Tools for Capturing Macro Photographs Without a Macro Lens


The term “macro photography” is most often defined as close-up photographs taken with macro lenses, but isn’t always the case. True, macro lenses are designed to deliver life-size photographs of small objects with sharp edge-to-edge detail, but macro lenses are not the only tools of the trade when it comes to going face-to-face with bumblebees.

If macro photography is something you’d like to delve into without first having to invest in a macro lens, you have several options to choose from—close-up filters, reversal rings, and extension tubes. They each get you in real close using your existing lenses with similar—though visually different—results.

How Close Is “Macro Close”?

Technically speaking, macro means life-size (1:1), and micro means greater than life-size, but you cannot always take the nomenclature at face value. B&H stocks macro lenses that focus down to 5x life-size (5:1), and even though that’s technically micro-focusing, they’re still labeled macro lenses. Nikon has traditionally called its macro lenses “Micro-NIKKOR” lenses, even though most older models only focused down to half life-size (1:2). Nikon still refers to its macro lenses as Micro-NIKKORs, but at least the new ones actually focus to life size.

The Average Normal Lens Only Focuses Down to About 18"

Without additional close-focusing accessories, the average normal lens focuses down to about 16" to18", which minimally magnifies your subject. The photographs of orchids below were taken with a Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 AI-S lens at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11 to illustrate how the lens renders focus and depth of field without using close-focusing aids.

A 50mm normal lens set to its closest focusing distance (about 16") captured at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field. All of the photographs that follow were taken of the scene illustrated above using close-up filters, reversal rings, and extension tubes.

Image Rendering—“Sharpness” Isn’t Everything

When discussing image quality, the resolving power of the lens is often central to the discussion. Having a lens that is so sharp you can see the nose hairs of a hermit crab is paramount to many photographers, but it isn’t everything.

I’ll be the first to admit I eyeball the pixels at 100% when assessing a new lens, but I’m equally interested in not only how the lens performs at its sharpest aperture, but how it renders my subject at its widest aperture as well as its smallest aperture. And this is where you discover the character of the lens—how it renders out-of-focus specular highlights (bokeh), how the lens transitions between sharp and not-so-sharp, shadow and highlight, and how it melds the various colors and forms together around your main subject.

This is what is known as “rendering,” and no two lenses render the same. Rendering is also a matter of preferences—a lens that pleases my eye may not please yours and vice versa. Rendering preferences are subjective. That said, it would be safe to say most photographers agree some lenses do, in fact, render better than others.

How do close-up filters, reversal rings, and extension tubes compare?

Close-Up Filters—The “Optical Option”

Close-up filters—also referred to as close-up lens filters or close-up lenses—which are available in most standard filter sizes, screw onto the front of your lens like a filter. Available in a choice of strengths (+1, +2, +3, etc.), close-up filters are typically sold as sets that include two or three different magnifications, which can be stacked for additional magnification.

Close-up filters are magnifiers that screw into the front of the lens, allowing you to focus closer to your subject. They come in a variety of sizes and can be used with any camera system.

As with reversal rings, the edges of the image field tend to be soft compared to the central portion of the frame, though close-ups taken with reversal rings display notably more chromatic aberrations. The quality of the glass, lens coatings, and manufacturing protocols also factor into the quality of the final image.

50mm lens with a +1 close-up filter at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

A 50mm normal lens with a +1 close-up filter at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), and f/11 (right). As with each of these close-up accessory options, the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.

50mm lens with a +2 close-up filter at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

A 50mm normal lens with a +2 close-up filter at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), and f/11 (right) gets you in a bit tighter.

50mm lens with a +1 and +2 close-up filter combined at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

A 50mm normal lens with +1 and +2 close-up filters combined at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), and f/11 (right) enables even greater magnification.

One of the plus sides of close-up filters is that, unlike reversal rings and (depending on the model) extension tubes, you don’t lose aperture control when using close-up filters, and they do not impede exposure control or other camera functions.

Reversal Rings—Close-Ups on a Budget

Reversal rings enable you to reverse-mount your lens on your camera. Odd as it seems, if you mount a lens on your camera 180° backwards, the lens acts like a magnifier that can be used for macro photography.

