Does Mirror Lock-Up (MLU) Help Macro Shots?

Does Mirror Lock-Up (MLU) Help Macro Shots?

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First, for those who might not be familiar with the term, mirror lock-up (MLU) is a function on many SLR cameras which helps reduce vibration inside the camera. In the sequence that follows pressing the shutter release (mirror moves up out of the way, second curtain activates, first curtain exposes, second curtain closeses, mirror returns to original position) the activity of the mirror springing out of the way, intended to be an extremely fast action, can cause this vibration as it comes to a stop inside the camera.  Under normal circumstances this activity produces a very minimal effect, often not noticed.

Under certain circumstances, such as macro photography or long zooms, the effect can be more noticeable. How noticeable  is dependent on a number of factors, such as the camera model, quality of build, shutter speed, etc…

With my hands on a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro USM, thanks to BorrowLenses.com, I decided to experiement a bit. My first shots of fungus in the woods seemed to show a big difference between no mirror lock-up and mirror lock-up, with mirror lock-up being sharper. Back at home, where it was warm and not windy, I decided to experiment a bit more with something more two dimensional.

Below are the results of my experiment so you can see the difference yourself. I decided introduce one other variable some people don’t consider when taking macro shots and that is the effect the act of pressing the shutter release has on the image.

The images go in this order:

  • Mirror Lock-Up (MLU) while pressing shutter release as smoothly as I can
  • MLU with 2 second self timer activated (no physical touching of the camera while it activates)
  • No MLU with 2 second self timer activated
  • No MLU while pressing shutter release as smooth as I can

You can click on the main images for a full size file (NOTE: 11mb file sizes per image). Below each image is a 100% crop which can also be clicked for full size as the width of this column is just 600px. Those second images are only 400KB.

MLU Normal Shutter Release

MLU Normal Shutter Release

MLU With 2 Second Self Timer

MLU With 2 Second Self Timer

No MLU With 2 Second Self Timer

No MLU With 2 Second Self Timer

No MLU Normal Shutter Release

No MLU Normal Shutter Release

Rather than tell you my opinion, the only one that matters in this case is your own. I did my best to insure there was no skewing of shots or movement that wasn’t induced by the act of taking the photos themselves (opting to throw the dogs outside and not even play any music, I’m that dedicated :))  The shots were taken with the subject taped in place, no wind, tripod mount for the camera with no use of center post. Lighting was kept constant and all shots are at ISO 100, 100mm, f/2.8 and 1/160.

EDIT

In response to the comments below that the shutter speed of 1/160 was not of a sufficient speed to highlight any movement from mirror bump, I have run another test at various shutter speeds. Below I show the best example out of the bunch. I ran the test at 1/15, 1/4 and 1/2 and in all cases the results looked inconclusive. As the lens used in the original post above has gone back to BorrowLenses (true to their name, they want their stuff back) I used my Canon 7D with Canon 28-300mm L, extended to 300mm, with the Canon 500D close-up lens. I tripod mounted the lens with its supplied collar and set the focus to manual, image stabilization off, fixed the white balance and manually set the shutter and aperture to 1/4 and f/11. In this test I only used the 2 second self timer as reasoned below (most every camera has one).  Click on each image for a larger version. I did not modify the images in post.

No MLU

No MLU - 100% crop

MLU - 100% crop

MLU

To my eye, the results do not show ample blurring without the MLU activated. My original intent with this test was to see if there was any, while not attempting to prove there was with this setup. That is why I originally withheld my impression. I want to present what actually came out of my camera. It seems with this setup, mirror bump is not as evident as it is for others. Mind you, this is just one camera and lens combination and I can’t test them all. I suggest you test it for yourself as many noted in the comments that they have seen positive results while using MLU. They do not, however, state the type of equipment being used.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • ykee June 21, 2011 02:44 am

    I wonder how many models out there with mirror lock *and* live view? It would be nice to compile a list.

    The reason I ask is I mainly do
    1. star trails - multiple exposures. mirror lock helps to save the previous batteries.
    2. reverse lens macro - live view (esp. with articulated screen) is a major plus in framing.

    Thanks!

  • phyllis May 13, 2011 11:30 pm

    Another question? Can you do continuous shooting with the mirror lock up? I've tried it, but can only get one shot.

  • phyllis May 13, 2011 11:26 pm

    I have a question? Why does my lighting and quality change when I stitch from viewfinder mode to live mode? I have a Canon EOS 60 D camera. I will have all my settings ready and useing the view finder, then decide to switch to live mode. The shots are much darker and not clear. What happened?

  • Paul May 6, 2011 09:14 pm

    Interesting, maybe I'll go have a play? Thanks.

