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Macro Photography

how to take close-up pictures of small things by Philip Greenspun, June 1997 (updated January 2007)

macro \'mak-(.)ro-\ aj [macr-] 1: excessively developed : LARGE, THICK 2: of or involving large quantities 3: GROSS

Taking close-up pictures of small things is called "macro photography." I have no idea why. Perhaps because the small things in macro photography are generally larger than the things you are taking pictures of when doing "micro photography". If you really want to be pedantic then you should say you are doing "photomacrography".

What Kind of Camera

Point and shoot digital cameras can have remarkable macro capabilities, but for best results you want a single-lens reflex camera. These allow you to attach special-purpose macro lenses and show you in a bright optical viewfinder what you will get on the sensor.

A typical setup might be a Canon Digital Rebel XTi (Black) (review) with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM (review). This lens is designed for the small-sensor Canon cameras and gives a working distance equivalent to 100mm on a full-frame camera. The lens is specified to focus down to "1:1" or "life size". This means that the smallest object you can photograph that will extend to the corners of the final digital photo will be the same size as the sensor inside the Canon Rebel camera, 15x22mm. A professional photographer might use Canon EOS 5D (review) and a lens designed for full Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM (review). Confusingly, this lens is also specified to focus down to "1:1", but this time the sensor is 24x36mm in size, the old 35mm film standard. So you can't take a photo of something quite as small as with the cheaper equipment.

In the film world, the 35mm camera systems had comprehensive range of macro lenses and accessories and some medium format systems, such as the Rollei 6008 would have at least a few lenses and extension tubes. Only the extremely patient ever did macro photography with a 4x5 inch view camera.

Doing it all with a Normal Lens

Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland.

In the good old days a 35mm single-lens reflex camera came with a 50mm "normal" lens. These lenses were extremely light, rugged, and high quality, so naturally the consuming public abandoned them for heavy, fragile, low quality zooms. But that's another story... Anyway, suppose that you are out in the woods with your Canon EOS 5D, a full-frame camera and a 50mm normal lens, and you want to take a picture of the tip of a pine needle. [Everything in this section applies equally to using a 30mm prime lens, e.g., Sigma 30/1.4, on a small-sensor camera such as a Canon Rebel or Nikon D-series.]

First, though, you want to take a picture of the moon. That's pretty far away, so you feel comfortable setting the lens focusing helical to "infinity". The "nodal point" of the optics will now be 50 millimeters from the plane of the sensor. [Note: exposure for the moon should be roughly f/11 and 1/ISO-setting.]

The effort of setting up your tripod is so great that you become tired and fall asleep. When you wake up in the morning, there is a bear standing 10 feet away. You refocus your 50mm lens to get a picture of the grizzly. As you turn the helical from "infinity" to "10 feet", notice that the optics are racked out away from the sensor. The nodal point is a bit farther than 50 millimeters from the sensor plane. The lens is casting an image circle somewhat larger than the 24x36mm sensor. Some of the light gathered by the lens is therefore being lost but it isn't significant.

After snapping that photo of the bear, you notice that his fangs are glistening. These aren't going to appear very large in your last shot, so you move up until you are about 1.5 feet from the bear. That's about as close as the lens helical will let you focus. The nodal point is now pretty far from the lens. Extra light is spilling off to the edges of the frame , but still not far enough to require an exposure correction. The bear's face is 1.5 feet high. You've oriented the camera vertically so that the face fills the 36mm dimension. 36mm is about 1.5 inches. So that means you are working at "1:12". The subject is 12 times the size of the subject's image on the sensor.

You're losing some light, but also you notice that you don't have too much depth of field. A 50mm lens focussed down to a foot from the subject only has a depth of field of 1/16th of an inch at f/4. No problem. You haul out a big electronic flash and stop down to f/11. Now your depth of field is a whopping ... 1/2 inch.

Looking down, you become fascinated by some pattern's in the bear's claws. Each one is about 1.5 inches long. You'd like to fill the sensor's long dimension (36mm) with a claw, which means that the subject and its image will be the same size. You want to work at "1:1". But the folks at the lens factory skimped on the helical. You can't rack your optics out far enough to focus at 1:1. It looks like that pine needle tip photo is completely out of the question.

