How to take great macro images on a budget

By Geoff Harris

Macro photography became very popular during the recent lockdowns as it was a great way for people to enjoy photography around their home and garden – without worrying about breaking any Covid rules.

If you do a Google search for macro lenses however, you might get put off as they can seem quite expensive. If you shop around, however, you can put together a good system for close-ups without having to spend too much.

Just to confirm, a macro lens enables you to focus very closely on your subject, something that a conventional lens often finds difficult to do. You can magnify in as close as 1:1, so your camera is recording an accurate, and often very detailed, image of what’s right in front of you.

Timing is important, as is good compositon. Credit Andrew Fusek Peters/CUPOTY

The closer you get (within reason), the better, and the results can be spectacular. The difference between a proper macro lens and one that just enables you to get close to the subject is that 1:1 magnification ratio. Many older lenses say they have a ‘macro’ function, but this is a loose use of the term. Phone simulations of macro are often just digital zooms, and are ok to an extent, but a dedicated lens is usually better.

Invest in a proper macro lens for the best results. Credit Esteve Garriga Surribas/CUPOTY

Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths, but 100mm should be perfect for close-ups of flowers and small insects. A shorter macro lens will work better with larger subjects.

In terms of decent budget macro lenses, one of the best options is the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro OS HSM. For a very reasonable £359, this is a great choice if you own a DSLR as it comes in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts (and can be used on other systems via an adaptor).

The autofocus is fast and quiet but it’s also easy to focus manually, which is sometimes easier with very close-up photography. Another big benefit is up to four stops of image stabilisation, which means you can reduce the shutter speed or shoot in lower light while still getting good results. Thanks to the lens’s inner focusing system, the length doesn’t change on focusing from infinity down to its 31.2cm minimum, giving life-size magnification.

Laowa’s 25mm f/2.8 2.5x – 5x Ultra Macro, costing just under £400, is another great budget choice for macro fans. The only caveat is, you need to focus manually. It delivers 2.5x and 5x magnification across a focus distance range of 17.3cm to 23.4cm. The clever design means it won’t cast any shadows on your subject and the lens is available for a wide range of mounts: Canon EF, Nikon F and Pentax K mount versions for DSLR, and Canon RF, Nikon Z, Sony E and L-mount of if you use a mirrorless camera.

If you are a Canon DSLR user, it’s also well worth consideringthe EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro STM. It’s great value. The standard focussing range delivers life-size magnification, and even better, the Super Macro mode enables you get in even closer to 1.2x magnification.

Usually by this stage, your subject is just millimetres away from the front element of the lens, so it also has a small LED to help with focus. The lens is only 46mm and weighs a mere 130g, so you are getting a lot of macro bang for your buck.

Actually you might not need to spend much money on lenses to enjoy macro photography, if at all. Using a technique called Reverse Lens you can often get great results just by using the lens the ‘wrong’ way round. It sounds illogical but it’s not – the front element of the lens is effectively projecting a magnified image of your small subject onto your digital sensor or film. The shorter the focal length, the greater the magnification, so 50mm or shorter lenses work well.

While you can simply reverse the lens and hold it close to your camera to see the effect – a process known as freelensing – you will get the best results by using a reversal ring designed for your particular model.

The beauty of the reverse lens technique is with the right adaptor, you can use any lens, not just those designed for your camera. This means you can even use old film camera lenses, which can be picked up a lot more cheaply than their modern digital equivalents. You will need to focus manually and an aperture ring on the lens to change aperture will be a huge help– many older film lenses have these as a matter of course.

Whether you invest in a macro lens or try the reverse lens technique with an old ‘fab 50’ lens you find cheaply on eBay, the most important thing is to enjoy macro photography. Be sure to send your best results into the excellent Close-up Photographer of the Year competition.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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