Alternatives to Buying a Dedicated Macro Lens for your DSLR

Alternatives to Buying a Dedicated Macro Lens for your DSLR


If you want to experiment with taking Macro images but don’t have the budget to be able to afford a dedicated Macro lens for your DSLR there are a number of other Macro lens alternatives worth considering.

Each alternative has their own advantages and disadvantages in terms of price, portability and image quality – but it’s amazing at what can be achieved on a budget to give you a taste of the world of macro photography.

Close Up Lenses

Close-Up-LensClose up lenses (or supplementary lenses) are perhaps the cheapest alternative of getting into Macro Photography on a budget. These small lenses screw into the filter thread of your camera’s existing lens and allow the lens to focus closer than it’s normal minimum focal length. In doing so they allow you to fill more of the frame with your subject.

These lenses often come sold in a set of 3 and are labeled as +1, +2 and +3 etc (with +3 being the largest magnification). The ones pictured above are made by Bower and are +1 +2 +4 Close Up Lenses Set.

The positives of Close Up Lenses are their price and portability. They also allow you to retain all of the auto features of your lens (metering, focus, aperture control etc). The downside is that the loss of quality of image (you lose infinity focus and you’re also introducing an extra element to shoot through) can be more significant than some of the other methods.

For some examples of what can be achieved with close-up lenses check out this thread in our forums.

Extension Tubes

Extension-TubeAn extension tube is a tube that sits between your lens and DSLR. This lengthening in distance between the image sensor in your camera and the lens allows you to focus closer than the normal minimum focusing distance of the lens and as a result you can get in nice and close to your subject and make it bigger in your frame. They are usually sold in sets (of different length tubes which can often be added together to give you a long tube).

The one pictured above is a Kenko Extension Tube.

The ‘cost’ of using an extension tube is that less light gets to your image sensor meaning you need to make adjustments in your camera’s settings (wider apertures, slower shutter speed or higher ISO) to get the same exposure. Also you may in some cases lose auto functions on your lens (check before you buy as some manufacturers allow you to retain Auto Exposure and Focus while others require you to shoot in manual mode).

Extension tubes cost more and are larger than Close Up lenses (you again lose infinity focus) but can give excellent results – especially as they don’t introduce any extra elements to have to shoot through (they are just hollow tubes with no glass in them).

I just read a good little review of extension tubes which might be helpful. There are also a couple of threads on extension tubes in our forum here.

There are other options – for example reversing rings (to allow you to fit a lens on your camera backwards) but the above two methods are those that I have tried. Of course I ended up investing in a dedicated macro lens because I enjoyed macro photography so much (I got a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Lens which I’m very happy with but I’m constantly amazed by the shots that other DPS members are getting with their cheaper options.

I’d love to hear from members as to what kind of Macro gear they use. Do you have a dedicated macro lens or do you use one of the alternatives above – or another one again?

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Edmund May 7, 2013 04:06 am

    Although I understand completely the physics behind a lens reversal for macro, what I don't understand is how anyone dare risk it. Say you have your cherished prime lens, maybe a 50mm f1.4, you have kept a UV filter on the front ever since it was new (and I have been grateful for this on more than one occasion). You are careful when changing lenses to make sure that no dust hits the rear element of the lens or the sensor - you change lenses inside the car or where there is no dust or wind and you immediately put the rear lens cap on. Yet some people will take their lens and reverse it - there is no protection available, no filter fits the camera side of the lens, and then you go poking it about really close to the subject where an unseen branch can strip the multi-coating so easily.

    I have to say that this seems the worst of the options. Ruining your lens is ridiculous compared to the three other alternatives of front filters, extension tubes, or, best of all, a macro lens. Buy an old but good quality lens and extension tubes, get used to manual and don't ruin your wonderful prime.

  • C. Souvik August 26, 2012 05:48 pm

    gone through the threads carefully... and found interesting... which option will be good for my 18-135 canon efs lens? will these work on my lens? or only for 18-55?

