Inexpensive Macro Gear Alternatives

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When I first started learning macro photography, I was on a tight budget. Purchasing an expensive macro lens was not going to happen. I learned a few sneaky techniques and work-arounds using these inexpensive macro gear alternatives that produced great results. With a few additional accessories, I was able to branch into new creative techniques and step out of my basic comfort zone. Below are the options I still work with today.

Orange Flower with Dandelion Seed

Flipping/Reversing Your Lens

My first purchase was the “nifty fifty” Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. It’s still available on Amazon and B&H for around $100.00. This technique can be applied to any 50mm or kit lens. Just flip it around so the rear element faces outwards and the front element faces the camera sensor. Hold it tight against the opening of the camera so light and dust don’t leak in. This provides a very close-up view of your subject.

Exposing your sensor to the elements when hand-held can get a little dicey but there are reversing rings that you can purchase to keep everything snug together. These rings are really affordable. The depth of field is super shallow with this technique and it does take some practice nailing the focal point. If you are looking for a soft dreamy flower photo like below, this technique works nicely.

Purple Lupine Flower

Extension Tubes

Another great macro gear to carry around are extension tubes. The tubes have no glass elements, just mounts on each end that act as a pass-through for the lens data terminals. Extension tubes do not magnify, they just create more space between your lens and the sensor. The lens is forced to focus much closer than normal due to the space. The greater the length of the extension tube, the closer the lens focused. This brings you much closer to your subject. They come in a set of three, (12mm, 20mm, 36mm) and you can stack and combine them in any variation you need. I used two tubes for the image below.

Caterpillar on Flower Petal

There are two types of extension tubes. The really cheap kind doesn’t maintain the electrical connections between your lens and camera body. This means you can’t use auto focus and you lose aperture control. The lens aperture remains locked although you still have control over shutter speed through your camera.

Pink Flower

The more expensive tubes cost around $100 and have electrical contacts. This means you can still use auto focus and the camera still controls aperture settings and exposure. Third party brands like Kenko make tubes for Canon and Nikon and are available on Amazon. I have used them on my 50mm and my 16-35mm lens. Use caution with extreme wide angle lenses, the minimum focal distance is pulled back into the inside of the lens. I didn’t have any issues at 35mm with the photograph below, but my subject was almost touching the glass.

Passion Fruit Flower

A disadvantage of extension tubes is that you lose light. You have to compensate by increasing your ISO or using a longer shutter speed. Also, your depth of field will be shallow. If you want a larger depth of field you need to increase your aperture. So again you will be juggling ISO and shutter speed. Also the tubes put you very close to your subject… sometimes right up against it. This works well for flora and still life objects, but living creatures may not let you get that close. If it is a windy day, then you must deal with your subject moving around and with finding the correct shutter speed.

What other macro gear alternatives do you use? Feel free to discuss them in the comments below.

About Author Lace Andersen

Lace Andersen is a Kauai-based landscape photographer. She grew up in the farm town of Templeton, California and majored in Graphic Communications. She started taking basic photography classes in 2008, and discovered her passion to create and be outdoors. The major turning point in her life was April 2012 during a family vacation to Kauai. She decided to rent her own car and spend the entire week photographing the island from sunrise to sunset. It was a life changing experience. Kauai either accepts you or spits you back out. Lace was lucky to be accepted by the island and relocated immediately. She has built an award winning portfolio over the past four years and has been published numerous times. When she doesn’t have a camera in hand, you can find her hiking with friends, camping, and playing ultimate frisbee.