Macro Photography Equipment
|January 9, 2013||Posted by Photo GearHead under Photography Articles|
Sooner or later, most people who possess more than just a passing interest in photography end up at least trying their hand at macro photography. If you’ve moved through the world of point-and-shoot snapshotting and on into purchasing your first SLR/dSLR, the chances are good that you’ve either already, or will at some time in the future, end up exploring macro photography. If you’re brand new to macro photography, however, it can be a little confusing. There is a host of specialized macro photography equipment options available for you to experiment with. And, if you have little or no experience with this particular style of photography, you may not be entirely clear on just what types of macro photography equipment is actually a necessity, what types aren’t, and what certain types of macro photography equipment will actually do for your photographs. So, I hope this article will shed a little bit of light on the subject of macro photography equipment.
First off, contrary to what you may have already heard, trying your hand at macro photography will not absolutely require any sort of huge monetary investment. If you’ve already talked to, or read articles written by, an experienced and enthusiastic macro photographer, you’ve probably heard about fancy ring-lights and high-end macro lenses, and the like. And, you may have poked around the Internet somewhat looking for more information on this type of macro photography equipment. If you have, I’m sure you found that the prices for some of this specialized macro gear can really get quite expensive. Fortunately, none of that sort of stuff is absolutely required for starting out in macro photography. In fact, if you currently do not own any macro photography equipment, it’s actually possible to get started taking amazing macro photographs with less than just ten dollars worth of gear!
So, let’s take a brief look at some of the specialized macro photography equipment that photographers use to get those incredible photos:
Macro Photography Equipment:
Macro Extension Tubes: Remember earlier when I said that you could get started in macro photography for under $10.00? Well I was talking about extension tubes. An extension tube is an extremely simple piece of macro photography equipment. They are basically just hollow cylinders — literally, a metal tube. One end of this tube mounts to your camera, just as a regular lens does, and the other end of the extension tube accepts any lens that your camera will accept. This adds distance between your lens and your camera’s sensor, allowing your lens to focus on a subject much closer than it would be able to normally. Extension tubes are usually quite inexpensive, because they don’t posses any expensive optics or complex mechanics. I bought my first set of extension tubes off of eBay from one of those sellers in China for $6.00! And, indeed, such deals seem to be plentiful there.
Don’t expect too much from a $6.00 set of extension tubes, though. Yes, they will work, but it’s often that they’ll not form a perfectly tight fit between your camera and your lens. So, you’ll need to be careful when taking shots to make sure that the extension tube is sitting correctly in your camera’s lens mount, otherwise you could actually get light leaking in. And, you most certainly don’t want that!
If you want a really high-quality set of extension tubes that will work well with your camera, you should expect to pay around ten times the amount you’d pay for those cheap tubes from China. But, still, even at that price, extension tubes are one of the most cost effective pieces of gear when it comes to macro photography equipment. One thing that should be noted, however, is that no matter how much you pay for a set of macro extension tubes, (as long as the mount fit is good and light isn’t leaking in) there will be no difference in image quality from one set of tubes to another. A hollow tube is a hollow tube — whether you pay $6.00, $60.00, or $600.00 for it.
If you’re thinking of adding a set of extension tubes to your macro photography equipment collection, there are some pros and cons to consider: Some of the pros of using extension tubes are that extension tubes are quite inexpensive. They will work with virtually any lens you may already own — so, buying an inexpensive set of extension tubes is like instantly doubling your library of lenses. With one purchase, you now own each lens, AND a macro version of each of your lenses as well. As for the cons: While using the extension tubes, your lenses will lose their ability to focus on distance objects. So, unlike a lens that has macro capabilities, if you’ve got your extension tubes mounted to your camera, then you’re doing macro photography the whole time they’re on there, and you’re not doing anything else. You’ll also lose the ability to control the f-stop of your lens, and the default f-stop on your lens might not be the best choice for doing your macro photography. Extension tubes also force your lens to focus on subjects very close to the surface of the lens. The problem here is that your lens was not designed to do this, and thus, the image quality of your photos may suffer — whereas, with a dedicated macro lens, they were specifically designed to operate in such a fashion.
Close-Up Lenses: Another player in the realm of macro photography equipment is the close–up lens. A close-up lens is simply a type of lens that mounts to the front of a regular lens. They operate in much the same way a lens filter — like a UV filter or a polarizing filter — does. You simply screw the close-up lens on to the front of your regular lens. When they’re mounted, they act like a magnifying glass for your lens. They work in sort of the same way extension tubes work — only, they sort of force your lens to become its own extension tube. When you place the close-up lens on the front of your regular lens, the close-up lens bends the light passing through it and on to your regular lens in such a way that it effectively decreases the focal length of your regular lens. This means that the lens is forced to extend itself in order to focus on the subject, thus increasing the magnification of the subject in the image.
