Let's Get Up Close with Extension Tubes

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Let’s Get Up Close with Extension Tubes

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If you want to get up close to your subject, closer than you can by setting your lens to its minimum focusing distance, then extension tubes are an excellent way of doing so.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

When you turn the focusing ring of your lens away from infinity, the front element moves out from the lens body. The distance between the front element and the sensor (or film) plane is called extension. When your lens is set to its minimum focusing distance, the front element can move no further forward. You have reached the limit of the lens’s design.

An extension tube is a hollow tube that fits between your lens and camera body. It moves the lens further away, increasing the extension of the front element. In turn, this lets you move the lens closer to the subject, increasing magnification, and in some cases even matching the 1:1 magnification of a true macro lens.

This is the Fujifilm MC-EX 16 extension tube that I use. The electrical contacts, that allow the lens and camera body to communicate, are visible at the back (more on the importance of this later).

Extension tubes and close-up photography

This is the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens mounted to an X-Pro 1 camera. The distance between the front lens element and the sensor plane is the extension. This figure helps determine the closest point the lens can focus on (in this case 28cm), and subsequently the magnification.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

Below is the same lens with the MC-EX 16 extension tube added. You can see that the front element of the lens is now 16mm further away from the sensor plane. Now the lens can focus on a much closer point.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

Extension tubes versus macro lenses

Extension tubes are a great tool, but for the best possible optical quality and the most versatility you should choose a macro lens if you can. The reason for this is that increasing the extension of a non-macro lens means that you are using it outside the limits it is designed to work within. Macro lenses, on the other hand, are designed to give their peak optical performance at close focusing distances. They can also focus at infinity – whereas a lens fitted with an extension tube cannot.

The main benefit of extension tubes is that they are small and light. You can carry them around in case you need them, and leave your macro lens (if you have one) at home. They are ideal for anybody who travels a lot, or who wants to keep the weight of their camera bag down.

Cheap extension tubes versus good quality ones

You can buy inexpensive extension tubes from Amazon or eBay. These may look like a great deal but they break the electrical connection between your camera and the lens. If your lens has an electronically controlled aperture that means, you can’t stop the lens down. The camera also can’t record the aperture setting in the EXIF data.

Your camera will still work, and meter the subject to give you the correct exposure. But, given that depth of field at the widest aperture is incredibly narrow, and that you need to stop down to improve image quality, these cheap extension tubes are not of much practical use. They are only useful if you have a lens with a manual aperture ring.

The best ones to buy are those made by your camera manufacturer, or by a third party like Kenko or Vivitar, who make extension tubes that maintain the electronic connection between lens and camera. There is usually a choice of two sizes. The widest will get you closer, and the narrowest will come in useful when you don’t need to be quite so close. You may want to start off buying one or the other, but will probably end up buying both to cope with different situations.

Extension tubes and magnification

Extension tubes are most effective when used with lenses of focal lengths between 24-100mm. They are not so effective when used with telephoto lenses (for these, use a close-up lens). You can’t use an extension tube with some wide-angle lenses as it becomes impossible to focus with it fitted.

To see how much magnification an extension tube will give you with a specific lens, check the specifications on B&H Photo Video (United States) or Wex Photographic (UK). You may also be able to find the information on the manufacturer’s website. The instruction sheet that comes with the extension tubes also has this information, and you may be able to find a copy online.

There’s an easy formula for calculating how much extra magnification an extension tube will give you:

Increase in magnification = extension distance/lens focal length

For example, my Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens has a magnification of 0.17x at its closest focusing distance of 28cm (I found this information in the spec sheet). Adding a 16mm extension tube means the increase in magnification is 0.45 (16/35), giving a total of 0.62x (0.45 + 0.17). This figure is a little academic, but it’s useful for evaluating whether you can add an extension tube to your lens and reach the 1:1 (1x) magnification, offered by most macro lenses.

Extension tubes in action

These photos show you how much difference an extension tube can make.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

This first image was taken with my 35mm lens. This is the closest I could get to the flowers.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

This was taken with the 35mm lens plus 16mm extension tube. Look at the difference.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

This photo was taken with a Canon 85mm lens fitted with a 12mm extension tube.

Extension tubes and close-up photography

This was taken with the same lens fitted with a 25mm extension tube. It shows the huge difference a different sized tube makes to the magnification.

