How to Enjoy Macro Photography on the Cheap

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Macro photography–or, taking photos of things under high magnification–is really fun; the price of dedicated macro lenses, on the other hand, is not. Read on as we show you how to use low cost tricks and techniques to enjoy macrophotography on a budget.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

Dedicated macro photography equipment is pricey–a single high end macro lens can easily cost over $800. If you’re not sure if you want to sink that much cash into an aspect of the photography hobby you’re just starting to explore (or if you’re a die-hard MacGyver-style photographer at heart) there are a wide variety of ways to enjoy the high-power magnification of macro photography without skipping the mortgage payment this month to fund your adventures.

Now, we’ll be the first to emphasize that for serious macrophotography work (e.g. you’re trying to put food in your mouth selling insect macro photos) there’s no substitute for one of those beautifully engineered (albeit pricey) lenses. That said, for someone dabbling with macro photography these techniques are fun and more than serviceable. More importantly, every technique we outline in this guide requires an outlay of $25 or less for the parts (and you could purchase all the parts necessary for all the techniques for $50 or less).

Before we proceed, one thing we’d highly encourage you to do is to check out exactly what people are doing with their various inexpensive and DIY macro rigs. The photos we’ve selected as samples in this tutorial aren’t the most exciting because we’re using them to demonstrate the changes in a baseline image over time when the lenses/techniques change (rather than to dazzles you with our photography chops).

If you want to be wowed by what you can do with reversed lenses, macro extension tubes, and other inexpensive macro techniques you’ll want to hit up Flickr and search for those techniques. You’ll find gems like this photo by photographer Thomas Shahan:

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Here are some links to get you started:

Browsing photos and reading their notes/tags is a great way to get a better sense of how people are using their equipment.

What Do I Need?

To follow along with every section of our tutorial you’ll need the following items (separated by section). We’re using a Nikon camera with a 50mm prime lens as the basis for our macro photography platform. If you’re using a different camera and/or lens you’ll need to adjust the specs for some parts (like the reversing rings) to match the size of the lens/threading diameter on your particular gear.

For all sections:

In addition, you’ll need the following for each technique:

Lens Reversing:

or

  • 1 Reverse Ring Kit ($25) (Highly recommended; Includes mount plus additional parts to protect your lens assembly while reversed.)

Extension Tubes:

Lens Stacking:

optional:

  • 1 Reverse Ring Kit ($25) (Highly recommended; Includes additional parts to protect your secondary lens assembly while reversed.)

In addition to those must-have parts we also strongly recommend a tripod and a remote shutter release of some sort (be it a hard-wired cable or a wireless remote) as macro photography requires a very steady camera and very minute adjustments in distance between the subject and the lens.

At this point you might be thinking “Hey, wait! You said I wouldn’t spend more than $50, but I don’t have a prime lens or a second lens to use for the stacking section!” Fair enough.

First, you don’t need to buy a prime lens for this project if you don’t have one. Prime lenses are ideal because you are able to open the aperture wider than on zoom lenses.

Second, for most major camera brands like Nikon and Canon, you can pick up a brand new 50mm prime lens for around $100. Even if you had no intention of doing macro photography we’d still recommend it because, hands down, the ultra-sharp 50mm prime lenses are the best values in photography–period. Dollar for dollar you just can’t go wrong picking one up.

Even better, 50mm prime lenses are about as ubiquitous a lens as you can find. If you’re not looking for the newest whiz-bang works with digital cameras and modern auto-focus systems lens you can pick up perfectly serviceable 50mm lens manufactured over the last 30 years everywhere from eBay to your local camera shop for an absolute steal–usually $25-40 or less. In the lens stacking section of the tutorial, for example, we’re stacking an old 50mm Nikon lens we snagged off eBay for $30.

Finally, if you read over the list above and you’re a little confused about the difference between a reverse ring mount and a reverse ring (or any other piece of equipment) don’t panic. We cover each component in depth as well as how it works in its respective section.

How to Use a Reverse Lens Adapter

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Just about every kid has, at some point, taken a pair of binoculars and turned them around to look through them the wrong way. Doing so reverses the lens elements and causes the binoculars to make things seem very far away instead of close up.