Why did Canon limit your ability to focus close? For starters, at 1:1 the lens would be so far away from the sensor that it would cast a huge image circle. The standard 24x36mm frame would only be a tiny fraction. So only about 1/4 of the light gathered by the lens would reach the film, i.e., you'd have a two f-stop underexposure if you used the same exposure setting that you'd used for the picture of the bear when he was 10' away. A scene that required a lens setting of f/16 at infinity would require a lens setting of about f/8 at 1:1. All this other light would be bouncing around inside your camera and lens, reducing contrast. Finally, a fixed stack of optical elements can't be designed to form sharp images at so many different focussed distances.

Close-Up Lenses

Your eyes don't focus so great on really small things either. Do you try to pull your cornea a foot away from your retina? No. You stick a magnifying glass in front of your cornea. You can do the same thing for your normal lens. Unlike your cornea, it even has convenient threads for attaching a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass screws into the same place where a filter would go.

A camera store could never sell you a "magnifying glass" for $50 so they call these things "supplementary lenses" or "close-up lenses". Good things about close-up lenses:

  • they don't require any exposure corrections
  • you can throw a couple in your pocket in case you need them

Bad things about close-up lenses:

  • they aren't very high quality though they might be good enough if you stop down to f/16 and if you can find two-element close-up lenses (e.g., Nikon-brand) instead of the cheapo one-element ones.
  • you have to take them on and off constantly if you are taking pictures of things at different distances.

Close-up lenses are not a common professional choice, but they are described fairly thoroughly in the Kodak Professional Photoguide.

At right: a model of Sacre Coeur, captured with a Minolta 50mm lens and single-element Minolta-brand close-up lens. Perhaps not the world's best image, but keep in mind that the photographer was 11 years old at the time of exposure.

Macro Zoom Lenses

Macro zoom lenses are not macro lenses. They don't allow significantly greater magnification than a 30mm or 50mm normal lens and they deliver low quality.

Macro Lenses

What you want is a macro lens. Fortunately, it is difficult to buy a bad macro lens. This is kind of odd in a world where 90 percent of the lenses sold are bad. Perhaps it is because anyone in the market for a macro lens is already fairly sophisticated and quality-conscious. Partly it is because it is easier to make a single focal-length lens than a zoom.

The best macro lenses are the latest autofocus mount models made by Canon and Nikon, typically in focal lengths ranging from 50 to 200mm. Each lens will focus continuously from infinity to 1:1. You can shoot the moon and capture the bear claw without stopping to change lenses or screw in filters. How do these lenses work? Do they just have a much longer helical than the 50mm normal lens? Yes and no.

Yes a macro lens helical has much more travel than a normal lens helical. You can watch the front element move an inch or two. However, these helicals aren't just pushing a stack of glass back and forth like the 50mm's helical. Inside one of the elements is moving ("floating") so that the optical design changes to a more appropriate one for close-up photography. Thus you get sharp images at all focussed distances.

How do you choose a focal length? The same way you do with a non-macro lens. If you can't get very close to your subject at a soccer game, you don't pull out a normal lens; you bring out a 300mm telephoto lens. If you can't get close to an insect without it getting scared and flying away, then you want the 200mm lens and not the 50. If you want to compress features in a woman's face, you use a 105mm lens rather than a short wide angle lens. It is the same with macro work; longer lenses give you a flatter perspective.

At right is an image (from my Christina page) taken with an older design Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, (buy from Amazon). This lens incorporates a floating element for high image quality, but only goes to 1:2 without a "life size converter" (sort of like a telextender) that you stick between the lens and the camera. The 50 is also annoying because it has the ancient non-USM Canon motor. So it can't do simultaneous AF and MF like the ring-USM lenses.

Check the Canon and Nikon system pages for a current list of all the macro lenses made by those companies for their bodies.

Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina make excellent single focal length (prime) macro lenses. If you're using a system other than Canon or Nikon, these may be better quality than your own manufacturer's lens. If you're using Canon or Nikon, you might be able to save a few dollars, at the expense, perhaps, of slightly less rugged mechanical construction. Among the three companies, Tamron historically has produced the best macro lenses.

If you feel like spending a lot of money then what you want is a 6x6 cm Rollei 6008 and digital back. The Schneider 150 is probably the best macro lens available for the Rollei (only $3425), though if you're using a digital back with less than a 60mm sensor size, the Schneider 90mm macro ($3900) might work nicely.

Rollei probably has the most intelligently designed macro system in the world.

