Attaining Macro Magnifications

Macro photography has intrigued me because it reveals a world of something you have never noticed before, and it blows it up to a striking life-size image. Macro photography has yielded numerous amazing discoveries in otherwise seemingly mundane subjects. Let's take a look at how to achieve macro magnifications.

P&S macro setting

Probably the most familiar method to all of us is the macro option on our P&S cameras, indicated by a flower icon. While this is a decent place to start, I have a couple problems with it. Most P&S cameras achieve macro magnifications by allowing super close focusing. This means that if you are photographing a bee, for example, you will have to get within a couple inches of it for a close photo. What are the chances in that?! Also, when you are required to move close to the subject, there is a dramatically larger chance that you will shadow the subject. So while point-and-shoot cameras work fine for flower photography, etc., insect photography is not easily possible using this route.

Macro Lenses

If you have a digital SLR, macro lenses are an excellent option. Unlike P&S cameras, they do not require being within inches of the subject (most lenses, anyway). But they still achieve the same magnification, or even better than compact cameras.

Extension Tubes

Extension tubes lengthen the distance between the lens and the sensor, resulting in closer focus distances. These can turn a normal lens into a macro lens, and turn a macro lens into a super macro lens. Even though they can help to attain incredible magnifications, the cons are that you will lose light, therefore possibly losing AF. Also, they may add chromatic abberation to the photos. In spite of these disadvantages, I have seen many incredible photos taken with all three tubes stacked!

Macro from a kit lens?

I was debating whether to include this in the options. I guess I will include it, but I won't recommend it to others. By physically manipulating my lens (i.e., removing the front lens element group), I was able to force my lens to focus at extremely close distances. The magnification is incredible, but it only works as a macro lens when disassembled. I need to reassemble the lens to make it work normally. All of my super-macro photos were taken with this setup. To tell you the truth, I could NOT find any photos of hoarfrost that were as highly magnified as mine. Most were like this:

What happens when you get closer?

For scale, the crystal the second shot in clinging to a very thin willow branch.


On my shots, the lighting is either natural or artificial. I didn't use anything fancy to artificially light the subject. I just used a bright spotlight. More sophisticated photographers use a couple kinds of flashes. Some use a speedlite mounted on the hot-shoe with a diffuser mounted over the head. This works, but it limits you to how close you can get to the subject. Others use something called a macro ringlite. It is a light-emitting ring that circles around the very front of the lens. This works better for close distances. Another popular setup is using dual external speedlites mounted on brackets. This allows balanced sidelighting of the subject.

Have fun!

Photo credits: Antonio Scarpi, Dmitry Maslov, Elimitchell, Xtremerx.

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March 24, 2010


There are some very good lenses that are not too expensive if you overlook the "modern conveniences" (AF, IS, even auto aperture).

March 24, 2010


Another superb, cheap macro lens is the old Micro-Nikkor 55/3.5. It's one of the best lenses ever made yet Nikon made it in such huge quantities that you can pick one up for about $60 on ebay. It may need an AI conversion for modern Nikon bodies or you can get an adapter for Canon. It's my standard food lens for my Canon 5D MkII. It's entirely manual, of course, no A/F or automatic aperture.

March 23, 2010


Yes, as Paul said, macro photography does not have to be expensive. There are inexpensive ways to get there most of which Paul mentioned. If you really want a macro lens, then the Tokina 100mm macro (for Nikon) is a lens with very good "bang for the buck".

If you are interested in my technique (removing the front element group of the lens) here is my how-to article on how to do it. The link to buy the unmodified (used and discontinued) lens can be found here. All of my macro photography was done with this. Note that without the front elements, this only has a single point at which it can focus. A prime lens only has one focal length, but it can focus at different distances. This lens is sort of like that, but it can zoom, but it can't change focus. You must physically move the lens toward/away from the subject. I think it is a very cool setup though, and only for 50 bucks! I can't guarantee that everyone will have the same level of success that I did, though.

P.S. Paul, you usually can't use a 1/8000s shutter speed with a flash. Most X-syncs only go up to 1/250s.

March 23, 2010


No, no, no! It's cheap. Really cheap! Did I mention cheap? I meant even cheaper!
You can achieve ANY macro magnification -from flower close-ups to butterfly scales (super large) for less than $100. Very probably for less than $10. You just have to use the right techniques instead of buying the gear the makers want you to buy,

Tripods are only essential if you are not relying 100% on flash (1/8,000s freezes pretty much everything) or plan to stack images in which case a macro rail becomes (expensively) appealing.

March 23, 2010


Macro photography is a science of it's own. Restricted budget often stops enthusiasm. I bought myself a Canon 550D close-up lens for my Nikkor 50mm just to get more hungry for more "close-up".

It's a challenge, technically and financially. Currently I do save money to be able to buy a good macro lens in the near future.

Thanks a lot for your information!

March 23, 2010


I think I am on information overload:):) Thank you all for the good tips. I love doing macro, but seem to have a hard time getting it "right". Focusing is hard for me, I think due to my glasses. I might try looking into that macro rail.

March 23, 2010


Definitely a tripod! Thanks for mentioning that. Another popular kind of support is the macro rail which allows precision focusing at close distances.

March 23, 2010


Interesting read, thank you! Do not see it beeing mentioned here, but at theese magnifications tripod and remote release/timer is a must to achieve pin sharp pictures. Love macro! Kind regards, Virgil

March 23, 2010


Thanks for filling in the gaps, Paul. I knew I was missing something. :) I'm not sure if I mentioned that you can actually combine different techniques to get even more extreme magnifications. I've seen people that use an entire set of extension tubes and they use a macro lens with another lens reversed on the front of that. BTW, a reversed lens has to be wider than 50mm. In fact, the wider the lens, the higher the magnification when it is reversed. That makes sense, since you are reversing the lens. So reversed 24mm lens will have higher magnification than a reversed 35mm lens. I also have to mention that the DOF is SOOO thin that even if you are using f/22, you will often have to perform a focus stack to ensure the sharpness of the subject.

March 23, 2010


You are missing a lot here.

Reversing rings fitting the lens backwards on the camera give fantastic magnifications for lenses of short focal lengths and can be used in conjunction with extension tubes or bellows. One example of what a reversing ring is is here:

Supplementary dioptre lenses (close-up filters) screwing into the filter thread can produce some quite good results.

Another method is to reverse a short prime lens onto a telephoto lens using a lens-lens connector.

All of these methods have the advantage of being cheap. Less than $10 can turn a 35mm prime into something like a 4x magnification super-macro lens, with similar results to an $800 specialist lens.

Diopters and reversing lenses on to the camera both have the advantage of avoiding serious light-loss. A +1 diopter on a Zeiss Sonnar 135 reduces the focusing distance from 1m to about half that, giving a 50% reproduction ratio, and a +3 diopter gives 1:1 reproduction at the closest distance of maybe 15cm.

You don't even need the diopter size to match the lens - I'm using a cheap step-down ring to fit a 46mm diopter to a 49mm filter ring. There's no vignetting because the magnification means you only see the central part of the image circle. I see sets of these for sale at around $12 - they usually call them close-up filters (it's probably worth getting a good brand, though).

For most macro work, loss of auto-focus is not important because you need to fine-focus yourself, not trust to the lens locking on to the right place.

March 19, 2010


Thanks for the comments, Antoinettew and Maen!

March 19, 2010


Thanks for the information. Very useful.

March 19, 2010


Thank you for the great tips! Nice shots :)

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