High Magnification Macro Rebirth – A Laowa Journey

I am trying to remember how and when I became interested in macro photography. If you don’t know what that is, Wikipedia defines it as:

By the original definition, a macro photograph is one in which the size of the subject on the negative or image sensor is life size or greater. However, in some uses it refers to a finished photograph of a subject at greater than life size.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macro_photography

This generally means, that when we refer to a macro photo being at a reproduction ratio of 1:1, the subject is the same size on the sensor (or film) as it is in lifesize. If the size of a fly is 25mm in real life, then the projected image of the fly will be 25mm on the sensor. The same holds true for 2:1 or 4:1, where the image on the sensor is actually larger than in real life. This is rare, and usually the case of those full-screen high resolution images you see of a moth’s eye.

The story continues…

I love insects, as much as I love nature (fauna and flora) in general. Macro photography brings me closer to wildlife on a minute scale. Furthermore, it provides a great view of things taken for granted, the details inside a pinch of soil, a flower, a piece of tree bark.

Most of us, in the beginning years of photography, fall for the sales tricks of “macro” lenses and adaptors, and before I got my first DSLR, the same happened to me. I had cameras that were “macro” capable, meaning they could focus closer than usual, but not enough to be even at a quarter of lifesize reproduction. Eventually, when I could afford a DSLR, the best lens I could get was my 70-300, which had “macro”, but only at about 1:2(50%).

At that time, Neil (before we became friends!) private messaged me on Outdoor Photo forums, and suggested I look into the Raynox [DCR-250]. Boy, what a piece of add-on that was, it opened up the world of macro for me. I could get so much closer to everything! The Raynox conversion lenses are still made, but their value skyrocketed, so I am hanging on to mine for dear life.

Equipment comes and goes. Years later I finally could afford to buy a dedicated macro lens: the Nikon Micro Nikkor 85mm. Not the best, but the best i could get at this point. I started shooting with Alexia at every opportunity possible. We scour and hunt for our bugs, as often as we can. It’s a hard journey, it’s difficult finding life in the small world, let alone getting them to stay put. Keeper rates are low, and it’s extremely common (and normal) to take hundreds of images, but only manage to use a handful… or one!

From time to time, we are lucky enough to bump into other macro zealots. These encounters are welcome, as they serve as a reminder that it’s a difficult hobby, with much failures and self-doubt. We tend to feel a bit snobby when we remind ourselves that we do OK, shooting live insects in their natural habitat. Many macro photographers tend to do harm in nature, killing, torturing, freezing insects – just for the shot. I take great pride in not being one of these people, and thus, feel that my images (however inferior they may appear) are natural and real! You may disagree, but I am a nature lover, not like button harvester.

Who is Laowa then?

While investigating deeply online, I found that most of my complaints with the Nikkor 85 were widespread. Out of all the Nikon macro lenses, this one is specifically notorious for having some issues. Look, it works well, but for the R9000 ($700) it costs? eh…

My (and I kid you not) lens dream, is the Nikon 200mm F/4 macro. It’s sharp, all the time, everytime. It is beautiful, rugged and perfect. I just can not afford it right now.

So I took advice from my wifey, and looked at the (positive!) reviews of the Laowa 25mm ultra macro lens. DO check the link to Venus Optics.  Laowa is a third party brand of lenses made for Nikon, Canon and seemingly, others too. They make several very niche types of lenses, and after seeing a few reviews, I was sold. This is the solution for Nikon people, after having been deprived of a ultra macro lens for ages! Canon had the MP-E65, but we had nothing! Naturally, I despaired a little bit… in South Africa, with it’s usual backwards-assed approach to civilisation – where will I find a Laowa stockist!

Behold, Hougaard Malan

Hougaard is a well known (to whom it may concern) landscape photographer. He runs a site called Landscape Gear, specialising in, well, specialist type stuff, which includes the Laowa lenses! Woohoo. What a guy. Not only did he have stock, he was friendly, professional and delivered the lens to me in less than a day after payment! The box had a little chocolatey suprise in it, and some other stuff that was reminiscent of a company that gives a $hit. Very happy.

Finally, the Laowa 25mm 2.5-5x macro!

Since the moment I started unboxing this lens, I had my socks blown right off. The packaging was something Nikon could learn from, with their cheap, polystyrene junk they entrust $1000 lenses in. The foam was high quality, the box, the manuals – hell, even the print on the box was high quality.

At 5x, a clutch-pencil and ballpoint pen looks ominously technical

I removed the lens and Arca-Swiss compatible mount, and the weight and feel was solid, cold, metal. Decent mounts and very nice feel on the whole lens in general. Cosmetics and technicalities aside, everything seems fantastic with it. I hate cheap poo, but the 25mm does not fall in that category.

Shooting with it, was a new experience. Years of 1:1 macro taught me that macro is hard, physically and mentally.  Going over the life-size mark, just ups the anties. Since this lens has a manual aperture control, the aperture blades are fixed at the setting, all the time. This means that if you were shooting at f/8 (which at 2.5x is really 8*2.5 = f/20) – what you see through the viewfinder will be substantially darkened. Consider that. I have gotten used to macro photography being a magical world of extreme DIY and gear-hacking, so I obtained a C-bracket and a Lume Cube to illuminate my subject in front of the lens and give me something to see and focus on. The flash and soft-box on the hot-shoe, provides the exposure lighting as needed.

5 shot stack of a spider on my ceiling. This girl was no larger than 3mm

Lighting and hacking is taken care of. Along comes the hardship of high magnification, extremely shallow depth of field. If you have done macro work before, you will know what I mean. It is just way, way more difficult with 2x and up! I love natural images with only the tiniest, important bits of detail being in focus… it can be done well! However, I get that you may want to get into stacking some of your work.

A fly’s eye will barely be in focus, let alone it’s whole head (or the whole fly!). If you want to experiment with these sort of narrow DOF images, you will be juggling between arty bokeh and stacked images. I will leave the topic of stacking for another post, or up to you to research. It can be done on a low budget, with free and/or opensource software, but powerful packages like Helicon and Zerene are available. Does this mean that you need to have a macro rail? Sure, but handheld stacks can be done with modern alignment software, and if you want to shoot insects and flowers out in the wild, naturally – you will need to learn the technique of hand held focus bracketing.

Final utterings

Yes, I recommend the Laowa if you are very keen on very high magnification photography of pretty much anything. You will need to deal with very shallow depths of field, and have some positive lighting solutions at hand though. The lens quality, sharpness and overall feeling is great, 9 out of 10!

The drawback is that (in my humble opinion) ultra magnification can not replace 1:1. If you have a 1:1 lens, keep it, and make the Laowa 25mm a companion lens. These are two different worlds of photography, and they are approached differently, with contrasting results. The advantage of the Canon MP-E65, is it’s ability to go from 1x to 5x, where the Laowa 25mm only starts at 2.5x.  On the upside, it makes the Laowa *much* smaller and lighter.

Think about it, like you should for most things in life 😉

Do your research, make an informed decision, and don’t forget about other (possibly cheaper) options of obtaining insane magnifications, like the Raynox DCR-250, extension tubes, reversed lenses, etc. To each his own.

Give me a shout if you need my opinion or have questions.

Thanks for reading and as always, please have a look at my work, here at Light!

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