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Macro photography on a budget

You do not have to invest in a dedicated macro lens to get started with macro photography. Here, we suggest some low cost accessories to for those who want to try out macro photography on a budget.

An important concept in macro photography is magnification, which is written as a ordinary fraction (e.g. 1:2) or a decimal fraction followed by an “X” (e.g. 0.5X). It tells us the ratio between the real life size of an object, and the projection of that object on to the sensor or film. A magnification of 1:2 or 0.5X indicates hat the subject is captured at half life size. For a longer explanation of magnification, see here.

A special magnification is the magnification a lens has at its close focus distance. This is called its CFD magnification and can be found in the lens' specifications. For instance, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-D has a maximum magnification of 1:6.7 or 0.15X.

The table below gives an overview of the types of product that can be used for macro photography. The first two (standard macro lens and Canon 65mm f/2.8 MP-E are included for reference only, and not discussed further in this article. The last two (cropping and teleconverter) are not really tools for macro photography, but can in some cases be used as an alternative if all you want to do is to produce a tight framing of a small object.

Type of product Magnification Working
distance
Cost
(low)
Cost
(recomm.)
Standard macro lenstiny – 1:1 ∞ – 65 mm USD 450
Canon 65 mm f/2.8 MP-E1:1 – 5:1 65 – 20 mm USD 950
Close-up lens 1:5 – 1:1 250 – 50 mm USD 4USD 100
Extension tubes 1:4 – 2:1 200 – 25 mm USD 10USD 83
Reversal adapter ring1:1 – 8:1 60 – 10 mm USD 5USD 5
Croppingtiny – 1:5 ∞ – 500 mm freefree
Teleconvertertiny – 1:3 ∞ – 500 mm USD 500

In addition to type of product does the table shows typical magnification and typical working distance for each type of product. The two cost-columns show cost for the lowest priced product of this type you can buy (if applicable), and what you should be prepared to pay for a product of a quality I can recommend.

1. Close-up lens

Canon 500D.
Canon 500D Close-up lens
Photo: Darkone. Used under CC BY-SA.

If you already own a good quality fixed focal length lens with a focal length equal to 50 mm or more, the cheapest and simplest way to get started with macro photography is to buy a close-up lens.

A close-up lens is a lens that is placed in front of a primary lens, just like a filter. By adding a close-up lens, you will be able to focus on a subject closer to the camera, making the image of the subject larger.

To use a close-up lens (except the Raynoxes, which comes with a spring loaded adapter), it must have a diameter that matches the filter thread of the lens you intend to use as your primary lens, or you can use a step-up ring to make it fit. You may freely mix brands. For example, a Canon close-up lens will work fine on a Nikon primary lens.

Close-up lenses are small, light and as easy to carry around as a regular filter. Unlike extension tubes, a close-up lens will not reduce the maximum aperture of the lens. Another advantage is that since it goes in front of the lens, metering and autofocus will work as usual.

Close-up lenses by most manufacturers are marked with dioptre values. The higher dioptre value, the closer the focus. It is possible to convert between dioptre value and focal length, and vice versa. The following two formulae is used for conversion (d = dioptre, f = focal length):

d = 1000 mm/f    f = 1000 mm/d

For example, a +4 dioptre close-up lens has a focal length of 1000 mm/4 = 250 mm, and a lens with a focal length of 500 mm is also a 1000 mm/500 mm = +2 dioptre lens.

Canon mark their close-up lenses with focal lengths instead of dioptre values. The Canon 250D has a dioptre value equal to +4, and the Canon 500D has a dioptre value equal to +2. Nikon have their own system, and 3T and 5T have dioptre +1.5, and 4T and 6T have dioptre +2.9.

Raynox is also using a non-conventional system for indicating the dioptre of their close-up lenses. The Raynox close-up lenses has a multi-element construction, and is of higher quality than single element close-up lenses. The Raynox lenses comes with an universal special spring-loaded snap-on adapter in addition to conventional back filter threads that are either 43 mm (DCR-150 and DCR-250) or 37 mm (DCR-202 and DCR-505). The table below shows the four available Raynox close-up lenses. If you can't use the snap-on adapter, you need to use a step-down ring from the front thread of the lens to the back thread of the Raynox. For instance, to use the Rayox MSN-202 on a Micro-Nikkor 105 mm with 52 mm front threads, you need at 52 mm → 37 mm step-down ring.

