Macro Photography Without a Macro Lens

Macro Photography without a Macro Lens

You can create amazing macro photographs without a macro lens and in this article I’m going to tell you a few different ways to do just that. Macro lenses allow us to focus really close to subjects giving us the ability to capture objects at life-size or above. By the way, if you enjoy this article stop over at my blog to read more content just like this.

Macro lenses are not wildly more expensive than non-macro lenses and they can be used for non-macro applications like taking portraits, landscape photos, and pretty much any other type of photography you’d like but if you can’t justify buying yet another lens there are alternatives.

Budget constraints aren’t the only reason to do macro photography without a dedicated macro lens. I have several macro lenses but I often prefer to use one of the techniques I’ll tell you about in this article for several reasons. Let’s just jump right into it and talk about some of the ways to do macro photography without a macro lens and why you’d want to do so.

Diopters

Diopters or close up filters screw on to the end of your lens and allow you to focus on objects closer to the lens than the lens would typically focus on. In the photography world we generally refer to diopters simply as close up filters. This is a fairly inexpensive way to create macro photos without a dedicated macro lens. For this reason they’re at the the top of the list.

I've only used diopters a few times. They give us a lot of ability to focus much closer than many of the other options on this list. However the vast difference in costs means the quality can vary greatly as well. I had a student in an introductory course use diopters for macro photography. She had some trouble with them but the ability to add them quickly to your lens and then remove them all in around 10 to 20 seconds makes them worth something. As with any filter or lens cover be careful to make sure what you’re buying is coated and well made otherwise you could end up with wild flairs or other optical issues. Macro is all about sharpness so make sure to check reviews to be sure you're buying a quality product.

My biggest concern with them is not only flairing but the other optical issues that can come with adding additional glass to the front on your lens. Modern lenses are manufactured to really precise specifications. They are optically complicated devices that often use some of the glass pieces in them to correct the distortion that other pieces of glass inside of them produce. When you add yet another piece of glass and then try to capture a lot of detail you might end up having a hard time finding success.

Diopters are basically like adding glasses to your vision for far-sightedness. They will work great if they’re the right strength for you but if they’re not they can be a real headache. To be fair to diopters though the same can be true of all of the following methods. Besides all of these methods are really about alternative methods which you should approach with a sense of adventure and understanding that it’s probably not going to work as smoothly as the more conventional methods.

Extension Tubes

A really reliable option is the use of extension tubes. Extension tubes can be purchased fairly inexpensively. You can grab a set from Ebay, Adorama, or B&H for less than $50 and some for less than $20. With some extension tubes you can turn your regular non-macro lens into a macro lens. The really cool thing is you can do so with virtually any focal length lens* meaning your kit lens or whatever lens you’ve got should work with them.

There are even extension tubes on the market that will allow your light meter and auto-focus to work. In my experience they’re not always perfect. Then again I rarely use auto-focus when doing macro photography so it's not a big issue. The only times I tend to is while using a telephoto lens and extension tubes. I do so mostly while photographing small birds or flying insects that are moving too fast to manually focus on.

I really love using extension tubes and use them often with a 70 to 200mm lens or even an 150 to 600mm to capture things that are a little farther away or won’t allow me to get close enough but are still within the distance that would have been too close to focus on them.

Bellows

Another favorite tool in my macro photography kit are my bellows. They cost me less than $50 on Ebay and are my go-to for macro work. The biggest benefit of using bellows is that I can photograph things at 4 times life-size which I simply can’t do with any of the other methods other than diopters. Too, none of the macro lenses I own provide more than 2 times macro magnification.

Bellows sit between you camera and your lens. They take any non-macro lens and move it far enough from the camera body that you can focus on things at an incredible close distance. The other thing I love about them is that I can put any lens on them from my amazing vintage Soviet and German lenses or very old Nikon lenses.

Some of my favorite vintage lenses have really amazing qualities. My Helios 44 Soviet made lens has really swirly bokeh which makes for really wild effects. I can also (carefully) add a really long lens like my 70 to 200mm and come away with really incredible stuff at 200mm.

