5 Cheap Alternatives to a Macro Lens

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I'm Rob, the editor of Light Stalking. I try to keep this ship on course.

At some stage, almost any photographer will be bitten by the macro bug. Something about seeing things close up in ultra-high definition attracts almost everyone to flirt with the world of macro photography at some point on their photographic path. But a macro lens can be expensive and many of us are not sure about spending a lot of money on a lens that we may not end up using that much. Luckily, there are a few readily available alternatives to buying an expensive lens that will let you dip your toes in the world of macro without jumping in the pool.

Female Ommatius Robber Fly by Thomas Shahan, on Flickr taken with a combination of the options below.

Extension Tubes – These empty tubes are placed between you camera and an existing lens (I use my 50mm, but they work on others). Basically, the further away from the sensor that the lens is, then the greater the magnification of the image will be. The cheaper ones have no electronic contact points meaning that you will have to control the focus and aperture manually. More expensive ones allow this automatically. You can pick up a set of Kenko extension tubes (new) on ebay from around $30.

Eye Arrangement of a Hogna Wolf Spider by Thomas Shahan, on Flickr taken with Extension Tubes and Reversed 28mm lens (see “reversing ring” below)

Bellows – A macro bellows works on much the same principle as extension tubes by fitting between your camera and existing lens in order to move the lens further away from the sensor. The effect is a magnified image. The difference is that you can control that distance exactly as the bellows allow you to slide the lens out along rails to your desired magnification. I picked my Macro bellows up on ebay for about $80.

20110327-IMG_3957 by kellyv, on Flickr taken with Bellows

Reversing Ring – These cheap little gadgets simply allow you to put your lens on backwards. A cheap one won’t have any electronic contact points, so once again you have to control aperture manually and focus can be controlled mainly by moving towards or away from the subject. You can find a reversing ring on ebay from around $15. I use one to reverse my 50mm and it works fine.

Commelina communis (露草) by onigiri-kun ~Busy~, on Flickr taken with a Reversing Ring

Lens Coupler – You can also get a cheap device which allows you to attach a lens to your camera in the normal way, but then add a reversed lens on the front of that. It’s a similar process to a reversing ring, but allows you to use that extra lens (and its associated automatic functions). These start from around $5 on ebay.

Close Up Filter (aka close up lens) – Another cheap option is to add one of these bad boys to the front of your existing lens. These lenses decrease the minimum focussing distance, allowing you to get a lot closer to a subject. You can also stack several close up filters to increase magnification even further.

close ups 5-19 024 2 by Sarah_Jones, on Flickr with a Close Up Filter

A Note on Quality

These options are really to ease you into the world of macro photography without breaking the bank. Many of the options come with their own set of problems though. For examples, close up filters will give you problems with chromatic aberations and reversing rings can be a great way to get dirt inside your lens. Certainly none of these options is as “easy” as simply dumping a lot of cash on a great macro. But remember that skill can make up for a lot of the problems. Case in point is the stunning macro photography of Thomas Shahan, much of which is done with a bellows and reversing ring.

Use these options to test your dedication to the world of macro photography. If you find that you’re loving it so much and feel that you’re being held back by your equipment, then by all means explore more expensive lens options. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an expensive lens is going to improve your skills. As you can see above, there are some very stunning things you can do with the “cheap” options in macro.

12 thoughts on “5 Cheap Alternatives to a Macro Lens

  1. Fotomaestro

    i love the close-up lens like the raynox dcr250 because it allows you to use all your current lens function (AF, aperture setting) & you can easily change from macro photography to portrait/landscape photography by just attaching/detaching the close-up lens… I also use the reversing ring because it allows me to use different brand of lens (e.g. Nikon/Canon lens on a Lumix body) because they don’t need any electrical contacts, but everything had to be done manually, which is not a bad thing in shooting macro… 8-))

  2. Joel

    You can also get the macro view by simply freelensing your current lens. No additional equipment needed. It’s the same principles as the extension tubes or reversion the lens. The difference is that you simply hold the lens without it being properly attached to the camera. You can also get intentional light leaks, a tilt-shift effect or lens baby style focus.

  3. Kimbelry

    Regarding the comment about Macro Bellows, do you need a macro lens or will any lens work? I do have a macro 100mm 2.8 Canon, but how do i know what bellows to get? Can somsone help me understand this?

    Thank you so much!

  4. Paul Chambers

    I am looking to get a macro lens but confused about focal length , if macro lens all have a 1:1 Ration what difference does the focal length do . I currently got cheap extension tubes and 70mm-150mm manual lens can get good results with a lot of fiddling . I also have a 50mm manual lens but not tried that yet.

    Interesting subject

    Paul

    1. Victoria

      The length of the lens determines how far away from the picture subject you can be to get that 1:1 ratio. For example, I have to be much closer to a flower to get a 1:1 ratio on my 60mm macro lens than I would if I used the 100mm macro lens. They both let me get close details, but the longer focal length of the 100mm means I don’t have to be as close to the object physically. In deciding which lens to buy, you’ll want to consider your camera’s sensor (full vs crop) and what you want to shoot with it. Shooting bugs is better on the longer macro lens because they fly away if you get too close. Flowers can be done on the smaller because they don’t run off.

  5. leendertv

    Hi,

    I use the Raynox DCR250 with a Olympus kitlens (Zuiko 40-150mm).

    Some results:
    [img]http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5145/5816416906_b5927506c6.jpg[/img]

    [img]http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6038/5901638379_074fa5abce.jpg[/img]

    The Raynox DCR250 works good for small insects!

  6. Tom

    Extension tubes rock for a solution that’s affordable and doesn’t leave you taking the risks of dirt/dust or adding inferior glass into the mix.

    They’re often sold in stackable sets of three, and if you’re the least selective during ordering you’ll get all your lens functionality and quality.

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