  • v r veluri September 5, 2011 02:47 am

    can one use closeup lenses of yore with sony alpha 330 dslr? if so how to? if not why not? help appreciated

  • Ram Iyer April 30, 2011 04:36 pm

    the above two shots was taken using screw-in 10+ lens and extension adapter with 18-55 std lens. pls. comment

  • CathyP March 13, 2009 10:19 pm

    Miriam, you didn't make a mistake by purchasing a macro lens. I have one for my film SLR and love it. I just got a DSLR and am looking to get a macro lens.

    I'm curious as to whether anyone has used a lensbaby. You can purchase a set of 2 macro filters to go with it. The whole thing would be about $300, close to the budget I have set for a macro lens.

    Also, anyone have any suggestions as to whether or not to go with a telephoto macro lens as opposed to a straight macro? Also, what brands would you recommend. I'm not sure I'm prepared to spend over $700 for a 105 mm macro. Should I save my pennies until I can afford that? Thanks so much!

  • miriam September 4, 2008 07:02 am

    are you available to discuss using a macro lense. i just bought one and i'm afraid i made a mistake.

  • Ion Ditoiu February 20, 2008 03:24 pm

    Ok, guys, so everybody knows all these alternatives to a real dedicated macro lens, MF or AF: reversed lenses, tubes (MF or AF), bellows, compact digicams, using regular taking lenses or, better, enlerging lenses. And there are zillions of sites describing one, two or all these alternatives. In (almost) all the above alternatives, there is always one or more challenges: narrow depth of field, short working distance and lack of AF.
    But I've never read, heard or seen the best alternative of all: an enlarging lens (usually a Rodagon or a Schneider)
    combined with "somethimg" that makes the entire rig to work AutoFocus, and to give you a very confortable working distance (somewhere between 18 and 25cm), a triple (yes, you read right: triple!) depth of field and a total price under $70.
    Yeup,I did build such a rig and, believe me, it is better than any 100mm (90 or 105, or even a 150mm) AF dedicated lens under all these requirements: working distance, AF, price, depth of field and, possibly, resolution, since we're talking a Rodagon 80mm f/4.
    Try it, just try it hard, and you'll see it.... It is true, it took to me almost one year of work with trials and errors, but finally, i did it.

  • Cheryl February 10, 2008 10:40 am

    I have a Sigma 17-70mm f2.8 lens that is called a macro lens. I know it isn't a true macro, as the magnification is not 1:1, and it's a zoom. But I really like it, and the minimum focusing distance is 0.65 ft. This is what I use for macro photography.

  • John February 2, 2008 02:41 am

    After pricing a macro lens for my D70, I decided to purchase another camera. No, not to replace my D70. I purchased a Nikon point'n'shoot camera that has macro capability. As an added benefit, it is small enough that I can take it on extended bike rides. It is now a few years old and I use it primarily for taking pictures of "white board" discussions at the conclusion of business meetings.

    I also have some extension tubes and a reversal ring that I bought in 1970 for my Nikon FTN (A film camera... wow, 38 years ago and still works as good as ever... Somehow, I don't think the D70 will hold value as well as an FTN). I haven't used them yet, but have great plans...

  • Louella January 31, 2008 01:41 am

    I haven't gotten it right with the reverse lens technique so far. Nevertheless, I've bookmarked this page as one of my favorites. I'll keep trying. Thanks!

  • Matthew January 29, 2008 02:58 am

    I've been having a lot of fun with my Nikon BR-2 reversal ring. Although a bit more difficult than a true macro lens, its a fun challenge!

  • Lisa's Chaos January 27, 2008 02:50 pm

    I have the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM and LOVE LOVE LOVE it!Here are a couple of my recent favs. :)



  • NikonnooB January 25, 2008 05:02 pm

    A true macro lens is always the preferred option (just as the best equipment is always the preferred choice), and I'm sure if everyone who wanted to merely experiment with macro could afford the financial output for a true macro lens, we'd all buy one.

    The fact is, many of us are learning here, and trying out new things. These close up lenses allow a new user (or one who isn't necessarily out to solely shoot macro) to work with up-close shots, getting a reasonable facsimile of a 1:1 or 2:1 shot, without us breaking the bank. When we finally fall in love with shooting close, we can go out and spend the big bucks.

