Extreme Macro: Pushing Photographic Equipment Beyond Normal Restraints


Original, innovative photography is hard to find. However, Ethan Beckler has excelled. He leads the way in macro photography, pushing camera and lens technology beyond normal limits and creating astounding art at the same time. With great generosity, he shares his techniques with us.

The Journey to Macro

About 15 years ago, Ethan kept high-end Nishikigoi (Japanese Koi). It was that which first got him into photography.  He wanted something capable of photographing his fish, so he started his photographic journey with a Sony bridge camera. His interests evolved into macro photography when he wanted to take pictures of snowflakes in the backyard. For that, he initially purchased an Olloclip adaptor to use on an iPhone 5 and began photographing individual snow crystals that fell in his backyard. That led him to take macro to a whole new level and adopt a different camera system.

Since those first steps, his macro work became revolutionary, breaking all the rules by combining a macro lens with a teleconverter and modified extension tubes. The results are astounding. It was his sand photography that first grabbed my attention: individual grains of precious minerals, less than a millimeter across, sometimes placed one on top of another, filling the frame with crystal clarity.

Ethan’s Macro Equipment

To capture those images, Ethan now uses the Olympus E-M1 Mark III, a camera that gives him the advantage of the 2x crop factor over full frame. Attached to that is the Olympus MC-20 teleconverter. He then modified a Pixco 16mm extension tube by scraping out the insides, thus allowing the teleconverter lens to fit onto it. Attached to the front of the tube sits the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro Lens. Then, in front of that, he has the Raynox 505, adapted to fit with a 46mm to 37mm reducer.   

Ethan was the innovator of this setup. Others were using the 10mm and 16mm extension tubes to attach to the 60mm macro lens. However, he didn’t like the extra length that setup involved. So, he decided to hollow out the 16mm tube to attach it directly to the MC-20. 

Those teleconverters are meant for the high-end telephoto lenses and not the macro lenses, but this modification allows just that.

Macro Photography or Microscopy?

He told me his macro work goes from 1x up to about 10x. I wondered whether, going to these sorts of magnifications, he would now call it microscopy, but he still uses the term macro photography; he is still using camera gear. He rarely uses a microscope objective and rail when he can get the better results (quality and magnification) with his Olympus setup, which also brings advantages such as in-camera stacking.

Ethan says that his setup allows focus bracketing to work on the camera. If you are an Olympus owner who shoots macro, he uses the 1/10 setting. That allows him to take hundreds of images for stacking his 9x magnification shots, such as he uses for the sand grains, bug scales and eyes, and other similarly minuscule subjects.  

Shooting the Miniscule

If he needs less magnification, he swaps the Raynox 505 for the 202 or the 250. He finds the 250 is sharpest but is happy with the sharpness of the 505. However, he says that some other macro photographers have problems with the Raynox 505 — using it with just the 60mm macro hasn’t given such great results — but he finds that once combined with the teleconverter and the Olympus 60mm, the images are much sharper.

This setup is just incredible. It is the only setup I am aware of that allows for up to 9x magnification and focus bracketing out in the field. It doesn’t have to be tethered to a computer or to a macro rail.

No doubt, the 7.5 stops of in-body image stabilization of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III help with that.

That setup allows Ethan to achieve 6x magnification with the Raynox 202, capturing focus-stacked macro shots of snow crystals in the winter. No other setup, he tells me, allows that “without a ton more work.” In addition, he finds the extremely small rig convenient. It allows him to access places into which a full frame setup would never fit.

For the sand grain shots, Ethan places them on an old iPhone. He then lights them using a GODOX 126LED on the Olympus’s hot shoe, and a cheap diffuser sits between the light and the subject. He shoots them tethered. That allows him to view the subject on the large screen and shoot by clicking the mouse to start and stop the focus bracketing, avoiding any movement in the camera.

I use the Olympus Capture software to adjust my ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed, so I can view my subject using the software. I always have my camera hooked up to my computer for these shots as the Olympus software provides me with exceptional control over my shots.

Shooting tethered allows Ethan full control and even allows him to switch to Olympus’s High-Resolution Mode, where the camera uses the sensor-shift technology for producing a 50-megapixel image. He can then stack these and achieve detail he would never achieve with the regular 9x magnification. To negate any movement, everything is set on a sturdy, heavy table.

Processing

The Olympus will stack up to 15 shots in-camera, which is the most in the industry, and it does an incredible job, but once you get past 1x magnification with the Raynox lenses and/or teleconverter, you really are going to need more images to stack. I do my stacking using Helicon.

If necessary, he develops the images using Lightroom to adjust the exposure and crop the image. At times, microscopic dust particles may be on the stage that he needs to clone out.

Unique Work

Ethan clearly loves what he does and is inspired by the unique nature of his subjects. He told me that, just as each snowflake is different, each sand garnet and how he photographs them ends up being different as well. That is why, he only produces one print of each sand grain image he shoots, so that too remains unique.  

I sign the mat and glue the grains next to my signature.  Each one is a unique 1 of 1 print; no one else will own it except the buyer.

The Family Man Behind the Lens

Ethan lives in Quincy, Illinois. By day, he is the accountant for a large field drainage company that both produces and installs drainage tile for Midwestern farms. Outside work and photography, his faith, his wife, and his kids are his life.  He also collects original first edition books by the early Christian reformers of the 1600s. While doing photography, Ethan listens to the great guitarist, Phil Keaggy, his favorite musician.  

I spend countless hours at home with my wife and kids, as I desire to be the best husband and dad I can be to them.

Ethan feels that photography allows him to do something no one else has ever done. As a child, he had plans for playing baseball professionally. He even practiced his signature to autograph baseballs when he had made it.

Who knew that the real reason I was practicing my signature was for signing the mats of so many sand pictures I would sell! My photography is really artwork. I know many artists who disagree that photography is art, but I really am setting out to prove those people wrong.

Many thanks to Ethan for sharing his images and his amazing generosity in passing on his in-depth knowledge for this article. Please follow Ethan’s work on his Instagram and Facebook pages.



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