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.
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.
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
50mm lens with a +2 close-up filter at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11
50mm lens with a +1 and +2 close-up filter combined at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11
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.
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.
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.
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 16mm extension tube at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11
A 50mm normal lens with 10mm and 16mm extension tubes combined at f/2, f/5.6, and f/11
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.