Model Diopter Rec. prime CFD Back Front Weight Price
DCR-150 4.8 ≥ 75 mm ? 43 mm 49 mm 50 g. USD 73
DCR-250 8 ≥ 75 mm ? 43 mm 49 mm 60 g. USD 79
MSN-202 25 ≥ 100 mm 32 mm 37 mm none 60 g. USD 85
MSN-505 32 ≥ 135 mm 18 mm 37 mm none 86 g. USD 159

The highest quality close-up lenses are achromatic (i.e. designed to correct for chromatic aberrations). As far as I know, only Canon and Nikon produce achromatic close-up lenses. These are the Canon 250D and 500D, and the Nikon 3T, 5T, 4T and 6T. These are expensive, but still a lot cheaper than a dedicated macro lens. A Canon or Nikon close-up lens in combination with a high quality primary lens is capable of producing results equal to those of a dedicated macro lens. Cheaper designs will typically yield results with CA, resulting in colour fringes, unsharp edges and reduced contrast, but they may still be fun to use if you are looking for a very cheap entry point to macro photography.

To achieve the best results with close-up lenses, both the primary lens and the close-up lens should be of high quality. Longer lenses (tele) work better than short (wide-angle), and fast lenses with fixed focal length work better than zooms. You should stop down the primary lens at least three stops when shooting with a achromatic close-up lens, and stop down to f/11 if you are shooting with a non-achromatic type.

The Canon 250D is optimised for short tele lenses and produces a magnification between 1:5 and 1:2 when it is used in front of a primary lens with a focal length between 50 and 135 mm. The Canon 500D is optimised for longer tele lenses and produces a magnification between 1:2 and 1:1 when the primary lens has a focal length between 200 and 500 mm.

2. Extension tubes

Like a close-up lens, extension tubes add macro capability to non-macro lenses. Like a close-up lens, extension tubes only yield good results when they are used with a good quality fixed focal length lens. Lenses with a simple, symmetrical (or near-symmetrical) design are best suited for extension tubes. Examples of such lenses are the Zeiss Planar, and derivatives, such as the ubiquitous 50 mm fixed focal length lenses. Putting extension tubes on a consumer zoom does not give good results.

An extension tube contains no optical elements. Its sole purpose is to move the camera's lens further from the image plane to facilitate closer focusing and greater the magnification.

An extension tube reduces that minimum focal distance for the lens you extend. The new focus zone created by adding the extension tube will be very narrow, and it will be difficult to use the focus ring on the lens to focus. It is often better to use a focus rail to move the camera and lens for focusing, in particular at magnifications larger than 1:1.

How much magnification you gain by adding an extension tube depends on the focal length of the lens. The longer the lens, the less amount of magnification a given length of extension tube gives you. This means that extension tubes are best suited for lenses with a focal length of 85 mm and shorter.

When putting an extension tube on a non-macro lens, a rough approximation to the magnification can be computed by assuming the native magnification of the lens is zero. Then the magnification when you add the tube becomes equal to the quotient of the the extension and the focal length. For instance, putting a 25 mm extension on a 50 mm lens is 25/50 = 0.5X (decimal notation), or 1:2 (fractional notation).

In reality, a lens has a CFD magnification greater than zero. Macro lenses typically have a CFD magnification of 1.0X or 0.5X, while standard lenses has a much lower CFD magnification. If you enter the CFD magnification, focal length, and length of extension tube in the table below, and press Compute (requires JavaScript), the resulting magnification and an approximation to the resulting close focus distance (CFD) when you add an extension tube of a certain length will be computed.

Lens' CFD magnification (decimal): X
Lens' focal length: mm
Extension tube length: mm
Magnification with extension tube: (decimal)  (fractional).
Resulting thin lens CFD (from the camera's sensor to the subject).

