Closer & Wider 2 – The Nitty & the Gritty

In the past few months I have seen it stated several times on the Internet (so it must be true!) that the wide angle approach to close-up photography – a.k.a. “wide-angle macro” is gaining a huge following Naturally, I am delighted for, when Clay Bolt and I decided to write and publish or eBook, Wide-angle Macro | The Essential Guide the aim was to share our experiences and to encourage people to explore the possibilities with wide-angle lenses.

Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) shown with wide-angle lens in garden at Podere Montecucco

Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) shown with wide-angle lens in garden at Podere Montecucco. The Sigma 10-20mm wide angle zoom was used at its closest focus at 12mm focal length.

For Part 1 of this article use this link

When I looked at the details behind five of the winning images in the WPOTY awards 2014 it was clear that, not only had they been taken with a wide-angle lens but all had employed the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 diagonal fisheye lens…the one we had each used for the images in the book and strongly advocated. Unpaid endorsement!

Take a Walk on the Wide Side

What certainly appealed to us is that the close-focus capability of a wide-angle lens allows you to set a subject in the context of its surroundings. The potential for conveying information in the image is then much higher: the subject is depicted in detail  but the secondary benefit is information about where and how it lives. However, it is by no means the only way to take photographs and it is easy to overdo it; we both tend to use it as one of a number of “weapons” in the armoury when it comes to depicting nature in ways that will grab attention. Variety in this, as in all things, constitutes the spice of life.

There is also a case for moving in close in traditional macro photography to set a subject against a natural but blurred background (which enhances subject sharpness). Moving closer to fill the screen with details creates another view, one  where pattern and texture dominate. Subjects against a backlit white panel work well too (as do those against black). Clay Bolt is co-founder of the Meet Your Neighbours (MYN) project and I have been involved with it, too, so it is hardly surprising that this approach is also one we use.


Filling the frame with details gives yet another view - here the environment is irrelevant and could be a distraction. It reveals the design and patterns of the interior of a Passionflower.

Information content – telling the whole story.

The wide-angle approach is unequalled for telling stories about the world in which we live with its mix of a subject in close-up integrated with its surroundings,. The photographer / naturalist needs to control the proportion of main subject to surroundings for maximum impact and that offers considerable artistic licence. The approach works with plants, insects and underwater…to my mind, it works less well with larger animals due to the degree of distortion. However, with care it produces incredible images, there, too: in a short time you get used to the distortion and are prepared for more.

Cornflowers in fields on the Piano Grande the flowers form the subject but the background (especially since it is slightly out of focus) reveals the richness of a traditional hayfield and sets the scene.

Cornflowers in fields on the Piano Grande the flowers form the subject but the background (especially since it is slightly out of focus) reveals the richness of a traditional hayfield and sets the scene.

Perspective distortion – psychological impact

Working at close quarters creates perspective distortion for the proximity to the subject changes spatial relationships between lens, subject and surroundings. Items closest to the lens are exaggerated: for example, an image of a human face produces an enormous nose and unflattering view. With plants, it seems to me that this distortion has a psychological benefit. Plants use flowers as their beacons, advertising their wares to potential pollinators. Flowers are the bits we notice first before attention wanders to consider the plant in the context of its surroundings. Perhaps this goes some way to counter the flattening effect of a reduction of a three-dimensional view to a two-dimensional image projected onto a sensor.

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) – a Sigma 15mm f/2.8 diagonal fisheye was used at ground level…the perspective distortion lets the cap of the fungus dominate in a way that enhances the impact of the picture.

Beginnings…early days and inspiration

I bought my very first wide-angle lens, a Canon FD 28 mm/ f2 .8 objective with the idea of exploiting its close focus capability. This was certainly helped by the fact that Canon manufactured a 4 mm extension tube that allowed me to get even closer. That was in 1976 when a 28mm was considered an ultra-wide objective. With a move to Cyprus in 1978, I used it a lot for calendar and wildflower landscape shots. However I had seen how effectively the Swedish photographer Ingmar Holmåsen had used a Zeiss 20mm Flektogon for close-up work and immediately knew I had to go wider still. I still love his 1977 book (Nature Photography) for here was a kindred spirit who devised all sorts of rigs to get his results. For me, photography has always been the means whereby I try to convey my love of the natural world. However, I admit I love the technical side, too and am a committed experimenter.

When I flirted with other camera outfits – Nikon, Olympus and Mamiya 645, I also purchased the best wide-angle lens I could find for my purposes: (24mm for the Nikon, 20mm f/3.5 for Olympus and 45mm f/2.8 for the Mamiya). Close-focus capability always came top of the list of selection criteria and availability of a short extension tube was next.