At left, orchids in Hawaii with the older 120 Zeiss macro lens, Kodak Gold 100 film (120 size naturally), tripod, f/16 and 1/15th of a second.


Joshua Tree National Park

Unless you are using close-up lenses, when doing any kind of macro work, you always have to consider the effective f-stop. Even if you are using the SLR body's built-in meter, which will correct automatically for light loss, you can't turn off your brain. Why not? Because the effective aperture affects picture quality.

Taking pictures through a pinhole results in tremendous depth of field but very low sharpness due to diffraction. This is why lenses for a 35mm film camera stop at f/22 and don't go to f/45 or f/64. Large format camera lenses provide these smaller apertures for two reasons: (1) the lenses are longer (f/64 on a 210mm lens is not all that small a hole); (2) the negative won't be enlarged very much.

If you're at 1:1 and have selected f/22 on the macro lens barrel, you need to look at the lens markings and/or the close-up exposure dial in the Kodak Professional Photoguide to learn that your effective aperture is f/45.

If you're using a handheld meter, you absolutely must use these corrections (e.g., meter says f/22 but you're focussed down to 1:1 so you set f/11 on the lens barrel).

[Note: Nikon bodies show you the effective aperture in the viewfinder, a really great feature for macro use; Canon EOS cameras do not.]


Alex's Nose.

A good quick and dirty lighting technique is to use a through-the-lens (TTL) metered flash with a dedicated extension cord (Nikon SC 29 off-camera flash cord or Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2). A modern handheld flash is extremely powerful when used a few inches from a macro subject. That lets you stop down to f/16 and smaller for good depth of field. You can hold the flash to one side of the subject and have an assistant hold a white piece of paper on the other side to serve as a reflector. If you want a softer light, you will have enough power in the flash to use almost any kind of diffusion material. The TTL meter in the camera will turn the flash off when enough light has reached the sensor.

Lighting is the most important and creative part of any kind of photography. We have an entire book chapter on the subject that might be worth reading.

The Samoyed nose at right belongs to Alex, captured with a Canon EOS-5, 180/2.8 macro lens, and TTL-metered Canon flash. Below: a foot recently pulled out of one of those weird sandals with all the bumps. Nikon 8008, 60/2.8 lens, SB-24 lens with SC-17 cord

Dimpled feet (from wearing those nubby sandals)

Let's combine what we've learned until now: the aquarium

Combining everything we've learned up to this point, let's look at a case study: the aquarium. The items inside are pretty close, so you need a macro lens. If you put a rubber lens hood on the front of the lens, then you can mush it up against the glass and avoid reflections. Now you need light. Well, you can just get a flash on an extension cord and point it into the aquarium from just about anywhere.

Here are some examples from the public aquarium in Monterey, taken with a Nikon 8008, 60mm AF macro lens (set for manual focus), SB-24 flash, SC-17 extension cord. I wiped the glass with a handkerchief, asked my friend to hold the flash, and pushed the lens hood up against the glass:

Monterey Aquarium.  California. Crab.  Monterey Aquarium.  California. Jellyfish.  Monterey Aquarium.  California.

People often write in wondering "How did you manage to get a lawyer in that last frame..."


With a depth of field of around one millimeter for precise macro work, camera positioning and focus become critical. If you have a good tripod and head, you'll find that you have at least 10 controls to adjust. Each of them will move the camera. None of them will move the camera along the axis that you care about.

That's why people buy macro focusing rails, e.g., Adorama Macro Focusing Rail, (buy from Amazon). These are little rack and pinions capable of moving the entire camera/lens assembly forward and back. You use the tripod to roughly position the camera/lens and then the macro rail to do fine positioning.

The photos below are snapshots from the garden of the Getty Center. They were taken with a fancy Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM (review), but without a tripod. It was thus impossible to focus precisely or stop down enough to get sufficient depth of field. The results are rather disappointing...

Garden. Getty Center.  Los Angeles, California. Garden. Getty Center.  Los Angeles, California.

Beyond 1:1 the Canon Way

In the Canon EOS system, going beyond 1:1 is as simple as buying Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro (review). Mount lens on tripod, mount camera on lens, twist ring on lens, release shutter:

(Flower interior at above left was captured with a traditional EOS film body; the jelly bean image at above right was taken with a D30 digital body (party like it's 2001).)

