Macro is my one true love in photography and carnivorous plants make the perfect subject. However, a lot of people are deterred by the seemingly complex and expensive setups some professionals use. I want to make this a more accessible genre so I'm posting a quick guide on using extension tubes to cheaply adapt a DSLR/mirrorless setup for macro photography.
- Camera with detachable lens (DSLR or Mirrorless)
- Shorter Lens (for example, 18-55mm kit lens)
- Extension tubes ($10 for simple tubes, $20 for electronic ones off eBay)
- DIY lighting (I adapt my inbuilt flash, but will depend on your equipment)
How Extension Tubes Work
Extension tubes are simply hollow light-tight tubes that fit between the camera body and camera lens. When you take a photo, the closer you are to the subject, the larger it will be in the final picture. However, there is a limit to how close you can bring the focal point before the lens can't focus anymore. Extension tubes simply bring the focal point closer to the lens, such that it will become larger in the image - towards macro proportions.
Image taken from this excellent guide by Dummies.com
Types of Extension Tubes
Extension tubes come in two varieties - those with electronic contacts that allow communication between the camera body and lens; and those without. The electronic ones allow you to control lens settings such as aperture and autofocus. The plain ones do not, and you must adjust the aperture manually and physically bring the subject further or closer to the lens to achieve focus. I would highly recommend electronic extension tubes - they make your life a lot easier. Extension tubes usually come in sets of three lengths, allowing you to choose how much magnification you want.
Where to Buy Extension tubes
One word - eBay. You can buy branded extension tubes for hundreds of dollars, but the cheap made-in-china versions off ebay work just as well for ~$20.
Camera and Lens Settings
Lens - shorter lenses allow you to bring the subject closer. I use a 18-55 mm kit lens. Using a zoom lens allows you to change the focal distance just by twisting the lens - useful and convenient. The longer the lens, the further away the focal point so it becomes sort of redundant.
Aperture - the depth of field (the range in which your image is in focus) is small in macro photography - sometimes only a few millimeters. Keep the aperture small - I like f/16 or less. If you choose to use extension tubes without electronic contacts, you will need to adjust the aperture either using its aperture ring (if the lens has one) or by finding a way to set the aperture and lock it in place when you detach it (in canon, you can hold down the depth-of-field preview button on the side of the lens while detaching).
Shutter speed - Movements are also magnified when you shoot macro. You will either need to stabilise the system (tripod or otherwise) or use a fast shutter speed.
ISO Because you're using a small aperture, a fast shutterspeed and you're also reducing the intensity of the light with a set of tubes, you may need to bump up your ISO to compensate.
Lighting in Macro photography is extremely important. Ideally, you want bright, soft and diffused lighting. In my personal setup, the focal point is so close to the lens that the lens actually casts a shadow over the subject if I use the inbuilt flash. To get around this, I lined a cracker box with aluminium foil to create a reflector that directs and diffuses the light onto my subject.
Depending on your personal equipment inventory, you will have to use different methods to illuminate your subjects - experiment and be creative. There's plenty of inspiration from a google search as well.
Ambient lighting also works to an extent but I've found that you generally need to stabilise your setup with a tripod and resort to long shutter speeds - something impractical in the field.
- Always, always, always shoot in the RAW format. If you don't know what this means or how to shoot it, there's plenty of guides on the internet. Your end-result will be much better.
- Practise makes perfect. I've been doing this for several years now so I know the advantages and limitations of my setup well. When I first started, it did take a lot of practise and patience to get used to it.
- One of my greatest inspirations is Thomas Shahan, a National Geographic photographer that uses similar DIY methods for his macros. I highly recommend having a look at his videos and flickr.
- If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask. I will update this guide with new info if necessary.
Here's some of my favourite shots taken with this technique and above setup. I also have a post which I update.