The best ultra-macro photography setup

After a bit of experimentation, this is the ultra-macro setup that I like best. I should caveat this all by saying that I’ve only been shooting macro for a few months. I’m of course open to suggestions for improving this setup.


Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8
Whereas most macro lenses will do 1x magnification, meaning the subject is a 1:1 ratio to the sensor, this lens will do an incredible 5x.

It’s not a particularly easy lens to use—it’s neither auto-focus or manual focus, you focus by moving the camera. Also, once you’re out at 5x, you pretty much have to use flashes—very little light makes it to the sensor.

That even with those downsides though, if you want to get close and avoid extension tubes, this is pretty much the lens to use. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with extension tubes by the way, just that you have to take them on and off and you don’t get nearly as granular a zoom range as you do with the MP-E 65mm.

Lens Accessories

Raynox DCR-250 2.5x Super Macro Lens
This is a clip-on magnifier that increases the magnification even further. I’m still not 100% sure that it doesn’t reduce the sharpness, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t.

The biggest downside is that with 5x magnification plus the 2.5x of the Raynox, the depth of field you’re left with even at f11 or higher is ridiculously small. To give you an idea, if you were focusing on a coin, say a penny, top down it’d be tough to get it in focus because the depth of field at f8 is less than depth the relief on the penny’s face. I also find that I have to turn my flashes all the way up to 1/1 (the highest setting) to get enough light. Even then, I’m usually shooting at ISO 1000 or higher.

But, if you want to get even closer, this will do it.

Fotodiox E.F.-Sony(E) Fusion Small AF Adapter
Since I’m using a Canon lens on a Sony body, I need an adapter. This one works just fine. It enables the camera to control aperture—lesser adapters have no electronic contacts. The MP-E 65mm has no focus, but for other lenses, the Fotodiox will also allow a Sony body to focus a Canon lens. The adapter also allows the camera to record the EXIF data from the lens.


I use a Sony A9. This is not the best camera for macro photography, but it’s not bad. The downside is that it’s “only” 24mp. The upside is that it’s an ISO champion. If I had an unlimited budget I’d get a Sony A1 which is, from what I understand, the best of both worlds. With 50mp, you effectively get even more zoom since cropping at 1:1 will magnify the subject more.

Note that the A1 would be the best all-around + macro Sony camera for me. That’s because I usually am a bird photographer. If you only planned on doing macro photography, you’d probably want to go for the highest resolution camera you could find.

Other Accessories

Sirui K-40X Ball Head
When you’re shooting ultra macro you need your tripod setup to be extremely stable. You will also want a tripod head that holds a lot of weight. I spent way too much time with small tripod heads that drifted all over the place before I finally upgraded to the ~$120 K-40x. This ball head is rock solid and doesn’t break the bank.

3 Legged Thing Brian CF
This is not the best tripod for macro since it’s not super heavy, but it’s a pretty good compromise. It lets you flip the center post so you can shoot straight down. It’s carbon fiber so it’s relatively light and stable. It’s also cool looking and well priced.

Bolt VM-1020S Speedlights / Flash
This isn’t the brightest flash ever made, but it’s a really nice set. It supports TTL for Sony and comes with a lot of nice accessories. Notably, you can clip the flashes to a ring on the end of the lens and rotate them around the lens. In practice, this isn’t always the best since the light from very close, unmodified flashes is pretty harsh, but in a pinch it’s quick and effective.

For setups where you have more time and space, you can easily use the flashes as you would any other speedlights and the kit includes table stands, gels, and a few other nice-to-haves.

Dual arm flash hot shoe bracket
This is a bracket that screws on to the bottom of your camera and has two flexible arms with flash mounts on them. Search for it on Amazon, Ebay, or Ali Express. It seems to be a generic product manufactured in China that you can pick up for under $20. It’s a nice way to get a more flexible flash setup.

Macro focusing rail slider
Another generic product that you can pick up for ~25. I’m not so sure that the one I have is the best, but it works okay. Since that’s all I know about it, I’ll leave it at that.

Using the MP-E 65mm to photograph a moth. Normally I’d have a paper towel between the flashes and the lens to diffuse the light.

General thoughts about ultra-macro

Ultra-macro is fun on a technical level and reveals surprising details about everyday objects. Aside from technical challenges, the biggest difficulty I’ve found is making beautiful photos. Many of my photos turn out to be geometrically interesting or maybe even scientifically useful, but they don’t necessarily elicit much emotion, at least not for me.

I don’t say that to be discouraging, I’m still trying to figure it out. I like the challenge and I know it’s possible to make compelling ultra-macro photos because I’ve seen others take truly beautiful pictures of everything from snowflakes to grains of sand. Personally though, I’m still in the phase of working through the technical aspects.


Photo: Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers in Union Bay in Seattle


Thinking about thinking

This is another post inspired by John Vervaeke’s lectures on the Meaning Crisis. Halfway through the 50 lecture series he switches from focusing on how humans have made and found meaning throughout history to looking at how cognitive science can help us address the loss of meaning we face in a post-religious world.