The amount of magnification a close-up lens is able to achieve is rated in something called “diopters” — the higher the diopter, the greater the magnification. It should be noted, however, that unlike extension tubes, close-up lenses do add their own optics into the path of light between your subject and your camera’s sensor. So, not only will the quality of the close-up lens itself affect your image quality, but, as a general rule, the greater the diopter rating of your close-up lens, the greater the increase in loss of image quality as well. Purchasing a high-quality close-up lens, however, can keep the loss to a minimum.
A close-up lens might be a valuable addition to your macro photography equipment collection, but as with the extension tubes we discussed earlier, there are some pros and cons. Probably the greatest advantage, I think, that close-up lenses have over extension tubes is the relative ease of switching them during a photo session. You don’t need to dismount your lens from your camera body if you wish to change close-up lenses. Of course, with extension tubes, if you encounter the need to lengthen or shorten the tube at any point, it means removing your lens from the body. Not only is this just a hassle, but it greatly increases the chances of dust and dirt getting into your camera body and mucking up your sensor or mirror. With close-up lenses, however, your regular lens always stays firmly fixed to your camera. If you want to change close-up lenses it’s just a matter of unscrewing the close-up lens from the front of your regular lens, and screwing another on back on. Close-up lenses also tend to be relatively inexpensive compared to dedicated macro lenses, but not quite as inexpensive as extension-tubes. It’s also worth noting here that the quality of the optics of your close-up lens will affect your image quality, so, in terms of preserving image quality, price is a factor. Whereas low-quality, and thus less expensive, extension tubes will provide no detriment (save for the possible light-leakage problem discussed earlier) to your image quality over high-quality, more expensive tubes, low-quality close-up lenses will!
Some of the disadvantages to using close-up lenses are: Close-up lenses, like extension tubes, will also cause your regular lens to lose its ability to focus on more distant subjects — requiring the need to unscrew the close-up lens in order to shift between macro and non-macro photography. They also place another layer of glass into the path of light between your subject and your sensor. This means that image quality can be negatively affected. The big disadvantage, I find, that close-up lenses have over extension tubes is that you’ll need different sized close-up lenses to fit on regular lenses that have different filter sizes. With an extension tube, switching between one of my 77mm lenses, and, say, a lens with a 58mm filter ring size is just a matter of dismounting the first lens from the front of the extension tube and mounting the second one. However, if I only own a 77mm close-up lens, then I just can’t use it on my lenses that accept 58mm filters, unless I go out and buy a 58-77 mm step-up ring.
Reversing Rings: Reversing rings are interesting little pieces of macro photography equipment. They are simply adapters that mount to the front of your camera just as a normal lens would, but the other end of the reversing ring accepts the filter threads of your lens. What this means is that you are able to mount your lens onto your camera BACKWARDS! So, the end of your lens which normally points into your camera now faces outward toward your subject. Try taking a lens that isn’t mounted on a camera, hold it in your hand, and put it right up to your eye — looking into the opposite end of the lens’s camera mount. Now, put your finger in front of the other end of the lens and bring it toward the lens until it looks like it’s in focus. See how close your finger is to the end of the lens? Well, if you mount your lens on your camera backwards like this, the camera will see the subject in the same way. You’ll be able to bring your subject into focus when it’s right up close to the end of your lens. This, of course, will make your subject appear hugely magnified in your final image.
The pros of choosing reversing rings as your primary piece of macro photography equipment is that, as with extension tubes, there are no added optics in your light-path. So, image quality is preserved. The reversing ring is just a small, hollow ring that accepts a camera mount on one end, and the filter mount of a lens on the other. Reversing rings are also quite inexpensive. They do have some pretty serious disadvantages when compared to extension tubes and close-up lenses, however. For one, they create an exceedingly narrow range of focus. This means that you have to get the focus dead-on. And, this can be tricky. Moving your subject just a fraction of a hair’s width can drop it right out of focus. Like extension tubes, you’ll also lose the ability to control the aperture of your lens. And, like close-up lenses, you’ll either need a different sized reversal ring, or appropriate sized stepping rings, in order to use lenses with different filter thread sizes. But, with all that in mind, reversing rings can still be an inexpensive and useful addition to your collection of macro photography equipment.