Beyond 1:1 with Nikon, et al

If you don't have a Canon EOS system and the special 1-5X lens, going beyond 1:1 requires more than buying a lens and turning the focus ring.

First, you can get a bellows (flexible accordion) and/or some extension tubes. These will let you push the lens farther away from the camera body. Extension tubes are rigid and tough; they only let you separate your body and lens in fixed increments. Bellows are delicate but they let you continuously control the lens distance from the body. How much magnification this extra extension will get you depends on the focal length of the lens. If you have a 1000mm lens that already needs its nodal point 1000mm from the sensor plane to focus at infinity, then a 50mm extension tube isn't going to be worth much. However, if you have a 50mm lens, then that same 50mm extension will take you all the way to 1:1.

Second, you probably want a "reversing ring" for your lenses so that you can turn the back element of the lens toward your subject. Why? Think about the normal way you use a lens. You are taking a picture of the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is larger than 24x36mm. So you point the front element of the lens at the statue and the back element at the (smaller) sensor. Your lens is designed to work like this, taking the large and compressing it into the small. However, if you are working at 10:1, where the tip of a pine needle is going to take up a big portion of the frame, you want the lens to take the small and expand it into the large. So you want to just flip the lens around.

Third, once you've reversed the lens, you probably want some way to retain the automatic diaphragm. You want the aperture to remain fully open until just before your exposure and then close down to the selected shooting aperture. Rollei medium-format cameras have an all-electric interface between camera and lens, so this is done with clean and reliable electric contacts. Canon EOS would work the same way except that, after more than 15 years, Canon hasn't bothered to manufacture a bellows for the EOS system. An independent company, Novoflex, does make a bellows for Canon EOS, but for most people the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro (review) is a better choice. Nikon has mechanically stopped-down diaphragms for backward compatibility so they give you a strange dual cable release contraption.

More: John Shaw's Close-ups in Nature .

Beyond 1:1 the Lazy Way

At left are a couple of Ant Robots built at the MIT AI Lab by James McLurkin. Photographed with Canon EOS-5 and Canon 50/2.8 macro lens (lit by off-camera 430 EZ flash). This lens only goes to 1:2.

At right is a detail of the ant claws, which was taken with the Raynox Micro-Explorer, (buy from Amazon). The Raynox is a set of close-up lenses, 6X, 12X, and 24X. These images are the result of mounting the 6X lens on a Canon 35-350L zoom lens.

Here is the original ant claw picture. You can see that vignetting was severe at f/16. Fortunately, this was apparent in the viewfinder with the depth-of-field preview button pressed, so the composition was made with an eye toward eventual cropping. Vignetting is the principal drawback of the MicroExplorer and it is apparently worse at small apertures.

A couple more example MicroExplorer shots (at left is an Ant robot detail; at right is a quarter on a $20 bill, full frame at f/8 (I think)). Note that vignetting is not as severe as it was at f/16 (above left).


Top photo: Salmon roe. Nikon 60/2.8, Fuji Velvia, SB-24 flash, SC-17 extension cord, from Travels with Samantha, Chapter XII.

Frog: Canon EOS 50 macro. 430EZ with Off Camera Cord 2. From Costa Rica.

Orchids: Canon EOS 50 macro. Tripod and natural light. Fuji Velvia.

From Hacienda Baru in Costa Rica.

Text and pictures copyright 1991-1997 Philip Greenspun.

Article revised January 2007.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

David Jacobson , April 02, 1997; 04:39 P.M.

This article talks about lighting for macro. I have found that the LumiQuest BigBounce works very well for macro work. I mount it on my SB-24 flash and just hold it right over the subject (using the SC-17 cord, of course). It has a large enough area that the shadows are quite soft. It does not have a hot spot in the center like some other diffusers.

Glen Johnson , April 07, 1997; 04:03 P.M.

I saw a reversing ring for the EOS system in an ad the other day. I think it was from Calumet because that is the only catalog that has shown up in the past week or so.

The "ring" actually involved two rings. There was the first ring which screwed into the lens' filter thread and duplicated the EOS mount at the back end of the lens. This ring interfaces with the EOS mount on the camera body. There was a coiled and wrapped wire bundle that went from this first ring to the second ring. The second ring was like the EOS mount on the camera body, and it attached to the mount end of the lens.