By mounting lenses you currently own on your camera using reversal rings, it’s possible to take really good close-up photographs. They may not have the edge-to-edge clarity of a true macro lens, but edge-to-edge clarity is but one criterion for judging the worthiness of a photograph.

Available from OEM and third-party manufacturers, reversal rings, which are available for less than $10, feature a lens mount on one side and threads that screw onto the lens like a filter on the opposite side. As an example, to reverse-mount a 50mm lens with 52mm filter threads on a Nikon F-mount camera, I would use a Nikon F-mount reversal ring with 52mm filter threads.

When using reversal rings, the degree of magnification depends on the focal length of the lens, and the wider the angle, the higher the magnification. Something to keep in mind is that even though it’s possible to mount your lens on your camera, your lens was not designed to be used this way. As a result, your pictures will often be sharper toward the center of the frame and softer toward the edges, and should be judged from an aesthetic, rather than clinical, perspective.

A 50mm lens reversed to capture macro photographs at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), and f/11 (right). Because the lens was never designed to be used backward, chromatic aberrations and other optical irregularities are visible, and these are some of the properties that add to the lovely etherealness of the image. As I’m always prone to saying, sharpness isn’t everything.

Before you go the “reversal” route, make sure you have the ability to control your lens apertures manually when using the lens reversed. If your lens has an aperture ring, you’re good to go. If, however, your lens has an electronically controlled shutter, which is increasingly the case with newer lenses, unless you have a workaround for stopping the lens down, the lens can only be used wide open when reversed. The depth of field will be shallow, but this alone should not impede you from taking visually striking close-up photographs.

For additional information about reversal rings, read Tips for Extreme Macro Photography.

Extension Tubes—Still not Pricey, but with Better Image/Exposure Control

Like close-up filters, extension tubes come in sets and are available in different lengths—the longer the tube, the greater the magnification. Essentially hollow metal tubes with a lens mount on one side and camera mount on the other, extension tubes are available with or without data-transfer ports that enable full exposure and autofocus controls.

Extension tubes mount between the camera and the lens, and can be stacked for additional magnification. The photographs in this article were taken with 10mm and 16mm extension tubes used individually and together for greater magnification.

The benefit of using extension tubes is that, unlike close-up filters, no additional optics are being introduced into the light path. The lens design remains unaltered; all that changes is the distance of the rear element from the sensor plane. Resolving power remains the same—a sharp lens is still a sharp lens. Reversal rings and close-up filters get you closer to your subject at the cost of soft fuzzy edges and a gaggle of chromatic and spherical aberrations. These are non-issues when using extension tubes.

A 50mm normal lens with a 10mm extension tube at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

A 50mm normal lens with a 10mm extension tube at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), & f/11 (right).

A 50mm normal lens with a 16mm extension tube at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

A 50mm normal lens with a 16mm extension tube at f/2 (left), f/5.6 (center), & f/11 (right) yields greater depth of field as you stop the lens down. In most cases, photographs taken at wider apertures are more visually pleasing compared to photographs with greater depth of field and detail. It’s a matter of taste and/or needs.

A 50mm normal lens with 10mm and 16mm extension tubes combined at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11

By combining the 10mm and 16mm extension tubes, you get maximum magnification with the least number of optical flaws and aberrations, which for some is a reason not to use extension tubes. Again, it depends what sort of visual signature you’re seeking.

Extension tubes are available bare-bones, meaning you lose autofocus and certain exposure-control modes. Pricier models feature contact points that enable full AF and AE controls.

When using less expensive extension tubes that lack these contact points, you must focus manually and establish exposures either manually or in Aperture-priority mode. On the upside, extension tubes decrease the minimum focusing distance of your lens without affecting image quality, which cannot be said about reversal rings and close-up filters.

Because extension tubes position the rear element of the lens farther from the imaging sensor (or film plane), additional exposure time is required. If you are using your camera’s exposure system, any additional exposure times are automatically factored in.

How Do Close-Up Filters, Reversal Rings, and Extension Tubes Compare?