The same thing happens when you reverse a camera lens. The lens is designed to take something larger than the surface of the film (or digital sensor) such as a person and reduce that person (and the environment around them) to a very tiny space inside the camera.

Here is, for example, what a $5 bill looks like when photographed with a 50mm lens. Nothing unusual here, the 50mm lens is roughly equivalent to the human eye. This is exactly what a $5 bill looks like when you stare at it from the same distance the lens was from the bill (roughly a foot or so). Coincidently, the width of a piece of US currency at the minimum focal distance afforded by a 50mm lens is exactly the right size to fill the frame edge to edge:

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Now let’s look at the same image only with the zoom set to 100% and cropped around President Lincoln’s eyes. This is the maximum enlargement we can get from this particular setup (the standard 50mm lens) without resorting to software-based enhancement. In other words, if we want to blow the image up any further we’re going to lose image quality and rely on the computer to enlarge the image.

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That’s a less than ideal situation, obviously, as there are significant limits to what kind of enlargement software is capable of. Furthermore there is no software around that can put data into an image that isn’t there to begin with. You can’t magically, CSI-style, enhance a photo of a bowl of almonds to the point where you can see the individual grains of salt on the nuts because the original camera never captured the individual grains of salt.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how simply reversing the lens on your camera can yield surprising results. There’s  a good chance you’ve never thought about your camera lens in such a fashion, but it’s essentially a magic shrinking ray that takes all the big stuff in the world around us and makes it appear on a surface the size of a postage stamp (or even smaller in modern DSLRs). When someone snaps a photo of you standing there the lens takes the very large reality of you and reduces you via the lens elements to about 1/4 of an inch tall on the camera’s film/sensor.

If you want to capture really detailed and really close up images, you’ll need a lens that passes the image through in a 1:1 equivalency–rather than taking a large image and making it smaller, a lens with such a magnification ratio captures the image at life size or greater magnification on the sensor/film.

Flipping a 50mm lens around is the fastest and cheapest way to play around with a lens capable of 1:1 reproduction. Let’s flip the lens around using the reverse lens adapter now. First, remove your camera lens from your camera. Second, screw the lens (via its filter threads) onto the male thread adapter of the reverse lens mount. It should look something like this:

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If you purchased the full reverse mount kit (that includes the bayonet-to-filter adapter to project your exposed lens elements) now would be an appropriate time to attach it. If you don’t have a bayonet-to-filter adapter it’s a good habit to keep the plastic element cap that came with your lens over the end when you’re not shooting.

Take a moment to open the aperture of your lens all the way open using the aperture adjustment ring. Note: if your camera lens does not have a manual aperture adjustment ring you will most likely have to put the lens on the camera the traditional way, adjust the aperture all the way open, and then turn the camera off and remove the lens (effectively tricking the electronics in the camera/lens into leaving the aperture wide open).

At any rate, now that you have the lens reversed, you can snap some up close pictures. Let’s take a look at President Lincoln now that we’ve flipped the 50mm lens around. Here is the capture from the reversed 50mm lens (full frame width, cropped at the top and bottom).

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One thing you should notice immediately is how the entirety of the image isn’t in focus. One of the tradeoffs you make when working with macro lenses (be they DIY reversed lenses or full fledged professional macro lens) is that the depth of field decreases significantly as you increase the magnification. Just a millimeter or two of curvature in the $5 bill we were photographing was enough to ensure that while Lincoln’s eye was in focus his ear (a fraction of an inch to the left) was not.

Now, however, instead of the full frame capturing around 6″ at the minimum focal distance, the full frame only captures around 2″. Comparing this to the 100% crop of the standard 50mm image we just looked at a moment ago, we see that the full frame capture of the reversed 50mm image is as close up as the 100% crop of the full frame 50mm. In other words, without even looking at the reversed lens image at 100% we’re already as close as we were at the maximum optical magnification afforded by the regular 50mm setup. With that in mind, let’s look at the maximum enlargement we can squeeze out of the reversed setup.