Reversal Rings

Reversal rings are probably the cheapest and most accessible ways to make macro photos without a macro lens. Reversal rings are inexpensive adapters that allows you to attach to the front of your existing lens which then attach that end of your lens to your camera body — backwards.

You only need to know what size the front element of your lens and the make of your camera before purchasing a reversal ring. The best part is that reversal rings are very inexpensive. Shop for one that fits your lens and camera body at Adorama or B&H Photo where you can likely pick one up for less than $20, possibly less than $10.

The reason to use a reversal ring is often just about the money. Turning your lens around might mess with you ability to control your aperture. If you don’t have an aperture dial on your lens it might be impossible to shoot at any f-stop other than your smallest. Also be aware that your camera will need to be used in manual mode because it won’t recognize that there is actually a lens on it. Some models of cameras might not even function without being able to read that there is a lens so read up about your specific camera before rushing out to buy a reversal ring.

This is one of the least expensive option and while you can make some really cool photos with reversal rings it’s not a method I like because turning my lens around means I’m opening it up to getting dust inside of it which, once turned back around, could get stuck to my sensor.

Crazy Option: Crazy Glue

I get it. You’re thinking what??? Crazy glue??? That's crazy! But yes, I’ve actually done this and loved the results I got. This one is the strangest method on the list but it’s effective. Start by super gluing two old lenses together (which you can buy cheaply off of ebay). Glue them face to face which will allow you to attach one to your camera and use the other backwards as if it were on a reversal ring. You only even need one lens that fits your particular camera meaning you can add any other lens that you find which matches up in terms of size with the lens it’s being attached to.

Adapter Rings

The truth is you don’t even have to use super glue if you don't want. You can use adapter rings which work like reversal rings (mentioned above) that allow you to thread together the two lenses. Overall this isn’t an ideal way to create macro photos but it does work and if you want to get wild and experimental then have at it! Experimental photography is a whole lot of fun so why not have fun with it!

My experience with the crazy glue method turned out very cool. I did have to jam a folded piece of paper into the exposed end of the reversed lens to keep the aperture open wide. You can also find projector lenses and other old lenses which are stuck at a wide open aperture for very little money online. You can even carefully take the lens apart and remove the aperture if you’re feeling very adventurous.

Important Info

Here is some really important info for you. Depending on your camera or existing lenses some of these tricks might not work for you at all. If your camera needs to read a lens attached to it, even in manual mode, you might need to get extension tubes with electronics inside of them for example.

*Super-wide and wide angle lenses might not work very well in this situation, try to stick with a lens that’s at least 50mm in focal length.

If you want to learn more about Macro Photography and doing macro photography without a macro lens then check out the class I’m teaching at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden starting January 6th and running through the 27th of January. Click through to read more about that macro class. If you have any questions or other techniques that you think I should share contact me to let me know!

Infinity Focus

Maybe the most important thing about all of these is that you will lose infinity focus that is to say the ability to focus to infinity. Doesn’t seem like too big of a deal right? Other than for landscapes you’re likely not focusing to infinity. But here is the thing — you don’t just look that last little bit you’re likely to be unable to focus on much that isn’t within a short distance from your lens with all of the above options.

The common term for this is losing infinity focus which is why I wrote just that but in reality it should be called something like losing everything but macro focus or something. Honestly that’s a really bad name. Maybe they were onto something. Anyhow, the fact remains that you won’t be able to focus on much that isn’t right in front of your with these work arounds for macro photography without a macro lens. That’s the big benefit of a macro lens — you get macro and so much more without needing to change lenses.

If you’re photographing a ladybug on a flower and then see a hawk land in a tree 20 feet away the above options will leave you scrambling to change lenses or take off the additional tools you’ve added in order to photograph the hawk. If you’ve got a 200 or 300mm macro lens you can simply refocus on the hawk, take it’s photo, then go back to the ladybug without skipping a beat or worrying that you’re going to miss anything. Which is great if you can afford to buy such a lens but if you can’t you can at least get photos of the ladybug that you will absolutely love.

December 16, 2021 | Don Orkoskey
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