Many instructional photography books will give beginner photographers the advice when it comes to enhancing their "photographic eye" to look at ordinary things and try to photograph them from angles that are new or interesting. Photographing a flower from the top down is not going to result in an interesting photo, as we have all seen flowers from that perspective. Perspective is always an important aspect of any type of photography. Showing a new side of things, places, nature, or capturing the human element, telling a story that is different is what drives photography and captivates people.
For my own photography the "slow down and look" effect was always one of the driving forces. I tend to rush through my days trying to be the most time efficient I can be while getting all my daily chores done. That changes the moment I grab a camera. I don't just walk past things without even noticing since my head is somewhere in the clouds, I literally slow down and look at my surroundings.
Macro photography takes all of the above to a new and intriguing dimension: the things that are normally too small a detail to notice.
An ant is "farming" aphids for their sweet excrement. Ants will even offer protection to them against natural enemies like lady beetles by fending them off in return
I would advise any new nature photographer to get into macro photography. It is a little more technical than some other types of photography, and will quickly teach a lot of necessary skills that will come in handy for photography in general like learning an important lesson about depth of field.
Starting out in macro photography might seem like a daunting and very expensive challenge, since most articles and videos will tell you to buy specialized gear like a macro lens.
What gear do you actually need to be able to start out?
You do not need to buy a brand-spanking new camera body, any DSLR or mirrorless camera of the past decade will do a perfectly fine job. There is also no need for a specific sensor size, full frame does not offer an advantage when it comes to macro photography. Many well established macro photographers use crop sensor cameras, and we will talk about why the smaller sensor size can be an advantage in macro. Owning a dedicated macro lens can be advantageous, but is not a must. If you are not quite sure whether you want to stick with macro photography in the long run, or have budget restrictions, you can start macro with an extension tube, or a macro conversion lens. Which one will be the best for you depends on what lens you already own. Here is a Youtube video explaining the difference and which one to choose.
But the short of it is, extension tubes will allow your lens to focus closer than its minimum focus distance, giving you a higher magnification, and they work best with prime lenses like a 50mm f/1.8, or an 85mm f/1.8 lens. Macro conversion lenses like the Raynox DCR-250 will work best on telephoto lenses, like the Nikon AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR lens, and are very cost effective with a retail price of just 70USD.
Best fit examples for Raynox DCR-250 (it comes with a universal adapter that is compatible with filter threads from 52-67mm):
Canon EOS R50 / R10 / R7
with Canon RF-S 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM / Canon RF-S 55-210mm f/5-7.1 IS STM
Nikon Z30 / Z50 / Zfc
with Nikon NIKKOR Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR / Nikon NIKKOR Z DX 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR / Nikon AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR (F mount lens, need FTZ adapter) / Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR (F mount lens, need FTZ adapter) / Tamron 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 Di III RXD
Sony ZV-E10 / Sony a6100-a6400-a6600-a6700
with Tamron 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 Di III VC / Sony E 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 / Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD / Sony E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS /
or any equivalent DSLR and lens combo.
Best fit examples for extension tubes:
Canon EOS R50 / R10 / R7
with Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens
Nikon Z30 / Z50 / Zfc
with Nikon NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S / Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S
Sony ZV-E10 / Sony a6100-a6400-a6600-a6700
with Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS / Sigma 56mm f/1.4 DC DN / Rokinon 85mm f/1.8 Lens / Sony FE 50mm f/1.8
or any equivalent DSLR and lens combo.
(Equivalent full frame body and lens combos will work fine, but read on for the magnification drawback part below, and watch out for filter thread compatibility)
Another use case for macro adapter lenses and extension tubes is minimizing your gear for hikes, or any activity, where carrying around an additional macro lens could become a burden. You have one of the above lenses, or a similar type already in the bag? Just add the extension tube or conversion lens, and you have macro capabilities no matter where you are.
You might have realized that we barely started out, and a lot of macro specific terminology has crept in, so let's start with those.
What is macro photography
We talk about macro photography, if the magnification ratio is 1:1 (read 'one to one'). This means that on a full frame sensor with a size of 35.9 mm long, and 23.9 mm tall (just like lens focal lengths, everything is measured in full frame terms), an object with the same size will exactly cover the sensor, hence it will be projected in life size onto the sensor by the lens. If an object twice the size (71.8 mm x 47.8 mm) is projected onto the sensor so, that it covers it, we talk about 1:2 (one to two) magnification ratio. If an object half the size (17.95 mm x 11.95 mm) is projected by the lens onto the sensor so, that it covers it, we talk of a 2:1 (two to one) magnification ratio. All lenses will have the magnification ratio in their published specifications, a 1:2 magnification will often be written as 0.5x magnification, a 1:4 will be 0.25x. Although officially macro starts at 1:1 magnification, we will talk about all close up photography in this article, and will refer to it as macro.