Your turn

Do you own an extension tube? Which ones do you have and how useful are they? Let us know in the comments, it will be useful for other readers who are thinking about buying some.


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  • K

    The aperture can be set by pressing the DoF preview button while simultaneously removing the lens, not ideal but yes there are work around so to using non-electronic extension tubes.

  • Yes that’s true, but I know Canon for one doesn’t recommend that you do this in case it damages the aperture blades on the lens. It’s a good tip but proceed with caution.

  • smat

    How effective will an extension tube work with a 50 mm prime?

  • Very effective. A 50mm prime is a good lens to use with extension tubes.

  • Karen Borter

    I just purchased a set of Kenko extension tubes and use them with my 50mm prime. They work great for what I’ve done thus far. This weekend, I delve into the land of focus stacking for the first time. Timely article.

  • MartyD

    I keep a set of 3 in each of my 2 camera packs and they consist of 12, 20 & 36mm tubes. These have the electrical contacts and work extremely well. They may also be stacked to give up to 68mm of extension. I have used them successfully with up to a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 telephoto lens although sometimes it is more difficult to find the focus point than it is on a prime. These were manufactured by Xit Photo and purchased on Amazon for just under $70 about 2 years ago. I find them very useful.

  • Joe Sobotka

    For the price these have worked well for me. You get a set of 3 and they keep the electrical connection. They’re not the “highest” quality, but like I said they’ve been working fine for me: http://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B00HJD6D66?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00

  • david ennew

    I use a can 70D with a 31 mm extension.i bought them on ebay and while they malfunction sometimes they work fine 99 percent of the time.

  • Stacy Phillips

    I got the set of three Kenko extension tubes in January and they are great! They’ve helped me to learn how to get a more precise focus even when I’m not using them. I did a little comparison of how each tube changed this scene of my Lego Maz Kanata from Star Wars Ep.7.

  • That’s a good endorsement for Kenko, great to hear they have been useful for you.

  • That’s a good endorsement for Kenko, great to hear they have been useful for you.

  • lbrilliant

    One thing not mentioned is that most macro lenses are between f2.8 and f4. I sometimes use my 50mm f1.4 with extension tubes if I want a really shallow depth of field.

  • Thanks for sharing – do the extension tubes make much difference with the 500mm lens? I know the effect can be very small with telephotos.

  • Love the photo, you got really close there.

  • They’re the cheapest I’ve seen that let you keep the electrical connection. Good to know!

  • Thanks for the tip, another brand that I hadn’t heard of before.

  • Stacy Phillips

    Thought that had attached in the original post!

  • stewart norton

    I bought cheap tubes from eBay, I use them with my Nikon 50mm 1.8 which has manual aperture ring. Get great results only issue is dof is so incredibly small wide open have to stop down which makes it very hard to focus in low light
    .

  • I have the Kenko Auto Extension Tube Set DG (12, 20 & 36mm Tubes) for Nikon which I am using with Nikon D5100 (APS-C) and AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 G lens.

    Does the crop factor affect the magnification factor?

    The crop-factor of the APS-C sensor in the Fuji X (and Nikon DX) cameras means that the 35mm lens is ~ 53mm in 35mm sensor format equivalent. If the crop-factor affects the magnification ratio then in reality the 16mm extension tube will increase the magnification to ~ 0.30 or a total of ~ 0.47.

  • Kenko DG extension tubes — I think it was the 12+20+36 together — with a AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on Nikon D5100.

  • Carlos J Encarnacion

    True, a longer telephoto lens will give you less of an effect, as lenses get shorter the effect is more noticeable. I used a three inch long extension tube set with the 500mm lens, the effect is as follows: The lens closest focus is approximately 30 feet and the field of view is approximately 10.5 inches by 16 inches, with the extension tubes I can get 17 feet closer to the subject and the field of view narrows down to approximately 3 inches by 4.5 inches.

  • smat

    I have the Kenko 12, 20 and 36mm tubes and love them so far. Ive used them with my d7100 on my 50mm prime. Good cheaper option to getting a macro. I got the tubes to learn the art of macro before investing in a good quality macro lens. Steve

  • Clarke Warren

    Been using tubes since the ’70’s, and still love them. This is a middle tube, on a 55mm at f27. 2 speedlights – one blue filter, one with amber…

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