Macro photography on a budget

While not so easy, macro photography can be a lot of fun. So what is macro photography? Macro photography is the photography of small subjects at a one to one scale or larger. Now I don’t want to get into all the technical details of macro photography, as I would like to keep it practical. If you really love macro photography then slowly you will get to know all the technicalities.

A dedicated macro lens or a different solution?

Have you ever looked at buying a true macro lens? Did you buy it? They are quite expensive considering you are buying a fixed focal length lens. Of course they do as advertised, and if you’re into macro photography well worth your money. They will give you the best results. I’m a landscape and wildlife photographer, but I like to try macro photography as well. I love the wide landscape, but do look at the little things when walking around with my camera. Do I own any macro lenses? No, I don’t. But I have found a relatively cheap solution that turn the lenses I own into macro lenses. This solution is… extension tubes.

Stacked extension tubes of 12, 20 and 36 mm. They can be placed between the camera and the lens

How do extension tubes work?

To get really close to a small subject, a normal lens will not work. You can’t focus to subjects really close to the lens. With the 70-200mm the minimum focus distance is 120 cm. So if I try to take a photgraph of a small flower, but have to do this from more than a meter away, the flower will be quite small in the photo, while I would like it to fill the frame. If I take a wide angle lens, I can focus much closer, like 28 cm, but the subject will still be small in the frame. What do extension tubes do? Extension tubes set your lens further away from the sensor and this allows you to drastically reduce the minimal focus distance. They fit between the camera and the lens. Normally extension tubes come in 3 sizes, which you can also use together. An extension tube is nothing more than a tube, there are no lenses inside. You can now focus very close to your little flower and fill the frame with just the flower.

Into macro photography

The backdraw of macro photography is that the depth-of-field is very shallow. Even if you close the aperture (high f/number) there will be only a small part in focus. Auto-focus will be difficult, so it’s better to focus manually. Often the easiest way to focus is not to use the focus ring, but to change the focal length of a zoom lens to obtain focus. Focus on the part that you find most interesting and the rest will be blurred.

Now that you’re so close to your subject light also becomes an issue, especially with a closed aperture. This means you will often need a long exposure with the help of a tripod, or high ISO, or an external light, like a ring flash or an off camera flash. I usually go for the first and/or second option. Now this is the theory, let’s show some photos.

A few examples

Here’s a fern where I wanted just the tip of the leaf to be in focus. I stacked all 3 tubes to my 70-200 mm lens. With the camera on my tripod I took the photo below. As you can see very little is in focus, but you can still see it’s a fern and is part of something bigger.

Fern leaf with just the tip in focus

Next photo is of a butterfly on a purple flower. Butterflies and bees see violet and yellow colours in a complete different way to us and for them it’s very easy to spot flowers with these colours. Butterflies are difficult subjects since they go from flower to flower and often only stay on any one flower for a few seconds. This means we need to be quick to choose our composition and to focus. Just take many photos and afterwards you can pick the good ones on a computer screen.

Butterfly sitting still just long enough

Before becoming a butterfly, they are caterpillars. I saw this hairy one eating a leaf from the lower side. Here I used all three tubes and the front of my lens was about 5 cm from the caterpillar, but now you can see all his hair!

Caterpillar foraging in the woods

Don’t forget your composition. We’re often so concentrated on getting very close and to get the right part in focus (which remains important of course), that we come back home and the photo is not as beautifully composed as we thought it was. Here I used a simple diagonal and the tip of the lavender flower is following the rule of thirds.

Lavender flower from very close by

Let me know about your experiences with macro photography. I enjoy playing around with it and hope so are you. Also the little things are so beautiful in Nature, and macro photography is a way to show that.

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