). But if you want top-notch product/pack shots under studio conditions, you really can't get better until you step up to medium format.

(If you want to see what the sensor can do, check out the review of the fixed-lens DP2 Merrill at the Luminous Landscape. The SD1M, proper, is reviewed at Digital Photography Review, and the original SD1 is reviewed at Luminous Landscape (there's a link on the DP2M review page), complete with legitimate comlaints about the original price and missing features. Sigma's macro lenses, in various non-Sigma mounts, are reviewed well at Photozone.de; you should compare across brands to see what the intrinsic quality of the lenses are when the mount-specific characteristics are eliminated.)

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Super-interesting answer! I know nothing about these cameras, and indeed those demo shots taken by the DP2 and astounding! WOW, such quality! Exactly what I was looking for, people finding the niche stuff and sharing their thoughts. Thanks! –  Henrik Söderlund Nov 6 '12 at 4:28
    
and I see the SD1M is down to $1799 with mail-in rebate, which is quite amazing. Lot of quality for the money. –  Henrik Söderlund Nov 6 '12 at 5:01
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I don't have much academic experience in this area, but at least practically speaking - I would look at something like a Canon full frame DSLR(5D, 5D MkII, 5D MkIII, etc.) and a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro Lens. Just take a look at the MTF chart, it is an extremely sharp lens even wide open.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I immediately think of the Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100m f/2 as a candidate to the Canon 100mm. It is also a great lens. Thoughts on this? –  Henrik Söderlund Nov 6 '12 at 4:54
    
Canon's 180mm f/3.5L Macro is incredibly sharp as well, and from MTFs apparently has slightly better IQ than the 100mm. Since that's the primary concern in the question. –  drfrogsplat Nov 7 '12 at 8:52
    
The 5D MK III has a significantly stronger anti aliasing filter than the MK II which means the RAW output looks a fair bit "blurrier". (Strong AA filter = good for video) –  DetlevCM Dec 18 '12 at 22:04
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If you are looking to go beyond 1:1 and looking for a dedicated macro lens then the Canon MPE-65mm is an excellent choice. I have no experience with reversed lenses an such but do have the MPE-65mm and have good results with it. That said it is not an easy lens to use but with patience and practice it is a worthy lens.

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It happens that we have a a mini-review of the MP-E 65mm on the site blog, by the way. –  mattdm Dec 18 '12 at 21:14
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