The magnification computer uses thin lens math, so it will only give approximate results. However, for lenses with a conventional design, it is not too far off. However, many lenses that uses internal focusing, including most current Micro-Nikkors, reduces the focal length in order to focus close. For such lenses, you cannot rely on the result from the calculator unless you enter the actual focal length in the focal length field.

When working with high magnifications and extension tubes, focus distance becomes very short, especially with wide angle lenses. You cannot extend the extension tube forever. At one point, it becomes impossible to increase the magnification further by using a longer extension because the focus zone is placed inside the lens.

There are two types of extention tubes. The expensive kind, that has mechanical and electronic couplings and therefore will work with almost all functions of a modern lens (except in-lens stabilisation). Metering and autofocus is retained, and therefore they are often referred to as autofocus extension tubes.

Delta.
Delta autofocus extension tube set for Nikon AF. From left: 20 mm, 36 mm and 12 mm

There also exist a much cheaper type, with no mechanical and electronic couplings. They are usually just called extension tubes, and they will only work with lenses that have a mechanical aperture ring. With this type, the camera's light meter will not work, so you'll have to shoot in manual mode.

You may combine the use of extension tubes and a reversal adapter ring to increase the magnification. For instance, with a 24 mm lens, if you insert a 56 mm extension tube stack between the reversal ring and the camera, you will increase the magnification rate from 2:1 to 4:1.

The maximum aperture the manufacturer specify for a lens is for infinity. At shorter focus distances, it is lower. In normal photography, the difference is so small that it does not matter. When using extension tubes, it matters. I shall refer to the f-number set on the lens as the nominal f-number, and the f-number that actually determines exposure as the effective f-number. The effective f-number is reduced when you use extenstion tubes to increase the magnificaton. The formula for this is:

effective f-number = nominal f-number x (1+ magnification/pupil magnification)

Knowing the pupil magnification is not practical in most cases. Also it changes with the focus distance. For many lenses pupil magnification is one or very close to it, so we can compute a good approximation to the effective f-number by using this simplified formula:

effective f-number = nominal f-number x (1+ magnification)

Here is a form that will compute the effective f-number for you, using the formula above (requires JavaScript).

Nominal f-number:
Magnification (decimal): X
Effective f-number: 

For example if you are shooting with a lens with a nominal aperture of f/2.8, at magnification 0.5X (half life-size), your effective f-number will be f/2.8 x (0.5 + 1) = f/4.2.

For some lenses the simplified formula is not accurate. However, Nikon will show you the effective f-number in the viewfinder. When you're shooting with the Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8 at life size (1X), the effective maximum aperture will be displayed as f/5. This is the intended behaviour and not a malfunction.

As far as I know, Nikon is the only manufacturer that does this. If you are shooting with a non-Nikon body, you'll have to compute the effective f-number yourself.

However, any camera that has through the lens light metering (TTL) will automatically adjust the exposure to compensate for the light loss, and will do so more accurate than the above formula. So you only need to use the formula to compute the effective aperture if you use an external, hand-held light meter.

Autofocus extension tubes

Below are links to versatile extension tube sets that have mechanical and electronic couplings and therefore will work with almost all functions of modern lenses, including autofocus lenses and Canon EOS-lenses and Nikon AF-S and G-lenses.

The only function this type of extension tube does not support, is in-lens stabilisation (IS/OIS/OS/VC/VR). Also, it does not relay distance information from the lens to the body, as this data will be wrong when you use the lens with extension tubes.

The cheapest of these tubes are made of plastic (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, or ABS). A slightly more expensive types, with the model designation L9B for Canon and L8A for Nikon, is made of metal. The Kenko tubes are also made of metal, and is probably those of highest quality.

I own the the cheapest type (ABS), and for my purposes they work well enough. I am a hobbyist, and I don't think they will wear out in my lifetime.

Extension tubes for manual focus lenses

If you plan to use manual focus lenses for macro work, you can use much cheaper extension tubes without electrical contacts. Since no electronics or optics is involved, you should be able to find this type of extension tube well below USD 10 on eBay. Note that unlike the the more expensive tubes listed above, these cheap tubes will not work with lenses that require electrical couplings to the body in order to work correctly, (such as Canon EOS-lenses and Nikon G-lenses).

