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Using regular lenses for wide-angle macro photography

by Güray Dere

As those of you who follow Macro World may have noticed, I have been posting only wide angle photos for a while now. I stopped shooting high magnification microscope etc. I don’t know if this is a good or bad sign, but for now I still have some unrealized goals in wide angle and I am in a good mood.

I’m also a bit lazy this year. Just setting up and taking down the studio setup is a big job in itself. The wide angle macro technique I discovered at this time has been very good for me. With handheld single frame photographs made with a lightweight setup, I have eliminated the tiresome computer process.

Wide-angle close-up with Nikon 20mm

Before continuing with this article, for those who haven’t read it yet, I recommend the article Wide angle macro photography – Laowa 15mm f4 where I explain the details of the wide angle technique. There I covered more about why it appeals to me so much and did some test shots with the Laowa 15mm lens.

Other lenses?

Laowa 15mm wide angle is the first lens specialized in macro. The sharpness is very good. But it has two drawbacks.

  • It’s not cheap and I don’t have it, I borrowed it for a test.
  • And it’s a bit difficult to use.

We use low apertures like f16 for close-up wide-angle photos.

So I started researching lenses that I can use and enjoy close-ups, even if they don’t exactly replace the Laowa. There is not much information on the subject. The only thing I knew was that by attaching a tube to the back of any lens, we can force it to focus closer. We commonly use this when adjusting the magnification of macro lenses.

I have used wide angle lenses with macro tubes a lot so far, but the lens has always been reversed. When we connect it normally, the tube length becomes a very tricky issue. As the angle of the lens widens, the tube length is limited to millimeters. We will see in a moment…

That being the case, I had to start with the lenses I had. I don’t have many alternatives for wide angle. I decided to start with my trusted Samyang 14mm and the veteran Pentax 28mm.

Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC

With its stunning abbreviations in its name and sharpness that shakes the balance, the Samyang 14mm is a full-frame lens that captured hearts the moment it was released. Even at an open aperture, the sharpness is impressive. This makes it well-suited for astronomical shooting.

If I can attach a short tube to the back of the Samyang and make it focus close up, I feel it has the potential to rival the Laowa. Who knows how sharp the photos will be at low aperture…

Since I used Pentax before Sony, this lens is also suitable for the Pentax PK system and I have been using it for a long time with an adapter on Sony. Similarly, I have a lot of Pentax equipment. This includes macro tubes. I attach the shortest macro tube I have, a 12mm, to the back of the lens and eagerly set out to take my first photo.

Samyang 14mm with 12mm extension tube.

But that photo can’t be taken. The 12mm tube that I was using is so long that the focus distance is even inside the front glass of the lens! In the photo above, I put my finger on the front glass of the lens. Notice that the dust grains on the glass surface are almost in focus and easily visible. But it is not possible to create a real sharp area. Because the sharp focus remained inside.

There is also an excessive amount of CA discoloration. Blue-red halos all over the borders. But I’ll put them aside for now, maybe they can be fixed. The important thing is to create sharpness. The only solution is to find a macro tube with a length of only 3-5mm!

I put my disappointment aside and go to the computer. How to make a short macro tube?

There are many projects. Cutting up old tubes and gluing bayonet rings from other lenses on the back. There are thin macro tubes specially made for Canon/Nikon, and even they can carry this sharpness forward by 1mm at most… No solution!


There is a solution and that is the helicoid. For those who don’t know, it’s a macro tube that gets longer and shorter as you rotate it. In other words, if we want, we can rotate it a little bit and extend it even by a tenth of a millimeter. The focus systems of our lenses are made of these. As we rotate, the end of the lens extends outward and starts to focus closer, this is what we want.

But there’s another problem. Even at its shortest, the helicoid is 25mm long! And we’re talking about 3mm!

Fortunately, there exists a solution again. There is a solution for every problem in mirrorless. And that’s helicoid adapters.

What I need to find is an adapter that converts the Pentax lens to the Sony body, but at the same time it must provide the helicoid feature. Research starts immediately. There really is a product called helicoid adapter. But for some reason no one has made it for Pentax. Canon is available, Nikon is available, M42 is available, even Leica is available, but not Pentax.

After being bored for a while, I remembered that Pentax lenses are easy to use on Canon so I placed orders for two products.

  • Pentax to Canon adapter
  • Canon – Sony helicoid adapter

There is a one-month waiting period until they arrive. Of course, while I was waiting, I thought of other solutions. When the drawers were unloaded, I came up with a macro inverter teleconverter.