Here is a 100% crop from the image, demonstrating how much magnification you gain simply by turning the lens around:

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My, what a dapperly etched gentleman! When you flip the lens around you reverse the elements. Now instead of taking a big portion of the world in front of it and making it very small, the lens is taking a very small portion of the world in front of it and making it big. If we attempted to enlarge the original image (the standard image taken with a regularly mounted 50mm lens) we would not see the details we see here (such as the raised cotton fibers at roughly 4’oclock on Lincoln’s iris).

The very definition of macro photography is photography with a lens that reproduces the subject in front of it on the film or camera sensor in at least a 1:1 ratio, a feat we’ve achieved simply by turning a 50mm lens around. (And, coincidentally we only had to spend $5 on a reversing ring to photograph this $5 bill, what a bargain.)

If you’re curious if your setup is capturing a 1:1 or better ratio, a super simple way to test it is to take a photograph of a ruler using the setup you want to measure. Look up the size of the sensor in your camera (A Nikon D90, for example, has a sensor that is 23.6mm wide) and compare that size to the what the camera captured. If you’re capturing at least 1:1 then the portion of the ruler visible in the photo will be 23.6 mm or less (if you could only see roughly 11.8 mm on the ruler, for example, your setup would be reproducing the subject at a 2:1 ratio). Conversely if you can see more than 23.6 mm on the ruler than your setup is producing photos that could be considered close up photos, but not true macro photos.

Stacking Your Lenses

Flipping the lens around boosts your magnification. Putting the flipped lens instead of attaching it directly to the camera body boosts your magnification even further.

To stack lenses you start with a regular lens attached to your camera (preferably a prime lens) and then you add a male-to-male coupling ring–essentially an aluminum ring threaded on both sides with no filter glass in it. This male-to-male coupler allows you to thread a reversed lens onto your existing lens. Thus you can stack a reversed 50mm lens onto a regularly mounted 50mm lens.

You set this up the same way you set up the reversed lens in the previous section but instead of screwing the reversed lens onto the camera body with the bayonet-to-threading mount, you screw it onto to the regularly mounted lens with an appropriate male-to-male adapter. We still recommend using the reverse ring kit pieces that allow you to protect the rear lens element.

A little scratchpad calculation can show you what kind of magnification power you’re going to get out of your lens arrangement. When you stack lenses the formula you use to determine the strength of the magnification is the focal length of the stacked lens divided by the focal length of the normally mounted lens. Thus a 100mm lens reverse mounted onto a 50mm lens would have a 2x magnification (100/50 = 2).

First, let’s take a look at a full frame capture from our stacked 50mm <-> 50mm lens setup:

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In addition to the very shallow depth of focus we saw in the reversed 50mm lens photo, there is a new photography aberration to consider now. In the upper corners and edges of the photo you’ll notice a darkening of the photo reminiscent of old fashioned photographs. This darkening, or vignetting, is a side effect of the lens stacking. By adding extra optical elements to our lens setup we’re losing a little bit of light and that light lose manifests itself in the darkening of the edges of the photograph.

Continuing with out comparison of full frame capture sizes, the original 50mm setup captured 6″ within the frame at minimal focal distance. The 50mm to 50mm lens stack captures roughly 1″. Let’s take a look at the results from our stacked lens setup at 100% crop–back to looking at President Lincoln’s dreamy eye:

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At this point we’re so close that you can see how the individual cotton fibers have absorbed the ink placed onto the surface by the printing press and the hash marks the etching artist used to define the pupil.

Extending Your Focal Length with Extension Tubes

2013-04-12_105642The final technique we’re going to look at today is the use of extension tubes to turn a regular lens into a macro lens. An extension tube kit is exactly what it sounds like, a tube (or series of tube pieces) that you attached to your camera to extend the lens away from the camera body.

Why do you want to extend the lens away from the body? A regular camera lens, say our trusty 50mm lens, has the ability to focus to infinity but a rather limited ability to focus up close (as close as we would like to get for macro photography). As we move the physical lens away from the body, we increase the magnification while simultaneously decreasing the minimum focal distance. It’s possible to add an extension tube so long that the minimum focal distance results in the object you’re trying to photograph actually touching the lens of the camera.