Bellows: With all of the other macro photography equipment choices available, bellows tend to not be a very popular options among photographers. Bellows are really just extension tubes — but, instead of being hard, rigid metallic tubes, their main body is made from soft material which can be shortened or lengthened at will — sort of like an accordion. This eliminates the need to remove your lens if you wish to alter your focal length, as you would need to do if you were using extension tubes. As macro photography equipment goes, bellows occupy a relative mid-level area in terms of cost. They tend to be quite a bit more expensive than extension tubes and close-up lenses, but still not as expensive as dedicated macro lenses. (although, some of the more expensive ones really do come very close to being as expensive as some dedicated macro lenses) The bulky and cumbersome nature of bellows, however, pretty much limit their use to studio photography applications, and they tend not to be a very popular choice among the various players in the field of macro photography equipment.
Dedicated Macro Lens: Probably in ever way except for price, a good-quality dedicated macro lens offers the most advantages and the least amount of disadvantages when it comes to the different types of macro photography equipment. What are the disadvantages? Well, not taking into consideration the fact that, among your options when it comes to macro photography equipment, they’re the big boys on the block in terms of price, there aren’t any disadvantages, really. The one thing to look out for, however, is that very often a lens which claims to be a “macro lens”, or have a “macro lens function”, isn’t actually a true macro lens, capable of taking true macro photos. Most experienced macro photographers agree that a true macro lens is one that has the ability to take pictures with at least a 1:1 magnification ratio. A 1:1 magnification ratio means that whatever you’re taking a picture of will appear in the final photo at exactly the same size as it does in real life. Many lenses that claim to be macro lenses, or have a macro function, do not achieve a 1:1 ratio. So, if you’re looking to buy a macro lens, make sure the lens is capable of at least a 1:1 reproduction. If it falls short of that, it’s not really a true macro lens.
Macro Photography Equipment – Flash:
If you’re just starting out in macro photography, and your collection of macro photography equipment is still a little thin, then you don’t likely own any flash suited to macro photography. However, as you do more and macro photography, one of the problems you’re likely to consistently run into is a problem with properly illuminating your subject. With macro photography, you’re always just too close to your subject in order for your regular camera mounted flash to be of any use whatsoever. So, what are your macro photography equipment options when it comes to flash? Well, there are a few.
The “Strobist” route: Strobist techniques aren’t ideal, in my opinion, for macro photography work. But, with practice and experimentation they can be adequately put to use in macro photography. And, the big advantage is that, when it comes to macro photography equipment, as flash options go, it’s a relatively inexpensive one. Inexpensive, but usable, trigger systems and used speed-lights can be purchased easily on-line at prices that wont break the bank. The problem with lighting in macro photography is that you’re going to need to get light to hit the FRONT of your subject. That may sound easy, but it’s really not when you consider that, in macro photography, your subject is going to have a camera parked just an inch or two in front of it. So, if you go the Strobist route, you’ll need to side-light your subject and experiment with bouncing light onto it in order to properly and evenly illuminate it, while eliminating any shadows likely to be caused by the exceptionally close position of your camera.
This can be done, however. It’ll just take a bit of practice in order to get it down. But, I’ve seen some really good macro photographs taken with a single speed-light illuminating the subject from the side, a white bounce card (which was just a piece of white foam-board — available for a buck or two at any art supply store) positioned on the opposite side of the flash. And, another piece of foam board positioned directly in front of the subject with a circular hole cut into it and the camera lens poking though that hole, aimed at the subject.
Ring Lights and Macro Flash: If you’re looking for something that’s more suited to macro photography right out of the box, then you’re going to want to go with a ring-light (or ring-flash)/dedicated macro flash system. These items, however, can be quite pricey macro photography equipment options if you’re looking for quality gear. The top of the line ring-light systems can run up to $2,000.00 – which puts that kind of macro photography equipment out of reach for a lot of photography enthusiasts. In terms of resultant image quality and ease of use, though, no other macro photography equipment options really beat them.
Ring lights and macro flash systems are simply regular strobe lights that mount around the front of your lens. The difficulties experienced with flash in a macro application stems mostly from the directionality of light at such short distances. Such macro flash systems attempt to overcome this by directing the light in at the subject from multiple angles, and by bringing the light-source in close to the subject, eliminating any blocking caused by the camera.
So, that’s it for this primer on macro photography equipment. I know I’ve really just scratched the surface here in providing short, general descriptions of what each piece of macro photography equipment does. But, hopefully I’ve provided you with a decent jumping-off point to guide you in the right directions for following up with your own research. There’s plenty of great, informative sources on the Internet that will explain all of the various types of macro photography equipment in much greater depth.
And, if you have any questions after reading this article, please feel free to leave a comment below! Or, why not say a few words about your experiences with macro photography? Perhaps you could provide a few of your own helpful tips to assist readers in choosing the types of macro photography equipment that’s right for them?
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have tons of fun with macro photography!