    Thank you for this article, and the ensuing replies. It's good to see everyone's viewpoints on this one.

  • Brian Auer January 25, 2008 01:42 pm

    I'm a real fan of the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. I've got the 105mm version from Sigma, and it's become my favorite lens for all types of shooting. I actually rarely use it as a macro lens and it's tack sharp and the bokeh is amazing for standard shooting -- something you can't get with extension tubes or close-up filters.

    Those things are nice as a cheap alternative to a dedicated macro lens, but the downside to them is that you lose the ability to focus out to infinity with them attached. That's why the dedicated macro is definitely worth the extra cash.

  • Albert Reingewirtz January 25, 2008 07:50 am

    I have used bellows and tubes but prefer tubes ever since the Exacta VX. Today's tubes are even better with a Canon EOS the camera does all the work except the fine tuning of focusing is a bear. A hair too much and it's lost. But you do everything patiently and with care ... amazing!

  • Azeem Qais January 25, 2008 06:17 am

    When I was having Sony DSC-H5 (point and shoot) I used close-up filters and they are great, specially with the longer focal length you get very good bokeh.
    These two shots are my favorites which I took from close-up filters.
    Now when I upgraded to Canon EOS 40D, upon Darren’s advise I got Canon 100mm Macro and I am always thankful to him for his valuable suggestions and very informative posts.

  • Paul LeGrand January 25, 2008 04:24 am

    There's no substitute for a dedicated micro lense like Nikon's Micro 60mm f 2.8. I had screw on closeup lenses for years and rarely took them out of the box. Now, when I go out to do nature photography, the little 60mm Nikon lens lives in my pack.

  • Alex January 25, 2008 01:01 am

    I still think that a real macro lens is the only way to go.
    no cheap thrills here. Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro 1:1 is one of my fav. lenses. very sharp.

  • Arie Kraai January 24, 2008 06:49 pm

    There is flexible approach to the idea of extension tubes: it's a bellows, put between the camera and a lens. The latter can be your standard lens, a cheap short tele prime or a dedicated lens like my Pentax SMCP Bellows 100mm f/4.0.

    The lens was 80 euros and the bellows another 25; together a fairly cheap way to have maximum flexibility in distance to the subject and magnification.

    Fully extended the exposure times go up, but Pentax users have stabilisation available anytime, so this works perfectly!

  • udi January 24, 2008 05:14 pm

    Great post Darren,
    If you just want to experiment with macro photography a non dedicated lens or extension tubes are the right way to go.
    of course you can always go DIY.
    - udi

  • Luis Cruz January 24, 2008 11:48 am

    At one point, I was tempted to get the EF-S 60mm macro, but I decided I couldn't justify the expense. For now, I just stick a lens backward on the camera.

  • Neil Galloway January 24, 2008 09:14 am

    I just purchased the Hoya 1x,2x,4x set for Christmas. They are very handy if you don't want to spend the money on macro lenses or are confined for space in your bag then they are an excellent way to go.

    I bought the 52mm filters for my 52mm Nikkor lens and it works quite well.

  • Klaidas January 24, 2008 07:28 am

    Jason, yes, I understand. But usually a tripod is much easier to setup than just using a table (though I have used tables and chairs for longer exposures too).
    If you have an interesting macro idea, and have the skills/luck to convert that idea to a picture, a dedicated macro lens would help a lot. I usually prefer saving up/leasing for photography equipment (well, and any other equipment, mostly), which is pretty expensive. The only exception was Canon's f/1.8 nifty fifty :]

  • Cliff Johnson January 24, 2008 06:02 am

    My wife got me a set of 4 close up lenses (+1, +2, +4 and +10) for Christmas and I absolutely love them. It's amazing how much more detail you can get in shots and how it effects your depth of field. I'm sure it's not the same as having a dedicated macro lens, but for $20 or $30 you can't beat the cost to results ratio. I think that at least 2 of the last 3 photo assignment shots I've posted have been using one of the lenses, including this weeks:

  • Denise January 24, 2008 05:08 am

    Thanks for the great information. I fell in love with macro photography when I owned my first digital camera, the Sony Cybershot, and have been longing for macro after the purchase of my Nikon D40. I really want a dedicated macro lens, but can't afford it right now, or, the ones that are affordable really don't give that great of a magnification, which to me is what Macro is all about! I'll have to give some of the cheaper alternatives a try.

