macro photography lenses

This post will cover 5 ways on how to avoid the high cost of macro photography lenses. I don't have anything against buying a good lens for shooting macro photography. I'm just like you-I don't want to spend a ton and I look for ways to save money on most of my photography gear.

1. save money on your lens by going short

If you go ahead and decide to spend money on a macro lens, you still have a way to keep the price down. Typically traditional macro photography lenses are generally between 50 and 200mm in focal length. But what's the best length lens for the macro photography you do?

The better quality macro lenses have a fixed focal length. They don't zoom, so you want to get it right when you choose the best close-up lens for your needs.

  • The longer macro lenses have a lot more glass and are quite a bit more expensive. With a longer working distance they are good for photographing insects that won't stay put if you get too close. 
  • The medium length sizes are 90-100mm, are the most popular, and usually the working distance is in the 6-12 inch distance range.
  • The shorter lenses are good for general macro photography and are the most affordable for you to acquire. They require a close working distance to the subject. The really short macro lenses are for cameras with small sensors.  Depth of field improves but you have to work at very close distances. 

Many zoom lenses have macro settings, but they often don't have a full 1:1 magnification capability. What's that mean to you? Maybe that's not such a big deal. You really don't have to have a 1:1 magnification to create some great close up images. Let's explore that next.

2. macro photography with zoom lenses

macro 1:1 magnification diagram1:1 Magnification

You can avoid the high price of a dedicated macro photography lens by just using a zoom lens that is designed to include close focusing. After all, do you really need to achieve that 1:1 magnification get get some great close-up photos?

A true MACRO lens can produce an image on the sensor where the subject is exactly the same size at it is in real life in front of the camera. If you photograph an insect that is one inch long a true macro lens will give you an image on your sensor that is exactly one inch long too.

macro close up beetleBeetle Super Close Up

In the days of film photography, macro photography was very technically challenging. Because many modern digital cameras have smaller than full-sized sensors, it's easier to get good results with macro photography.

3. macro photography lens alternative

One of the ways to save money on getting macro photography equipment that avoids the expense of getting a true macro lens is to get extension tubes.  This is the way I've saved on buying a true macro lens for many years. That's the fact, Jack. These tubes contain no lens elements inside so there's no possible degradation of the image at all.

This is my favorite of the 5 ways to save that this blog post covers. I like to save money and I'm a big fan of what matters most to me. That's image quality. It's an oldie but goodie way to save on macro equipment that's been around along time. I've used a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens combined with these stack-able extension tubes as a handy alternative to a macro lens for many years.

prime lens and extension tubesAlternative to a dedicated macro lens

How close you can get with extension tubes

This first photo of the branch was taken without any macro assistance from any special lens, filter, or tubes. The minimum focusing distance to the pine cone is about 27 inches to the subject.

sample no extension tubAs close as I could get with no extension tube.

With a normal minimum focusing distance of just under 3 feet for this lens, I would not be able to get enough for a decent shot of the texture in my subject.

I used the same 85mm lens with a 13mm extension tube to take this photo below of the same branch.  

85mm lens + 21mm extension tubeAs close as I could get with a 13mm extension tube.

With the single 13mm extension tube, my minimum focusing distance goes all the way down to about 13 inches or about 1/2 of the distance.  Extension tubes are stack-able and can be stored with lens caps on both ends to keep them dust free.

In the close up photo below I was able to move all the way in to less than 10 inches with the 85mm lens.

85mm lens + 21mm extension tubeAs close as I could get with a 21mm extension tube.

The photo above feels more like it was taken with a traditional macro lens. What happens when we fully eliminate the cost of a macro lens capable of super close photography:

how close can you get when using 3 extension tubes

Scroll down just little bit more to see another degree of magnification. This time it's the result of using 3 extension tubes at the same time, rather than a macro photography lens. 

Macro photography lens extension tube setWhen you use a set of 3 macro extension tubes
85mm lens + 3 extension tubesAs close as I could get with all 3 extension tubes.

Using all three at once would more than quadruple your ability to come in closer and get a great magnification. 

4. Use screw on magnification filters

close-up lens filters

This is my own least favorite. This is exactly what I did when I first played around with shooting close-ups as a pre-teenaged photographer. My father had screw-on filters.

They were fun to use, no doubt, but the image quality was pretty poor. They were great for me a beginner macro photographer, but my images were not very sharp.

A close focusing filter is just a thicker filter (like a mini magnifying glass) that screws onto the end of whatever lens you're already shooting with. When you use one you'll be able to focus from a closer distance to your subject.

advantages of using a filter instead of a macro lens

  1. You save money over buying a macro lens.
  2. They're small and easy to carry anywhere.
  3. Like extension tubes  you can buy a set of them to save money and they can be used separtely or in tandem to get different levels of magnification.

disadvantages of using a filter instead of a macro lens

  1. Image quality suffers significantly. Screw-on close focus filters are made up of just a single lens element.
  2. You can't take sharp images of distant objects when close-up filters are screwed onto your lens.

5. Lens reversal adapters.

You can save money and avoid buying a new macro lens by using a reversing ring adapter on any lens you already have. That's a separate technique that we won't delve into too deeply in this post, but here are points on saving money that way.

  • First, You will get extremely close focusing distances to your subject
  • Secondly, the back lens element on your lens will be exposed to potential damage/scratches because it will be fully exposed and super close to your subject.
  • Finally, your focusing and all camera settings must be done manually and your lens can only use the wide open maximum aperture.

Here is a simple video that show you how to use a reversing ring and turn yours your everyday lens into a super close-up lens so that you won't have to spend money on a true macro lens. Using a Lens Reversal Ring.

Keep shooting. Keep learning. Keep improving

Bruce Lovelace signature

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