Vivitar macro focusing teleconverter 2X

I love this old Vivitar product. I use it to do all sorts of strange things when connecting all sorts of strange equipment together. In normal use it makes a standard 50mm lens look like a 1:1 macro lens with a 100mm focal length. Of course it only does “like”. Don’t expect much more.

But in doing so, it has a helicoid on it. It’s a beauty that grows in length as you turn it and can focus closer. If I mount the Samyang lens on it, I will be able to use the focusing in the range [0 – ∞]. But there is an unwanted side effect, While I have a very wide view of 14mm, I will make it X2 giving me the equivalent of 28mm.

Samyang 14mm and Vivitar Macro Focus Teleconverter 2X

Looks like a monster, doesn’t it?

That’s exactly what it is. A frightening monster for insects. It’s a look we don’t want! With its huge front glass, it’s creepy and it’s hard to illuminate. No doubt it’ll cast a huge shadow on the image. But that’s the lens. And so is the Laowa 15mm. Unfortunately, they’re both monsters!

At first glance at the photographs, it looks like it is happening. But as our excitement subsides, it becomes clear that it’s not. The corners are badly blurred. CA color distortion is very bad. And the magnification is not enough. In short, not impressive. Ordinary photos. That’s what cell phones do. Moreover, I already have a small and light 28mm lens. Instead of using the 14mm as a 28mm, I’ll use the 28mm directly and shoot the same. Possibly better.

At this point, we move the time forward by 1 month, hopefully we have the orders.

I attach the Canon converter, then the helicoid adapter to the back of the Samyang and eagerly go out to take my first photo. Does the sentence sound familiar? 🙂

Of course, that photo cannot be taken. Interestingly, instead of a lens that would give a circular image, the manufacturers have designed a lens that would give a rectangular image. The Canon adapter slightly rotates the Pentax lens. Then when you mount it on the body on the helicoid, this rotated rectangular image appears on the screen.

Because the Canon adapter rotates the Pentax lens, there is an interesting cut in the corners. This is specific to the Samyang 14mm.

Sharpness is not bad. It’s much improved compared to using the teleconverter. But the corners… I’m not sure if the rectangular image produced is for saving money or for performance, but it’s a deal-breaker for me. There is one last thing to do. Run the full-frame body in APS-C mode and let it cut the edges. Doing this with wide angle lenses kills the image.

This setting also shakes me psychologically 🙂 Why did I pay so much money for that body if I can only take a 10.5MP photo with a narrow angle when I can get a wide-angle 24MP image?!

So it’s okay. CAs are depressing again. The angle is 14 mm* 1.5 = 21 mm. A wider angle than when using TC. But again we couldn’t find the excitement in image quality.

I have to take the Samyang 14mm out of the close-up options. I’ve had enough of tormenting this lens. I’m putting it back in its old place so that it can return to its brilliant career in daily use.

Pentax SMC-M 28mm

When I discovered the world of “extreme macro” many years ago, the first lens I heard about was the Pentax 28mm. You must have seen Thomas Shahan’s spider photos taken with the Pentax SMC-M 28mm mounted reversed on a tube. I immediately found one to imitate him and experienced those first thrills with this lens.

Old manual lenses are like rocks. They last a lifetime if we take good care of them. Now we’re going to add a wide-angle close-up service.

Shooting with the Samyang 14mm and 2X TC showed that 28mm would create a sufficient sense of space. But remember that I’m talking about full-frame bodies. The bigger the sensor, the wider the angle. As long as the lens supports it.

Now let’s go back in time and repeat the period when I didn’t know about helicoid adapters. The 12mm extension tube I tried with the Samyang 14mm was too long and brought the focus so close that it fell into the lens. I knew there would be no such problem with a 28mm. I took the extension tubes and immediately started testing.

Pentax SMC-M 28mm and 12mm extension tube

As soon as I saw the result, my eyes widened. This is the sharpness I was looking for. I have included the photo above in 6000×4000 dimensions. You can click on it and see the details in the original size.

Of course we are immediately curious. If this is the case with a 12mm tube, you should try the second part, the 20mm one. You should even put them both together and try them in 32mm.

Pentax 28mm with helicoid.

The 20mm and 32mm don’t seem as successful as the first one. While the reduction in sharpness is acceptable, the blurring of the background spoils the wide-angle character of the image. The most characteristic feature of wide angle macros is that they show the subject together with its environment. Therefore, if we can’t get the background, this method is pointless. If we wanted it this way, we would use our much sharper real macro lenses instead of 28mm.

Then it would be ideal for us to have a tube system that starts from 12mm extension level and can go up to 20mm when desired. Yes, I’m talking about the helicoid.

