Macro photography - the alternatives to the macro lenses

I continue the blog about the Macro photography with the hardware part. There are many ways to take shoots of insects with more than 1:1 magnification ratio.

My advice to you is to try at first the cheaper method. Why you should do that? Well, macro photography isn't for everybody. The DOF is very tiny, the critters are nervous and don't stay put and the odds of a good usable photo are very small.

You can improve your odds not by acquiring more expensive lens and flashes but with technique. Of course, after to learn how to shoot living insects you will invest in a good decent macro lens. But till then let's see what alternatives are!

1. Reversed lens. This is one of the cheapest way to turn a lens into a macro one. The most suitable lenses are the wide ones. The lens must have an aperture ring or you will be forced to stick the aperture with some do it yourself improvisation. There are reversed rings available for all kind of mounts and lenses and they are cheap.

One major downsize is the small distance between the critter and the lens. One big advantage is that you can mount the reversed lens on a true macro lens, giving you a huge magnification ratio (e.g., when an 18 mm lens is reverse mounted on a 105 mm lens the reproduction ratio is 5.8:1).

2. Extension tubes. This is my preferred method and I think this is by far the best way to photograph insects, even in combination with an excellent macro lens like 105mm F2.8G Nikon.

There are two kind of extension tubes, the ones with contacts and the ones without. Depending on your lens you may choose the proper extension tubes set. I use Kenko 68mm with contacts and metallic mount. The tubes must sustain the lens, the flashes and this combo is heavy. I attached a third party tripod collar on one of the extension tubes, this giving more stability when mounted on to the tripod. I usually take photographs by hand, but there are moments when I use the tripod. I will discuss this aspect later, in the future blog posts.

The tubes work best in combination with shorter focal lens. Let's say you want to use a common 35mm Nikon lens. With 68mm of combined tubes you will get almost 2:1 magnification ratio. When it comes about macro lenses the magnification ratio change because the macro lens itself has an internal tube. So with my 105mm lens, when using one stacked 68mm extension tubes I get 2:1 magnification ratio. When using two extension tube sets I get 3:1 magnification ratio witch is pretty cool! Don't ask me about weight and maneuverability, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

There is of course a big drawback. Although the picture IQ is almost untouched you will loose light big time! So consider using a flash if high ISO is not an option.

There is an aspect about the extension tubes that I want to share with you. Don't buy them if you want more that 1:1 magnification ratio and you have a medium focal length macro lens that is NOT true Internal Focus. The working distance will decrease drastically! With my 105mm lens which is true IF the working distance decreases from 15 cm to 12 cm with one extension tube attached and to almost 10 cm with two extension tubes attached. Hope that information helps!

I found recently on EBAY some variable extension tubes which are a really nice solution. They even work with Nikon G lenses and have metallic mount. For around 100 USD I will try one someday.

3. Bellows... they are somehow exactly like extension tubes, but they are extensible and there are some bellows that offers Tilt an Shift. For static photography this is amazing, you get to manipulate DOF the way you wanted. Just search for Nikon PB4 for example. This will be my next logical step in the future. There are hard to find and they best work with medium format lenses.

4. Teleconverters. If you shoot dragonflies it's a must have. Why do I need a teleconverter? Well, the teleconverter increases my working distance and I have more chances to take a photograph of a nervous critter like a dragonfly. The teleconverter alters somehow the photographs IQ so I avoid them for macro photography because they tend to exagerate all the lenses weakness like Chromatic Aberrations.

5. Close-up lenses. This is the way I started. With a Raynox DCR 250 and a 55-200mm Nikon lens. The advantages are that you have a variable magnification ratio from 1:2 to 2:1, which is fantastic in the macro world.

Recently I sold the close-up filter to someone eager to start shooting insects. I explain to him the downsize of this method, like the impossibility to see clear in the viewfinder, the Chromatic Aberrations that are present on a high ration when not using a hood so I advised him to buy a step down step up combination of rings with a metallic hood and not to attach the close-up filter with his universal adapter which does not allow attaching a hood.

I used this close-up filter and developed a technique of shooting blind. I will explain this technique later, but you can see that it produces some outstanding methods. Particularity in the picture I used one extension tubes, the 105mm macro lens and Raynox.

I hope that I was not too technical for you and that this post gives you an idea for further reading. i am also glad to answer your questions. In the next post I will talk about some of the best macro lenses and their best use.

Photo credits: Bogdanzagan.

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Thanks for posting this great info! Your bumblebee shot is totally awesome!!


Great blog, thanks for sharing!


Very useful blog, congratulations!


Very useful blog...I also use reverse lenses for my high magnification macro photography. Reversed Sigma M42 28mm f2.8 and Takumar 50mm 1.7 are great lenses for using in reverse mode. If you can buy Takumar 28mm f2.8 is even better because their superior optics and bulid quality. I plan to buy that lens and replace my Sigma 28mm.


Very nice bugs ! I like to photograph them when I get the chance... They are not easy to do.


Thanks great blog. Useful.


Very useful!Congratulations!


Useful blog, thanks for sharing.

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