Gear, Macro Techniques

Cheap, Light, and Slim: Pancake Macro

No, this isn’t an article about taking macro photos of a stack of hotcakes (though that sounds delightful, in some weird way)…

Green beetle

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the Central Valley of Costa Rica for a professional development opportunity through work. While my week in Central America was focused on improving leadership skills and cultural intelligence, I was stoked for the little free time I had for dedicated bug photography.

Packing light as a photographer who wants to be prepared for every possible photographic scenario is tough. I purchased a large camera backpack specifically for this trip and anticipated bringing a variety of lenses and macro equipment including one of two macro lenses (Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens or Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L macro lens), an old 28mm manual lens for reverse macro work, a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 wide angle lens for the few landscapes I hoped to shoot, and my handy Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens (which quickly became my favorite all-purpose lens). I also considered bringing my Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash and one or two Extension tubes.

While this may not seem like a lot of equipment for a photographic expedition, it was certainly too much to lug around for a professional development opportunity that had us visiting small farms and community organizations. In the days leading up to my trip, I decided to do something crazy. I decided to pack the least amount of photography equipment possible that would allow both macro work and general shooting. I packed my 24mm pancake lens with a 12mm extension tube and a Graslon Spark flash diffuser for good measure (I ended up throwing in my 10-22mm wide angle lens at the last minute, with which I shot exactly two photos). All my photo equipment fit in the bottom of a small backpack under my other travel necessities (jacket, poncho, bug spray, sunscreen, etc.).

I had tried shooting before with the pancake lens setup and I was never particularly pleased with the results. Leaving my macro lenses behind caused a lot of anxiety before the trip, but I’m happy to report that my rash decision to leave my tried and trusted equipment behind in favor of a smaller and lighter setup paid off.

Leafhopper on plant

Grasshopper nymph

The Canon EF-S 24mm pancake is specifically designed to work with Canon APS-C cameras (cropped frame)and boasts an extraordinarily slim profile of less than one inch. The minimum focal distance is 0.5 ft, but paired with the 12mm extension tube, the minimum focal distance of this setup becomes less than 4 inches (for 1:1.4 magnification). It’s worth mentioning that you lose infinity focus when using an extension tube, so you’re pretty much stuck with a macro setup unless you take the extension tube off the lens (which is quick and easy).

Jumping spider

Caterpillar

An added benefit of my pancake macro setup was the cost. Traveling with camera equipment is not without risk. Had something happened to my lens or extension tube, I would have been out just over $200 (as opposed to the $1600 + $900 I spent on my Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L macro lens and Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash respectively). Add about $40 if you like the idea of a flash diffuser to reduce harsh hotspots on shiny bugs. Using the camera’s built-in flash with a diffuser resulted in sharp handheld shots.

Ant

Bug

In the end, I captured some great insect and spider shots in Costa Rica without the hassle of carrying around a lot of expensive equipment. The setup was extremely lightweight and fit comfortably in my small backpack for easy transport and by always having my 24mm pancake lens, I felt prepared for most situations, from group shots to landscapes.

If you’re looking for a versatile and inexpensive macro setup, a pancake lens with an extension tube may be worth looking into!

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  • Qazwix

    Great article. I love the idea of traveling without having to worry about loosing expensive gear. I have the pancake lens and can’t wait to try this out! What extension tubes were you using?

    • Danae Wolfe

      I use the Canon 12mm extension tube with this setup. The Canon tubes are a bit pricey (for being a hollow tube). Kenko and Promaster both offer extension tube sets for about the same cost as the single 12mm Canon tube.