The Samyang idea of first converting it to Canon and then attaching it to the Canon-Sony helicoid adapter is still the same. In addition, we have a 12mm macro tube that we added right behind the lens. The lens now has a tube system that starts at 12mm and can be extended as much as we want.

In other words, we have a wide-angle macro lens with variable magnification that we can adjust according to the size of the subject we want to photograph or the width of the frame we want.

Since the test shots were taken at home in a fixed setup with low light and long exposure, it was important to see how it would perform in a natural environment and handheld shooting.

The Pentax 28mm gave me what I wanted. I found the first of my wide angle lenses.

Let’s continue the search. The first thing that comes to mind is to widen the angle a bit. 14mm is too wide, 28mm is not bad. We need to find something in between. If we look at standard focal lengths, there are 24mm and 20mm lenses in between. The 20mm sounds very nice, but the price is higher than the 24mm. It won’t be a lens that I can say “Let’s test it, I’ll put it aside”. I can continue with 24mm.

Starblitz 24mm and Miranda 24mm 

What these two lenses have in common is their low cost and their ability to focus close. Both are so-called MACRO lenses but are actually quarter macro lenses. So they can give 0.25X magnification. With Helicoid, we will increase this ratio even higher.

Miranda and Starblitz 24mm lenses.

After a short research I am interested in two lenses that are on sale. There is not much information about their performance. I don’t have high expectations, but I am tempted by the possibility of pleasant surprises. I want to take a risk and try them both.

Adapters to convert different lenses to Canon EOS bayonet.

Starblitz has an M42 connection. We immediately add an M42-EOS adapter to use it with the Canon helicoid. The Miranda was not clear what it was. Even the person who sold it didn’t know which system the lens was made for. Fortunately, my adapter box was full of goodies. As a matter of fact, the lens turns out to be a Canon FD bayonet and easily becomes compatible with the helicoid by using the FD-EOS adapter.

Test shots give positive results. But the photos are not as sharp as the Pentax 28mm. Because of the small number of aperture blades, hexagonal bokeh is evident in the background. When used correctly, the wider angle compared to the Pentax produces nice images.

The examples above were shot with Starblitz. Miranda is no different. Very close lenses. I hope I’ll remember them again soon and increase the number of examples because that’s when I met a performance monster. After that I couldn’t put it down.

Nikon 20mm f4.0

“They’ve done it.” That’s what to say about this lens.

When I checked on http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/serialno.html, I see that my lens was manufactured between 1974-1978. Since I am also a 1975 model, we might be the same age. It’s been in pristine condition all this time. It looks like he intends to bury me too.

Nikon 20mm f4.0, with Nikon-Sony helicoid adapters long and short positions.

I have been interested in this lens for a while. I postponed my purchase because I didn’t want to deal with customs. Last summer, when it became certain that PayPal would be closed in Turkey, I bought one as soon as I could.

There are many models of 20mm. Current models always offer f2.8 aperture. However, I want a lens that works fully manual so that I can adjust the aperture manually and is as compact as possible. This time I’m not interested in open aperture. I’ll use values like f16. It would be best if it started directly with f8-f11. It would be a tiny glass, a tiny lens. And it would be cheap.

After the first tests, the lens impresses me deeply. The 20mm gives me the most pleasure in wide-angle close-ups of any lens I’ve encountered so far. The magnification – working distance balance is just right. Lighting is very easy. Let’s move on to the sample photo album.

Because the Nikon 20mm is also a great daily lens, I find it to be the most useful lens in my entire kit of equipment. So much so that I have been carrying the Nikon 20mm as my only lens wherever I go. You can imagine the comfort of being able to work without changing lenses, whether it’s close-ups or landscapes. Helicoid adapters provide this convenience.

Wide angle close-up technique

For the last part, I’d like to talk a little bit about shooting technique. Like everything else, there are tricks. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that wide angle is easier than any other macro technique.

We use flash for lighting. But here it works better to use the flash as a fill flash rather than as the main light source. It’s enough to utilize natural light as much as possible, to make the main subject stand out a bit more and to suppress shadows with fill flash. It’s even a bit mandatory.

Since we are seriously integrating the background into our photographs, the background needs to be both aesthetically and technically compatible with the subject. Overly bright or overly dark backgrounds can look strange. To make this easier, we need to place a large diffuser on our flash. The wider the surface, the more effective the diffusion and the more natural the transition of light.

My old flash, the Yongnuo YN-560 II, is also a nice and powerful flash, but the Meike won my heart with its small and ergonomic design. I prefer a system that is as light as possible for this job.

Powered by 2 pen batteries, I use the Meike for wide angle shots at powers between 1/128 and 1/32. Although the Meike is a TTL flash, I prefer to use it manually. It’s easier to adjust when I want a subtle effect.