In order to attach your extension tubes to your camera, simply remove the existing lens and attach the extension tube like you would a camera lens (using the bayonet mount on the end of the tube). Then attach the actual lens to the end of the extension tube like you would attach it to a regular camera body.

Be aware that you’ll need to switch your camera to manual mode as inexpensive extension tubes have no electrical contacts to pass information between the lens and the camera body. You can purchase extension tubes which do have this feature, but you’ll spend $150-200 for the extension tube set instead of $12. Furthermore, given that macro work requires extensive manual camera adjustments anyway it’s silly to spend all that extra money when you’ll most likely be operating manually regardless.

Let’s take a look at what kind of magnification we can enjoy if we extend our 50mm lens with all the extension tube segments that came with our extension tube kit (you don’t have to use all the segments, but we’re demonstrating how much magnification the whole kit can provide). Here is a full frame look at our $5 bill using the full extension tube:

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Not bad, our full frame view at this point is less than an inch, without even zooming in to 100% crop we’re so close we can see the single red security fiber embedded in the cotton currency (at the top of the bridge of President Lincoln’s nose). Let’s check out the full 100% crop to see how close we can get:

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We’re close enough in this full size view to see how the ink from the rings of Lincoln’s iris has bled into the surrounding fibers via capillary action. What looks like wrinkles (or waves) in the picture is actually the contrast between the peaks and valleys of the paper itself.

If you’re looking to get even closer to your subject you can combine techniques. Here is a crop at 100% of the $5 bill with an extension tube topped with a 50mm lens which in turn has a 28mm lens stacked over it:

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We’re now so close to that security fiber on Lincoln’s nose that we can see it wasn’t just a single red fiber but a red and yellow fiber.

Tips, Tricks, and Going Further with Your Macro Photography

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Now that you’ve learned the basics of DIY macro photography, let’s look at some simple steps you can take to increase the quality of your photos and your enjoyment of the process.

As we mentioned at the start of the tutorial, a tripod and a remote shutter release are invaluable. Because the depth of field in macro photography is paper thin the slightest change in the position of the subject or the camera can radically shift the focus. This is why macro photography in the field can often be very frustrating for new macro photography enthusiasts–the tiniest breeze is enough to move a flower out of focus and ruin a photo.

When you’re photographing your subject, it’s usually easiest to move the subject to adjust the focus rather than to move the camera. Standard camera tripods don’t have the kind of fine-tooth adjustments necessary to shift the camera lens 1mm but you can easily scoot your subject a hair closer to the camera. If you find yourself really getting into macro photography, you may find it a worthwhile investment to pick up a macro focusing rail (a special tripod attachment that allows you to make very minute adjustments along an X/Y axis).

When it doubt, take extra photos. Ultra-thin depth of field makes it difficult to determine via the viewfinder if you’ve nailed the shot you want. It’s always better to fire off a few extras than to get back to your computer and discover that you managed to get every part of the insect you were photographing in focus but the eyes–which was the shot you really wanted.

Finally, one of the best tips we can offer in regard to macro photography is to relax and enjoy the process. Consider capturing that perfect shot of an insect or flower pistil to be a sort of meditative pursuit that occurs at the intersection of practice, technique, and serendipity.

The photo of the bee above, for example, is my favorite macro photograph of all the  ones I’ve ever taken precisely because of that last bit–serendipity.  It looks like the kind of photo that I must have taken a great deal of time to prepare for and set up, but in reality the photo came about simply because I pulled myself out of a bed on a chilly Sunday morning in September to meander around my back yard looking for something interesting to photograph. The cold had left this bee essentially stranded on the closed-up thistle bud upon which it had landed the night before. It was a perfect opportunity to fire off a bunch of hand-held macro photos without worrying about my subject flying away in a huff.

It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, nor is it the most interesting macro photograph in my collection. It always reminds me, however, of the importance of getting out there and enjoying photography.

Don’t get caught up in having the best lens or the perfect technique. Go buy that $5 reversing ring. Go look for old and cheap but serviceable lens at garage sales and second hand stores to play with and stack on your macro rig. It’s far more satisfying to snap a really cool photo with a MacGyver’d rig than it is to sit around waiting for the day you can buy your dream equipment.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.