  • Gary Rechtin April 30, 2011 08:14 am

    I had a Canon5D Mark II, used mirror lock up, but also used a remote manual cable release. I like the timer idea, but often when shooting macro ouside, ya gotta get the shot in between wind gusts, so often no timer. The gear got to heavy to carry, so I sold it and went the micro four thirds route. Got the GH2, and the 45mm (90mm) equivalent. On the plus side, no mirror!

  • chesterfield cigarettes April 29, 2011 09:10 pm

    This is a very attractive segment, gave me a lot of help, thank you for sharing, hope you can update more and better stories. Now I can incorporate some new features. It helps me a lot. I'm glad that you keep the simplicity to help people get started.

  • Kobus April 29, 2011 04:40 pm

    Hi Peter,

    You have helped the new guys like myself a lot in better understanding the working of my equipment. To everyone else that gave comments - thanks a lot. I will be looking out for the next test shots.
    Kobus
    South Africa

  • GariRae April 29, 2011 03:48 pm

    What's frustrating for me is that my Nikon D90 - which I've had for only a year-doesn't have mirror lock-up capabilities. Unfortunately, the advantage of MLU not well-publicized when I was doing my camera research. I really can't see additional clarity in the non-cropped versions...but I may just be in denial.

  • Sapphire St. April 29, 2011 11:16 am

    Couldn't tell the difference of the final four shots.
    Could have place them side by side to compare :)

  • Tom April 29, 2011 11:07 am

    The only way to be sure for your own equipment is to conduct the test yourself with what you use. In the film days, when mirrors flopped with greater force, the critical shutter speeds seemed to be from 1/15s to 1s. Better mirror dampening may have narrowed that range. I have a new camera with "live view" on a movable screen. This is great for my "old" tired eyes when down close to the ground shooting my favorite flowers and fungi. The added bonus is the mirror is up out of the way.

  • Darren Addy April 29, 2011 06:55 am

    Nice demo. CLEAR difference on the blow-ups between the two shots with the mirror up and the normal shutter release.

    All you have to do to accomplish the side-by-side comparison is to right click on each image you want to compare and "Open in a new tab". Then click between them.

  • Maks April 29, 2011 06:39 am

    So, no difference. How about:
    a. Testing original 100mm f2.8 (No IS)
    and b. do you still need to turn off IS on the new 100mm when on a tripod? Or that is up to another set of tests as well?

    Thanks for posting.

    Maks

  • Rex Boggs April 29, 2011 05:21 am

    Photo Techniques had an article a few years ago about this. The author did the comparison at different shutter speeds and did indeed find a difference at slower shutter speeds. For his camera, the effect was greatest at 1/15 sec.

  • Kos April 29, 2011 04:52 am

    Initially, the difference is not very noticiable, but if one just opens the images in full size, within the browser itself, the differences can be observed. Thanks Peter, for a very informative article.

  • Pete Miller April 29, 2011 01:36 am

    Instead of taking a photo of textured paper suffering from ink bleed, try photographing a crisp new dollar bill. I think the detail will make the differences between shots more visible.

  • Peter West Carey April 29, 2011 01:09 am

    I should have the additional images up today. A couple of additional points: 1) it is not impossible to see a difference in the images above. If others have noted being able to see a difference, then it surely is not impossible. 2) Martin, I used those shutter pressing images to help those not as familiar with macro so they can see that it does help to use a cable release or self timer. I went with the self timer as every camera has one and not everyone owns a cable release. 3) The size of this blog only allows for 600px wide images because Darren wants to make it accessible for all (I agree with the idea) and thus, side by side comparison would be even smaller and harder to see. I know it's not ideal to stack them, but I wanted to give the largest size I could and still make the full size 18MP images available for you to download. I will be doing the same in shots today *but* I will only show with MLU and self timer and without MLU and self timer to hopefully make it more simple.
    I'm human, I can adapt. I can also be imperfect. :)

  • Martin April 29, 2011 12:48 am

    Definitely interested in seeing the results at slower shutter speeds, so good on Peter for being prepared to do some more testing.

    I'm not sure how valid it is to hit the shutter button by hand in tests such as this. Anyone doing macro photography on a tripod, with mirror lockup, is more than likely to be using a remote shutter release anyway.

  • Andy Mills April 28, 2011 11:05 pm

    It's impossible to tell the difference with the way the images are presented - they really need to be side to side to be able to make a comparison.

    If you download the 100% crops of the "MLU with timer" and the "no MLU normal shutter" and compare these two side by side with an image viewer/editor, then I can see a slight improvement in the MLU shot. However, seeing that these images were taken at f/2.8, the Depth of Field at this aperture is extremely shallow on macro, so the slightest of movement between shots could affect the focus.

    So yes, I would agree with re-doing the tests at a smaller aperture, and a slower shutter speed.

