When I teach my photography workshops, it’s always fun to see a student’s face when they try out a macro lens for the first time. Invariably, all their shots for the rest of the day are explorations of the tiny world around us. It’s a fascinating perspective, but it’s a challenging form of photography to perfect. I’ve put together a list of macro photography gear tips for you to consider. Surprisingly, a dedicated macro lens is NOT on this essential macro photography gear list: there are several ways to shoot macro photos without needing to spend a ton of money on a new lens.
Quick Reference List
For those who like things short and sweet, I’ll kick things off with a simplified version of the list. For more information, and my reflections on each item, please scroll down and keep reading.
- Pocket collapsible 12″ diffuser
- Reversing Ring
- Extension tubes
- Close-up lenses
- Flash/LED lighting
- Shooting Table
- Focus Stacking Software
- Focus Rails
Honorary mention –>> Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II
1. Impact Pocket Collapsible 12″ Diffuser
This is a great little product that I recently found and added to my everyday camera kit for under $10. Shooting macro in harsh, direct sunlight isn’t a great idea; it’s best to shoot in open shade so that you have high light levels, but also nice, even lighting. The collapsible diffuser allows you to carry around an open shade wherever you need it! It’s small enough that it fits unnoticed in a pocket, and light enough that it won’t feel like a pain-in-the ass accessory when you always see it in your bag (you know what I’m talking about!).
As a diffuser, it’s translucent, which lets some of the light through. This feature makes it preferable to simply standing between your subject and the sun because it gives just a hint of directionality to the light, and also provides you with increased light levels for greater depth of field and lower ISO settings.
With a sub-$10 price-point, this diffuser makes an amazing stocking stuffer gift for any photographer.
2. Reversing Ring
This is a fun little tool that can be purchased for under $15, and transforms existing lenses into macro lenses! The adapter lets you mount your lens backwards on your camera body, and whilst you lose autofocus and aperture control, it’s a handy way to get into the macro world on a tight budget. 50mm prime lenses tend to partner well with a reversing ring, which is great because it’s often the first prime lens that people buy with their DSLRs.
3. Extension Tubes
Even with a dedicated macro lens in your kit, it’s not always practical to carry every lens wherever you go. Extension tubes are a cheap and lightweight solution that allow you to get macro images using a regular lens! This, of course, also makes them handy if you can’t afford a dedicated macro lens in the first place. An extension tube is simply a spacer that goes between the camera and the lens, which changes the Minimum Focus Distance (MFD), allowing you to get closer to your subject. Extension tubes come in different thicknesses to create a variety of “new” MFDs for your lens.
Whilst an extension tube does not contain any optics, it can very slightly degrade image quality because the centre of the image is being magnified, and thus any optical faults also get magnified. Since lenses are at their best in the centre, this generally isn’t too much of an issue, but you will be focusing the lens closer than it was designed to be. There’s also loss of light as the extension tube increases the effective f-stop of the lens. Having said that, the same thing also usually happens with macro lenses when focused at their MFD, so it is no different relative to a dedicated macro lens.
Extension tubes can either be active or passive. Passive tubes have no electronic contacts to pass information through from the lens to the camera, and vice versa. This means that autofocus is not possible, and the camera cannot control the aperture of the lens. These passive tubes are, however, much cheaper. Active extension tubes allow you to use your lens in the way that you would normally, but the autofocus will perform a bit more slowly.
There are many different makes of extension tubes, including official ones from camera brands. Since they contain no optics, there is little difference between them apart from build quality. I have experimented myself with the cheapest of the lot, but I did not feel like trusting my expensive lens to some of them. I would personally stick to the official ones, or the mid-high price, third-party ones. In reality, they’re all still relatively cheap, and you don’t want to smash several hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of lens just to save a few.
FURTHER READING: The Ultimate Guide To Extension Tubes
Popular Extension Tubes
4. Close-up Lenses
Extension tubes work well on wide-angle or standard lenses, but MFD is less affected on longer lenses. If you want to add macro capabilities to a longer lens, a close-up lens is a better option. This is an optical filter that screws onto the front of your lens and allows you to focus at a closer distance. Both Canon and Nikon make very good close-up lenses that cause only minimal degradation in image quality. Third-party options from filter manufacturers like Tiffen and Hoya are also available. In many ways, close-up lenses are much easier to use than extension tubes as you don’t need to remove the lens to put them on. They also don’t affect the lens’ autofocus speed or aperture control. Close-up lenses are popular to use with zoom lenses like a 70-200, or a 100-400/80-400.
Popular Close-up Lenses
Note: A close-up “lens” is the same thing as a close-up “filter”. Different brands choose to use different names.
5. Macro Flash Solution
As macro photographers, there are two things we’re always fighting for: greater depth of field, and faster shutter speeds. Both of these things require more light, unless you’re willing to push your ISO higher and higher. Though flash is often the answer to this problem, you’ll rarely find a macro photographer without some sort of lighting solution in their bag.
When we talk about additional lighting, we could be talking about flash, or a continuous light source. A continuous light source is always on, whereas a flash is just a momentary burst of light. Continuous lighting does not come nearly as close to matching the brightness of a flash, but it’s still a step up from having no light at all, and it allows us to control the direction of light. You’re unlikely to be able to vastly improve shutter speeds with a continuous source, at least with ones small enough to be useful for macro work. This makes them ideal for static subjects shot indoors, like flowers, where wind can’t affect anything in the shot. The Bolt brand make a couple of interesting and affordable continuous ring lights that I have linked to below.
Using a simple extension cord to reposition the flash for optimal contrast.
