Scott's Photography
Macro Photography Without a Macro Lens

November 1, 2012
By Scott Lewis

I was experimenting with a set of extension tubes I bought for my Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera. The extension tubes are like empty rings that move the lens further from the body of the camera. In essence it moves the lens further from the sensor. This has the effect of creating a macro lens.

The picture at right is of my extension tubes. I have three; 12mm, 20 mm & 36 mm. These can be used alone or with each other. So you can combine the 12 and 36 to get 48 mm, and put all three together for a total of 68 mm. The higher the number for the extension tube the further the lens sits from the camera, and the closer it can focus on a subject.

This is just a beginner's article. I just want to show what can be done with the extension tubes. These are the Kenko Auto Extension Tube Set. I picked them up from B&H Photo for $169. They were priced at $199 when I wrote this article. Be sure to price around for these. I cannot remember why I picked this brand. Looking on B&H Photo's web site I see many extension tubes, Dot Line was $19.95 and Vivitar was $79.49.

What is most important is the results. Now... I need to emphasize something here. The next few pictures are not cropped in any way. If you click on them you will see the full size image (5184 x 3456) as captured by my camera. The size of the subject is unaltered.

I used the same lens for all my testing. A 50 mm prime lens and set its aperture to f/1.4. This would provide the narrowed field of view. I wanted to know how little range of focus I would have as well. Future experiments will call for using f/22 to see how far a focus range I can have while doing macro photography.

The subject of all my testing is a Matchbox size Batmobile. Yes, this will easily fit within the palm of your hand.

Here is the car with the 50 mm lens alone. I have the lens focused on the front wheel of the car. If you zoom in you can see that the back of the car is slightly out of focus. This is due to the f/1.4 aperture.



Next up I put on the 12 mm extension tube. At this point I should tell you that I left the lens focused at its closest point... and moved the car closer and closer to the lens to get the front wheel in focus. As you can see even the smallest extension had a dramatic effect.



Next up is the 20 mm extension. As you can see the car more than fills the entire frame. Remember, I did not crop this. It is as the camera recorded it. I only adjusted the white balance and added the text to the images.



Going to the longest tube, at 36 mm, you can see we are getting very close in detail to the car. At this point you can see that I really needed to clean this car. In fact, I already had. I cleaned the car with a Swiffer Duster before shooting this. After seeing these shots on my computer I cleaned the car again with a moist Q-tip.


Now for the serious fun. I stacked the 36 & 20 mm tubes for a total of 56 mm (the length in the picture is wrong). The front wheel takes up the entire frame (no cropping, remember).




For my last test I used all three extension tubes, for a total of 68 mm. This shows you what a standard 50 mm lens can do with inexpensive extension tubes.




Here is a picture of the setup... with all three tubes attached to my camera. You can't really tell from this picture but you should know that the camera is on a tripod next to the table. I have two lights (one on each side) that are shining onto the subject. I would hold up the back of the poster (upside-down) that the car sits on to add reflected light to the subject and so there are no visible lines in the background.

Notice that the subject is about an inch from the camera. This is as close as this setup would focus. But when you consider how close-up it appears in the final image... there is little reason to get any closer.

The Final Shot

This is a picture of the Matchbox sized Batmobile in the foreground... and a 1/18th scale Batmobile in the background. The idea was to have this look like two cars at the same size.

What would this cost to do. Well, I used a 50 mm f/1.4 lens that cost me $369 and a set of extension tubes that cost $169. I used $538 in lens/attachments to get these results. However, that is not necessary. If you were to buy the Dot Line brand of tubes for $20 and get the inexpensive 50 mm f/1.8 lens for about $100-120 you could get the same results for well under $200. The least expensive Canon macro lens I could find on B&H Photo was a 50 mm lens for $269. And that is just one size. More common for macro photography would be the 60 mm lens ($409) or the 100 mm lens ($515).


I have not been able to think of a single reason not to use extension tubes instead of a true macro lens. What would a true macro lens provide that this setup cannot? If you are looking for good macro results I highly recommend getting a set of inexpensive extension tubes and a good general purpose lens. It will give you far more flexibility in your macro photography at a bargain price compared to multiple macro specific lenses.