  • Elizabeth January 24, 2008 04:14 am

    Huh! I have an extension tube for my dad's old (non-digital) SLR, and I always wondered what it was for!

  • Pete Langlois January 24, 2008 04:01 am

    Canon 500D is a good way to get closeup w/o a ton of cash.

  • Jason January 24, 2008 02:30 am

    Klaidas, I don't agree with that at all, there are viable alternatives to a number of things in photography for those that can't afford the so called "proper" equipment... in fact I've seen better shots taken with some of these alternatives and DIY ideas than with equipment created for those purposes - whether it be macro or fisheye or lighting even... it's not the lens that makes the photographer, although it can help ;)

    Oh and you don't have to buy a tripod... tables, chairs, counters, fence posts, etc... can be handy alternatives... I have a couple tripods, and I don't always use them - if I can set it on something close and avoid tripod setup hassle then I will!

  • Jason January 24, 2008 02:25 am

    I'm awaiting my Raynox DCR-250 that Spica mentioned above... seems like a good cheap option as well and I've seen some excellent photos others have taken with it already.

  • Klaidas January 24, 2008 02:01 am

    Buy a macro or stay out of macro. Might sound arrogant, but hey... it's something like "buy a tripod or stay out of 30 second exposures".

  • Don January 24, 2008 01:49 am

    I have a set of close up lenses by Hoya 52mm 1+ 2+ 4+ that I bought about 30 years ago when I was shooting with my old Nikon FTN with the Photomic finder and I still use them today with my D50 and D40, they were well worth the money, no idea what they cost today.

  • Patty Hankins January 24, 2008 01:02 am

    I use the Canon 100 f/2.8 Macro lens which I love.

    I am thinking of getting an extension tube for use when I'm traveling. I usually don't take my Macro lens with me if I'm flying and space in my backpack is an issue. An extension tube will give me some macro capability - without taking up as much space in my pack.

    Thanks for the info


  • Aaronth January 24, 2008 12:55 am

    You can also go super-cheap and super sloppy - just use lenses you probably already own and do a 'poor man's macro'. The way I do this is to take a Canon 50mm prime f/1.8 (the 'plastic fantastic') and affix it backwards onto the stock 18-55mm lens that came with my Canon 20D. I'm not sure exactly what focal length this gives, you lose a lot of depth of field, and you end up placing the lens about half an inch away from the subject, but it's really easy and really cheap!

    Here's a view of what the setup looks like:

    Here's a sample of what you can do with it:

  • My Camera World January 24, 2008 12:50 am

    The close-up lens are a good cheap alternative. While there is some loss in quality they still make good images and allow you learn more about macro photography before you jump to a true macro lens.

    One major downside is that you are now required to move very close to subject and this may disturb insects and block some light.

    With extension tubes a good fast lens helps as the tube cause a decrease in light and therefore may affect auot focus. Not a big issue if you are not trying to capture fleeting insects as I prepare manual focus when I can.

    I highly recommend the Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens.

    I like the effeect created by reversing a 50mm lens, cost only a few dollars for the ring to connect to your camera.

    If you check out my blog I wrote an article with using the 50mm lens reversed and you will see the types of images that you are able to achieve.

    Niels Henriksen

  • keyworks January 24, 2008 12:48 am

    reverse lens anyone?

  • Spica January 24, 2008 12:46 am

    I have a Raynox DCR 250 close-up lens that I can add on almost any lens. You don't have to screw it to your lens and it can adapt to any filter diameter from 52 to 67mm. And it gives great results.

  • Marcus January 24, 2008 12:43 am

    I recently picked up a set of closeup "filters" for about $40. A relative of mine was trying to sell some jewelry on eBay and wanted some closer shots, so I thought it'd be fun to try. I couldn't believe the quality of the shots I was able to get with just my D40 and these cheap lenses. For what I use them for, these work fantastic, and I have no intention of picking up a dedicated macro lens. Here are some of my sample shots: