If you’ve wanted to try macro photography but didn’t want to outlay on all the special equipment necessary, you’re in luck. If you’re an iPhone user, SANDMARC has a 100mm Macro lens you can screw onto your phone, and I put it through its paces.
As many readers will know, macro photography is what got me on eBay buying my first camera. However, over a decade ago, you entered into an irritating, slippery slope of need — not even want, but need. I started with an old DSLR, a kit lens, and a macro filter, but the ceiling was too low. Eventually, I bought a cheap Canon macro lens (incidentally, I bought the wrong lens and it ended up being a hidden gem) and that got me closer to what I wanted, but I needed proper lighting. So, I forked out for a Marumi ring light as I couldn’t possibly afford Canon’s macro lighting rigs. This relentless procession of upgrades to attain the macro photographs I had in my head went on for years.
Fortunately, there were diminishing returns with macro equipment and we haven’t seen much in the way of innovation outside of Laowa’s probe. In fact, things started to move in the opposite direction: the barrier of entry is lower than ever before. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was a macro lens for an iPhone. iPhone lenses are not interchangeable, macro is technically demanding, and there is unlikely to be a sufficient call for such a product to warrant the difficult task of inventing it. Well, SANDMARC disagrees and I got my hands on it.
A 100mm Macro Lens That Screws Onto Your Phone
The first question you will likely have will be the same as mine: how does this attach to your phone? An iPhone case. I am using an iPhone 13 Pro Max and the black case fits neatly on, never rattling, moving, or slipping. In fact, on the topic of slipping, the material of the case gives you far more grip than most cases, which I appreciated. What’s more, the case is included with the lens. Where your phone’s camera lenses are, there is a raised metal section with screw threads that allow the attachment of SANDMARC lenses. It might be a throwaway point, but the tactile experience of screwing the lens into the mount, a bit like the old screw mount SLRs, is absurdly satisfying.
Once you have screwed the lens on, it isn’t going anywhere. Again, there is no rattling, wobble, or movement whatsoever. It is impressively secure and lines up perfectly with the lens. For its size, the lens isn’t light, which is a double-edged sword. The build quality feels excellent, but the weight means your phone will tip toward your subject. It wasn’t an issue — I got used to it — but it’s worth noting.
Another “issue” is the flash. Macro photographs require more light than other photos because of how little light is able to get to the sensor, however, the lens is so big that it covers the camera’s flash. This is more or less unavoidable, but if you want to create really great macro images, I would recommend having a separate light — we’ll come back to this.
- Magnification: 12x
- Coating: Multi-coated
- Weight: 114g
- Height: 39mm
- Diameter: 48mm
- Focus Distance: 53mm (With extended focus distance for moving subjects)
In the Field
My feelings toward the SANDMARC macro lens for mobile went through three phases. Firstly, I was really impressed with the images you could capture with it — the results far exceeded what I expected. Then, I loaded the photos onto my PC and saw that the quality was lower than I hoped. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the lens — it’s more likely that my phone just wasn’t able to keep up — but whatever the case, many of the images I felt were more or less unusable (though my threshold for “usable” is high). Then, in the final phase, and the one I have remained in, I’m back to being really impressed because I was able to solve the issues.
The SANDMARC 100mm is a strong enough lens to get you some great macro images, but unless you know how to get the most out of it, you may be disappointed. To those fairly inexperienced with photography, I’ll explain the biggest difference-maker: light. Macro photography invariably lets much less light onto the sensor than other popular genres. If you want to understand that more, there is a wealth of material on the topic, but the salient point is this: you need more light. If the natural light is really bright, you can get away with it, but generally, you want some artificial light, or at the very least, a small reflector. What changed the quality of my images dramatically was using two Aputure MC RGBWW LED lights, which are tiny bricks of LEDs, as a makeshift Canon MT-26EX macro flash.
The second major adjustment I made was turning off any setting on my iPhone that tried to improve the image. The biggest culprit was HDR, which would allow blown-out highlights that it would then crush (is “crushing the whites” a thing?!) into this detail-less, white-grey sludge. Utterly horrible, whether it was on the subject or the background. I then utilized AF/AE Lock (Autofocus and Auto-exposure) and slightly underexposed the images.
There are, of course, benefits to shooting with a phone. I will bypass the usual “it’s the camera that’s on you” part and go straight to more practical value. The “Live” photos on iPhone end up allowing you to pick from a whole selection of frames — an excellent addition when you’re photographing things as jumpy as insects. It also can make for some fascinating GIFs! Furthermore, this lens combines beautifully with 240 fps slow motion; had I the time, I would have made a mini-documentary with it, it was so good! It’s a USP I haven’t seen SANDMARC use much, but with the right persistent lighting, a mobile gimbal, and 240 fps slo-mo, you could create some incredible marketing material! SANDMARC, if you’re reading this, get your wallet out — I’d be happy to prove the point!
The focus distance is about right for this lens. The extended focus distance is helpful in getting the shot, though it isn’t too broad, which is helpful in many ways — AF hunting in macro photography will lose you many shots. I experimented with attaching it to the 2.5x lens on the iPhone, which the SANDMARC case does allow, but honestly, it was not worthwhile. Firstly, my phone could not work out what on earth was going on and was trying to get involved constantly and SANDMARC does, in fact, recommend third-party apps for it. However, I found a workaround with the native camera app, locked AE and AF, and then got in range, but the results were poor quality. Again, not a criticism of SANDMARC; phones are simply not ready yet.
Each lens comes with the phone case necessary to fit it and the price appears to be $129.99 across the board. This price also includes a travel case, a cloth pouch, a little karabiner for attaching it to your belt or bag, and a microfiber cloth. This lens is only made for iPhones, unfortunately, so Android users will have to wait. Honestly, it feels like excellent value to me.
All in all, I wish this lens had existed when I started photography, although perhaps it would’ve prevented me from getting a dedicated camera at all. For $130 inclusive of the case, this is an incredible gateway drug to macro photography. In fact, that might be doing it a disservice. If you can resolve the lighting issues with a makeshift rig as I did, it comfortably equals Micro-Four-Thirds macro results. My standards for quality are sky-high because I have been creating commercial macro images for years, but it isn’t reasonable to ask an iPhone and the SANDMARC lens to match that setup worth $7k. Nevertheless, it feels like only a few stone throws away. If you could provide an algorithm to calculate money spent for quality gained, SANDMARC’s lens would rank first for efficiency without a doubt.
What I Liked
- Excellent phone case that comes with the lens
- Build quality is high
- Optics are excellent, held back only by the phone’s sensor
- With the right light, you’re not far off of DSLR/mirrorless quality
- Superb value for money
What Could Be Improved
- The weight makes it a little tricky to shoot with at times
- Artificial light is essential for the best quality, but the flash is blocked
- iPhone only