Alpine Snowbell (Soldanella alpina)

I have a great love of alpine plants and high mountains – what has driven me in pursuing the wide angle approach is the desire to evoke the scene in the depths of winter when I look at images. This is Alpine Snowbell (Soldanella alpina) at some 2500m in the Dolomites.

Aerial Image Projection – some things work well in the studio but are cumbersome to use in the field.

In part 1 of this post I mentioned how Peter Parks at OSF experimented very successfully over the years with aerial  image projection where one lens projects an image of a background scene in the same plane as the subject. It was used to create effects in the Superman and many other films.

The diagram below shows the basis of aerial image projection

It uses optics most photographers know already…shifted up a gear. If you project a wide-angle view of a scene (I use a 45mm Mamiya lens meant for 645 format and a 43mm for 6x7cm format) ) then you can use a lens of choice (eg 60mm macro) to capture the subject and this background in the plane P. They are just objects for your camera in this way. I’ll go into more detail in our revised eBook.


Lens A brings rays from the background to a focus in Plane P…if you out a sheet of paper there (or a ground glass screen as in a view camera) you would see an inverted image as a circle where the edges are blurred and fade away. In a camera the sensor lies within this image circle and ‘cuts off’ the useable central portion of it’. The larger the format a lens is intended for the greater the diameter of this circle – medium format lenses or shift lenses (which have a bigger image circle are a good choice for the lens to project the background.

The camera B can focus on this image and give you a second image. One idea is now to place a subject in the plane P where it will appear against the background created by lens A.  If your subject is an insect then it may not matter that the image in plane P is upside-down. If it does then you have to introduce another lens to turn the image the right way up – produce an erect image. This would using a converging lens (an achromatic lens or another camera lens) or even a prism, such as you use to do the same job in an astronomical telescope.

The intention here is just to give a schematic idea of what constitutes the aerial image projection system. It can get fiendishly complicated when you try to illuminate your subject in plane P and then use moving images projected into P rather than a distant mountain which is easier to control in a studio

Extension tubes and their limits

The traditional way of getting close with a lens is to separate the lens from a sensor – using extension tubes or bellows. Many lenses utilize a very precisely cut helical focusing thread within their structure to introduce extension and focus the lens on closer subjects. Some manufacturers are more generous than others in this respect. I have a venerable Nikon 28mm f/2.8 lens with manual focus that gets close enough to give you 1/3 life size at its distance of closest approach. This is stated to be 25cm but that is from the sensor / film plane when in reality the lens front is less than 10cm from the subject.

Older manual focus lenses score over modern AF designs though Sigma have always been better than most in terms of close-focus capability. Zooms score even less well, though the best will be those that are not too ambitious in terms of range of focal lengths, Ultra-wides such as Sigma’s 10-20mm or the offerings from Nikon and Canon in the 16-35mm range are very good for wide angle macro. Note that these are all x2 lenses…the longest focal length is just twice that of the shortest, When you go for a ‘super zoom’ the designer will have compromised on the close focus end of its range.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

An early experiment with a home made variable extension tube enabled me to get just that bit closer with a 15mm f/2.8 diagonal fisheye. I felt that I was on the right track.

Ways and Means

Back in 1977, when I was using my Canon 28mm f/2,8 lens with a Canon F1 and 4mm extension tube, I felt its limitations and was keen to get closer…eventually I switched outfits to Olympus and began using an exquisite 21mm f/3.5 which became a kind of trademark for my shots of alpine plants in their surroundings.

The problem with wider and wider lenses is that even the smallest lengths of extension tubes are too big. The shorter tubes tend to be manual. Canon produce a good range of fully automatic extension tubes, Nikon do not: independents produce fully coupling extension tube sets (including AF) though, with all the shortest length is 10cm.

You get very close to your subject when you attempt to use such a tube with a 15mm diagonal fisheye and the lens front tends to cast a shadow – lighting is tricky and a few ideas for lighting are included below. When you try to use a 10mm extension tube with the short focal length end of a 10-20mm zoom the subject would need to be inside the front element!

An experimental lighting set up - I now use a sheet of Flyweight, envelope stiffener. and the hole is a short piece of orange drain pipe that sits around the lens. the flash is used behind the panel which diffuses the light.

An experimental lighting set up – I now use a sheet of Flyweight, envelope stiffener. and the hole is a short piece of orange drain pipe that sits around the lens. the flash is used behind the panel which diffuses the light.

