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Close-up and macro photography continue to be popular with shooters of all levels. Practical applications include product detail shots, food photography, and technical illustration (see image below). But the fun and artistic motivations are undeniable; flowers, insects, creative abstract, and the excitement of discovering the hidden worlds found in everyday objects.
If you’ve been interested in doing some close-up and macro work, but don’t quite know how to get started, this article will show you how, without blowing your budget. Macro, in particular, is often accomplished with high-end specialty lenses and equipment, but there are ways to take impressive close-up and macro shots with little more than the gear you already have.
Food and recipe images are featured in editorial as well as event photography. Here, a close-up shot of this delicious-looking cupcake provides context for the macro shot that follows. This shows how the power of close-up and macro can draw the viewer in and capture the imagination.
Here are three of my favorite low-cost techniques detailed in my new eBook, Introduction to Close-Up & Macro Photography:
If you’d like to get started right away, this technique works great and requires no extra investment. All you need is a camera that uses interchangeable lenses (most DSLRs do). Just remove the lens from the camera and hold it backward against the lens mount to get a high degree of magnification. Any lens will do, but a normal lens, or the lens that came with your camera will probably work best (e.g. 50mm or the 18-55mm kit lens).
Although this is an effective solution, you should be aware that your camera and lens won’t be able to communicate with each other when using this technique. That means no f-stop adjustments or automatic focusing. Fortunately, focusing won’t be a problem using this technique, and you can preset your lens to a specific f-stop using the aperture-locking trick I’ll detail below.
Here are the steps for using this technique:
You can also use an adapter called a reverse ring (or reversing ring) which will allow you to actually mount your lens onto your camera in the backward position. This inexpensive gadget (see image below) is made to screw onto the front of your lens, similar to a lens filter. The other side of the reversing ring fits onto your camera’s lens mount. Make sure to get a reversing ring that not only matches the filter size (thread diameter) of your lens, but also matches the lens mount of the type of camera you’re using.
Whether you’re using the handheld reverse lens technique, or a reversing ring adapter, you can set a specific f-stop, even though your lens is not electronically coupled to your camera. This technique may not work with your particular camera and lens combination, but it works with all of the DSLRs that I’ve used:
Other ways to get good close-up and macro shots on a budget include the use of lens coupling rings, diopters, and extension tubes. Here’s an overview:
A variation on the reverse lens technique is to use two lenses, connected front-to-front using another type of adapter called a coupling ring (below). In this case, one of the lenses is mounted to your camera normally, while the other is in the reverse orientation. The coupling ring features threading on both sides and fits on to the front of both lenses at the same time via the filter threads. Because coupling rings generally feature the same thread diameter on each side, the lenses you use with it will have to have the same filter diameter, or you’ll have to attach a step-up or step-down adapter to one or both lenses.
Be aware that a heavy lens coupled to a camera-mounted lighter (or less solidly built) lens can result in damage to one or both lenses because of the weight and stress placed on their front ends. Also, your camera-mounted lens will maintain the electronic contact with your camera, but the reverse-coupled lens will not, so you’ll have nearly the same limitations as you would with a single reversed lens.
One of the easiest ways to magnify your subject is with a simple filter-like attachment called a diopter (below). You can think of a diopter as a magnifying glass for your lens. They’re very easy to use; just screw one or more diopters onto your lens just like you would with any lens filter. An inexpensive set of diopters (often available for under $15) will give you several magnification levels to choose from. You’ll have to move in very close to your subject to achieve focus, and optical quality won’t always be as good as some of the other options presented here, but you might be very pleased with the results. Because they don’t cost much, are easy to use, and take up very little room in your camera bag, you might consider a set. Make sure to purchase diopters that fit the filter thread diameter of the lens you’ll be using them with.
Finally, my favorite solution for macro on a budget; extension tubes. Your lens mounts to one end of an extension tube, while the other end of the tube mounts directly to your camera’s lens mount. Extension tubes effectively increase the focal length of your lens without adding any glass elements that might reduce optical quality. By doing so, your lens will be able to focus on small objects, at very close distances.
While a good set of extension tubes is going to cost significantly more than a cheap set of diopters, it’s still a bargain compared to an actual macro lens. Some sets feature manufacturer-specific electronic connectors that allow the camera and lens to communicate normally; this allows for aperture and focus control. Plus, your single set of extension tubes will work with all of your lenses; there’s no need for rings or adapters of different sizes for each lens diameter. Extension tubes can be purchased as a set with different lengths for varying degrees of magnification. The tubes can also be combined (stacked) for increased magnification as shown below.
The combination of colors, detail and depth-of-field of this photo, featuring a pollen covered anther of a flower, could have only been captured through macro photography. Extreme close-up and macro give you the opportunity to find amazing beauty in places your eyes might otherwise miss.
In this article, I’ve only provided a small sampling of the many ways to achieve quality close-up and macro images. I encourage you to explore the possibilities using one or more of these techniques, and to consider learning about other types of macro gear and lenses. The world of close-up and macro just might become your next photography obsession!