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Chillout TGIF: Taking macros with your phone

by Sharon Tan on October 18, 2019
Reviews

Editor’s note: In today’s article, we look into the world where mose of us are familiar with – taking photographs with our smart phones. In this article, we examine the results from using an iPhone’s camera and macro attachments from a cheap “brandless” attachment and the high end Loupe System. Sharon Tan writes.

Introduction

Hands up if you’re one of those who buys a phone based on its camera specifications. Well, it seems like most of us are in agreement that the phone’s camera has become somewhat indispensable in our daily lives. All we need is our mobile phone and many of us will be able to create insta-worthy content.

Image taken from the Chief Editor’s instagram @peterdeployant. Taken with the Loupe System No3 and iPhone 10 with LED attachment.

We have previously covered some photography reviews, starting with a short overview of the equipment used during Baselworld 2019’s coverage and also reviews on professional gear like the Leica SL Type 601 and Hasselblad X1D. In this article, we’ll keep it low-tech and accessible, and talk about using the camera you’re likely holding in your hands right now. I’ll give a layman’s overview of how the average phone-wielding photographer can take nice close-in macro photos of their watches with their phone camera and some clip-on lens.

Shooting with your phone

Technical Background

Digital camera technology can be broadly separated into three categories, sensor, processing and optics (or lens as photographers like to call it). Technology has been progressing to miniaturize powerful sensors and processors into our handheld phones, to a point where I would consider it an overkill for social media uploads. Today, packing 12MP (or even 40MP on the Huawei P30) into a tiny chip, tucked away in the corner of a mobile phone has become a norm. A stark contrast compared to the 2000’s, where only digital cameras were capable of housing that many pixels. What remains difficult to miniaturize, are the optics. Physical dimensions are needed for light from the image to pass through and focus onto the sensor. That’s why professional camera lenses have large apertures and long paths. The Huawei P30 started the innovative idea of using a periscopic lens, so that the length of the optical elements and sensor are stacked sideways instead of sticking out of the phone. Phone cameras are optimized for daily photo-taking of portraits, food and scenery, hence the focus is on usage of telephoto and wide angle lenses.

However, when it comes to photographing small objects such as watches, we will need to go in closer to pick up intricate details. Arguably, with sufficient MPs, digital zoom would be able to achieve the same effect, but that’s not how we want to spend the pixels. Phone cameras would usually have a minimum focusing distance of maybe 1 feet or more and using the digital zoom will degrade the sharpness of the photos.

Now this is where we bring in our topic of discussion- clip-on lenses for phone cameras. We have on hand, 2 clip-on lenses from the extreme end of the spectrum of lenses available. First, we have a cheap lens (S$15) from an unknown brand that was bought off Lazada (online platform similar to Amazon or eBay). The other, are the Model 01 and 03 from renowned Loupe System, which costs about S$700-S$1100 for each lens. Functionally, these lenses can be thought of as a magnifying glass. Macro lenses are usually a simple convex glass. But on higher end optics, like on the Loupe System, each lens is actually a group of glasses. Each glass element is specifically coated and shaped, and then multiple glass elements are stacked in a precise manner to correct distortions, reduce chromatic aberrations and optimize for high resolution from edge-to-edge.

The Setup

The setup I prepared is a simple one. Just a small light tent, with ambient light and an additional lamp outside the tent. I’m using the iPhone 7 camera with the stock camera app. It has a 12MP camera, with a 6-element lens and f/1.8 aperture. It may seem lacklustre compared to the Huawei P30 Pro (which has three rear cameras at 40MP, 20MP and 8MP), but it is more than enough for casual photo taking.

Indoor set-up at night (pardon the mess)

For the watch, I’m using a Breguet Classique, Ref 8200, which has various dial textures that would show up beautifully in macro shots. The watch has a yellow gold case, cream-coloured silvery dial and blued steel hands.

Breguet Classique, Ref. 8200. Taken with iPhone 7.

All photos were taken free-hand. The only post-processing done were brightness and saturation adjustments, and then cropped to a square.

Editor’s note: with further processing on Photoshop or equivalent software, most of these images can be made to pop further, but the remaining with the spirit of their usage as Instagram pics, we made no further attempt to enhance them.

Cheap Clip-On Lens

Clip-on lens compatible with most camera phones, 12x or 24x magnification.

The 12x lens is a single element lens. With such high magnification and close working distance (about 5cm away), there was a tendency for the camera and my hands to block out the light. For 24x magnification, simply screw on the additional element to the 12x element. The working distance then became less than 1 cm. That is also why a diffuser is attached to it. The diffuser helps to reflect and diffuse light to go around the object to minimize harsh shadows.

Taken with 12x magnification cheap clip-on lens
Taken with 24x magnification cheap clip-on lens

Loupe System

Editor’s note: Loupe System is a high end system designed for the specific purpose of magnification for watches. The products can be used as eye loupes to examine watches and jewellery close up, and are also supplied with accessories which can attach them to smart phones. Although the lenses and accessories are made in China, and the company registered in Hong Kong, we personally know the designer and owner who is an Italian/French man living in Paris.

The lenses in the Loupe System share the same physical dimensions, and look pretty much the same. The two models we have on hand are the Model 01, providing a 6x magnification and Model 03, providing a 10x magnification. Loupe System also has a light ring accessory to help with lighting issues encountered during up-close photography.

Loupe System Model 03 with the light ring, and the universal clip-on holder at the back.

In our shoot-out, we’ve mounted the light ring onto the Model 03 since it has a shorter working distance and would need the additional lighting. The light ring offers neutral white light, UV light and a mix of white and UV light.

Model 03 with light ring mounted on the clip, with neutral white light switched on.
Taken with 6x Magnification Model 01 from Loupe System
Taken with 10x Magnification Model 03 from Loupe System
Taken with 10x Magnification Model 03 from Loupe System, with additional neutral light from light ring.

Other competitors

For something in between, you can consider the Moment Lens which retails about S$140. It has a 10x magnification with 3 elements and very low distortion. You could also get a phone that comes with an in-built macro camera, such as the Huawei Nova 5T which retails about S$450.

Thoughts on usage and image quality

On the cheap lens, the major weakness is the distortion near edges. This is very evident on the 24x, and it is to be expected as they are only using 2 elements, which simply stacks magnifications and does not do any optical correction. The pinion on the power reserve indicator has been elongated, as are the 9 and 12 o’clock markers. The distortion on the 12x magnification is less obvious, at least for the cropped square section of the photograph. Perhaps the subdial at the 6 o’clock is starting to smear. On both photos taken with the cheap lenses, I would say the dial textures are relatively sharp and detailed in the middle. Colours are starting to smear around the edges on the 24x.

On the high-end Loupe System, the image is distortion-free, crisp, detailed and true to the object. Model 01 is great for taking pictures of the whole watch face, and the Model 03 to get a little closer for details. The additional light ring does help to give the image more colours, the hands can be seen to be closer to the blued steel when the light ring is switched on.

It goes without saying that the image quality, build quality and function of the Loupe System wins hands down. It is better in almost every aspect. But we do admit it is a pricey option, and when the price is tossed into the equation, many people may think twice. With a cheap lens, some digital zooming, cropping and post-processing, it is possible that the photos with the cheap lens turn out good enough for Instagram. But if you want the best, then the Loupe System delivers.

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