The ability of a macro lens to create life-size images of the tiniest objects will never cease to amaze. Macro lenses can be expensive, but the good news is that there are ways to venture into close-up photography without spending a fortune on dedicated macro gear.
A prime lens can be used for macro photography with the help of specialized accessories such as reversal rings, close-up filters, and extension tubes. Any of these accessories can be attached to a regular prime lens to modify it into a fairly effective close-up lens.
The rest of this article will dive deeper into the tools that make improvised macro photography possible. It will also discuss how these tools turn your prime lens into a macro lens and the advantages and limitations of each.
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How To Use a Prime Lens for Macro Photography
It would be helpful to note that most macro lenses are actually a variation of a prime lens that can focus on a very close subject. All camera lenses have a ‘minimum focusing distance,’ which refers to the closest distance they can be to a subject without losing focus.
Regular prime lenses have a higher minimum focusing distance than macro lenses. For example, a 50mm prime lens on average has a focus distance of approximately 18 inches (about 45 centimeters). In comparison, the focusing distance of some macro lenses can go as low as about 5.5 inches (approximately 14 centimeters), which allows you to get much closer to your subject without losing focus.
Below are a few gadgets that can help turn your regular prime lens into a reasonably impressive macro lens.
Reversal Rings Allow You To Mount Lenses Backwards
A reversal ring, also known as a thread adapter, is an accessory that allows you to attach your lens backward onto your camera. Reversal rings come in many varieties that match different camera mounts and lens filter sizes.
Reversed Mounting Has a Magnifying Effect
Attaching a lens backward might sound (and look) odd. However, when mounted in reverse, most lenses have a magnifying effect, making subjects appear larger. This effect is more significant in lenses with shorter focal lengths. This is because wide-angle lenses typically enlarge subjects more than prime lenses with normal focal lengths when mounted in reverse.
When using a reversal ring, smaller apertures tend to result in sharper macro images. Wider aperture shots have a lot more blur, giving them an almost dream-like quality. This effect can function as a form of aesthetic, depending on your personal visual objectives.
Pros of Using Reversal Rings
- A reversal ring is the least expensive way of turning a non-macro prime lens into a macro lens.
- Even though the lens is mounted backward, the amount of light passing through it remains the same. This means that you don’t have to compensate for reduced exposure in your settings.
Cons of Using Reversal Rings
- If your lens doesn’t have a manual aperture ring, you won’t be able to adjust your aperture settings when the lens is reverse mounted.
- Reverse mounting exposes the more sensitive elements of your lens, so extra caution is needed to avoid damaging any of the inner components of your lens.
Close-Up Filters Function as a Second Lens
A close-up filter is a secondary lens that allows you to focus on your subject from a closer distance. Like other lens filters, close-up filters are attached to the front of the camera lens. Using one of these filters is almost like sticking a magnifying glass onto your lens. As a result, your subject appears nearly life-size in the resulting image.
How Close-Up Filters Work
Close-up filters decrease the lens’s minimum focusing distance, allowing you to get closer to your subject without losing focus.
Like prescription glasses, close-up filters are measured in diopters, which are a unit of optical strength. The higher the diopter value of the filter, the more magnification you can get.
You can combine more than one filter for even closer focus. For example, a +4-diopter filter together with a +8-diopter filter will give you +12-diopter magnification.
Like reversal rings, images shot at wider apertures while using close-up filters can be blurry, especially around the edges of the frame. Smaller apertures, used with the right lens-filter combination, can produce reasonably sharp close-up images.
Pros of Close-Up Filters
- Although some brands cost significantly more than others, close-up filters are generally inexpensive.
- Close-up filters don’t substantially affect the amount of light that gets to the sensor, and you can use them in any exposure mode.
Cons of Close-Up Filters
- Placing a filter in front of the lens means adding an extra surface for light to pass through. Because of this, there’s a chance of reduced image resolution.
- When using a close-up filter, you’re limited to close-up photography. This means that you have to attach and detach the filter as you switch between close-up and regular shooting.
Extension Tubes Reduce Distance Between Lens and Subject
An extension tube is a hollow tube that’s attached between the camera body and lens. This increases the physical distance between the camera and lens while reducing the distance between the lens and subject.
How Extension Tubes Work
Extension tubes make macro photography possible by moving the lens nearer to the subject, reducing the minimum focusing distance. This results in much closer focus and greater magnification.
These tubes come in various lengths. For example, 13mm, 25mm, and 31mm are all options of extension tubes that you can purchase. For even closer focus and increased magnification, you can stack different tubes on top of each other.
For example, a 13mm extension tube can be combined with a 25mm tube to give your lens an extra 38mm in length and enlarge your subject even more.
Pros of Extension Tubes
- Because they’re hollow, light passes right through extension tubes to the lens without being refracted, which means that image resolution remains largely unaffected.
- Extension tubes are inexpensive and can be used in combination with reversal rings to boost magnification.
Cons of Extension Tubes
- Extension tubes can result in reduced exposure, which can display as a shadow on the subject or vignetting around the edges of the frame.
- With the extension tube, your lens might not focus accurately at long distances, meaning that you’ll have to attach and detach the tube to switch between close-up and normal photography.
Bonus Tips for Macro Photography
The effect of the camera shake becomes more visible when working with greater magnifications. Use a tripod or shutter release techniques like cable release to keep your camera steady whenever possible. Alternatively, you can adjust your aperture and ISO settings to allow you to use faster shutter speeds. This minimizes camera shake while still maintaining correct exposure.
Executing macro photography with a regular, non-macro prime lens is possible with the help of gadgets such as reversal rings, close-up filters, and extension tubes.
These tools work by decreasing the minimum focusing distance of a standard lens and creating a magnifying effect. They are fairly inexpensive and serve as an affordable way to venture into macro photography.