One advantage of the Meike is that it can provide continuous light. There is an LED inside the flash for this. It is possible to use the flash as a flashlight, for example at night, both to find insects and to see them while focusing. It provides sufficient illumination even with the diffuser attached.

You can invent something yourself instead of the diffuser shown in the photo. I took the easy way out and ordered this one from China. It’s like a bag. We put the flash in it. I can say it works well. The diffuser has some well designed details. We should list them so that we can add similar features to our own inventions.

  • There’s a little plastic cover inside to attach onto the flash. It grips the flash head nicely and softens the light here first
  • The top surface inside the diffuser bag is covered with reflective metallic material. It reflects light and increases efficiency.
  • Dark layers on the outer surface of the top prevent the flash light from reaching our eyes.
  • On the inner surface of the bottom, near the front of the flash, there is a second layer in the form of a thick patch. This is the point we call “hot spot” where the light is most intense. In this way, it diffuses the intense light there and minimizes the reflection on the object being shot.
  • Thanks to its flexible metal wire frame, we fold it and place it in its small zippered bag. It takes up no space and is very easy to carry.
The diffuser is folded in its case

Returning to the technical comparison of wide-angle shooting, let’s first list its advantages.

The conveniences of a wide angle

  • The depth of field is very large. It’s not difficult to get the focus where you want it. You can even photograph a bee flying in the air without looking through the viewfinder.
  • We are not affected by the weather. Since we shoot with flash, the amount of light and wind conditions can be compensated for.
  • Since wide angles are less affected by vibration, we can shoot at low speeds like 1/30.
  • We work with a light set.
  • Because it’s handheld, there’s no set-up. Shoot, get up and keep going. I have shot 600 frames in the same day! You will never come back empty-handed.

I won’t call the other part “difficulties”, it would be better to call them “tips”. My recommendations would be the following:

Tips for using wide angle

  • If we keep the aperture around f16, there is a nice balance between sharpness and the background being sharp enough.
  • If we force the lens to focus closer to make the subject larger, we quickly lose the background. Without the background, the wide angle loses its characteristic. For closer shots, it may be necessary to increase the aperture to f22. Similarly, when we want to shoot away from the subject, we can switch to f11 to increase sharpness. The farther the focus distance, the easier it is to get a strong background. So even if we open the aperture a bit, the background will still be kept sharp.
  • When the aperture is at high values, it leads to a dark viewfinder on classic DSLR cameras. With live-view on new model bodies, it may be possible to get a brighter image and make focusing easier. Mirrorless bodies are already naturally super. The viewfinder is always bright. There are also tools that make manual focus very easy, such as zooming in on the image or marking the focus zone.
  • High ISO values may be required because of the aperture. I work between ISO 800 and ISO 1600, and the newer model bodies have the advantage of giving clean pictures at high ISO.
  • Speaking of the body, you need a full-frame body to get the full wide angle. These provide a field of view 1.5 times wider than APS-C bodies.
  • We use the flash all the time. Even on bright sunny days the flash will be on to soften the shadows.
  • We don’t let direct sun light on the subject. It is best if we can place the object under the shade of the diffuser. If this is not possible, we avoid direct sunlight by covering it with the shadow of our own body. Otherwise, uncorrectable excessive highlights and color loss occur.
  • We need to adjust the flash power to balance the foreground and background light. 1-2 test shots may be necessary. Especially if our own shadow is in the frame, we need to find the appropriate flash power with these tests
  • In situations where natural light is diminished, such as cloud cover or evening, it is better to increase ISO or exposure time to maintain balance rather than relying on flash and over-emphasizing the subject.
  • Don’t forget the extra battery for the flash.
  • The content of the background should be as important as the subject itself. The sky and environmental details will make the aesthetic value of that photo more important than sharpness.
  • Shooting from unusual angles brings the effect of the wide angle to a whole new level. For example, shooting upwards from ground level will give the impression of looking through the eyes of an insect. Be open to such unconventional experiments.
  • Having an object of known size in the background, such as a person interacting with the subject, greatly increases the effect of perspective and the interest of the photograph. You can see plenty of shots with people in the sample photos above.
  • And, of course, try every kind of wide-angle lens you have.

Final words

There will always be lenses I want to try. I want to give priority to a fisheye lens from now on. Let’s see when it will happen.

Just as there are high magnification examples in normal macro shooting, which we call “extreme macro”, there are “extreme wide angle” examples in wide angle shooting. They are made with the “relay lens” technique, which many people who deal with photography are not aware of. I can say that I am currently at the beginning stage in that regard. But the tests continue. When it is mature enough, it will take place here.

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