What has occupied me for some time is a search to find a realistic way to create an extension of from 0 to 6mm…just that extra bit of extension which produces some really dramatic results in perspective change whilst giving you some working space between the lens front element and your subject. Insect photography becomes a definite challenge but the results, when you get them, more than justify the work and patience.

Getting that extra extension.

Modifying the lens mount using a thin spacer ring. If you are a sufficiently skilled engineer (or have plenty of spare funding) you might try to create a millimetre or so extension by undoing bits of the mount at the lens rear and adding a carefully cut spacing ring of exactly the same shape below the rear plate of the lens mount. With care, the lens can retain its electronic coupling…a Youtube film shows the legendary camera technician at Nat Geo doing this. I have tried (successfully) with an inexpensive lens but, on moving to Italy, no longer had access to a precision lathe and so abandoned this route. It is not to be done trying to turn bits of metal in a drill chuck and far too expensive to mess up.

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis also H.  triloba)

My first image using a helical extension tube shows one of my favourite flowers…Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis also H. triloba) there are just a few growing in ancient mountain woodland just a few km from home at the end of January.

Mirrorless Cameras…my way.

A few years ago it struck me that mirrorless cameras offered the potential to do what I wanted and this is the route I have taken.The absence of a mirror means that the distance between the lens flange and sensor is compared with DSLR cameras which has quite a few advantages in making lens corrections in a design when you can reduce the air space between lens rear and sensor.

The flange to film (sensor) or flange focal distance varies from one make of camera to another – a Wikipedia search under Flange Focal Distance will provide a very detailed chart. It is critical when using lenses from different systems and a precision of 0.01mm (or less) makes a difference in maintaining infinity focus. This is not essential when using lenses for close-up and macro work.

One very attractive feature of mirrorless cameras is the facility for being able to utilize so-called ‘legacy’ lenses – all you need is an adapter with the lens maker’s mount on one side and the micro 4/3 or Sony NEX E mount on the other. More often than not, there is no coupling between lens and camera though some Chinese adapters available on-line allow this with Canon lenses though it slows autofocus. In practice, as someone who came via a traditional photographic route, I am happy with the precision of manual focusing. It is not really a problem and it is precise – especially when I use a CamRanger to send the image to my iPad.

Camera Mount Flange focal distance Adapter for Sony NEX E Adapter for Micro 4/3
Olympus 4/3 38.67mm 20.67mm 18.67mm
Micro 4/3 20.00mm ––––– ­––––
Sony NEX E 18.00mm ––––– –––––
Canon EF 44.00mm 26.00mm 24.00mm
Canon FD 42.00mm 24.00mm 22.00mm
Nikon F 46.50mm 28.50mm 26.50mm
Olympus OM 46.00mm 28.00mm 26.00mm
Sigma SA 44.00mm 26.00mm 24.00mm
Mamiya 645 63.30mm 45.30mm 43.30mm
‘T’ – mount 55.00mm 37.00mm 35.00mm

(The table is based on Camera Mounts & Registers by Markerink, Willem-Jan and adapted from a Wikipedia entry).

The column with adapter distances shows the space you have to play with in adding an adapter, either one you have purchased or, as I have done made using old extension tubes and mounts and extension tubes purchased from eBay at very reasonable cost

Making your own adapters.

I made my first adapters by using bits of extension tubes and T –mounts in my collection of bits and pieces. “T” mounts have a 42mm thread and allow you to connect together all sorts of bits and pieces to obtain images through microscope, telescopes and much else besides. I then needed a male-male ‘T’ adapter, a non-standard item and had these made by that excellent firm SRB who can provide service for those of without the skills or equipment to do precision metal working – I have used them for years and the quality of their work is of the highest level.

Extension tube schematic

My adapter works perfectly allowing extensions from 0.5mm to 6.5mm by addition of brass spacer rings. The problem for me in the field is the sheer inconvenience of removing the adapter and adding or subtracting spacer rings. I knew, by then, that what I needed was a continuous extension via something with a helical thread. I obtained an optically damaged Olympus 50mm f/2.8 lens from which I carefully stripped the optics….a 3D jigsaw of innumerable tiny screws and sundry metal rings to leave a helical focusing tube that did not rotate as you focused it.


The adapter is formed from a Nikon mount at one end and T-mount to fit a Sony NEX E mount. They are connected via a specially made male to male 42mm T thread. You can see one of the brass spacer rings to give  a 2mm extension.

