On a hot summer day I went to the attic, where I discovered a tiny dead fly on our folded table tennis table. It looked like it was ready to fly at any moment. An excellent opportunity. I ran to get my gear, so I could photograph it in all its frozen glory before my wife would dispose of it. The conditions were ideal. Sunlight coming through a big window, reflecting on a white ceiling and white walls. One giant light box.
The fly couldn’t have died in a better place. I started shooting, resulting in one of my best macro pictures but without using a macro lens. I shot this with the use of extension tubes
For many, macro photography is one of the most fascinating styles of photography. It shows a side of everyday items we normally don’t notice or get to see. It’s like looking under a microscope at a whole other world. There are different ways to shoot a macro photo. In this article I focus, no pun intended, on one of the most affordable options; (non-auto focusing) macro extension tubes.
What is an extension tube?
An extension tube is a collection of metal tubes of different sizes you can place between the lens and the camera, changing the focusing distance between the lens and the subject. The closer the focusing distance, the more magnification you get. There are two different types of tubes. Tubes that focus electronically and those that require manual focus. In this article we take a look at the cheapest option, the manual focus type.
Where a macro lens can set you back 500 to 600 dollars, (non-auto focusing) extension tubes will cost (depending on the brand) as little as 15 dollars on EBay. While you can get up close and personal with extention tubes mounted on your favorite lens, there is certainly a difference in image quality compared to an actual macro lens. You get what you pay for; Images won't be as sharp, edges will be blurred and focussing can be a pain. It can however introduce you to the wonderful world of macro photography (or Micro as Nikon calls it). Should you fall down the rabbit hole of macro goodness, you might want to decide investing in a proper macro lens. It's certainly worth it.
Which size tube to use
The extension tube consists of 3 smaller extension tubes, which can be used separately or combined, to increase the distance between your lens and the camera. Your tube(s) of choice (say that 3 times in a row) depends on how close you want to focus and on which lens you want to use it. Wide angel lenses and tele zoom lenses aren’t (the most) suitable. With wide angle lenses the focusing point can be too close to the lens or even behind the lens, instead of in front. With tele zooms the relatively big focusing distance in combination with a shallow depth of field makes it difficult if not impossible to produce a good picture.
Here under you see a series of camera setups, with the three differently sized tubes. You can see the distance between the camera and the subject (a thumbtack) and the resulting picture. The lens used is the Olympus 45mm 1.8 prime lens, known for it’s sharpness. It’s clear the lens loses quite a lot of it’s sharpness using extension tubes. It’s not made for this. You can see that the bigger the extension tube used, the closer the lens is to the subject and the larger the magnification. The difference with the first photo, without extension tubes, is huge even when using the smallest extension tube.
You focus on the subject by moving your camera/lens closer to the subject, until the image becomes sharp. I achieved pretty good results using the 14-42 kit lens, with which you can also focus by zooming in and out, instead of moving the entire camera. This means you can keep the camera stable more easily and this makes it even possible to make a handheld macro movie. See the movie below.
Depth of field
The depth of field is dependent on the aperture you use. Most modern lenses don’t have manual aperture rings. This means the aperture remains wide open, making the depth of field quite shallow. With manual aperture control you can make the depth of field larger, but this also means less light will hit the sensor, making it hard to see through your viewfinder and therefore harder to focus on your subject
To give you an example, I have the following setup prepared.
My camera: Olympus E-PL5 with 14-42 Olympus kit lens plus (the largest) tube nr. 3
I know, it looks ridiculous, but it’s also somewhat impressive.
The subject: a piece of dog food
Even mundane things can become interesting you know!
Nikki: a dog (this is optional)
For easily disposing of the dog food when I’m done.
I’m using tube nr. 3 because this tube gives the biggest magnification. The smaller extension tubes are more suitable for wide angle lenses. On a zoom lens the small tubes will only give a relatively modest magnification when zooming in.
The reason why I’m using this zoom lens and not a prime lens is because I can focus quicker on the subject by zooming in and out. Time is of the essence, because the dog won’t wait forever and will strike and eat the dog food if I take too long. It’s a hungry little beast.
So I grabbed the camera, zoomed all the way in and all the way out, making the shots you see next. The photos of the dog jumping on the table after I took the pictures and the chaos that ensued have nothing to do with macro photography and are therefore not published.
At 25 mm the lens is almost touching the dog food (yuck).
The possibilities are endless with macro photography or should I say, tube photography. To end this article, a couple of photos I shot with an extension tube. Happy shooting!