One of the great things about macro photography is its ability to see, capture, and display hidden or unnoticed subjects. In other words, a tiny, unseen world is there for exploring, and it doesn’t take much special macro photography equipment to dive in.
As I explain in this guide, you can start simple. Then, if the macro bug bites you, you can always add to your gear and take your exploration even further.
So let’s start with a discussion of the most basic macro equipment, then work our way up (or perhaps closer in).
1. Start with macro cellphoneography
The optics of a cell-phone camera, with its tiny sensor, wide-angle lens, and excellent depth of field, work great for macro photography. My current Android phone, an LG V30, has an 4.03mm (30mm equivalent) f/1.6 lens. The phone camera can shoot at 16 MP from ISO 50 to 3200 and has options for manual white balance and manual focus. It can even save images in RAW format as .DNG files.
At the time of writing, my phone is already several generations old, and there are far more sophisticated options on the market. The LG V30 offers good manual control, but if your smartphone camera does not, check out third-party smartphone camera apps like Open Camera (Android) or Camera+ 2 (iOS).
You might also consider purchasing add-on lenses that mount to your cell-phone camera. These vary widely in price and quality, so do be cautious. It might be better to take your macro photos to the next level with a DSLR or mirrorless camera before you spend too much on add-on lenses for your smartphone.
2. Try close-up filters
Next, we have close-up filters. These are essentially magnifying glasses that screw onto the filter threads of your lens. You can buy them in various sizes to fit the lens you intend to work with, and they are often sold in kits with magnification strengths like +1, +2, +4, and +10. Note that you can use close-up filters individually, or you can stack them for extra magnification. You can often get a whole kit for under $20 USD.
If that seems like a bargain, let me offer a word of caution: You may find the quality of the images you can make with close-up filters sadly lacking, especially as you increase magnification. Sharpness falls off rapidly, especially toward the edges of the image. If you enjoy that Lensbaby-type, soft-focus look, you might like such filters – but if you’re after sharp, detailed macro images with any depth of field, I think you’ll be disappointed by the results.
You might also try close-up lenses that screw onto the front of your existing lens and feature two elements (the second element is designed to correct the distortions of the first element). Canon made a good close-up lens, the 250D, but it’s been discontinued. Other companies now offer the same type of lens, but I can’t personally vouch for the quality.
Instead, I suggest you try a far better option for about the same price, which I explain in the next section:
3. Use the reverse-lens macro technique
The reverse-lens macro technique uses reversing rings to mount lenses backward on your camera. Yes, it seems strange, but it works exceptionally well, plus it’s relatively cheap.
If you already have an old lens lying around, you can buy a reversing ring for under $10 and you’ll be good to go. If you don’t have an old lens, check out pawn shops or other places that sell old 35mm film cameras and lenses; I bet you can get what you need very inexpensively. Then do a bit of reading about the technique, and you’ll soon be making macro images far superior to what you could make with a close-up lens (and possibly for less money, too!).
4. Consider extension tubes
When you increase the distance between your lens and the camera sensor, you decrease the minimum focus distance of that lens. That is the concept behind extension tubes; they’re nothing more than hollow tubes that go between your lens and your camera and allow you to do close focusing. Extension tubes typically come in sets of three, each with varying lengths (e.g., this Kenko set features 12mm, 20mm, and 36mm tubes). You can use extension tubes individually or in various combinations.
Two things typically separate cheap tubes from high-quality tubes:
- High-quality tubes have better tube-to-camera connections. In fact, poorly made tubes can increase the risk of damaging the electrical contacts on your camera, so beware!
- High-quality tubes maintain your camera’s autofocus and auto-exposure functionality. Cheaper tubes, on the other hand, will force you to manually focus and set exposure. My advice is to spring for tubes that offer both these features. In most cases, you’ll still pay under $150 USD for a good set of tubes.
5. Buy a focusing rail
No matter the method you use to make macro photos, a high degree of finesse is required. A good tripod – or some other means of keeping your camera rock steady when dealing with ultra-close subjects – is mandatory. Your depth of field will be razor thin (sometimes only a few millimeters, even with a small lens aperture). Rather than use autofocus or even manual focus while shooting, macro photographers often set focus by physically moving the camera closer or farther from the subject. That’s what a focusing rail is designed to do.
The geared focusing rail mounts to a tripod; you then mount your camera on top. Knobs on the rail allow you to move the camera forward and back and from left to right with incredible precision. This fine degree of control will help you nail focus exactly where you need it.
The cost of a macro rail will depend on various factors. How heavy is the camera and lens you intend to mount? How precise do you need to be? Do you intend to focus stack your images?