All lenses will achieve their highest magnification at their minimum focus distance, a specification also published by the manufacturer. You can either look up the manufacturer site to find these, or you can take a picture at minimum focus distance of an object that you know the size of, and calculate the magnification of your lens from that. Minimum focus distance is measured from the sensor plane (the crossed circle on the top plate of your camera), not the front element of the lens, that one is the working distance.
On the 23.9 mm tall sensor the ruler measures 35 mm, so 23.9/35= 0.68x, or approximately 1:1.46 magnification ratio
I urge you to do the following little exercise after having looked up your lens' minimum focus distance and magnification ratio, because it will be a good first lesson. If for example your lens is the Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S, that has a magnification of 0.15x, and a minimum focus distance of 0.4m (1.32 ft.), then you will be looking for an object to photograph, that is 23.9/0.15=159 mm (6.25 in.) tall to fill the frame in landscape orientation, like my plush owl below.
The first image is at f/1.8, the second is at f/5.6
When taking the photograph you will have realized, that it was much easier to switch your lens into manual focus mode, and turn it to the closest focus, as hitting the minimum focus distance while the camera tried to auto-focus was very hard, maybe impossible even. You have to be very stable, and have steady hands to do this while the camera racks focus. Any movement of your body, even your breathing will have an effect on the focusing. You get closer than the specified minimum focus distance, and your camera won't focus at all.
Your distance to the subject will define your magnification, which in turn will define your composition.
You do not want the camera to make those decisions for you. Best is to take manual control, turn the focus ring to the minimum (or any focus distance that gives you the right magnification), and use your body - swaying slowly forward and backwards - to get your subject in focus. This will take practice, you will have to learn to control your breathing and assume a stable stance, but this is essential for handheld macro photography.
A hint: you are most stable right after having breathed out. You have a few seconds of stability, if you hold off the next breath.
Another thing you might have realized was, that your depth of field became very shallow as you started to get closer. See the linked blog post on that, but the short version is: focus distance is one of the three things that has an effect on depth of field. The closer you get, the shallower the depth of field will be if the other two (focal length and aperture) are not changed.
The first image is at f/1.8, the second one is at f/5.6. At f/1.8 the DoF is so shallow, that the eyes are barely in focus, and the tip of the beak is also blurred. At f/5.6 the face is just barely acceptably sharp, the tip of the beak is still slightly out of focus, which gets us back to magnification defining the composition. Depth of field is a very strong tool in all types of photography, in macro, controlling and choosing it correctly is essential to your composition.
Another important note is, that manufacturers will specify the minimum focus distance, that the auto focus of the lens is able to achieve, the lens might be able to focus closer, if focused manually. The specified magnification will be valid for the listed auto focus distance, the actual maximum magnification might be a bit higher when focused manually.
Now that we have a good understanding of what magnification is, and how to calculate it, it is a good time to talk about sensor size, and what I mentioned earlier about not having to own a full frame camera. Putting that same Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens on an APS-C body, like the Z50, it becomes a 75mm effective focal length lens. Nikon, Sony, and Fujifilm APS-C bodies have a 1.5x crop factor, Canon APS-C is 1.6x, so your 50mm becomes 80mm on Canon. Why is this of any value you may ask: the minimum focus distance of the lens does not change just because it is attached to a crop sensor body, which also means that the magnification ratio also stays the same. If your APS-C camera has the same megapixel count as your full frame camera, you get a magnification bump equal to the crop factor, your 1:1 lens becomes a 1.5:1, but only for matching megapixel bodies, so for example a Sony A7 III and a Sony A6400, or a Nikon Z6 and the Nikon D5600. With the Z50 vs Z6 you almost get the 1.5:1 magnification due to it being only 21 megapixels, but it is close enough.
In the image below: Top left: Nikon Z6 with the 50mm f/1.8 at default magnification (~0.16x)
Top right: Nikon Z50 with the 50mm f/1.8 at default magnification (1.5x crop bump to ~0.25x)
Bottom left: Nikon Z6 with the 50mm f/1.8 and 18mm extension tube added (~0.58x magnification)
Bottom right: Nikon Z50 with the 50mm f/1.8 and 18mm extension tube added (1.5x crop bump to ~0.88x magnification)
This is why many macro photographers will happily use one of the modern, high megapixel count APS-C bodies, like the 26 megapixel Fujifilm cameras (X-T30, X-S10), or Canons' 33 megapixel APS-C lineup (R7, EOS 90D), or even the 20 and 25 megapixel micro 4/3 cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, which due to the crop factor will get you to 2:1 magnification with a 1:1 lens.
A crop sensor camera with a nifty-fifty and a 40 dollar extension tube like the Meike MK-Z-AF1 (for Nikon Z) can get you beyond 1:1 magnification.
Nikon Z50 with Meike MK-Z-AF1 and the Z50mm f/1.8 S lens will get you to ~1.25x magnification @21megapixels
The below macro images were all shot handheld with the Z50, and the 50mm lens + extension tube combo.
