The AstrHori 18mm f/8 macro 2:1 lens released a few months ago is the nearest competitor to the Laowa Optics probe lens and at half the price, it is something that should be considered by both macro photographers and videographers.
For videographers, the lens could open up new concepts for different types of creative work within a multitude of genres. For macro photographers, the end diameter of the lens will allow you to photograph in really tight spaces, and even to a submerged depth of 25cm in water due to its water sealing.
We tested the lens out on a Fujifilm X-T5 to see how it would perform with the 40mp sensor, mainly for photographic use. There is also a locked-off short video example at the end of the article to allow you to see the video quality it captures. Did the lens produce the goods?
The lens construction is of solid metal and weighs in at 668g. Housing 23 elements in 17 groups the lens produces detailed macro images at a 2:1 magnification and provides an aperture range of f/8-f/28. The front lens is made of sapphire material which is wear-resistant and has a high hardness, meaning it shouldn't be easy to scratch.
The aperture and focus markings on the lens on the lens are engraved and clear. The focusing ring is beautifully dampened to allow for micro-adjustments. Both the aperture ring and focus ring have high knurling to allow for positive connectivity for focus-pulling attachments when filming.
The lens comes in two parts, the body attachment and the probe attachment which very easily and securely lock together. If it moves even the tiniest, you haven't locked it together fully so another small turn will ensure this.
The front probe of the lens is water-sealed for the first 25cm from the front element enabling you to shoot underwater or any other special environment without worrying. Although there is no mark to show you where this is, visually it's about 5cm in front of the USB socket.
The USB Type-C on the second barrel of the lens allows for a power bank to be attached to power the LEDs at the end of the lens. A long cable is required for this as I found it so much easier with the longer cable to simply put the power bank in my pocket, if standing or lay it on the ground for low-down shots. There are 9 LEDs in total which have 10 levels of brightness adjustment via the cable. The adjustment cable can be attached to the USB port and then the power bank to allow for brightness adjustment. The USB connection also comes with a small rubber seal that you put in place to save any dirt or moisture from entering when not using the LEDs. To avoid losing mine I put it in the carry case when it was removed.
The lens is neatly and securely packaged in a hard case which includes covers for both parts of the lens and extra rubber seals. The end barrel of the lens is protected by a metal lens cap.
This is where it gets interesting as you can probably guess. At a length of 452mm, you need a sturdy and steady tripod head to avoid any downward creeping. I first tried the lens on a lighter tripod to see how that would affect the image, and guess what, it began to drop, only slightly but still noticeable. Once I had switched to my heavier tripod and Artcise ball head any movement had but disappeared and I was ready to start photographing anything I could get my hands on, to be honest; anything that would give me a new view of the world. At first, I would keep what I considered to be a decent distance from the object I was shooting but as my confidence grew and I could see that the lens had no problems at this distance I would move the lens closer, and still be able to focus.
This is a fully manual lens with no transfer of EXIF data. I did take note of the main apertures I shot with for this article however with a majority being at f/14 and a few f/28. I did shoot with all the apertures but found, for me anyway, that I could get the best images at f/14.
The depth of field with this lens is narrow and it became apparent very quickly how close I could be to the subject depending on its surface and texture. The lens has a close working distance of 5mm and in some cases like the image of the mic's dead cat below, I was able to be right against the fibers and still focus on the other fibers nestled just a few millimeters further in.
Included with most images in the article is a visual guide to how close I was with the probe lens. Of course, you'll see my flaws in terms of lighting and composition, but it is done solely to allow you to see the relative distance from the end of the lens to the subject.
The GoPro images here show the extent of the narrow field of focus. In the first image, focusing on the center of the lens itself in the first image, and in the second the logo. With the focus peak highlight of the FujiFilm X-T5 engaged I could see the red highlight sweep across from my first focus point to the second, highlighting everything in its path. This I'd like you to note was in micro adjustments. First the lens itself, then the outer ring of the lens, then the 2nd and 3rd outer rings then the outer casing; you get the picture. Until it finally reached the logo. So the possibilities for focus stacking with the lens, if you have the patience I think would produce some really great results.
