How to create macro photos without a macro lens

  • flower photo by Nina Mingioni

How to create macro photos without a macro lens

Macro photography is one of my most favorite genres of photography!

It forces me to slow down and appreciate all the tiny little details of ordinary, every day objects, their gorgeous shape and divine texture.

Undoubtedly, a macro lens is the best way to shoot macro. However, if you are not sure if macro is for you and want to try it out, or if a dedicated macro lens is not in your budget, other options are available.

Let’s weigh the pros and cons!

Macro lens:

A dedicated macro lens does a fantastic job capturing macro! Longer focal lengths allow for some distance between the photographer and the subject – this is great when shooting insect and other tiny creatures without spooking them.

High end macro lenses come with image stabilization (Canon) or vibration reduction (Nikon) technology to aid in achieving tack-sharp focus. A good macro lens will usually double as a great portrait lens.

A great macro lens will easily run over $1000. They are bulky and heavy, and may not be a lens you just happen to have with you “just in case.”

Macro filters:

Macro filters are small magnifying optics that screw onto the front of a lens. You have to be sure to know which lens you will be using these with so that you can get the filters of the correct size. If you are planning to use these filters with a variety of lenses, you may have to find a set that fits each different filter size.

Macro filters are portable and cheap ($15 or less on Amazon). However, macro filters may alter image quality, since the light now has to pass through more glass (and not necessarily “good” glass valued by photographers). You may notice degradation of image quality and presence of artifacts, such as distortion and vignetting.

macro filter picture by April Nienhuis

Canon 85mm f/1.8 with macro filter. Photo by April Nienhuis.

macro photo with macro filters by April Nienhuis

Canon 85mm f/1.8 with macro filter. Photo by April Nienhuis.

Extension rings:

Extension rings are inserted between the camera body and any lens. They are cheap (under $15 on Amazon) and versatile, as they can be used with any lenses that you can mount onto your camera body.

Once your lens is no longer directly attached to the camera body, they do not communicate, and the aperture of the lens will be fixed at its’ “resting position” – wide open. This means that your depth of field is only a few millimeters deep, and achieving good focus can be extremely difficult.

One way to overcome this is to change the aperture on your lens directly. Some lenses have a separate ring that can be used to control the aperture manually. Of all my lenses, only the Lensbaby optics have that option. Also, you will no longer be able to use your camera’s autofocus mechanism. Since much of macro photography is done using manual focusing, you may not find this restricting.

If you were willing to spend a bit more ($48.95 to be exact), you can purchase the extension rings that do maintain communication between your lens and your camera, and you will still be able to autofocus and control your aperture.

Side note: Some photographers say that you can set your desired aperture and hold down the depth of field preview button on your camera as you remove your lens, then your lens will remain at the previously set aperture. In my experience, this does not work.

Lensbaby macro photo by Nina Mingioni.

Lensbaby Edge 80 with extension tube. No tilt.

Reverse freelensing:

Let it be known that reversing any regular lens will turn it into a macro lens. This is done by taking your lens off your camera body and holding this lens to your camera body backwards.

Just as with extension rings, you will no longer be able to control the lens’ aperture or use autofocus. It actually takes a fair amount of manual dexterity to be able to hold the lens to the camera body while focusing and shooting (and changing camera settings to get proper exposure!).

As aperture is wide, the depth of field is negligible, making it very tough to get tack-sharp focus. Conversely, this allows you to create dreamy images with lots of blur. This may be a great creative technique to try for you!

reverse macro photo with the 50 f1.4 lens by Nina Mingioni

Reverse macro with Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

reverse macro picture with the 24-105 f4 lens by Nina Mingioni

Reverse macro with Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens.

What I do:

My Canon 100mm f/2.8L is one of my absolute favorite lenses to use. If I am heading to a setting where I know in advance I will have lots of macro opportunities, I bring it along.

However, it is not always possible to tote it everywhere! Just for these situations, I own a set of Fotodiox extension tubes (the cheap set that does not allow for camera-lens communication) and use it with my Lensbaby Edge 80.

Lensbaby Edge 80 has a manual aperture ring. It is light and easy to just throw into my camera bag. It will take both images without blur (when it’s not tilted) and images with creative blur (when tilt is introduced).

About the Author:

Nina is a hobbyist photographer who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She loves many genres, including street, urban, macro, and nature photography, and, of course, capturing the details in lives of her two boys. She shoots mostly prime lenses, but never leaves her house without one of her Lensbaby lenses. In imagery, she is drawn to lines, patterns, details, textures, and light – and capturing the geometry, order, and beauty these elements bring into the chaos of life. Visit Nina Mingioni online.
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8 Comments

  1. AnnaVanDemark Sep 24 2014 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Wonderful look at macro options, Nina! Your striking images should have everyone wanting to step into the amazing world of macro photography!!! I’ve never regretted the purchase of my 100mm, but it’s nice that there are other less expensive alternatives. I’ve read that the drawback to free-lensing is the fact that your camera’s sensor is opened up to the possibility of dust and pollen/dust that is floating around out of doors. What are your thoughts about that?

    • NinaZM Sep 24 2014 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Hi Anna – thank you for the kind words! freelensing absolutely puts you at a risk for getting more crud on the sensor. However, you can blow lots of it out, and then get the sensor cleaned professionally, if needed. but – hey – no guts, no glory, right? 🙂

  2. Rain Klepper Sep 24 2014 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Fantastic tutorial, Nina!!!! You rock my world…I am so grateful to be on the receiving end of your generous informational sharing. Thank you!

  3. Jo Sep 24 2014 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    Fantastic overview, Nina, and gorgeous images! 🙂

  4. Lisa Benemelis Sep 28 2014 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    Wonderful tutorial, Nina. Thank you. I LOVE all your images – just gorgeous!!

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