Macro photography never ceases to amaze me. Show me the face of a jumping spider reproduced at life-size or greater and I’ll undoubtedly stop what I’m doing and stare at it for a while. What’s interesting is how ultra-wide-angle lenses, which are available for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, can be used to greatly amplify the visual impact of macro photographs.
To keep things in context, for this article, I define ultra-wide-angle lenses as full-frame fixed prime and zoom lenses with a focal length wider than 28mm (approx. 75°AoV). Ultra-wides include lenses ranging from 25mm through 10mm for full-frame rectilinear ultra-wide-angle lenses. For smaller-format camera systems, multiply the full-frame focal length by 1.5x for APS-C camera lenses, 1.6x for Canon SOS lenses, or 2x for MFT-format camera lenses. Also included in this category are circular and full-frame fisheye lenses.
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021
Most photographers automatically think normal or telephoto when macro photography comes up, and that’s understandable. The goal of macro photography is to be able to see through the visual clutter surrounding your subject, and to narrow your focus onto the details too minute for our eyes to otherwise resolve.
Telephoto macro lenses in particular enable you to “reach in” to your subject without disturbing the surroundings. When shooting from greater distances with a longer focal length macro lens, you’re also less likely to cast shadows onto your subject, or worse yet, scare it away altogether.
Regardless of what common sense might dictate, from a creative standpoint you’re missing a world of visual opportunities by not incorporating an ultra-wide-angle lens into your workflow the next time you go one-on-one with a bug.
One issue that must be resolved before moving forward is that with the exception of the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro lens for Sony E-mount cameras (1:1 life-size), Venus Optics Laowa 24mm f/14 Probe (2x life-size), and Mitakon Zhongyi 20mm f/2.4 5x Super Macro lens (5x life-size) for full-frame or mirrorless systems, most ultra-wide lenses do not focus closer than about 9" to 12", which isn’t terribly close considering the wider fields of view these lenses have.
To get around this problem I have often resorted to extension tubes, which are available from almost every camera manufacturer, as well as a dozen or more third-party manufacturers. The close-up photographs accompanying this post were taken with ultra-wide-angle lenses ranging from 10mm to 25mm, paired with varying combinations of a 10mm extension tube and the 4mm of helicoid extension that’s built into the Voigtländer VM-E Close Focus Adapter. This is the adapter I regularly use when coupling Leica M-mount lenses on my Sony a7R III.
This combination of lenses and lens extensions enabled me to get life-size and near-life-size close-ups with a dimensionality that is far more dynamic compared to the flatter, more compressed perspective you get when using longer focal length lenses.
Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses, Distortion, and Depth Perception
There’s no denying ultra-wide-angle lenses distort—sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on a number of variables. Just as your side view mirror warns you that objects are closer than they appear, the same goes for the perceived distances between objects within the finder’s frame lines. Depending on the subject and the degree to which it is recognizable up close, these distortions can be easy to mask. Other times the distortions are blatant, in which case you make these distortions work for you by playing with your camera angle.
The macro photograph below of the protruding arm of a park bench, shot with a 15mm lens and extension tube, is undeniably distorted. The closer your subject gets to the lens, the higher the degree of distortion.
The two seascapes below were taken with a 21mm lens plus 4mm of lens extension. The camera was in a waterproof housing, and it was at eye level to the crest of wavelets that were breaking less than an inch from the lens. The level of distortion is the same as in the photograph of the park bench with the optically exaggerated armrest, but because water is a nebulous form, it’s far less noticeable. If anything, the forced perspective adds to the ethereal quality of the photograph.
Macro Photography Using Fisheye Lenses
When shooting with fisheye lenses, distortion is a given, and as you approach macro distances, distortions become magnified proportionately. The macro photographs from an outdoor cafe and the handle of the subway entrance shown below were taken with an 8mm fisheye focused millimeters from the front element of the lens. The distortion is everywhere, but that’s part of what makes the photos work.
The two black-and-white photographs below are good examples of how to use the spatial distortions incurred when using ultra-wides for extreme close-up imaging. The photograph of a drift of sand at the beach was captured with a 25mm lens plus 4mm of lens extension at ground level. The grains look like large stones and the person walking by perhaps 10' from camera position is reduced to a ghostly blur. Similarly, the ground-level city street scene uses the same technique with a 15mm lens plus 4mm of lens extension.
The following are a series of ultra-wide-angle macro photographs of orchids taken with 15mm, 21mm, and 24mm lenses with varying degrees of extension tubing. The extreme angles of view of these lenses create an expansive visual dynamic that you do not get with longer focal length lenses. Each flower is only about 2" to 3" across, yet when you get within millimeters of their interior, they appear cavernous when captured with the right lens and at the right angle.
As one would imagine, depth of field becomes critically narrow when shooting at close range with an ultrawide. Unless narrow bands of shallow focus are your aim, always stop down as much as possible when shooting close up with these lenses to maintain the maximum degree of focus depth. It should also be noted that even the sharpest, best-corrected ultra-wide-angle lens does not necessarily perform at the top of its game when focusing at macro distances. The good news is that, more often than not, these so-called optical shortcomings add to the mystique of the photograph.
Lighting for Macro Photography
The outdoor photographs that accompany this article were taken using daylight, while the photographs of the orchids were taken using a combination of LED light panels and incandescent lamps. If you prefer to do the driving when it comes to lighting your photographs, there are also a number of flash- and LED-lighting options specifically designed for macro photography.
These macro lighting systems are battery powered and mount on the camera’s hot shoe. There are two categories of macro lighting. The first is ring lights, which wrap around the front of the lens, producing a soft, shadowless light. The ring lamp head typically attaches to the filter threads of the lens. In the case of optics with large, bulbous front lens elements, there are select models that fit over the lens barrel.
The second type of macro lighting systems is twin lights, which as the name implies, consists of dual independent light sources that can be variably positioned to model the light falling onto your subject. And if you can’t decide between a ring light or a twin light model, the Doctors Eyes Professional System with 86mm LED Ring Light & Wing Light, which is intended for the dental trade, features both. It also looks rather cool.
Macro photography using ultra-wide-angle lenses is both challenging and rewarding. Do you have any experience shooting extreme close-ups using ultra-wide-angle lenses? If so, let us know your thoughts on the topic in the Comments section, below.