What you will also realize once you get into macro magnification territory, is that the amount of light getting to your sensor gets less and less.
Which leads us to the next macro specific terminology:
Macro effective aperture
Macro effective aperture is not the same as the one calculated for depth of field with crop sensor cameras.
The consequences of macro effective aperture happen on all sensor sizes, and has to do with the amount of light getting to the sensor once magnification gets higher, so it has an effect on exposure, unlike the one calculated for crop sensor Dof.
What happens, is that the further away the lens is from the sensor (or focusing closer using any other method), the higher the magnification gets, the image will also get darker. At 1:1 magnification you loose around 2 stops of light.
Both images were taken with the Z 50mm f/1.8 lens with the same exposure settings (see data below the histogram), but the one on the right side has a 29mm extension tube added, bumping up the magnification to ~1.25x on the Z50, and with a visible loss of light
Nikon and Sony cameras will show the change in aperture with real macro lenses in the EXIF data, and on the camera displays, while Canon cameras will not. Instead Canon provides a table of corresponding apertures in their macro lens manuals. For the use of extension tubes, or macro conversion lenses camera bodies can not calculate this, but there is a rule of thumb type of formula, that helps calculating the effective aperture:
f-stop x (1 + Magnification) = Effective f-stop
That f/1.8 in the above image on the right becomes an effective f/4.05, if you do the calculation.
Modern camera bodies all have built in light meters, which will show you the change in exposure, but this effect together with the very shallow Dof for higher magnifications, and the need to stop down, is what calls for one piece of additional equipment: a flash unit with some kind of mini flash softbox. This can be any cheap flash unit, that is compatible with your camera, and a softbox or diffuser that can fit on to the flash.
The actual kit on the day used for the above insect photos looks like this: Nikon Z50 + Meike MK-Z-AF1 + Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 + Godox V860IIN flash + Metz SB 20-20 softbox.
The actual kit that was used to take the insect images from before, the photo is from the shoot
The flash does not only help with the amount of light, it also helps stopping motion by using the highest possible shutter speed (flash synch speed), and providing fill light. Of course macro photography should be started with natural light only, and non-moving, or very slow subjects, to help practice the basic techniques, and learning about composition and light. For start you can use any light, like a flashlight, or even desktop lights, just use white wax paper as a diffuser.
As mentioned before, the distance between the front of the lens and the flower with the bee mimic fly is the working distance. Having a longer working distance can be useful for skittish insects, like butterflies. The good news is, that the extension rings will also work with telephoto lenses, allowing the lens to focus closer, adding magnification, but still allowing to keep a good distance from your subject.
The below image was taken with the Z50 + 2 sets of extension tubes + Nikon AF-P 70-300 f/4.5-5.6E ED VR lens:
That kit looks like this:
You might have recognized, that the lens is an older F-mount version. There are 2 sets of extension tubes, and an FTZ adapter between the camera and the lens. This does not cause any problems, since these extension tubes transmit all the electrical communication and power, that the lens needs, allowing for all functionalities, like autofocus, vibration reduction and aperture control to work perfectly fine. You can add extension tubes, until the length of the tubes in millimeters does not exceed the focal length of the lens itself. This may cause the focus point to be inside the lens, making focusing impossible.
Similar images can be had with macro conversion lenses, like the Raynox DCR-250. They work best with telephoto lenses, and the longer the focal length, the bigger the magnification will get. While this might be counter intuitive after having learned that focusing at the minimum focus distance gets you the highest magnification for macro lenses and extension tubes, for conversion lenses you have to focus your lens to infinity, since lenses only achieve the stated focal length at infinity. Focusing closer causes focus breathing, which shortens the focal length. This by the way can also be useful for tweaking the composition, and getting the magnification exactly right. Working the focus ring has the same effect with extension tubes too, just the opposite way: focusing further away will make the magnification smaller.
Shot with the Nikon Z50 + Nikon AF-P 70-300 f/4.5-5.6E ED VR + Raynox DCR-250 @153mm effective focal length
Macro conversion lens or extension tube?
If you have a prime lens with the right focal length, and you also have a compact telezoom as listed above, and are asking yourself which option to get, the choice really comes down to how much magnification you need: it is the macro conversion lens that will get you the highest magnification. An APS-C body with a telephoto zoom that goes to 200mm and beyond, will net an effective focal length of 300mm+.
This combined with the conversion lens will easily get you to 2:1 (2x) magnification, and even more.
One drawback of this setup is, that any weakness of the lens will be magnified by the conversion lens. A very sharp lens will shine, a lack of sharpness will be exaggerated in your photographs. The same goes for chromatic aberrations, and issues with contrast. The higher quality the lens is, the better the results will be.
We will take a look at composition and lighting (flash and natural) in the upcoming second part of this tutorial.
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