Vervaeke introduces the section on cognitive science by framing it as a broad discipline that encompasses several levels of thinking about thinking:

Cognition levelAcademic discipline
Information ProcessingArtificial Intelligence – AGI
The BrainNeuroscience

He then argues that the best way to advance our understanding of cognition it to, rather than approach each academic discipline as a discrete field that sometimes gleans from other cognitive fields, take a more integrated, more philosophical, approach.

For example a linguist might ask herself “what can I see in psychology through the lens of linguistics?”

This description barely touches the surface of his thoughts. The first 15 or 20 minutes of this video are well worth watching and don’t necessarily require the full context of the first 25 lectures:


How to start birdwatching

If you think you might be interested in learning more about birds, here’s an easy three step plan to become a birder.

Level 1

This is where I began back in July 2018. I knew there were sparrows, seagulls, crows, flamingos and a few others, but mostly I’d never payed particular attention to birds at all. If this is where you are:

  • Look at the birds that show up in your yard (or balcony or whatever space you have around where you live) and see if you can identify them by sight. I’d recommend downloading Merlin, the free app from Cornell University. It’s very helpful for figuring out what you’re looking at.
  • Start writing down the birds you’ve seen. This will be the beginning of your life list (and your yard list). Write down the date you saw the bird, along with any other interesting observations.
My brother’s life list, the one that first got me into birdwatching.

Level 2

Once you can identify most of the birds that show up in your yard, it’s time to go further afield.

  • At this point, a pair of binoculars becomes important. I’ve found that around $200 USD is about where binoculars become “worth it.” Vortex is a good brand. You can, of course, use less expensive binoculars if they’re out of your budget. I’d suggest getting 8×42 magnification.
  • Find a local park or nature preserve and head over to see what birds are there. The best times to go are generally just after sunrise or just before sunset when birds are most active. You’ll probably start to notice birds you don’t recognize, often getting just brief glimpses. Don’t worry about identifying everything, just observe. You may see other birders around. Usually they’re pretty friendly and willing to help out a newbie.
An American Avocet taking off at sunrise

Level 3

  • Create a free ebird account and download the app. This is the de facto (especially in the US) app for tracking what birds you see where. It’s also extremely useful for finding other birding hotspots and seeing what rare or unusual birds are around. Create your first checklist! The easiest place to do this is probably around your own home.
  • Start paying more attention to bird sounds. Often sound is just as good, if not better, for determining what birds are around. Very good birders almost always are good at birding by ear.
An adult and two juvenile Bald Eagles after the same fish

At this point, you’re a birder! There are all kinds of directions you can take things in from here, but you’ve got the basics covered and you’ll naturally gravitate in the direction you’re most interested in. You’ll also meet lots of people who can help you take next steps.

The only word of warning I’d give is that birding is surprisingly addictive! I never in a million years expected to get interested in birds but one day something clicked in my brain and I haven’t looked back since. Good luck and see you out there!


50 Books in 2021: Update 2

I slowed down a bit from my earlier breakneck pace and also got… shall we say distracted by lots of shiny objects–the in-progress books below the list of finished books. Despite those intermissions, I’m still relatively on track for 50 this year. I’ll likely revisit this post and add mini-reviews or link each title to a longer reviews at some point in the near future.


  1. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  2. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
  3. The Hamlet – William Faulkner
  4. The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
  5. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  6. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck 
  7. The Sunset Limited – Cormac McCarthy 
  8. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens 
  9. Conscious- Annaka Harris 
  10. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
  11. Extraterrestrial – Avi Loeb
  12. The Evolution of Desire – Cynthia L. Haven
  13. Never Enough – Judith Grisel
  14. Unmasked – Andy Ngo
  15. La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert – Joel Dicker (the first and only book I’ve read entirely in French)
  16. The Revolt of the Public – Martin Guri
  17. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
  18. Gun, With Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem 
  19. Klara and the Sun – Ishiguro Kazuo
  20. Live Not By Lies – Robert Dreher
  21. The Virtues of War -Steven Pressfield
  22. All About Love – bell hooks 
  23. The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
  24. The Price of Tomorrow – Jeff Booth
  25. A Thousand Brains – Jeff Hawkins
  26. The Comfort Crisis – Michael Easter


  • An Elegant Puzzle – Will Larson
  • Postjournalism – Andrey Mir
  • Battling to the End – René Girard
  • Human Diversity – Charles Murray
  • L’Élégance du hérisson – Muriel Barbery
  • The Sovereign Individual – James Dale Davidson
  • Baltasar and Blimunda – José Saramago
  • The Courage to Be – Paul Tillich
  • Novels, Tales, Journeys – Pushkin
  • Falcoln Freeway – Christian Hagenlocher
  • War and Peace and War – Peter Turchin
  • Lila – Robert Pirsig
  • The Language of Creation – Matthieu Pageau
  • Hollow Kingdom – Kira Jane Buxton
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

On being an urban wildlife photographer

Living in the city, having a full-time job, a budget, and a family can make it tough to find chances to get out and do amateur wildlife photography. But, to get good at anything, you’ve got to put in the time. So…

Find a spot close to home that you can visit over and over.

