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Macro photography with a microfilm lens

by Güray Dere
otamat101 20mm f2.8 microfilm lens

There is no end to macro photography techniques. There are plenty of solutions to get good results at every budget level. Those with the budget can choose the best and often expensive solutions without any headache. In cases where there is no alternative, we are forced to spend considerable sums. But what excites and satisfies me more is innovation, research and trying to achieve good results with affordable options.

We can get close-ups using many different types of lenses that we would never have imagined, sometimes in ways that challenge our imagination. These experiments often end in disappointment. Lenses that are not suitable for high magnification get stuck in problems such as diffraction, edge darkening, low resolution and produce bad photos. But sometimes they come as a big surprise and bring a smile to the faces of the entire macro community, creating a new excitement in all of us.

Focal length, aperture value and resolution give us clues for high magnification.

In this article we will look at microfilm lenses that are likely to give pleasant surprises, with the JML21 and Otamat101 as examples. But first I would like to thank Enrico Savazzi, who enlightened me about microfilm lenses and from whom I learned some of the information I have given here. He is the author of “Digital photography for science: Close-up photography, macrophotography and photomacrography”, which is considered the bible of modern macro photography. The book is available on Amazon for $130. Previously it was around $200. I expect the price to drop a bit more. You can also find his personal website in the link at the bottom.

Let’s start with some background information.

High magnification lens

We can force every lens to high magnification in different ways. But trying every lens in this way will only waste our time. It makes sense to look for some clues first.

  • Lens focal length. The appropriate focal range is 20mm – 50mm. The smaller the angle, the higher magnification we get. However, at values below 20mm, it is not very useful as we have to shoot so close that we almost touch the subject. This is especially problematic in terms of lighting. We cannot properly illuminate an object so close to the lens.
  • Aperture. The aperture value is important to avoid “diffraction” at high magnification. We want an wide aperture. For example, no more than f3.5 at 20mm. It should not exceed f4 at 40mm. A lens like 20mm, f5.6 has sharpness problems at high magnification.
  • Resolution. A value that expresses the detail transmission of the lens. It is vital at high magnifications. In a surprise lens, we probably don’t know this value. But if we do, the higher the number, the sharper the lens we have. You can find something with a Google search for the lenses you have. Again, if I give examples from the lenses I have, 4-12 lpmm for Pentax 18-55 kit lens, 30-80 lpmm for Tamron 90mm macro lens, 200 lpmm for Otamat101 microfilm lens! 400 lpmm for JML 21mm!!!! The variable values given here in the form of range are for different aperture values. When we look at these figures, we never even try our kit lens at high magnification 🙂 200-400 lpmm values are fantastic numbers. The value of 50 refers to a very good macro lens. You need to think accordingly.

Microfilm lenses

These tiny lenses, which you can find as “microfilm lens” or “microfische lens” when searching, are not intended for photography. They are generally used in projector systems to produce microfilm images on large screens. Some of them are also produced for specialized copying devices. That’s why they look very different from the lenses we know. They don’t have a diaphragm, or rather the lens always works as if it’s at wide open aperture, the tubular lens body forms the diaphragm. And the worst part is that they don’t have a mount! We will develop our own way of attaching the lens to our camera.

Let’s talk about our lenses. Both of our lenses were discovered by the same person, yes, you guessed it: Enrico Savazzi. These discoveries are what I called a surprise at the beginning of the article. The company that produced these lenses didn’t realize they were making such a good lens. They are lenses that are usually produced in limited numbers for a limited industrial use and then forgotten over time. Then, when the stocks that had been sitting on the sidelines came to the market, someone made a test for macro photography and the fate of the lens changed.

JML 21mm f3.5

jml optical 21mm lens
JML Optical 21mm lens that delivers excellent results at high magnification

The story of the lens is that our Uncle Enrico saw this lens on eBay in 2010. The price was $10 and there were a few dozen for sale. He decided it was worth a try and bought it and the lens gives zero CA color distortion with the 400 lpmm resolution value I wrote above. It is a great loss for all of us that this lens has been discontinued. Then he writes about the situation on his own website and posts it on macro forums. Of course, there is a rush for the lens and the entire stock is immediately consumed.

The JML 21 is a lens that became legendary in a very short time, giving excellent results over a very wide magnification range and up to very high magnifications such as 20X. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find. Whoever has it so far is definitely not selling it. If it is found, the price is around $500. I’ve only seen it on sale once in the last 3 years, and that was an auction with a lot of people. I never even looked at the result…

I would love to take the following photos myself and present them to you, but this lens is just a dream for now. This time I got the photos from some of the masters who own the JML 21mm in my watch list. You can go directly to the photo’s page by clicking on it and view it in large size. Of course, having a lens is not enough. Lighting and processing techniques are the real work.

