Extreme Macro Focusing Helicoid

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017

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If you've been trying out reverse lens macro then adding a focusing helicoid to your bag may give you a bit more versatility over the field of view that you get from your extreme macro shots.

Focusing Helicoid

Focusing Helicoid, shown fully extended on the right and fully compressed on the left.

Don't bother with super expensive branded ones, go for an eBay special as they're really well made and much better value for money.

Focusing helicoids are generally made in various mounts including M42: expect to pay about £50 on eBay. Great for field use: rather than carrying lots of bits about, carry just the one focusing helicoid and a few lenses and you should be covered nicely.

Focusing Helicoids are easy to source and are basically a variable extension tube. So rather than carrying lots of bits about, carry just the one focusing helicoid and a few lenses and you should be covered nicely.

What is a Focusing Helicoid?

A focusing helicoid is a metal lens-like device that has no glass inside and extends to about two, almost three times its own length. So in other words, a 50mm focusing helicoid allows for an extension between 50mm not extended and about 90mm fully extended. Bottom line: similar to a bellows but without the accordion part, and similar to an extension tube that can actually be extended in use.

Varying the distance to a reversed lens will vary the magnification produced by that reversed lens, so it's a way to have 1:1 to 5:1 in your bag using as few bits as possible without having access to an all-in-one MPE-65.

You can buy focusing helicoid in various mount sizes and mounts from eBay sellers, and they tend to be very well made products.

Make sure that the end that the lens (reversed lens) sits on does not rotate, as that's quite difficult to deal with.

I use focusing helicoids to take enlarger lenses out in the field and give myself some variability over the magnification that they produce

eBay Focusing Helicoids

People like to diss Chinese products, but the focusing helicoid I've purchased through eBay is a superbly made piece of equipment. The helicoid has just the right amount of oiling in it so that the movement is oiled but easy.

The helicoid does not cause deviation in the focus direction and the fit is snug. At 1/3 the price of brand offerings it's a good deal and an example of ripoff manufacturers being beaten at their own game by a company that's prepared to offer products on the market without the massive markup that photography seems to inspire. Power to them.

Focusing Helicoid Uses

I use focusing helicoids to take enlarger lenses out in the field and give myself some variability over the magnification that they produce. Between a three reasonable enlarger lenses, I have a range of 1:2 to 4:1 which is more than enough of a magnification range to be able to shoot almost everything I need to.

Focusing Helicoid Cost

The cost largely depends on the mount you're buying and the range you're after, but you're looking at £25-£75 to buy a focusing helicoid.

Branded Focusing Helicoids

Most of the big photography brands made a branded focusing helicoid at one time or another, but most of them are no longer available. For example the Pentax Helicoid Extension Tube B provided an infinitely stepless adjustment range from 26.5mm to 46.5mm but it is no longer available. Pentax actually made several including a PK model and a M42 model, and they do come up on eBay from time to time.

Nikon never made one and I am not personally aware of a specific Canon focusing helicoid. Leitz Wetzlar made a Leitz OTZFO universal focusing helicoid which together with a specific extension tube was designed to mount the optical head of the 135 F4 Hektor or the 135 f4.5 Elmar lenses on the Leitz Visoflex, and of course it is also perfectly possible to make your own helicoid by cannibalising an old lens and removing the glass, even keeping in the aperture to use as an empty lens.

Konica did a Auto Helicoid AR in the 1960s and 1970s, which can be adjusted by a turning ring in the range from 47.5 mm up to 69.5 mm, whilst Olympus did a very nice telescopic auto tube helicoid which went between 65 mm and 116 mm but which was discontinued in 2003.

Which Focusing Helicoid To Buy?

Focusing helicoids come in various ranges, ie 12mm-17mm, 25mm-55mm, 35mm-90mm so it is a bit unclear which might suit your purpose best. This generally depends on the mm of the lens that you're using and the magnification you want to get out of it, ie with a 35mm the 35-90 should get you a nice range of magnification (to about 3:1) and even more if you find some cheap M42 extensions to use as added length for added magnification. Do beware though that on some of the shorter lengths you'll have vignetting if you just use those without any other extension.

Comments (12)

Article: Focusing Helicoid
Johan says...
Not of custom adapters, I've never used them. My adapters all come off eBay, using combinations of step up and step downs...
15th February 2014 9:41am
Harold Gough says...
You nmight be able to do it: PK to EF adapter, EF to M42, using male M42 to acess M42 tread from behind*, ideally a double male M42, to connect with your M42 helicoid. You would need to check the=at the M42 female is acessible from both front and rear).
17th February 2014 2:27pm
Petrochemist says...
I've not seen any EF lens to M42 adapters, though there are plenty the other way round. I have found a Nikon option (prompted by your comment) but the total length is likely to prove awkward.
18th February 2014 3:47pm
Petrochemist says...
It seems Jinfinance do a EOS lens to m58 adapter - That should be easy to jury rig!
19th February 2014 1:09pm
Harold Gough says...
RafCamera does an M58-M42.
19th February 2014 1:49pm
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