How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

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Macro photography is technically designated as the ability to photograph subjects at magnifications equal to or greater than life size. This means that if the subject’s projection size on the camera’s sensor is the same size as the subject itself, then you have life-size magnification, also known as a 1:1 ratio.

Even though many lenses state they have macro functions, a true macro lens must be able to do 1:1 or greater ratio magnification. These specialized lenses allow for a closer focus distance and have great image quality, but they tend to be expensive.

There are cheaper ways to create macro images though. Reverse rings, extension tubes and close up lenses are good options, but my very favorite one is the macro bellows. In this article, I will show you how to use macro bellows to achieve great extreme macro images the easy way.

The Gear

I am very proud to be the lucky owner of one of the very rare Spiratone Kenlock tilt-shift macro bellows sold by Hama in the 80s.

This is probably the rarest and the fullest featured bellows out there, designed originally for 35mm SLR cameras.
In fact, it looks like a scaled down monorail camera with the ability to be adapted to an SLR body.

macro bellow - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

This is an amazing piece of gear, despite the fact it was built in the 80s for film cameras, that remains perfectly actual and can be used with modern digital cameras.

It has removable adapters for different brands of lenses and camera bodies.
In this particular setup, I’m using an M42 mount 50mm Tessar Carl Zeiss Jena DDR 2.8 lens and full frame sensor Canon 5D MKIII.

Because this equipment was made for old cameras with flat fronts without a hand grip like the modern digital ones, I am also using a Canon 25mm Extension Tube between the camera body and the bellows to give me some space for the mount.

This is obviously an expensive setup, but you can find many inexpensive simple function macro bellows that can be used with your existing camera and lenses.

Magnification

The magnification ratio is simply the relationship between the size of the (in-focus) subject’s projection on the imaging sensor and the subject’s size in reality.

Imagine a subject like a bug that is 1cm long in real life;

  • If its projection on the camera’s sensor is also 1cm then you have a 1:1 ratio.
  • You have a 2:1 ration if its projection on the camera’s sensor is 2cm.
  • And so forth…

This magnification is achieved by the extension of the bellows operated by two knobs that allow you to move the front and rear elements.

macro bellow on a Canon body - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

Retracted, the macro bellows creates a smaller magnification.

extended - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

Extended, the macro bellows makes a greater magnification.

There is some really complex optics math behind this magnification process that I am not able to calculate myself. So I used an online calculator to try to understand what I could achieve with this setup and these are the results I got.

magnification - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

I was able to find out that the combination of this particular lens with this macro bellows allows me to get a magnification of 3:1 with the bellows at its minimum extension and 5:1 at its maximum extension.

Focusing

The process of focusing is done by moving the whole set constituted by the lens, macro bellows and camera body along a rail, making it closer or further to the subject.

Although it might sound simple, it is, in fact, a very hard process due to the scale of the image we are composing. Any minimal movement throws everything out of focus. So the use of a sturdy tripod and making sure the subject doesn’t move are critical factors to minimize error and allow precise control.

The focusing process is usually done with the lens at its widest aperture to allow enough light in and then it is changed to the chosen aperture for the image capture.

lens - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

This aperture open/close process is done automatically in modern cameras and lenses, but with most bellows, it is not possible to have the communication between the camera and the lens due to the lack of electronic contacts, so it has to be done manually.

Sometimes this simple act of changing the lens aperture is enough to change the focus plane, making it a really hard process to control.

Depth of Field

This is for sure the toughest factor to control in macro photography. The depth of field is extremely reduced at this magnification even when photographing with the lens’s narrowest aperture.

A tilt and shift bellows like the one I am using helps to minimize the depth of field issues with some focal plane movements. But many macro photographers choose to use a much more complex technique called focus stacking. The process consists of digitally merging multiple images taken at different focus distances, resulting in a greater depth of field in the final image.

Getting the Picture

Now we’ve gone through the basic technicalities it is time to put everything in action.

For this setup, I will be photographing a dead house fly I found near my living room window. The fact that is not moving makes it a perfect case study to use in a macro stage.

To allow me full control of the equipment, I prepared a tethered setup with the camera connected to a computer, being operated by its native capture software. This way I can avoid touching the camera to release the shutter.

For lighting, I will use two speedlights controlled by a transmitter connected to the camera’s hotshoe that also allows power control through software.

setup for macro - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

The intention was to create some light and shadow volume on the fly and separate it from the dark background. Here is the result:

house fly - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

Illuminating such a small subject is a very difficult task as the smallest changes produce totally different results. Such is the case in this next image with softer light where I used only one flash and one reflector, instead of two speedlights.

house fly - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

To me, it is really fascinating to see a fly at this magnification with all the small details. It is a creepy experience for sure.

This was just with the macro bellows retracted. For the full magnification experience, I will now extend the bellows all the way and experiment greater magnification.

This time I will focus on the fly’s head and the lighting will be done with an LED panel and a small reflector.

behind the scenes shot - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

Here is the result:

fly head extreme close-up - How to do Extreme Close-Up Photography with a Macro Bellows

Now we’ve achieved extreme macro with fantastic detail.

Conclusion

It is amazing how an old lens and macro bellows can produce such a high-quality image.

Give this technique a try, I’m sure you will have a lot of fun and make some great images along the way! Please share your macro images with a bellows in the comment area below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Ivo Guimaraes is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

  • Mullchess

    This is probably a stupid question but I have to ask…how did you get the fly into position without damaging the body?

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    @Mullchess. In this particular case, i used fine tip curved tweezers and a magnifying glass to be able to see the fine movements needed to get the fly into position. Needles and toothpicks are also goods tools for this kind of job.

  • Mullchess

    Got it!, Thanks for the response.

  • lbrilliant

    Took these photos of a phonograph cartridge and needle. The diamond on the needle is 0.0007 of an inch. Supermacro indeed! I used an old Nikon bellows with a Nikon to Sony adapter for the camera. I use an Alpha580 camera in live view focus mode. The lens is an old Nikon 100mm macro lens on reversal rings to an M42 front end on the bellows. At magnifications this high, it is difficult to control movement. I use a medium sized sturdy copy stand with a third leg on the bellows end to the rail. To control the diaphragm, I used an old lens cover cut out and adapted to a cable release to push the diaphragm control on the lens’ mount. That way I can set the f stop without touching the lens. For lighting, I have two 1-watt LEDs mounted on flexible bell wire held by a ‘third hand’ base and alligator clips. I can dim the LEDs if needed and position them close to the subject even though everything is close to the lens. Strobes just don’t work when that close to the lens because you can’t get in front of such small subjects and side lighting isn’t always right. You can see the results at different mags. While sharpness is an issue at such extremes, it is possible to photograph objects this small.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/70296c42a4e7d7e5c5494ec9f0b4d8bd6240b939f4b2260adac44fd3fde6d895.jpg

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