Oryctes Salticella fasciata (focus stack of a dead fly)
Studio stack: Camponotus herculaneus Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus)

Otamat101 20mm f2.8

Otamat101 dimensions compared to an AA battery.

You can guess the story of this lens. I can take almost all of the sentences from the paragraph above!

Uncle Enrico sees this lens on eBay in 2012. The price was £18 and there were a few dozen for sale. He thinks it’s worth a try and buys it 🙂 The story continues as you know it. The lens works very well and gets into discussions on forums. There is a difference this time, I am one of the first ones to read those posts. I’m one of the first in the lens rush and I grab one for £18. A week later the price of the lens becomes £80. The following week, it’s out of stock. There’s no second hand at the moment. I don’t know how much it will go for if it does.

This lens has weaknesses compared to the JML. It has a lower resolution and produces some CA color distortion. But even this doesn’t stop it from being a very good lens.

otamat101 20mm f2.8 mikrofilm lensi
Otamat101 20mm f2.8 microfilm lens on Asahi microscope adapter

When I received the lens, my first thought was “how am I going to attach this?”. What can be done to connect this tiny tubular lens to the body?

I did some research. There were those who drilled a hole in the center of the body caps attached to the body and glued the lens there, those who wrapped it with black tape on the RMS adapter and attached it, those who fixed it with sticky pasty substances… I put them all aside for fear of damaging or contaminating the lens. The lens stayed in the drawer for a long time. Then I realized that some microscope adapters are suitable for attaching such lenses. And since I’m a Pentax user, I opted for the Pentax microscope adapter, which I found on eBay for 20 euros.

Since this quality adapter has an m42 connection, it can be used with any brand such as Canon-Nikon. The place where the lens will be connected is made for 23mm wide lenses. We gently insert the lens inside, tighten the screw part and fix it.

Etrafına kağıt sararak lens çapını 23mm'ye çıkarıyoruz.
We increase the lens diameter to 23mm by wrapping paper around it.

But there’s another small problem. Otamat101 is 22mm wide. So there is a 1mm gap that needs to be filled. For this, I wrapped a thick paper around the lens. I fixed it to the body of the lens with adhesive paper tape so that it would not slip while fitting the lens. After a few turns, it came to the desired width and fit snugly to the adapter. When I tightened the screw, it was fixed as if it had always been there.

It is very important that there is no shift in the axis of the lens. In order to make maximum use of the center resolution of the lens, which is the sharpest part of the lens in photography, the axis should be paid attention to in such connections. Solutions such as directly gluing the lens could have caused problems with axis shift, but the adapter was very sturdy.

There is a second point to be aware of. The front and back of the lens are not clear! We determine this by measuring the working distance by making an immediate test. When the lens is connected incorrectly, it focuses very, very close. We can’t use it that way. We adjust and fix it appropriately.

Otamat101 in action

With add-ons such as bellows, tubes, etc., the lens quickly goes to high magnifications. When I made this connection 1 year ago, I experimented with the bellows without much knowledge. In that setup, the magnification was 12X. However, since I had not yet installed the Newport rail system, I could not provide continuity in the depth of field while focus stacking. In fact, 12X slightly exceeds the capacity of the lens and loses sharpness. These were the photos:

I forgot about the lens after that day. It again slept in the drawer for about a year. My interest shifted to microscope lenses at high magnification. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to try various microscope lenses. Then I resurfaced Otamat for this article and saw that it is perhaps the best solution I have in the magnification range of 5X-10X. Although I have a Lomo 8X microscope lens that I can use at values close to this, I don’t want to manipulate the built-in magnification. Especially when I force it to low magnification, I am very likely to encounter vignetting. In addition, Otamat101 offers twice the distance compared to Lomo 8X with a working distance of around 2cm, making an easier lighting.

This time I wanted to use the lens at 5X-6X. Even with the bellows at its lowest position, the Otamat quickly goes up to 10X. I attached it directly to the body with the microscope adapter and the magnification was 4.5X. When I added a 20mm M42 extension tube to the back of the M42 microscope adapter, the magnification reached my target of 5.5X.