The adapter is formed from a Nikon mount at one end and T-mount to fit a Sony NEX E mount. They are connected via a specially made male to male 42mm T thread. You can see two of the brass spacer rings to give a 3mm extension.

Extension tubes / mounts on-line…

There is, understandably, a potential for problems when you use mounts that are not produced by a camera manufacturer. If a mount is tight and then forced it could mean having to dismantle the back end of a lens to remove it. With companies such as Novoflex, whose engineering is legendary then there are no problems but what about the plethora of sources selling adapters, many of Chinese origin. It has to be a case of caveat emptor – buyer beware, for “you pays yer money and yer takes yer choice…”

I have tried various manufacturers such as Fotodiox, SRB, Novoflex, Camdiox and Metabones (whose ingenuity leads to Canon-fit adapters that give full electronic coupling between Canon EF and Sony NEX E or Micro 4/3).


The Camdiox adapter is well-made nicely machined in aluminium alloy. I have purchased three and only one needed a tiny bit of attention- slight tightening of the screws you can see on the mount face did the trick.


There is a tremendous variation in price from Novoflex downwards but what about quality? I am particularly impressed by some Chinese tubes that incorporate a helical thread made by Camdiox and mechanically they are first rate – after all, the same computer-controlled lathes and milling machines are used everywhere. The helical thread is smooth without backlash /wobble. What makes a difference (and makes costs rocket) is quality control – with Novoflex it is impeccable but with the Chinese made tubes that attention to detail is sometimes not there. The engineering is fine but assembly is sometimes rushed. However, with a little care you can make a great deal of difference – even just tightening tiny screws

Turning a sow’s ear into a silk (smooth) purse.

When I had time for a hobby I made guitars – in fact, I have just finished a fretless bass started over a decade ago. Over the years, I have also set up many electric instruments for friends and know that one can take a budget-price instrument, dismantle it and set it up carefully to produce a superb instrument. Care in set-up does not happen when people work in near slave conditions on a production line.

I test a new adapter on old extension tube mounts – If there is stiffness then 98% of the time it is due to a tiny screw whose head protrudes. By undoing it slightly with a decent jeweller’s screwdriver of the correct size and then doing it up properly, seats the screw properly and often that stiffness goes. If the mount ring is sloppy then you will usually find that some of the tiny grub screws are loose…so tighten them gently.

Work on a sheet of white paper so you do not lose the screws. Always run a finger over the rear of the mount you have bought and, if a screw head is proud, then do as above. If this persists then place a sheet of glass on a table and lay the finest grit wet and dry paper you can find (600 – 1000 grit will do) on it …abrasive face uppermost!. Add a drop of water and just gently rub the rear lens mount over the surface without wobbling it. This can take high spots off screw heads without creating drastic changes or taking off the chrome plate that often covers machined brass mounts.

Finally, clean the mount carefully with a soft paint brush while holding it downwards so tiny metal filings do not enter the helical mount where they will just grind it…like grains of sand do when you are none too careful on a windy day taking seaside snapshots. I use a lens cloth dampened with a weak detergent to wipe the surface and then dry over a heater or even in a warm oven (less than 100 ℃).

You need to use care and common sense – never force anything. This works for me but here comes the disclaimer: there is no guarantee it will work for you. Making mistakes has made me cautious.


All I need is just that tiny extension less than 5mm, most usually 1-2mm to give me the view of the world I want. There is also just enough room to light the subject and not completely terrify insect subjects.

Where next.

I have found a source of helical adapters on line and have been working with a vengeance since then. They allow me to use extensions from 0-6mm, perfect for ultra-wide lenses. It is my answer to getting closer and wider…it is not the only answer but that is part of the fun in this case. I have to work within the limits of what I can afford and specially made lenses are out of the picture…

I am not that concerned with the very extremes of wide angle…the sort film crews get with borescopes. I like a degree of distortion but not so severe it becomes unrealistic. Maybe the central part of the image of a 180º fisheye will be worth pursuing.

One goal is to be able to take wide-angle close ups of tiny subjects without losing them in the frame…I am working on it and have a possible solution.

By the way, Clay and I will eventually be bringing out an updated version of our book Wide-angle Macro | The Essential Guide with  new material, stories of use in the field and more technique ideas…Until then, if you have not done so already then the current edition at $4.99 is money well spent…or so we are told time and again.


© Paul Harcourt Davies 2015

NB No part of this blog may be used in any way without the express permission of the author concerned: all commercial use of images must be accompanied by a fee (rates on request)




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