I've been getting into macro photography more and more lately — partly because of Michael Brown — and I've found that there are a number of ways to obtain macro images, some of which are fairly inexpensive. Really, all you need to start with is either a camera with interchangeable lenses or any other type of camera that allows the attachment of filters — such as many of the ultra-zoom models. If you have at least that, there are several methods of getting macro photos out of your camera. Beware, though, once you start getting into macro photography, you'll likely get hooked on it.
So what is macro photography? Many consumer level cameras have a “macro” mode on them, and many SLR lenses claim to be macro. But what is it really? Macro refers to close-up photography. In a strict sense, macro means that the subject being photographed is projected onto the image sensor at a lifesize scale, or 1:1 (one to one) magnification. So those cameras and lenses that say macro, but do not produce 1:1 images, are usually refering to their ability to focus on things closer than normal. In fact, many of the SLR zoom lenses that say macro on them are only capable of producing images at 1:2 magification, or half-lifesize.
What can you do to get 1:1 (or better) images? There are a multitide of options for going macro, and each of them has their own ups and downs. Not only do you have several options, but you have the capability to combine various pieces of equipment for different effects and magnifications. Use the right combinations and you can actually achieve greater than 1:1 magnification, such as 2:1, 4:1, 6:1, etc. Most of the options shown below are aimed at SLR or other removable lens camera systems, but there are also options for compact and ultra-zoom cameras.
THE DEDICATED MACRO LENS
A dedicated macro lens is by far the best option for producing 1:1 macro images, but these are only available for camera systems with interchangeable lenses. A macro lens has a fixed focal length and can produce 1:1 images in addition to focusing out to infinity. This means that you can take super close-up photos of a flower or bug, then refocus and take a landscape or portrait photo without having to switch lenses or remove special macro equipment. These lenses are typically very sharp and fast (large maximum aperture), but a little expensive compared to the other macro options. They come in a variety of focal lengths, but they all have the same magnification capability. The difference is in standoff distance — with higher focal lengths giving you a greater working distance from your subjects. I have a 105mm f/2.8 macro from Sigma, which gives me a 12″ standoff height at 1:1, and it cost about $350.
EXTENSION TUBES AND BELLOWS
Extension tubes (also only available for interchangeable lens cameras) are a cheap method of decreasing the minimum focusing distance of a lens. This means that you can get closer to your subject, thus giving you more magnification. The longer the extension tube, the closer you can focus. The downside to using one or more of these tubes is that you lose the ability to focus out to infinity. The light intensity reaching the sensor also decreases as the lens is moved away, so you'll end up with a slower lens. The upside to them is that they're simple, contain no glass, relatively cheap, and stackable. They typically come in sets of 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm, but you can also find them as single tubes in various lengths. A bellows is simply an adjustable extension tube that costs a lot more. These tubes can also be added to a dedicated macro lens, increasing it's magnification past 1:1. I have a 25mm extension tube from Kenko, which gives my macro lens a magnification of about 1.25:1 and costs about $60.
A reversing ring is similar to a step-up or step-down ring, but it has male filter threads on both sides. This allows you to attach one lens in reverse to another lens. So what does this do for you? It allows you to focus closer to the subject while also magnifying it by some amount (which depends on the focal length of the reversed lens). The most common setup with reversing rings include a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.2 prime lens attached in reverse to either a 100mm dedicated macro lens or a standard telephoto over 200mm in focal length. The reversed lens needs to have a large maximum aperture and the other lens must have a long focal length so vignetting doesn't occur. This setup can be done with fairly little money if you opt for an older prime lens intended for manual cameras. It works best with an SLR system, but I wouldn't doubt that you can do it with an ultra-zoom camera that allows threaded filter attachments. I have a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens that I can use with two of my other lenses, and it cost me $40 on eBay.
A teleconverter is an extra lens that is typically placed between the camera body and another lens on an SLR system. I think there are teleconverters for non-SLR systems that attach to the front of the lens, but I don't know how well they work. The teleconverter just adds extra magnification to the existing lens. Used alone, and depending on the lens you use it with, you may be able to get greater magnification of the subject at close focusing distances and allow you to get closer to “macro” shots. The real benefit to these is that they can be used with other macro equipment such as reversing rings and close-up filters. I don't have any of these yet.
A close-up lens, or close-up filter, is basically a magnifying glass that attaches to the front of your camera lens. It allows you to focus at closer distances than usual, thus creating more magnification. The upside to these is that they are small, lightweight, and easy to remove from the lens by unscrewing them from the filter threads. The downside is that they add another piece of glass (usually of lower quality than in your camera lens) between your subject and your sensor, possibly affecting the overall quality of the image. I don't have any of these either.
When it comes to macro gear, you're not limited to one or the other — you can stack for added magnification! For example, I will typically add an extension tube to my macro lens to get a little closer. Then I can screw on the 50mm lens in reverse and get really close. This same setup also works with my 200mm non-macro lens for even more magnification. You can also add in more extension tubes, teleconverters, and close-up lenses. The things to watch out for when adding equipment together are vignetting and loss of image quality. In the animation above, here are the equipment setups shown:
- 105mm Macro Lens
- 25mm Extension Tube, 105mm Macro Lens
- 105mm Macro Lens, 50mm Reversed Lens
- 25mm Extension Tube, 105mm Macro Lens, 50mm Reversed Lens
- 25mm Extension Tube, 200mm Telephoto Lens
- 200mm Telephoto Lens, 50mm Reversed Lens
- 25mm Extension Tube, 200mm Telephoto Lens, 50mm Reversed Lens
So there you go, the basic optical equipment for macro photography. If you're interested in getting into macro, it doesn't have to be expensive and you don't have to do it all at once. Start gathering up the different pieces, and experiment with combos as you go.
Also check out my follow-up post that talks about more macro photography equipment — including things like tripods, sliders, ring flashes, reflectors, and more.