It was time to find a dead bug. This is the hardest part of the job this time of year. While it was snowy outside, I did some searching inside the house. By chance I found a meal moth like the one I had shot with this lens before (above). These tiny moths can be found in homes, especially in the kitchen. The eggs on the beans we buy from the market open and hatch after a while. And sometimes we find them in a jar and wonder where they came from. If the jar is tightly closed, they cannot infect other foods and die there.

I set up a simple studio set-up and start shooting.

otamat101 studio setup
Setup for Otamat101 20mm microfilm lens

The “helping hand” on the left holds the moth attached to the needle in the proper position, while the second “helping hand” on the right holds the diffuser made of a paper picnic cup. In addition, the circular white paper threaded onto the end of the lens acts as a reflector and plays a crucial role in illuminating the specimen from the front. During the shot, the cup is passed over the lens to cover it and the insect is inside the cup. When I shoot I also have other reflectors lying around, but I’ve removed them now to show the setup, and I prefer to put the Newport micrometer rail on shock-absorbing surfaces rather than directly on hard surfaces, simply to cut vibrations quickly.

makro çekim böcek otamat101 flash
Otamat101 with flash

That day I decided to shoot using flash. I use flash as lighting at high magnification because the Pentax K-x body I use does not support electronic shutter. So when I press the shutter button, even with the mirror raised, it creates a lot of vibration. This reduces sharpness in long exposures, but is less noticeable when using flash. The flash fires very fast, so the flicker effect is not visible. When I finish the session and look at the result, I am disappointed to see that there is a lot of vibration on the insect side. The shoot consists of about 80 images. In the first photos the abdomen is blurred. This is not present in the later photos, the head is clear. That’s why I cut out the body part and publish the head part as a crop.

When I realized this, I wanted to take another shot, I tried a different angle, but the battery of the wireless flash trigger died before the stack was completed! I guess it was not my day, so I processed that shot too, albeit only halfway. That’s why the back of the moth is blurred in the photo below. I had to stop shooting when I got there.

Otamat101 mikrofilm lensi ile flaşlı çekim
Otamat101 with flash

The next day the first thing I did was to charge all my batteries, including the body. Then I set up the camera to repeat the shot, set up the same frame and started shooting quickly when the flash stopped firing. When a new set of batteries didn’t solve the problem, I realized that the battery on the body side of my flash trigger was dead! This small battery was dead after 1.5 years of intensive use. Since I had no way to replace it, I changed plans and decided to proceed with continuous light and long exposure.

The flash in the setup was replaced by 2 Ikea Jansjö led lamps. At 5.5X magnification, I was also curious about the result as it was the first time I would be using continuous light. The inevitable effect of curtain flicker would degrade sharpness a bit, but how much?

Otamat101 mikrofilm lensi ile sürekli ışıkta çekim

Shooting in continuous light with Otamat101 microfilm lens

With the Jansjö lamp lighting, the colors came out a bit warm-toned. The flash colors were more bluish. But the main issue is sharpness. The picture was not as blurry as I feared. Last year, in an experiment with microscope lenses, I got a watercolor-like photo. I’m happy about this. I don’t know whether to thank the vibration-dampening surface 🙂

I changed the frame and shot again to get the colors a bit more uniform and to give it another try. At the same time I wanted to try something else. In the above photo the exposure time was 1/4 sec. If the flicker when the shutter opens continues in the first moments of the shot and then goes away, it could have had a significant effect in 1/4 sec. If I increase the exposure time, I can make longer use of the stillness after the vibration ends and maybe get a sharper image?

I moved the led lamps away from the setup, removed the reflectors, and for the first time I was trying to reduce the light! I had the camera measure the light and it gave me 1sec exposure time. I decided to try it this way. 3 sec delayed shooting +1 sec exposure for each of the 80 or so photos. it took long enough to be boring. I am sharing the result right now.

Otamat101 mikrofilm lensi ile sürekli ışıkta çekim

When I compared both photos, the colors are better in the second one, but the sharpness did not increase as I thought it would. I can even say that the first one is sharper. With so many parameters affecting the result, I decided to give up thinking about the best method and enjoy the photos and the Otamat101 lens. I think this is all my DSLR body can do 🙂

Microfilm lenses can be found on eBay. The prices are usually very reasonable. Sometimes these lenses don’t even have a name and it’s just a matter of luck what results we get. If you trust your luck, you can get one and test it. I would be very happy if you share the results with me 🙂 Likewise, I will continue to share my opinions about the microfilm lenses that I will receive here.

Photographs taken with the Otamat101 microfilm lens

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