The cheap extension tubes does not report the aperture set on the lens to the body, so metering will not work. You will have to work in fully manual mode.

If you are willing to gamble, note that old manual aperture lenses with discontinued mounts can sometimes be picked up (search eBay for such lenses) for very little money. If you can find an adapter for the discontinued lens mount to your camera system, you can assemble the following combo: manual focus lens, adapter, manual focus extension cube. Such a combo can then be used as a dirt cheap dedicated macro lens. Unfortunately, while some of these cheap, old lenses are excellent, many of them are not. Going down this route is a bit of a gamble, unless you are an expert on these discontinued lenses.

3. Reverse adapter ring

Ring.
Lens, Reverse Adapter Ring, Camera

If you own a fixed focal length wide angle lens with a mechanical aperture ring, you can convert it to a macro lens with a simple gadget known as a reverse adapter ring.

As the name says, you use a reverse adapter ring to mount a fixed focal length lens in reverse position on your camera. This turns any fixed focal length lens with a mechanical aperture ring into a macro lens. It will work with zooms too, but you will get much better image quality if you use a lens with fixed focal length.

You need a reverse adapter ring that matches the mount of your body (e.g. Nikon F, Canon EF), and a diameter that matches the filter thread of the lens you intend to use. Brand of the lens does not matter, but the lens needs to have a mechanical aperture ring (otherwise, you will not be able to adjust the aperture). For example, Canon EOS-lenses and Nikon G-lenses are not suitable for reversal.

Since the mount does not matter, you can use any old lens. Old manual lenses with discontinued mounts can sometimes be picked up (search eBay for such lenses) for very little money. When such a lens is paired with a reversal ring, the combination becomes a dirt cheap dedicated macro lens, provided you can find a really good lens.

Below is some eBay links examples of suitable rings to get you started, but you can also search eBay yourself for the correct mount and filter thread.

Beside very expensive special lenses such as the Canon 65mm f/2.8 MP-E 5X Macro, reversal is the traditional way of making macro photographs with larger than life-size magnification. If you want to go beyond life-size, reversal usually yields much better optical performamnce than using a long extension tube.

The best candidates for reversal is moderate wide angle lenses with a large maximum aperture. Wider lenses provide more magnification. The magnification ratio with a reversed 35 mm lens will be around 1:1 (life-size). With a reversed 24 mm lens, you will have an magnification rate around 2:1 (two times life size). And with a reversed 20 mm lens, you will have an magnification rate around 3:1 (three times life size).

Working with a reverse adapter ring requires a lot of skill, in particular at the higher magnifications.

As with extension tubes, your effective f-number when working with a reversal ring will be determined by the following formula:

effective f-number = nominal f-number x (magnification + 1)

At magnification 8:1 your effective f-number will be f/2 x (8 + 1) = f/18, which means that the viewfinder will be pretty dark and difficult to see enough to be able to compose and to focus.

And of course, you need to work fully manual. There will be no autofocus or auto-aperture when you use a standard reverse adapter ring, so the most suitable lenses are those with a mechanical aperture ring.

The default state of Nikon G-lenses is closed down, Canon EOS-lenses are fully open. You can, however stop down a Canon lens by mounting it on the body and then use the depth of field preview button to close the aperture. Then with the button held down, remove the lens. The aperture should remain stopped down.

(For Canon EOS, there also exists something called the “Novoflex Reverse Lens Adapter for Canon EOS” that retains all functions when you reverse an EF or EF-S lens. But then we are no longer talking about a low cost item.)

To add to the challenge, you will find that your subject will only be a few centimeters away from the lens. Focusing with a reversed lens is always done by moving your camera and reversed lens relative to the subject. When you try this, you will find that a macro focusing rail is absolutely necessary to lock focus.

Nikon E2 extension tube

E2.
Nikon E2 plunger-operated Extension Tube.

If you use Nikon lenses reversed, the (pre-Ai) Nikon E2 Semi-automatic Extension Ring may be handy. It is a 14 mm extension tube with a plunger for opening the aperture while focusing.

While it can be used as a 14 mm extension tube, the plunger makes it useful for opening or stopping lenses when reverse mounting or using lenses on a bellows. It even let you control the aperture of G-lenses manually.