In this world of 2:1 magnification, everything was fair game and a lot of fun. Admittedly not everything worked and I've only included a handful of the images from everything that I tried. This new viewpoint, to me anyway, requires patience and demands non-movement in any form. On more than a few occasions, I'd either bump the lens or move and a floorboard would adjust the angle ever so slightly.
Focusing as mentioned was in micro adjustments and for some of the subjects I'd either have highlight peaking on or split-screen to ensure what I thought was in focus actually was. If macro photography is something that you do on a regular basis I'm sure you'll have a macro focus rail which I can see would be very beneficial when using this lens.
The LED ring light at the end of the lens came in very useful for some of the images, at times however I did prefer some of the images the daylight-balanced desklamp provided which was due to the surface texture of some of the objects. Matte surfaces worked with both the desklamp and the LED ring light, whereas any surface with any form of reflectivity would blow out and lose all detail. Some diffusion pieces for the LEDs would be very beneficial. You can control the brightness via the LED adjustment cable that is also in the hard case which is a great feature, but again depending on your surface you may get an unwanted highlight configuration. However, this is easily removed in post.
For matte and painted surfaces like the images below the LED provided detailed results and the size of the probe lens with a diameter of around 23mm allowed me to get into some quite tight spaces, something I couldn't do with a normal lens without cropping the image in post.
The lens demanded that I photograph a sewing needle, which took a few attempts due to the narrow focusing resulting in either the thread before the needle being in focus or the thread exiting the eye being focused; Patience is required and the results are worth it.
The gallery images below were taken in my backyard and provided me with a new appreciation for macro photographers and everything that they do as well as the patience they have for their craft. Once the lens was in place and the tripod no longer moved, I took a series of shots of mainly spiders, who for most of the time were happy to sit still even with the LED light a centimeter away from them.
I'm in no way a macro photographer so please forgive the images as I don't think they give the lens the justice it deserves. In the hands of a macro photographer, however, I think the story would be much different.
You've more than likely seen some of the videos produced by this and other probe lenses and although I only filmed the spiders at the time of writing this review I can see why this lens would appeal to so many videographers and creators due to the size and field of view it employs. A slide rail with the lens does produce some unique views of the world and then it's simply down to your own creativity to what can be produced. The video quality even from the spiders I filmed I wasn't expecting and also due to the size showed me how much actual movement there was in what I thought was a zero-wind day.
- Due to size is able to get into smaller places
- Water-resistant for the first 25cm
- Solid construction
- End elements LEDs
- Easily connects to focus pull setup
- Great for a new perspective on video creation
- Not of the lens itself but I think it would work better coupled with a focusing rail
- The price could be considered a con for some if only used some of the time, but considering the next nearest similar lens is double the cost you are onto a winner with this one.
I can't really talk about what I liked and didn't like about the lens as using this type of lens brought with it a new way to capture details. I'm not a macro photographer but the lens taught me quite a few things about the accuracy of focus at such close proximity and where a focus rail would be best utilized.
It works great on a sturdy tripod but not so on a lightweight one. I suppose this could be considered a con but at the same time if you are investing in equipment like this for your macro work you would have already purchased a worthy tripod.
Probably the most unusual lens I have ever used, and yet at the same time one of the most fun. I've also garnered a newfound respect for macro photographers and everything they do to ensure their images are sharp in terms of setup and focusing. The lens is a great way to get a unique view of the nature and detail of the macro world around us.
The lens does what it's meant to do and I do believe that this lens in the hands of a seasoned macro photographer would produce amazing results. If you are a macro photographer this lens is definitely worth thinking about considering the end diameter of 23mm and that the probe part of the lens is water-sealed, it can open up a new world of possibilities for you. For videographers again I think the creative shots that can be achieved with the lens would certainly add to your portfolio.
If the AstrHori probe lens is something you are considering, it is available for E/Z/L/RF/FX/M43/EF mounts and you can purchase one here.