If you’re asking which is the best route for taking close-up photographs, it would be fair to say all three. It would also be fair to say the same in regard to the image quality of all three, which while similar, is in fact different from one another. For what it’s worth, my personal favorites in this series are the ones taken with the least expensive option—reversal rings. They display a wonderful quality but, then again, that’s just my opinion.

Close-up filters, reversal rings, and extension tubes are inexpensive accessories that enable you to take close-up photographs using lenses you already own. Each of these accessories has a unique look and is easy to use in the studio or out in the field. Do you have any experience with close-up filters, reversal rings, or extension tubes? If so, how did the photos come out and what are your preferences, if any? Let us know in the Comments section, below.


i have Sony Ar7 iv with 24-240 zoom lens with 72mm filter dia. thinking to purchase hoya macro +1,+2, +4. filter for macro photos. am i taking right decision??

Yes.  If you own the Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS Lens and you are looking for an economically-priced option for macro photography which would give you a range of magnification options, then yes, the Hoya 72mm HMC Close-Up Filter Set II (+1, +2, and +4), B&H # HOCUS2MC72 • MFR # A-72CUS-II, would be a good option for your usage needs.  You may use the filters individually, or you may combine them for more magnification.  

I don't think I've tried this. I have the Canon Auto Bellows for use on my A-1 and F-1N, use a 50mm lens on the bellows. I've used it with the MacroPhoto 20mm f3.5. I'll have to give it a try. 

Come back and let us know what your results are. We'd be interested in hearing about your experience.

I purchased a Canon 500D close up lens.  Do you know if this is the equivalent of a +2 diopter and could I add a Hoya  closeup lens to the set up?  I am still getting “ethereal” images rather than the sharper ones I had hoped for but it may be a learning curve while

Yes a Canon 500D Close Up Lens has a diopter strength of +2 and it can be combined with a Hoya Close Up filter within the same size, which would basically shorten the focusing distance further. If your images are not as sharp, it's possible that you're not close enough with the lens to subject. 

I find the 1:1 definition of Macro misleading. A 4x5 camera at 1:1 is a 4x5 real world thing. A 1/2.3 sensor at 1:1 is way smaller than a full frame 35mm equivalent sensor. Your iPhone takes super close-ups that I view as Macro. I don't know if they are close to 1:1. Why not a definition based on real world image size?  It would be more consistent.

1:1 simply means your subject is being recorded at its actual size, i.e., 'life-size'. The camera format and focal length of the lens are irrelevant. 


What Extention tube and close-up filter should I get for a Fuginon Super AF 18-55mm 1:2.8-4 lens?

Than you.


Hi Michael,

What you want are Fujifim X-mount extension tubes. As for you lens, pick up a set of close-up lenses that match the filter thread size of the lens. Happy shooting!


Question: Can close-up filters be used on 18-140 Nikkor lens? Your example was only on 50mm. Thank you very much.

Question.- I have a SONY 7 III camera and a FE 24-105 lens, can I use this lens with extension tubes for macro photography ??.  

You can use the Vello EXT-SFED2 Auto Focus Extension Tubes for Sony E-Mount Lenses, BH # VEEXTSFED2 to shorten the focusing distance of your lens, thus allowing it to be used like a macro lens.

Thanks for the very well written "Macro Photographs Without a Macro Lens" with pictures highlighting each type of material used. I am not a macro photographer, but appreciated greatly your very good presentation highlighting the pro and cons of the each method. 

And many thanks for the kudos - it's much appreciated!


   You didn't mention that close-up filters have the advantage of not exposing the sensor to dust and pollen in the air. In the "old days" with film, this didn't matter because the "sensor" (the film :-) was changed out with each exposure.  But with solid-state sensors, once you get a particle on the sensor, it will be on every subsequent exposure, and those "blobs" are very hard to see on the small LCD screens cameras have. Leads to a lot of disgust later in post...

   One more thing to consider on close-up filters is that multi-optical-element ones (e.g. made by Raynox...what I have) generally perform far better than the more common (and less expensive) single-optical-element ones.

Hi Matt - 

Good points and I agree with you about the optical performance of compound versus single-element filters.

Thanks for your thoughts!