My take on wide-angle macro – part 3

To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.

In this final post I will list some of the major problems that arise when photographing wide-angle macro using different lens systems. Some issues were already covered in the previous posts (lens barrel distortion, background focus and sharpness) so they will not be repeated.

Difficult lighting situations – this is the number one problem, due to the camera being held very close to the subject. Very often the lens will cast shadows on the subject, especially if it is a wide-angle prime lens with a big front element. There is no real way around this other than experimenting with fill flash or wisely positioned reflectors. I found that a diffused flash on a bracket held tightly close to the lens’ front element does the job, but it can be cumbersome. A ring flash or a similar arrangement (like the one shown here) might do the trick as well.

Weevil infected with parasitic fungus, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

In order to photograph this 9mm-long weevil infected with Cordyceps fungus I had to position the lens very close. I used a long exposure and light-painted some of the shadows with a small LED torch. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 10 sec at f/22, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers, LED torch.

Extreme Chromatic aberration – all wide-angle lenses are prone to chromatic aberration, resulting in purple and green colors fringing in high contrast areas of the image. Unfortunately for us, this ugly phenomenon only increases in severity when the lens is focused close, as in most wide-angle macro uses. The only way to reduce chromatic aberration in-camera is to avoid shooting in situations that exaggerate it via high contrast, for example towards light penetrating through canopy or against the sun. But what can you do when you see a photographic opportunity of a lifetime in said situations? Hope to rescue the image in post-processing…

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Golan Heights, Israel

Even after post-processing there is still some chromatic aberration visible along the branch in this photo of an ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata) from Israel. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/50 at f/20, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Dirt on lens – surprisingly this is one of the least mentioned problems but it is so important that it gets a special spot among the top three. We like to use wide-angle lenses because of the increased depth of field, but unfortunately this also means that every speck of dust on the front element will be seen in the final image. And if you like to shoot against the sun like I do, any smear will cause a disgusting lens flare that is hard to remove in post-processing. Therefore it is of utmost importance to keep the front element as clean as possible when photographing. For those of you who like to photograph in flower-splashed fields – pollen is another common nuisance.

Dust specks in image when using relay lens

Dust on lens appears as colorful specks in image when using a relay lens. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/22, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Manual and relay lens systems – There are many advantages to constructing your own wide-angle macro lens system, but unfortunately the complexity of their use poses some serious challenges. One of the main issues is that these systems do not have electrical contacts, and therefore there is no communication between the camera body and lens, no aperture control, and no auto focus. When using DIY short extension tubes with wide-angle lenses to achieve greater magnification, very often the lens focus must be set to infinity and the only way to actually focus on the subject is to gently rock the camera body back and forth. Another common challenge comes when using relay lens systems (you can see mine appearing in this brief post), especially ones that incorporate CCTV lenses: the image in the viewfinder will often be displayed upside down, and if the aperture is closed it will be extremely dark, making it very difficult to properly compose the image and focus. If “shooting in the dark” manually does not scare you enough, the images produced by these lens systems are often soft despite the increased depth of field. To know why, you must understand how a relay lens works. In a nutshell, the front lens projects a small image that is then enlarged by another lens to fit the coverage of the camera’s sensor. This increase in image size causes an apparent loss of resolution. All these issues are solvable, and honestly once tackled they are not much of a big deal.

Inverted image in viewfinder when using relay lens

This is what I actually see in the viewfinder when using a relay lens system, a dark inverted image.

Plume moth (Hellinsia homodactylus) from Estabrook Woods, MA, United States

After some careful post-processing of the above image of a plume moth (Hellinsia homodactylus), I was able to get this result. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/10 sec at f/16, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Giant mantis (Eremoplana infelix) from Central Coastal Plain, Israel

The great advantage of CCTV relay lens systems is the small size of the front lens, which allows to sneak up on unsuspecting insects. Unfortunately, this means that they will not hesitate to climb on, like this giant mantis (Eremoplana infelix) from Israel. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/100 at f/16, ISO640. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Uncooperative subjects, focusing distance and getting too close – this is not really a problem but more of a skill that evolves with the photographer’s experience. The main issue when using wide-angle lenses of any kind for macrophotography is that you have to get very close to the subject, and with some lens systems you will literally almost touch it with the front element of the lens. This, for obvious reasons, makes most live subjects very uncomfortable, causing them to pose unnaturally, or even to escape. Because of this, it is important to know your subject, so you can approach it without scaring it. It is also important to be able to predict the subject’s behavior. Some caution should be used here; while some subjects will simply take the chance to climb on your lens, others will not hesitate to attack if you get too close. Do not take unnecessary risks.

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Sometimes getting too close triggers an interesting response from the subject, like in this case of a male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) from New Zealand. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/30 at f/18, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

…and sometimes it is better to know when to back off. When this venomous wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) started walking towards the lens, I quickly stepped back. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/10 sec at f/18, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Conehead katydid from Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

This conehead katydid from Belize started walking on the surface of the lens while I was taking the photo. If it wasn’t for the extension tube used here, this photo would have been out of focus. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 1/5 at f/22, ISO1600. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

To end this series of posts like I promised in part 1, here is a list of useful articles I recommend checking out for anyone interested in getting into wide-angle macro:

Wide-Angle Macro | The Essential Guide by Clay Bolt and Paul Harcourt Davies – the only resource currently in existence dedicated solely to this photography style. It is excellent. And I hear they are working on a second, more updated edition:

Getting low and wide by Piotr Naskrecki – very good tips from the entomologist who inspired us all with his photography:

Reviews of the recently released Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 wide angle macro lens (By Nicky Bay, Paul Harcourt Davies, Thomas Shahan, and myself) offer some good insights about wide-angle macro in general:

Use of CCTV lens (non-English, but still good info about gear): (in Chinese) (in Japanese)

Examples of relay lens systems: – Fantastic article by John Hallmén (in Swedish)

Making a DIY short extension tube:

UPDATE (30 Dec, 2015): There is now a part 4 to this wide-angle macro series! Click here to read about my experiments with relay lens systems.
UPDATE (17 Aug, 2017): I added my review of the Laowa 15mm Wide Angle Macro lens in the links. You can also find it here.

3 thoughts on “My take on wide-angle macro – part 3

  1. Piotr Naskrecki

    Great stuff, as usual, Gil. BTW, the new Lightroom has a new tool for dealing with color fringing, in addition to the older CO removal tool. Very useful for WA photos. The Venus 15mm should be waiting for me at home once I get back from Africa and I can’t wait to try it.

  2. Hi Gil,

    Could you give some insight on how you created your custom extension tube? I’m currently working with an 8mm Bower, and have calculated the extension tube distance that I would need to get a macro focus (3mm), but am unsure about how to go about making one that small/thin, while also making it stable enough for tripod use.

    Thank you!

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