Holy Macro!

Using macro bellows on the E-300 to get really close

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

If you are planning to do lots of macrophotography with an E-System camera, you will probably bite the bullet and spend $400 on a 2.0/50 Macro lens in the Olympus Zuiko Digital series. This is the only "official" way to achieve a field of view smaller than a business card on an E-300 or E-1. (Actually, with that lens you can get down to a field 18 mm wide.)

There are, however, less expensive, if not so convenient alternatives. A recycled manual lens from another system, extension tubes, and a lens adapter will allow you to get really manly magnifications. Here is an example based on some old Exakta gear from my collection, namely a bellows unit and two different lenses, one designed specifically for macro applications, and one — just a "standard" lens.

I chose the Exakta equipment because I already have lots of it. Any other brand would work equally well. The critical piece is the lens adapter; if you've got one for free from Olympus, you may try to find an Olympus-mount bellows unit on the eBay, as well as an Olympus standard, 50 mm lens (less than $20). If you have a stash of lenses compatible with some other system, get an adapter for that system — another article provides details on that.

My project was to take a large-magnification picture of an old, broken wristwatch with as little fuss as possible.

The setup

The setup used in this project consisted of

  • An Olympus E-300 body (E-500, E-1, or any Four Thirds camera will be fine);
  • An Exakta->4/3 lens adapter;
  • Ihagee Exakta bellows;
  • 2.8/50 Zeiss bellows Tessar lens in Exakta mount;
  • A Slik mini-tripod;
  • A RM-1 infrared remote by Olympus (not shown);
The white piece of paper is used as a reflector, softening the light coming of a patio door.

The bellows Tessar was being made from 1958 into the Seventies, and this one is probably from 1962 give or take two years.

This picture was shot with an Olympus C-5060WZ and the FL-40 flash bounced off the wall.

The bellows Tessar

This particular Zeiss Tessar lens has a "sunken mount", i.e., the lens proper protrudes behind the rear flange of the mount. When mounted on bellows, it will still focus all the way to infinity. It is also optimized for close-distance work. The downside is that it is not very common: hard to find and not cheap. You can substitute a good standard, 50 mm lens (in the Exakta line 2.0/50 mm Pancolar would be my choice; among Olympus Zuiko lenses the 1.8/50 is good and inexpensive).

Actually, I would expect a good standard lens to beat the bellows Tessar in terms of resolution; after all, this is a relatively simple, four-element construction, and it is sought after as a collector's item rather than a piece of working optics.

Remarks on shooting

The camera should be set to metered manual or aperture priority. I also usually recommend setting the white balance manually or by reference (i.e., metered off a white surface).

Proper vertical alignment of the optical system is important because of very shallow depth of field. Manual focusing should be done with the lens wide open, because it will be more precise this way, and then the lens should be closed down to the working aperture, preferably F/8 or higher. Closing the lens down will not only minimize its optical flaws; it also will provide more depth of field, to cover the depth of your subject and to mask any errors in focusing.

Trust me, at really high magnifications you will need that. My results at F/2.8 were awful (unsharp, low contrast); at F/4.0 acceptable; at F/5.6 OK, and at F/8.0 to F/16 — very nice. For some reasons (diffraction?) my images were getting fuzzy at F/22 again.

At larger lens extensions the effective lens aperture is significantly smaller (F-number greater) than the nominal one. At the 1:1 actual magnification, close to what I'm showing in the first example, the effective F-number is twice nominal value; still, the image in the viewfinder was bright enough for focusing with the lens wide open. At even higher magnifications (second and third sample), the image becomes correspondingly darker; even at full aperture focusing becomes quite difficult.

This is also why you will need lots of light. My living room lamps, just above the coffee table on which I arranged the gear, were barely enough, and the camera will not use shutter speeds longer than one second (at ISO 100, even shorter at higher ISO settings). The option I used for pictures shown here was to shoot on the floor next to a patio door; a bit better.

A piece of paper, as shown in the picture above, may be useful to soften the shadows. I also used it to set the white balance by reference, which gives very good results on the E-System cameras, although my results for artificial and natural light were different.

Focusing with bellows is another problem. A rack-and-pinion unit, where you can move the front standard with a screw would be preferable (a second rail on which you can slide the whole assembly is even better). The Ihagee bellows don't have these features: I had to slide the standard along the rails by hand, and then to lock it in place with a screw. Not too precise or convenient.

The E-300 does not have wired remote socket (the E-1 does); therefore the only option is the infrared remote. You have to use it, as at these magnifications camera shake is a real danger.

Sample results

Now, the results. On the left I'm showing full frames, reduced and re-sharpened, on the right — fragments of original images in 1:1 pixel size (on an average, 96 dpi, monitor, these are magnified by a factor 2x compared to a 30x40cm, or 12x16" print), without any postprocessing.

I took pictures in the whole range or apertures, from F/2.8 to F/22; the ones shown were both shot at F/16 because of my imprecise way of focusing and to get more depth of field.

