Tips for Extreme Macro Photography

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For some reason, any web search for “extreme macro photography” takes you on an express train to the land of bugs. But, if you are like me, and not a fan of close-up macro photos of bugs, you might enjoy this guide on how to do extreme macro photography because we will not be seeing any bugs here! Sorry, entomologists, I prefer non-organic subjects for my extreme macro work.

The Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens offers 1:2 magnification and, when coupled to the PK-13 AI Extension Tube, does a life-size 1:1 image.

Loosely defined, a “true” macro lens reproduces objects at full or half size; in 1:1 or 1:2 reproduction ratios. Extreme macro photography is, again, loosely defined, imaging that goes beyond life-size reproduction of an object. If you want to go larger than life with your macro photography, there are several ways to achieve this. This article will touch upon some of those methods, discuss pros and cons, offer some tips, and display sample images.

When coupled to the PK-13 AI Extension Tube, the same Nikon 55mm lens renders a life-size 1:1 image.

Tools of the Extreme Macro Trade

Regardless of which method you are using for extreme macro photography, there are some nearly mandatory tools required to do the job correctly. As in extreme telephoto or nighttime photography, vibration (camera, hand, Earth) is the mortal enemy of extreme macro photography. To reduce vibration in the process, SLR cameras should be set to mirror lock-up, and photographers should employ steady tripods and remote shutter releases. Removing vibration for this type of imagery is so crucial that microscopy labs often deploy their equipment on specialized shock-absorbing setups.

Oben MFR4-5 Macro Focusing Rail

Another tool that will greatly help the extreme macro photographer is the macro focusing rail. Rails come in the 1-axis and 2-axis variety and allow you to fine-tune the subject-to-lens distance without moving the subject or awkwardly sliding your entire tripod/camera setup across the floor when trying to only move the camera closer to the subject being photographed by a hair’s width distance. When preparing the images for this article, I was using a basic single-axis rail system and wishing I had invested in a 2-axis system. (Time for me to go to the B&H Photo Video website and shop!)

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens

Extreme Macro Lenses

Earlier, I mentioned that most macro lenses render 1:1 or 1:2 reproductions, but there are some on the market that, without special gear, magnify subjects even more.

A 5x image from the Canon MP-E 65mm lens

The king of the extreme, when it comes to macro lenses, is the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens. As the product name states, this amazing lens can capture up to 5x reproductions. Tied for the 5:1 crown is the Venus Optics Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro Lens. Getting close, at 4.5x, the Mitakon Zhongyi f/2 4.5x Super Macro Lens offers a wider aperture than the aforementioned Canon and Venus Optics lenses. Venus Optics makes two more extreme macro lenses that produce 2:1 magnification; the Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2x Ultra-Macro Lens and the very unique Laowa 24mm f/15 Probe Lens that stops down to f/40. Rounding out the better-than-life-size crowd, the Meike MK-85mm f/2.8 Macro Lens reproduces at 1.5:1, the Micro Four Thirds mount Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm f/3.5 Macro Lens permits 1.25:1 reproductions and the Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM reaches 1.2:1.

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm f/3.5 lens renders a 1.25:1 image.

Extension Tubes

Simply a hollow tube that extends the distance between the lens optics and sensor or file, extension tubes are often the most cost-effective path to extreme magnification. More expensive options maintain electronic connections between the camera and lens, but, with today’s digital technology and the manual nature of macro photography, sometimes those electronic functions, depending on the lens, are superfluous.

The Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 paired with all three Nikon extension tubes—PK-13, PK-12, and PK-11

Extension tubes can help any lens focus closer, but they work best with dedicated macro lenses. The tubes come in different lengths and, the longer your setup, the more magnification you get. And, even though the tubes do not have light-robbing optics, the increased distance between the lens and the camera means that you will see light falloff—the longer the tubes you use, the less light will reach the sensor or film.

Novoflex Auto Bellows

Bellows

A macro bellows is, in practice, a flexible and telescoping extension tube. The camera attaches at one end and the lens at the other. Some macro bellows allow for shift and tilt movements of the lens and camera. The tilting allows photographers to achieve a razor-thin focal plane while gaining the extra magnification.

With the camera-lens-subject distance afforded by a macro bellows, you can get some very good magnification.

The Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 mounted on the PB-4 Bellows at maximum extension

Reversing Rings

Many of us, back in our curious days, looked through the front of a camera lens and noticed that we were looking through a virtual magnifying glass. A reversing ring is designed to formally allow you to shoot through a camera from front to rear. You can even couple this with extension tubes or a bellows to get even more magnification.

The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens gets reversed using the Nikon BR-2A Lens Reversing Ring.

Macro Coupler

Expounding on the reversing ring, the macro coupler allows you to connect two lenses, front to front. Attach a lens to the camera (in the normal way) and then attach a lens to the front of that lens and shoot through the front lens in reverse.

The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is coupled to the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 using a 52mm Macro Coupler.

Other Extremes

There are even more ways to achieve extreme magnification and reproduction ratios. For those with old chemical darkrooms in the basement, you can reverse an enlarging lens to do macro work, provided you have a way to mount the lens on your camera. Also, there are many homemade ways to attach microscope lenses to your camera. You can also combine extension tubes with bellows and other items mentioned above to create your own extreme macro photo concoctions! Bellows, lots of extension rings, and close-up filters anyone?

The Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 paired with all three Nikon extension tubes—PK-13, PK-12, and PK-11—and a fully extended PB-4 Bellows.

Last Tips

While it is not going to increase your magnification, focus stacking will help increase your depth of field when doing extreme macro work.

When you try your hand at extreme macro photography, especially when using bellows and extension tubes, you will see a significant drop-off in light as you increase the distance from your macro subject. To help compensate for this, macro and ring lighting can keep the up-close subjects well illuminated, but know that your working distance could potentially be so small that the lighting is masked by the front of your lens.

How Much Magnification Am I Getting?

If you are using a 1:1 macro lens and operating at the minimum focus distance, you know that you are working at a 1:1 reproduction ratio. But, when we add extension tubes or work with a bellows, how much magnification are we now getting? Well, with the magic of mathematics, we can approximate the increased reproduction ratios. Because math makes my hair hurt, I am going to spare you the formulas and suggest, kindly, that you search the Internet for online macro calculators.

Photographing Currency

The example images in this article are macro images of current United States paper currency—specifically President Andrew Jackson’s right eye on the $20 note. To help prevent counterfeit currency, there are specific laws related to reproducing US currency images outlined in 31 CFR § 411.1 regarding color reproductions. The images shown here were converted to black-and-white to avoid any possibility of infraction and the original color images were deleted after conversion in accordance with the Federal Code.

Currency is a great macro subject, but please familiarize yourself with all applicable statutes before making macro images of paper currency.

For a video review of these topics, check out this B&H video and let us know your thoughts, ideas, or experiences with extreme macro photography in the Comments section, below!

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