Macro Photography – What equipment do you require?

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
  • extension tubes or bellows units
  • reversing rings
  • close up lenses and
  • macro zooms (that are pushing the limit of what we are talking about)
Nikon Macro Lens

Nikon Macro Lens

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.

Bellows Unit

Bellows Unit

Extension Tube

Extension Tube

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 Lens

Close Up Lens

 

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.

 

Reversing Ring

Reversing Ring

 

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?

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10 Responses to “Macro Photography – What equipment do you require?”

  1. [...] Here is the original post: Kevin Oke Photography » Macro Photography – What equipment do you … [...]

  2. LisaNewton says:

    Wow, you’ve put together some great information. I also have a Nikon, so the advice is even better.

    I’ll have to seriously think about getting a macro lens. I thought they were much more expense. After trying many times, I finally got a picture of a bumble bee, which is actually not too bad. I’ll be posting it later this week.

    Because all of my camera equipment was purchased via a special priced camera kit, I don’t have any experience with used equipment. Is there anything special you would recommend when purchasing used?

    [Reply]

  3. D. Travis North says:

    Your timing is impeccable. I’ve been experimenting with some close-up photography as of late (not quite macro yet). I just got myself a reversing ring for my 50mm prime…what a world of difference. Next, I’ll be looking at the Canon 500D and maybe some extension tubes. I just love that whole other world literally right under my nose. I’m having a lot of fun with it (but I have, oh, so much to learn).

    [Reply]

  4. kevin says:

    Lisa, I have been buying lots of used equipment recently as it’s easy to save a large amount of money. When I was in California a few months ago I purchased 2 camera bags that are $270 and $300 new respectively, used for $120 each. Used is a relative term here, I don’t think these ever left the house. I also purchased 2 lenses at significant savings over new. Both of these also look brand new, never used.

    I would avoid eBay or Craigslist but have been buying from 2 web sites. The first one is Nikonians, the buy and sell forum is at Nikonians Forums. As you might guess, this is primarily Nikon gear. The other is Fred Miranda’s site, the forum is at Fred Miranda Forums. This has mainly Canon gear but some good Nikon gear turns up as well. I have bought and sold without any issues on both these sites. There are some really good deals but they go quickly!

    Travis, I would love to see some of the images you get with your set-up. I have only being shooting with dedicated macro lenses recently but the high quality filters I expect can be fairly impressive. One thing with macro; it’s really addicting! I find when I get in macro mode I see very differently than usual. I also get a lot dirtier!

    [Reply]

  5. Lynn says:

    Thank you, Kevin. I have made the first tiny step and now occasionally use a tripod.

    [Reply]

  6. Rick Louder says:

    Hi Kevin.

    I’ve started my macro-photography utilizing the Canon G11, the teleconverter adaptor tube upon which I have fixed a step down ring enabling me to reverse my 50mm f1.4 Rokkor lens. I mention it as a possible way to go for readers. Eventually I added to this kit a length of agricultural pipe lined with aluminium foil, which directs the light from the inbuilt flash to the subject. Because it is hand-built, I can continually develop the add-on to hone its efficiency. It also adds to the enjoyment of photography – problem solving and a bit of D.I.Y. The reversed lens gives me a maximum of 2.8X magnification; ( full telephoto 140mm equiv divided by 50mm = 2.8). And I am achieving some rather good images with this kit. However, we always want more! And the type of more I want is more depth of field.
    Firstly, I have to state, I work in the field. I find even tripods to be too cumbersome. I literally chase the bugs around, and when they stop for a few moments, I have a few seconds to take one or several shots. With the reversed lens, I have to get up very close to the insect; one inch; (which doesn’t worry me, as it thrills me these beautiful things allow me to get so dangerously close to them. Another lure of this type of photography). So I can’t use focus stacking programs like Helicon for this active type of photography. I have to reduce my magnification to increase my depth of field. To me, this suggests a full frame sensor (or a high res. APS-C sensor, Canon 7D) so that I can crop the subject out from the surrounding image, while fore-going initial magnifications greater than 1:1. Now I’m thinking, “How will this affect critical focusing?” Any ideas? I’m at the next stage of upgrading. I want to move up, not backwards. As said, I’m getting pretty good results from this kit, and I’m a critical person. Focusing is not that great with this kit. But a reticulating screen and pretty good eye-sight is working in my favour. A friend suggested I mount a loupe on the screen. Heh.

    [Reply]

    kevin Reply:

    What you are doing is very ingenious! One cool thing about macro work is there so many ways to do it and always something new to do.

    Can you share some inages with us?

    [Reply]

  7. Rick Louder says:

    I suppose I’ll just add to that…
    The G11 has a zoom lens 28 – 140mm equv. Even though the Rokkor is not attached to the retracting lens, I am still able to make use of the flexibilty of the zoom. Albeit, the teleconverter barrel adaptor comes into view at smaller focal lengths, and thus the image is effectively cropped by an increasing surrounding blackness. It looks as though you are looking through a microscope. That is not an unpleasant effect. Meanwhile, the telephoto pulls back to reveal more of the subject, and yes, it is less magnified, meaning more of it is shown in the final image. While I’m not suggesting I necessarily want to stay with a zoom lens, it certainly has some extra flexibility. Again, for the sake of readers. There’s a chap in cyber-space at Plonksy.com, who uses a G3. If one wants a case for the photographer being the most important piece of the kit puzzle, here it is. He’s got some amazing shots. And with a very modest piece of equipment, adapted of course.

    [Reply]

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