When just starting out, you might be fine with a simple rail like this Neewer model for just under $40. I’ve used it, and it works okay for what I’ve been doing. But with rails, the sky is the limit. (You can also spend far more if you want automated, computer-controlled rails.) The required degree of sophistication and the need for absolute steadiness will dictate your choice of rail and the price you can expect to pay.
6. Test out a bellows
The degree of magnification is a function of the distance between your camera and the lens; as you likely recall, extension tubes are one way of increasing this. Think of a bellows as an adjustable extension tube with a focusing rail built in.
As a knob is turned, the distance between the lens and the camera changes, allowing for different degrees of magnification and fine control of focus. More advanced bellows are motorized and often computer controlled. You can spend as little as $50 on a starter bellows or several thousand on extremely sophisticated equipment.
7. Combine your macro gear
Combining your macro photography equipment can often help you achieve the result you’re looking for. I don’t have a bellows yet, but I have used a set of extension tubes along with a macro lens, then mounted the whole rig on a focusing rail. Take a look at the images below to see the setup and the resulting image.
8. Upgrade to a macro lens
Dedicated macro lenses are often where photographers start their discussion of macro equipment. You want to make macro photos, then you go buy a macro lens, right?
Sure, that’s the simplest approach, but it’s often the most expensive. It’s easy to spend well over $1,000 USD for a good macro lens, while you can buy a lot of other macro photography equipment for far less. If you’re just getting into macro photography, why not start inexpensively, see if you enjoy macro, and then – if you do – buy more and better equipment?
There are distinct advantages to a macro lens, however. Compared to these other methods I’ve discussed, macro lenses offer fantastic ease of use and portability. Connect a macro lens to your camera, and you can use it just like any other camera lens – except you’ll be able to focus much closer.
Maybe you want to photograph macro subjects in the field or insects on flowers. You can work handheld with a macro lens wherever you like. Try that with a tripod-mounted focusing rail topped with a camera, a reverse-mounted lens, and a few extension tubes, and you’ll soon find yourself frustrated. Photography that can be done indoors, on a tabletop, with subjects that don’t move works fine with much of the macro equipment I’ve discussed, but when you need to shoot outdoors with moving subjects and/or you want a high level of portability, a dedicated macro lens is the way to go.
9. Consider your macro lighting and backgrounds
Controlling the light is as important in macro work as it is in any other kind of photography. But in macro photography, your lens is often extremely close to your subject, and it’s easy to block light from the subject. This won’t stop you from carefully lighting your macro subjects, but it’s a problem to keep in mind.
Outdoors, you may be able to use reflectors, diffusers, or flash to help with your lighting. Indoors, you can work with small LED lights, ring flashes, reflectors, window light, and much more.
Also, consider your macro backgrounds. Often, the background will be out of focus in macro photos, so things like colored pieces of paper, printed photos, fabric swatches, and many other small things can help your subject stand out.
10. Take a macro deep dive
Once you move beyond about a 3x magnification level, you can get really sophisticated photos. This is where you can make images that show, for example, the elements of the compound eye of an insect. Instead of a depth of field measured in millimeters, you are likely now in the realm of microns (AKA micrometers, which are 1/1000 of a millimeter). For reference, the average human hair is about 40-50 microns wide.
Working at this level takes a degree of finesse somewhere between that of a Swiss watchmaker and a brain surgeon, and it takes equipment that looks like it belongs in a science lab. It also takes lots of study, time, patience, and practice. It’s quite common to spend hours working on a single image, and you might still end up with a failed shot (for reasons often outside your control).
For instance, you might spend time preparing your insect, setting up, and lighting the shot, take a hundred or so frames to get the needed depth of field, then only discover while editing that, halfway through the shoot, the bug’s antennae dried up and fell off. But as they say: if it were easy, then everyone would do it.
My camera club friend, Harold Hall, recently decided to take this deep dive into the work of macro. He is now producing images like those below. This takes specialized equipment, special software, extensive study, patience, and lots of practice. Let me show some of the components of his rig and how they are used.
Using this kind of equipment, you will likely capture several hundred images just to make one final composite photo. These are the “slices” that must be stacked to produce a depth of field not attainable with just a single shot. Photoshop has image-stacking capability, but when you are working at this level, you use much more sophisticated stacking software.
The two leading stacking products for this kind of work are Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker. When you’re stacking several hundred images, each layer featuring only have a few microns of depth of field, you need sophisticated software. When you’ve stepped up to this level of macro photography, you’re not going to learn proper technique overnight, nor will you be able to produce great images inexpensively.
Macro photography equipment: final words
The beauty of macro work – as with all photography – is that as much as you might learn, there is always more. Start simple with a minimal investment in macro photography equipment. See if you enjoy it. If you do, increase your investment in time and equipment and watch your images get better and better. With a little dedication, you’ll soon be making photos that show a beautiful unseen world to your viewers.