My go-to spot is about 20 minutes away; close enough to visit before or after work in the summer. I pretty much know what I’ll find there, so when I’m going it’s not to find charismatic megafauna or rare birds, it’s to practice with the birds, beavers, and rabbits I see every day. It took (and still takes) a mindset shift to accept that some days it’ll just be mallards and crows, but I find I never regret getting out and practicing.

An Anna’s Hummingbird at my local spot

Make a calendar with what’s in season.

If you’ve got a list of what to expect at any given time in the season, it makes planning much easier. That way when you’ve got some time on a weekend, you can quickly refer to what you’ve seen in the past and get out and shoot.

Photography calendar

Use those vacations

Family vacations generally don’t have wildlife photography as their first priority because… of my family. That said, there are often times early in the morning when I can find a good spot on ebird and head out before everyone wakes up.

An American Brown Pelican and Laughing Gull from a vacation

Don’t stress

Sometimes it’s just not the season of your life to be out in the field much. Don’t worry, change will come. It always does.


Everything is filled with gods

Scientific thinking in the West started off sort of weird. Before the Greek philosopher Thales:

Early Greeks, and other civilizations before them, often invoked idiosyncratic explanations of natural phenomena with reference to the will of anthropomorphic gods and heroes.

Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 107.jpg

This was the state of the world until Thales, back around 600BC, started to think about why stuff happens in terms of causes and effects in the physical world. He came up with 3 propositions:

  1. All is the moist
  2. The lodestone has psyche
  3. Everything is filled with gods

Wat. It sounds like nonsense, but if you think about it, you can imagine him meaning something like:

  1. Everything is made of water.
  2. Magnets (lodestones) have spirits as evidenced by the fact that they move things.
  3. Everything has an essence of gods, that dictate how each thing behaves.

All 3 of those propositions are… well, they’re wrong. But what he’s doing is novel. Rather than attributing natural phenomena to the arbitrary whims of the Gods, he’s trying to explain the world as a system where things make sense.

To us, it feels like the scientific way of thinking is just how humans naturally think. When we want to know why something is, we naturally look for a chain of events. Strangely though, it hasn’t always been this way. Thales was pioneering a new way of thinking. He was one of the first natural philosophers.

This post was directly inspired by John Vervaeke’s excellent lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. He addresses Thales in lecture four, linked here.


Image of the week: The Housefly

The Housefly

I’ve been learning macro photography and finding that one of the hardest parts is finding subjects. Fortunately, there’s at least one that’s always around, the humble fly. I think I did it justice on these flowers.


Notes on The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership

This post is an export of the notes I took while watching a YouTube lecture series by John C. Maxwell on what he calls The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership.

1. The Law of the Lid

Leadership determines the highest level of effectiveness. Everything rises and falls based on leadership.

Maxwell tells a story about the first thing a certain hedge fund does after taking over a bankrupt company: they train all the leaders and fire the president. The reason?

“If the president was good, the company wouldn’t be bankrupt”

Rank yourself, and rank the lid numbers of those around you.

2. The Law of Influence

The true measure of leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Position – lowest level of leadership. “Rights” are granted to you and people follow you because they have to.
  • Permission – relationships. People follow you because they want to.
  • Production – results. People follow you because of what you’ve done for the organization
  • People – reproduction. People follow you because of what you’ve done for them.
  • Personhood – respect. You’ve done it for so long that people respect you. The highest level of leadership.
etc. philosophy

Even in a palace…

Marcus Aurelius, apart from me being his namesake, is surely the philosopher who’s most influenced the direction of my life. John Vervaeke, in his amazing series on Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, highlights a epigram that I’d not previously noticed while reading Meditations. The way he translates it is:

It is possible to be happy, even in a palace.

Marcus Aurelius Book V.16

In those 9 words Aurelius captures so much. He’s saying that being surrounded by power or possessions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re living a good or happy life. In fact, it may even be harder to live well when your life, by all external appearances, is ideal. Importantly though, he affirms that where ever you are, even when you have “everything,” you can live well.

It’s a simple saying, but it really highlights why Marcus Aurelius was the best of the Stoics. Vervaeke also cleverly contrasts this with the Buddha who famously left his palace to seek enlightenment.

Just for fun, here are several other translations of the same text:

Where a man can live, there he can also live well. If he must live in a palace, then he can also live well in a palace.
-George Long translation, Dover Thrift Edition

Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one. Lives are led at court… then good ones can be.
-Gregory Hays translation, Modern Library Edition

Wherever there is life, there, too, the good life is possible; there is life in the royal halls, and so even in the royal halls it is possible to live rightly.
Needleman & Piazza, The Essential Marcus Aurelius

Wherever a man lives, he may live well; by consequence, a life of virtue and that of a courtier are not inconsistent.
-Jeremy Collier, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius