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A Poor Man's Guide to Budget Macro Photography

Macro photography can be an absolutely stunning way to view the world as you've never seen it before. However, high equipment costs represent a formidable barrier to entry in this particular field, leaving anyone without a large lens budget left out. Today we'll discuss how to bypass these costs with some cheap and crafty tricks for getting up close and personal with your subjects.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in May of 2010.


Don't Break Your Camera

The methods and devices discussed in this article are exactly what the introduction claims: cheap. Using these will most likely get you decent results, not amazingly professional photographs (though it's definitely possible to get stunning results!).

Some of the methods below, if implemented poorly, could even result in damage to your lens or camera. For this reason we recommend that you proceed with caution and avoid anything that you think could harm your equipment.

Ultimately, the best way to get great results is to purchase a nice macro lens. If you want high quality professional shots, there's simply no substitute. However, if you're just looking to get started in macro and want to have some fun, check out the options below.


Reverse Mounting

budget macro photography

This method is by far the most bizarre. It turns out one of the easiest ways to get a lens to shoot close-up is to flip it around backwards! There are plenty of high-level technical explanations for why and how this works, but unless you've got a strong grasp of the math behind focal lengths and diopters, it's enough to make your head spin.

What you need to know is that reverse mounting can yield high magnification. It's actually a fairly popular technique and can be accomplished in a variety of ways.

DIY Reverse Mounting

As you can see in the picture below, DIY reverse mounting can get pretty crazy.

budget macro photography

This method actually uses an extension (which we'll discuss below) and a reverse mount. What you'll need to do is to take the lens hole cover that came with your camera and cut a big hole in it to give you a fitting that will attach to your camera's body. Then insert a PVC pipe securely into that fitting and place a rubber coupling over the pipe.

Finally, flip your lens around backwards and stuff it into the rubber coupling. Make sure everything is nice and snug so that nothing falls out and smashes to pieces on the ground.

Additional optional steps include sanding everything down and painting it black so that it doesn't look like you've got a giant PVC pipe sticking out of your camera.

For a more detailed set of instructions, check out this step-by-step guide: DIY Macro Lens Reverse Mount Extension Tube

Of course, if you really want to mess up your equipment, you can forgo all that complicated coupling stuff and just use a ton of tape:

budget macro photography

Reverse Mounting Adapters

An easier and much safer way to go is to just pick up reverse mount adapter, also known as macro coupler.

These handy rings contain two male ends: one that screws into the tiny threads on the front of your lens and one that screws into your camera's body. This makes it easy and relatively safe to reverse mount your lens without fear of it falling off.

budget macro photography

Reverse mount adapters are actually really cheap; you can usually pick one up on Amazon for less than $15.

Rather than reverse mounting a lens directly onto the camera body, you can combine it with another lens using a similar adapter. The rig below uses a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens mounted onto a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens.

budget macro photography

Reverse Mounting Example Shots

So you can get a true feel for the quality of results that reverse mounting can provide, here are some shots taken with various reverse mount rigs.

Reverse Lens Macro 001 - Edge of a Canadian Quarter!

budget macro photography

My Eye: Take 2

budget macro photography

The Cozy Eatery

budget macro photography

Your basic US penny

budget macro photography

Crawling Around

budget macro photography

Wheat Husk

budget macro photography

Water Drop

budget macro photography


Extension Tubes

Extension tubes, which can be used alone or in conjunction with reverse mounting, essentially serve to extend the length of your lens. Normally, your SLR won't allow you to take a picture if you're too close to your subject due to focusing issues. By using an extension tube you can get the lens a lot closer to what you're shooting while maintaining focus.

budget macro photography

Extension tubes are generally sold as a set with varying tube sizes. The longer the extension tube is, the closer the lens will be able to focus. A typical set might contain a 12 mm, 20 mm, and 36 mm tube.

Extension tube sets are a lot pricier than reverse rings but still plenty cheaper than a nice macro lens. Most good tube sets will run between $100-200. Here are some links to a few sample tube sets:

And of course, you can just build one yourself with some PVC pipe and a few couplers. Here's a good breakdown of the process: Diy Macro Extension Tube With Pictures And Instructions

budget macro photography

Extension Tube Example Shots

Again, so you can get a sense of the magnification quality, here are some example shots taken with extension tubes. Remember that results will vary drastically depending on the setup and equipment.

Canon with extension tubes

budget macro photography

Macro test shot with Extension tube

budget macro photography

Extension Tube Experiment

budget macro photography

Testing the hacked extension tube

budget macro photography

Day 12 - Extension Tube

budget macro photography

Face of a Southern Yellowjacket Queen

budget macro photography


Bellows

Bellows are bizarre devices that look like they came from the 1950s. Bellows use the same exact principle as an extension tube: by extending the length of your lens they allow you to get closer to whatever you're shooting while remaining focused.

budget macro photography

However, bellows are different in that they have an accordion-like body that allows for a highly controllable range of lengths. Modern bellows allow a great amount of control and very minute adjustments for precise focusing. Further, bellows allow you to reach a longer extension without having to worry about bending your tubes or breaking your camera mounts.

It looks like you can grab a decent bellows for around $50, whether you're shooting Canon or Nikon.

Bellows seem to have a fairly wide range of prices and quality, so be sure to shop around and decide whether your goals and budget are better suited by a basic or expensive set to really ensure you'll be satisfied with the product.

Bellows Example Shots

Finally, here are some photos taken with bellows.

bellows-macro-experiment

budget macro photography

Stamen, Zeiss Flektagon 35mm f2.4 + Macro Bellows

budget macro photography

Anterior Median and Anterior Lateral Eyes of a Phidippus princeps Jumping Spider

budget macro photography

Close Encounter

budget macro photography

Celtic Knot Macro

budget macro photography

RIB

budget macro photography

Salticidae

budget macro photography


Pros and Cons

The techniques and devices above provide photographers with some of the cheapest ways possible to take decent macro shots. Reverse mounting is a crude but effective may to increase your magnification and extension tubes and bellows allow you to overcome focusing problems when trying to get physically close to your subject. You can even mix and match these techniques to really push the limits of what you can achieve.

However, there are definitely downsides. As stated before, all of these methods represent a compromise in quality when compared to an actual macro lens. Further, the DIY procedures can and will fail you if you aren't careful and confident in your ability to create a solid finished product. Finally, many of these devices, especially the DIY versions, will eliminate any of the automatic functions of your lens. Focusing and adjusting your lens settings can therefore be quite tricky (especially with reverse mounting). To add to focusing issues, your DOF can become very shallow at high magnifications and close ranges, making it hard to get a crisp shot. You'll also want to be sure to invest in a good tripod as macro photography tends to require long exposures.

Beyond these global limitations, each method has it's own pros and cons. The reverse mount is simple enough with a converter and can provide great magnification, but you're leaving the inside of your lens exposed to all kinds of dust and foreign debris that can quickly reduce or ruin its functionality. Be sure to keep the lens cover screwed on at all times when you are not shooting to help prevent this.

Extension tubes are easy to install and don't expose your lens to dust but provide extra length and weight that could possibly lead to damage on the mounts of your camera's body. Bellows can be safer and lighter but are considerably more bulky and awkward.


Conclusion

The key takeaway here is that you don't have to possess a large equipment budget to try your hand at macro photography. The solutions above might not result in the highest quality photos, but they get the job done and can be a great point of entry.

Let us know in the comments below which of these solutions you've tried and what you thought of the results. Also be sure to drop in any links you have to example shots you've taken with reverse mounts, extension tubes or bellows.

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