The plunger interacts with the stop-down lever that controls the diaphragm of a mechanical lens with the Nikon F-mount. When you press the plunger, the lens opens up to let you focus at full aperture. When you let the plunger go, it closes down to the preset f-stop.

It used to cost around USD 12. Unfortunately, Nikon has stopped producing it. You may still find a used sample on eBay, but it now sells for more than it used to cost new.

4. Alternatives

Close-up lenses, extension tubes and reverse adapter rings are the most common approches to low cost macro photography. But for the sake of completeness, I'll also mention two other methods that, while not strictly macro photography, may be used to produce tight framing of small subjects.

Cropping

If your camera has more megapixels than you need to present the photo, you can crop the photo for a tighter framing. This, of course, does not change the magnification of the lens, nor does it allow you to focus closer. But using only a part of the image simulates having a higher magnification available, so you can get the same effect as you have when you increase the magnifications.

For instance, if you use a that lens focus distance (CFD) gives you a magnification equal to 1:6.7 or 0.15X on an FX-body, taking a photo of at the CFD will give you an image of a square area measuring 180 x 120 mm. If you crop that image so that the cropped image shows a portion of the original image showing 104 x 69 mm, you will have 6 Mpx left, which more than enough for the web and also enough pixels to give you a nice 25 x 17 cm print. This crop would show the same area as if you'd used a lens with a magification equal to 1:3.9 or 0.26X and printed the full FX frame.

To compute the simulated magnification you get by cropping, just multiply the lens' CFD magnificaton with the square root of the quotient resulting from dividing the original Mpx pixel count with cropped one. Given the example above, where the CFD magnificaton of the lens is 0.15X, and we're cropping to a third size, from 18 Mpx to 6 Mx = 3. Multiplying 0.15X with the square root of 3 (1.73) yields 0.26x.

The big advantage of cropping to get a tighter framing is the price: It is free! The disadvantage is that any imprefections in your lens, such as softness, is magnified when you crop.

Teleconverter

A good teleconverter is not cheap, and I do not recommend that you go out and buy a teleconverter for macro photography. But if you already own a teleconverter, you may be interested in knowing that it can be used to increase the CFD magnificaton of the lenses you already own.

The purpose of a teleconverter is to increase the focal length of a lens. The CFD does not change when you add a teleconverter, so it will not let you focus closer. However, adding one increases the magnification at the CFD. The teleconverter multiplier directly correlates with the increase in magnification; a 1.4X teleconverter increases the magninfication with a factor of 1.4, and a 2X teleconverter doubles the magification.

For instance, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 G AF-S ED IF VR II has a CFD magnification of 0.16X. Adding a TC-20E III 2X teleconverter doubles the CFD magnification to 0.32X.

Using a teleconverter always results in some loss in image quality, and the maximum aperture of the lens is also reduced, making the viewfinder darker and the autofocus less reliable. Not all lenses can be used with teleconverters. Those that can are typically expensive fixed focal length tele lenses.

5. Accessories

Below are a description of some other accessories that, while not absolutely necessary, may be handy for macro photography.

Macro focusing rail

Manfrotto 454.
Manfrotto 454 Macro Focusing Rail
Photo: Manfrotto.

Anyone that has attempted macro photography has experienced the inherent difficulties with focusing. Depth of field is measured in millimeters, and the slighest movement of the camera is enough to completely change the focus and composition. When you use high magnifications with a reversed lens or extension tubes, focusing becomes extremely difficult. A focus rail may help you because it gives you control over camera movement.

Also, in macro photography, when you turn the focus ring on a macro lens with internal focusing, you change magnification at the same time, so using conventional technique for focusing do not work well with this type of macro lens. Instead, you should do the follwing: First decide on the magnifaction you want, and set it on the lens. Then you need to move the entire camera and lens in and out to actually focus. To do this handheld or with an ordinary tripod is an exercise in frustration, but a focusing rail makes this process much easier.

Focusing rails comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite cheap, others are more expensive. If you are on a tight budget, you can get functioning macro focusing rail for less than USD 30. If you use a tripod with the Manfrotto quick release system, Manfrotto makes a very good focus rail with product number 454.

