There are a number of ways to get into macro photography ranging from inexpensive to outrageously expensive. Tough decisions to make, especially for someone that doesn’t make their living from photography.
If you decide you want to explore macro photography you have a number of options. I have listed these options starting with what I would consider to be the best equipment for the job. This doesn’t mean that buying a dedicated macro lens will always be better than extension rings but in general you will get the best results by going this way.
Dedicated macro lenses are the ultimate way to go if you are serious at all about doing this type of work. It doesn’t have to be expensive, I bought a wonderful 50mm Sigma Macro lens used for all of $120 (new about $270) and it is tack sharp and produces amazing images. My main macro lens is a Sigma 150mm Macro and cost a whopping $700, the best money I have ever spent. This gives you an idea about the price range available and the sky’s the limit with some highly specialized Nikon macro lenses in the $2,000 range. Why the difference in focal lengths? I’ll get to that soon in another article that I’m working on! If you are serious about macro photography buying a lens specifically designed for the purpose is the best way to go. The lens designs are optimized for close focusing and the lenses are also generally flat field (focus in a flat plane) producing sharper corners on flat objects such as pieces of wood or slabs of rock. Flat field may be a term that many have not heard of and I’ll elaborate later on this as well.
Extension tubes or bellows units are pieces of equipment that put space between the camera body and the lens thus allowing the lens to focus closer. They can work well with certain lenses, for instance, if you have a 50mm prime lens this might be a good option to get into macro work at an affordable cost. Extension tubes often come in sets of three of different lengths (high quality tubes tend to be sold individually) that can be used singly or combined to get the close focusing distance required. Bellows units work on the same principle but are expandable like a “bellows” allowing a great deal of flexibility. There real downside is the expense and they are bulky and heavy as well. I expect most people use bellows units for studio work only as they aren’t terribly practical in the field. One area where extension tubes really shine is for making long focal length lenses like a 300mm focus closer, great for photographing skittish dragonflies and other critters.
Close up lenses are clear “filters” that screw onto the front of your lens allowing the lens to focus closer. Quality varies from mediocre to quite acceptable depending on the quality of the filters. This is likely the least expensive way to start shooting macro but does have its drawbacks. A big factor that has to be looked at is the quality of the camera lens you will be using. Inexpensive zoom lenses will likely produce less than stellar results while high quality prime lenses can produce excellent results but none of these will produce tack sharp results like the dedicated macro lenses. The biggest advantage? As these are just fancy filters they are very light, no extra tubes or additional lenses to carry.
You don’t hear much about reversing rings anymore and I expect that’s because most people are using zoom lenses that likely wouldn’t work very well. Reversing rings allow you to mount a lens “backwards” on the camera body. When used with high quality prime lenses the results can be stunning and if you reverse a wide angle lens often you can achieve a high magnifications on the order of 2X or more. For people interested in high magnification shooting this is often the way to go, especially if you are on a budget.
What about the macro zoom lens that you already own? Many of the new lenses that come as part of a kit are labeled as macro zooms and while they do focus a little closer than normal they are not true macro lenses. My experience has been that most of them are very suspect in terms of sharpness as these lenses are not designed for this sort of application. Of course in a pinch they will work but to get in really close to your subject one of the above options would be best.
What are you presently using? Are you pleased with the results?