If you’re looking to shoot outdoors, particular with moving creatures, I’d definitely recommend going for some sort of flash. Achieving enough depth of field can be really tough with macro shooting, and the necessary small apertures really soak up all the light. Without a flash, shutter speeds can quickly fall dangerously low, but with a flash, we can use the action-freezing “pop” to stop our subject’s motion. In addition to that, we get to control the light, instead of merely accepting what Mother Nature has given us.
Macro flash solutions can vary from a single flash, to complex multi-headed units that allow remote positioning of individual light sources. A single flash with a small softbox is a great start; a two-light setup is even better as you can control the background light and potentially add a rim light to your subject. A flash extension cord is a cheap way to get the flash off your camera body, which results in a ten-fold improvement in the look of the image.
Ring flashes are a popular solution for macro flash as well. These circular flashes fit around the end of your lens, but are typically composed of two flash elements that allow you to independently control the brightness of each side of the ring. Ring flashes provide nice, even light, and are certainly much quicker to work with than multi-headed solutions. If you’re chasing tiny, fast-moving bugs around a forest floor, a macro ring flash might be your best solution. If you can get your subject to sit relatively still for a few seconds, you could consider one of the multi-headed solutions, or a single flash with a softbox on a re-positionable arm.
Cost effective lighting solutions
Popular Macro Flash Rigs
6. Macro Shooting Table
When the weather’s bad, it’s nice to be able to practice your macro photos indoors. As we’re working with relatively small subjects, it’s easy to set up a mini “studio” on a table. Rather than messing around trying to hang up your bed sheets (yes, we’ve all done that…), you can get relatively inexpensive shooting tables that set up in just a few seconds. They make excellent backdrops for shooting items like flowers, jewellery and perhaps the occasional cooperative insect if you provide something for them to sit on. There are some expensive versions of these tables from Manfrotto, but personally I just use the much cheaper version from Impact Lighting Solutions. At under $90, it’s a great way to give yourself a controlled shooting environment to work on your macro skills and techniques, such as focus stacking. The Impact table isn’t the only affordable option, so I’ve listed a few more below.
Affordable macro tables
- Impact 24×36 table
- Impact Mastertop table (this one is a bit bigger but only $10 more expensive)
- Cloud Dome Infinity Board (under $40!)
- Lastolite Light Table
7. Focus Stacking Software
It’s often tough to get enough depth of focus when your subject is close to the lens element. We can stop a lens right down to its smallest aperture, but diffraction causes a lens’ sharpness to degrade as that minimum is approached. In order to produce the absolute best quality, focus stacking is the answer.
Focus stacking is the process of taking multiple photos of your subject at varying focus points, and then combining all the images together to achieve great depth of focus through the subject. These “slices” of focus are actually relatively easy to combine into a final image if you use the right software.
The first option is Photoshop, and thankfully these days it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get it. I use the Creative Cloud Photography Program which gives me Photoshop and Lightroom for $10/month and I think it’s well worth it for even just one of those two programs. Photoshop has a built-in focus stacking mode which will load all your images and then automatically mask out the parts you don’t need, leaving you with the “stacked” image. In general, it does a very good job as long as you have used a tripod to shoot your stack.
There’s a number of dedicated stacking programs available as well, with Zerene Stacker being the most prevalent. Prices start at $89 for a license, and go all the way up to $289 for the professional version. There is a 30-day trial if you want to check it out and see what you get for the money.
Personally, for most people, I think Photoshop is a far better investment as it can do much more for your photography as a whole. If, after a while, you really find that macro is your favourite niche, then you could consider a dedicated solution. Another consideration is that most people will want to do final edits to an image after they have been stacked, so even if you did have a dedicated stacking program, you’d probably still want Lightroom or Photoshop as well.
If Zerene Stacker doesn’t work for you, the other popular option is Helicon Focus. Although the pricing is fairly similar to Zerene, Helicon allows Raw files to be used to create a brand new stacked DNG file. That’s a great feature that would swing my vote if I was in the market for either option.
Both Zerene and Helicon are available for Mac or PC.
8. Focus Rails
If your exploration of macro photography takes you as far as the above-mentioned focus stacking methods, I highly recommend using a focusing rail as well. A rail such as the one pictured above helps to make incremental movements of your camera by using a gear mechanism that can be turned between each exposure. Without a focus rail, it’s all too easy to miss a slice from your focus stack, and you’ll be left with a small area in your image that’s out of focus. A rail gives you a way to repeat things, and a way to calculate your movements precisely.
I use the Really Right Stuff rail ($345) that is pictured above, but there are many similar options available from the likes of Kirk and Novoflex as well. If you want to get extreme, the StackShot is a computer-controlled electronic rail that will make each incremental movement for you!
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II
This lens deserves a special mention on my list because I know that a lot of you are Canon shooters and this lens has proven itself on my latest trip. We tend to think of needing dedicated macro lenses for serious macro photography work, but that is not always the case. If a lens has a long enough focal length and a short enough minimum focus distance (MFD), you can actually get near-macro images. The original version of this lens had an MFD of 70.9 inches, which isn’t bad when you consider the possibilities at a 400mm focal length. However, the Mark II makes an almost astonishingly big improvement on this and is now able to focus as close as 38.4 inches. Being able to shoot something that is 3 feet away from the sensor, at 400mm, is pretty impressive! Put the lens on an APS-C camera and you’ll be at over 600mm.
Whilst it isn’t a true macro with a 1:1 reproduction ratio, it’s an excellent lens for “macro” flower photography. In fact it’s probably the best lens in the Canon lineup for flower photography, since the zoom allows easy recomposition of background flowers. It’s stunningly sharp as well, and I have one in my own bag! It’s pretty rare that I take a dedicated macro lens out with me so I love the versatility of being able to use this lens for tight detail shots.