Macro Photography: Macro Images on a Budget

By Geoff Harris

Enjoy macro photography for less.

Macro photography became even more popular during the lockdowns but the genre might seem quite expensive as the top macro lenses can cost upwards of £1000.

Fortunately, there are some budget workarounds that still enable you to enjoy macro and close-up photography without spending a lot of money.

Extension tubes

These are a relatively cheap and effective way of boosting the magnification for macro subjects, as they fit between camera and lens, thereby reducing the minimum focusing distance (you can get closer to the subject while maintaining focus).

Basic cheap tubes won’t communicate with your camera, so you will often lose autofocus and metering (where the camera assesses the available light for the right exposure), but this is not a problem if you tend to use manual focus anyway.

That said, a better option might be a better quality used tube, such as those from Kenko. Note also with extension tubes that there will be some light loss.

Teleconverters

Teleconverters are another good way to get more magnification without spending lots of money. Also known as multipliers they again fit between the camera and lens, and popular ‘strengths’ are 2x and 1.4 x.

What’s more, teleconverters can be combined with extension tubes but as you also get light loss with them, make sure that the combined loss is not negatively impacting the final image. You may notice a slight fall-off in image quality too but if you shoot in raw and edit the image carefully, this is unlikely to be a major problem.

Reversal rings

Here’s an ingenious budget solution for macro photography. Did you know you can take a standard lens and reverse it to get more magnification, via a reversal ring?

A basic ‘kit’ lens, such as 18-55mm, will work but you will need a way to control the aperture. The easiest way to do this is to invest in an aperture controller, which you can pick up for a couple of hundred pounds – again, buying a used example from a dealer will be a cheaper option.

The downside is that the viewfinder can get dark in low light but it’s a worthwhile pay off.

Used third party lenses

If you do decide to buy a dedicated macro lens, don’t feel you have to buy the same brand as your camera. While Nikon, Canon etc macro lenses are good quality, there are also some great choices from Sigma and Tamron. These are noticeably cheaper; pick one up used and you can save even more money.

Sigma’s 105mm f/2.8 DG DN Macro Art lens has set a new level of quality, but even second hand it will set you back around £700.

A cheaper used option is the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro which you can get for around £250.

We recommend buying lenses from a specialist used dealer, such as MPB, Park Cameras or Wex Photo Video, as although you’ll usually pay more than eBay, you get the peace of mind of a warranty and thorough pre-sale check.

Bellows

As with extension tubes, bellows reduce the minimum focusing distance so you can get in closer to your subject. They sound complicated and old-school, but are quite straightforward, enabling you to place the lens further away from the camera and move everything backwards and forwards, enabling great precision.

As with extension tubes, there is some light loss. We recommend the Novoflex BALPRO 1 Universal Bellows Starter Kit, which comes in about £400.

Cheap macro accessories

While specialist macro items such as bellows may seem pricey, you can recoup your costs when it comes to accessories. Rather than coughing up for specialist macro lighting, you can often get away with a simple LED torch to enhance lighting, a hand-held reflector to help bounce light back on your subject (lots are available online for not much money) or a diffuser to help soften harsh sunlight.

Household accessories can be pressed into service too, such as garden kneeling mats – they keep you dry and comfortable when you are hunched over a plant or insect – or a pair of scissors to help tidy up the background behind a nice flower or insect (without damaging the environment).

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk 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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