  • PMLPhoto April 28, 2011 10:53 pm

    I agree that the shutter speed isn't appropriate to show the impact of MLU here. It is only useful over a range of speeds which depend on your camera and your tripod, but the range suggested by bart is a very reasonable place to go to look for an improvement when using MLU. Lots of people seem to recommend it as a standard approach to tripod shots, but usually it does not help. At fast shutter speeds, the shutter has opened and closed before the momentum of the camera is overcome by the force applied by the mirror moving out of the way. At very long shutter speeds, the portion of the exposure actually impacted by the moving camera is small as the cmaera steadies pretty quickly after the mirror slap, so the vast majority of the exposure is sharp.

  • Glenn April 28, 2011 10:28 pm

    If there is a difference it is not glaring but that may be because you have to scroll up and down to compare. That's just the nature of the way they are presented. Side by sides may show better.
    THat said there is no denying that mirror lock up even without added delay has shown a huge improvement to me even with normal shots.

  • Scapevision April 28, 2011 09:16 pm

    +1 for re-run. Also let us know if you had your focus preset and not changed during the releases. Can't see any difference in shots above, looking at them as they appear here

  • Ceri Vale April 28, 2011 05:21 pm

    Appreciate the fact you're willing to re-do. V interested to see the results

  • Peter West Carey April 28, 2011 01:45 pm

    For those who can't tell the difference, I will re-run the test (with a different lens, but with the same proximity) at a slower shutter speed to make the result more obvious. I will then append this post once finished.

  • ScottC April 28, 2011 01:03 pm

    I can't tell a difference in any of these photos, 1/160 is too fast for the mirror action and a smooth shutter depression to have an effect.

    Thought not a tight close-up and I don't have any comparison photos, this one was taken with a macro lens at 1/10 shutter using a 2 sec timer and mirror lockup. It turned out well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5661283743/

  • Bart April 28, 2011 12:02 pm

    You did the test wrong. Mirror-induced vibrations do not exist at 1/160" exposures; they do exist in 1/2" to 1/15" exposures.

    What you just did was the same as "proving" that tripods are pointless by comparing shots taken with and without tripod - taken at 1/8000". I doubt there will be a difference but you did not really prove anything.

    I learned the hard way the value of MUP modes - by shooting around 1/10" and have unsharp images due to mirror slap. After experimenting I learned that yes, even on a tripod it still matters. But not at 1/160"

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 28, 2011 10:23 am

    @Tim

    Good analysis! I will put more weight on Mirror Up and Live View

    Thanks!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 28, 2011 09:11 am

    Hi

    I have used Mirror Up and Live View often when shooting, and not just Macros. I know that some well known Landscape Photographers swear by Live View. The advantage is that one can zoom in on the scene and critically focus. Being old school, I like to look through a Viewfinder and not a tiny LCD.

    For controllable shots, I prefer to use a remote shutter release and preview on a monitor, like this shot of some Ice: http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/ice-9/

    Here the advantage being artificial light and use of larger apertures.

  • Tim April 28, 2011 08:54 am

    I downloaded all the 100% crop images ("act"), loaded them into layers in photoshop and placed them side by side. No surprise that the mirror lock-up images were noticeably sharper than the ones without mirror lockup. I was surprised that that there was not a noticeable difference between the "normal" and "2 sec delay" shutter. If anything, the normal shutter images looked sharper, at least to my eye.

  • Vladimir Krzalic April 28, 2011 08:17 am

    I also can't tell the difference between the shots with and without MLU. What I can tell you thought, is that I'm affraid that your test does prove only that you have a sturdy tripod and that's all. The shutter speed of 1/160 is not slow enough to make any significant difference in marco shots. At least not that much of a difference above the fact that you can't see what you're shooting because the mirror is..well.. up. :)
    I would like to see the same shot taken with f8 and 1/15s (with the same amount of available light). Then, I think, the MLU function would make a difference.
    The thing that the most of the people battle with in the macro world is basically lack of light, given the need to shoot at smaller apertures (thus increasing the dof), and that is why the MLU can really help. That is if you don't have any artificial light to get the shutter speed to at least 1/focal lenght (on FF camera).

    Of course, I appreciate the time and the effort in making of the samples, but if we are to draw some conclusions whether the MLU can actually help in making macro shots little less painful, one has to create similar, but repeatable conditions in a controlled environment to make the test really worth.
    Just my two cents.

    Cheers!

  • Rafael Marquez April 28, 2011 07:40 am

    I don't think I can tell a difference between any of those shots.

  • Lisa April 28, 2011 07:21 am

    Darn it! As someone who is trying to "specialize" in macro more than any other type of photography, you would have thought I would already being doing what was best for sharpness--using the MLU. Been using the self-timer and tripod, but never even thought of checking into the difference that MLU might make. Thanks for the info. I will definitely be using that in the future! Sweet lens too!