E-300 with 2.8/50 bellows Tessar; aperture priority with -0.7EV compensation: 1/1.3 s and F/16 at ISO 100; WB by reference, manual focusing, SHQ JPEG, other settings at default values. The field of view was 32 mm across.

While the sample at the right may seem a little fuzzy at the first glance, remember that it is in a really large magnification, and the focus was on the gear at the right. Yes, I've seen macro images with more resolution, but this one does the job for me.

Here is the full frame (large, 3.3 MB file!) after some touch-up in Photo-Paint: a very slight level adjustment, a bit of contrast boost, and slight sharpening. I also did some clone brush spotting, as compressed air did not remove all dust specs. Print it out in the largest size you can and judge for yourself. Or have a look at a smaller, XGA-sized version. What do you say now? (I've printed the picture in the 8x11" size on glossy inkjet paper, and I like the results.)

The field of view in this image, 32 mm across the frame, corresponds to about 1.1x magnification on a 35-mm film camera, or 0.55× in absolute terms. This is a bit more than magnification offered by the Zuiko Digital 2.0/50 macro AF lens used without extension rings. The bellows were extended less than half-way, therefore I set out to see how my rig will perform at higher magnifications.

Getting closer

Here is another picture from the same session. Interestingly enough, at this distance the metering required no compensation, staying consistent between F/2.8 and F/16 (for some reasons, F/22 required significantly more than doubling the F/16 exposure; possibly an inaccuracy in aperture diameter). Note that the field of view is 12 mm across the frame!

E-300 with 2.8/50 bellows Tessar; metered manual with no compensation: 3.2 s and F/16 at ISO 100; WB by reference, manual focusing, SHQ JPEG, other settings at default values. The field of view was 12 mm across.

The full-sized fragment, again, looks a little fuzzy (which will immediately raise complaints from those who never did any macro work), but a look at the slightly postprocessed full frame (be careful, 3.2 MB again!) or the XGA-sized version should convince you that the performance of the 40-year old lens is respectable.

Now, this is a picture you wouldn't get with the Zuiko Digital 2.0/50 macro lens, even with the extension ring that lens brings you to 2:1 (35-mm equivalent) magnification, or to a frame 18 mm across. Here we are talking about 3:1 in film camera terms.

Using a "standard" Pancolar lens

In the second experiment I've used the same equipment, but with a different lens: a 2.0/50 Zeiss Pancolar, a standard Exakta lens from around 1970, often sold with the camera. The lens was recognized as an excellent performer at that time, although it was not specifically designed for macro work.

When mounted on collapsed bellows, this lens gains 35 mm of extension, therefore it will focus only at distances less than 10 cm or so.

As an advantage above the bellows Tessar, the Pancolar has a normal focusing scale, which can be used for fine focus adjustment after it was roughly set with the bellows.

After taking a series of pictures at different apertures, I could notice that, indeed, the Pancolar performs better than the bellows Tessar. At F/2.0 the images were very soft, but not very unsharp; still not really usable. At F/2.8 much of the softness went away, and the sharpness also improved; actually, usable results. From F/4.0 up images are generally fine; the aperture to use is really defined by how much depth of field do you need (and at those magnifications you need plenty!). There is no pronounced image degradation at F/22.

The picture I've chosen to show you was shot at F/16, as I wanted to have enough DOF to cover both the steel gears in the forefront and the bronze one in the back. Note that the lateral FOV was about 10 mm, even less than before.

E-300 with 2.0/50 Pancolar on bellows; metered manual with no compensation: 2 s and F/16 at ISO 100; auto WB, manual focusing, SHQ JPEG, other settings at default values. The field of view was 10 mm across.

The picture does not look as sharp as the one shot with the bellows Tessar, but this impression may be due to lower contrast (both shots were taken on different days). I could see no difference in sharpness when viewing both pictures as 8x11" prints. If you would like to scrutinize the differences by yourself, here is a full-size file (3.0 MB), after some postprocessing.

I have also tried a 1.9/55 Auto-Quinon by Steinheil in the same setup. This lens does not seem to stand up to the Pancolar: images are less sharp, and there is a visible degradation as you move away from the center — even within the smaller Four Thirds frame. It was also giving me a yellow color cast at wider apertures when auto WB was used (against my recommendation above).

What is this all about

Once again, let me put things straight. The Zuiko Digital 2.0/50 (see my User Report) provides better results than the two old lenses I've tried here, or, I would think, than any standard lens intended for 35-mm film cameras. But how much better? WIll you see the difference in prints? It also uses autofocus, which should dramatically improve the percentage of good frames. In addition, this ZD is a great general-use and portrait lens.

Still, for occasional macro shooting, especially if you are on a budget, a 50 mm lens on a bellows unit is a fully viable solution with an E-System camera. Moreover, if you need magnifications greater than the 2.0/50 ZD can provide with the EX-25 extension tube, using a legacy bellows unit may be the easiest way.

Besides, there is something special in merging two technologies forty years apart.


My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2005/01/30; last updated 2007/01/19 Copyright © 2005-2007 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.