Most focusing rails uses a rack-and-pinion mechanism to move the camera and lens. Some very expensive rails from Kirk and RRS make use of the Arca-Swiss quick release format and merely slide in and out through the jaws of the tripod head's clamp. In effect, this kind of rail is merely an extremely long quick release plate with dovetails along its entire length. To use this type, you need a tripod system built around the Arca-Swiss “dovetail” type quick release bracket. Cheaper focusing rails have a standard 1/4"x20 female thread and mount directly on any standard tripod.

Note that focusing rails featuring a geared drive is better for fine focus adjustment. I also prefer to use rails that have locking knobs to make sure that the focus remains locked after I have set it.

Focusing rails can also be used to help with camera positioning, something that is important in macro work in order to control background coverage and background blur.

Macro flash bracket

Manfrotto 330B.
Manfrotto 330B Macro Flash Bracket
Photo: Manfrotto.

If you want a twin macro flash, there is no need to buy extremely expensive dedicated macro flash units such as Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Flash (USD 700), or Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight Flash (USD 715).

If you already own two standard flash units, all you need to have a twin macro flash is flash macro bracket, such as the Manfrotto 330B (USD 60) shown to the right.

To use it, you fasten the bracket to the camera's tripod mount, and you put your two flash units in the each of the cold shoes on each arm. You then adjust the angle of the arms so that your subject is getting equal illumination from both sides.

To trigger the flash units, you may use wires or wireless triggering. Exactly how to do it depends on the flash. The simplest way to do it is to use flash units that have built-in slave triggers, and then use the camera's pop-up flash as lead flash. For an overview of the other options, please see our section about off-camera flash.

Live view remote release

YN-LV.
YongNuo Live View Remote Release YN-LV.
Photo: YongNuo

Macro photography often involves shooting at awkward angles, If your camera offer live view, you can plug in a detachable screen and use that as your viewfinder. A devide that let yiu do this is the YongNuo Live View Remote Release YN-LV (shown on the right). The unit usually sells fir around USD 95, including shipping.

In addition to real time view on a 2.5 inch colour screen, it can be used as remote shutter release for the following shooting modes: real-time, bulb, continous shooting, and 2 second delay.

It attaches to the body through a pair of cables that are about 1.95 meter long. One cable goes to the camera's remote shutter release (make sure the unit you buy has a plug that is compatible with your camera), the other to the camera's video jack.

Dimensions: 115 mm x 63 mm x 15 mm. Weight: 308 gram.
Resolution: not listed.
Power source source is a rechargeble BL-5C 3.7 volt li-ion battery. The unit is supplied with an AC charger adapter. Input: 100-240 volt, 50/60 Hz, 0.2 A, output: 5 volt, 1 A.

The YN-LV is available for the following camera models:

  • Canon: 1DIII 1DSII 1DSIII 5DII 40D 50D 60D 450D 500D 550D 1000D G10 G11
  • Nikon: D3 D3x D300 D300S D700 D90 D5000 D3000 D3100
  • Olympus: E420 E410 E510 E520
  • Sony: A300 A330 A350 A700 A900
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5 responses:

avatar
Great primer!

Thanks for such a thorough roundup of macro photography accessories.

avatar
The Best.

I've been searching for very long to find the cheaper way to do macro photography, and I must say this is the best article that not only covers all the aspects of macro photography but it also provides the links to the items that can be of interest of different individual at different levels. I must salute you for providing us the in-depth details of the Macro photography.
Thank you!

avatar
AF extension tubes

Thank you for the article.

I have a question, do the autofocus extension tubes allow to change the aperture, or one have to shoot on minimum aperture?

avatar
AF extension tubes

Autofocus extension tubes let the camera set the aperture (i.e. aperture control works exactly like it does when the lens is mounted directly on the camera).

They pass through every function found on a modern DSLR except in-lens stabilisation (IS/OIS/OS/VC/VR) and relaying distance information.

avatar

The best article I read so far regarding macro photography....I tried with tamron sp90 f2.8 vc with canon 40mm reverse...great magnigication...thanks once again

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