Because they are only shifting the electrical contacts for the EOS mount from one end of the lens to the other, this contraption should have a decent chance of "working." It doesn't require the same level of reverse engineering that is required to duplicate the EOS mount completely. There is no need for any microprocessor, or communications capability in this "adapter." I have not personally tried it, so I can't give it an endorsement.

The price tag was $269.95, so it is cheaper than an EOS macro lens, but not as cheap as the EOS extension tubes, which will also allow close focusing..

Glen Johnson , April 09, 1997; 08:30 A.M.

In addition to the extension tube approach, which I alluded to above in my comment on the reversing ring, you can also get a greater than 1:1 on the film plane by using teleconverters. Canon's 180mm f/3.5L usm macro lens will accept the tc's, and with the 1.4x you get 1.4x life size, and with the 2x you get 2x life size at closest focus.

You can also use the tc's with the other Canon macro lenses, but you need to mount an extension tube between the lens and the tc to make the tc "fit." Canon doesn't recommend this, but George Lepp has reportedly achieved acceptable results using this strategy. You can actually mount the tc's on any of the EOS lenses if you premount the tube - and this allows you to turn your 24mm TS-E into a 48mm TS-E, for example.

Glen Johnson , April 16, 1997; 09:01 A.M.

Here's a cheap way to try high magnification photography - B&H sells something called a macro coupling ring for around $8. The ring has two male filter threads, one on each end. You basically screw it into the filter end of an 85mm or 100mm lens, and then mount your 50mm or 35mm lens in reverse on the front.

I have not tried this, but it is incredibly cheap. TTL metering is maintained because one lens is mounted with a fully functional diaphragm. It looks like it would be tempting to mount the 50 f/1.4 or the 35 f/2 in front of the 85 f/1.8 or the 100 f/2, or maybe even the 100 f/2.8 macro.

Glen Johnson , April 18, 1997; 10:02 A.M.

If you're using EOS gear, you should consider picking up the book entitled Canon Workshop Series: Close-Up & Macro Photography. B&H sells it under the name "Canon Macro Book," and they get retail ($17.95). I have also seen it in local camera stores.

This book has a 1996 copyright. The fellow who wrote it has worked closely with George Lepp. It begins with very basic information, and includes a series of "projects." I found the book to be very informative and interesting. There are chapters that are suitable for folks with a Rebel G and 35-80 zoom. And there are chapters for folks who have a 1N, ML-3 ringlight, macro lens, tilt shift lens, tele converters, extension tubes, etc. Literally, there is something for people working at every level.

There were a number of tips in the book that explain more about how the EOS flash algorithm works. The book covers unusual topics, like cross polarization. They present sources for special non-Canon gear. This book is the first Canon sanctioned reference that I have found that explains what to expect in terms of displays and camera behavior when you mount a TC on a tilt shift lens, or when you mount a TC via an extension tube on an EOS EF lens that wasn't designed to accept a TC.

A major focus of the book is on lighting via the EOS Speedlites. Although they tend to focus on the use of the 540 EZ, there are also several examples where the low end flash (I think its the 220?) is used. One interesting point on the 540EZ is that they recommend that you use the strobe feature (on low power and for limited consecutive flashes so that you don't overheat it) as a modeling light. I hadn't thought of this myself and I don't remember seeing the idea in the 540EZ manual.

I would rate this book as "better than a workshop," and certainly cheaper. It is worth a look, especially for folks who are using EOS gear. Others might find it less useful.

M. Huber , August 24, 1998; 07:00 P.M.

As a long time very satisfied Nikon micro/macro user, I would like to plug an even better macro lens: The SMC Pentax-A 645 120 mm Macro lens.

Paul Schings , October 09, 1998; 08:15 P.M.

I was surprised to read a general article about 35mm macro photography that doesn't mention the Olympus OM system. Olympus still makes by far the most comprehensive macro system in 35mm. A total of 7 macro lenses - including 2 optimized for magnifications greater than 1:1 (20mm, 38mm), two 50mm's, an 80mm optimized for 1:1 (ideal for slide copying), a 90mm, and a 135mm). There is also a bellows, telescopic auto extension tube (unique, I believe), and 3 special purpose macro flashes (the T8 reverse-reflection ring flash, T10 ring flash, and T28 dual-head macro flash). I believe essentially all of these products are still in production. If someone is serious about macro photography they should give the OM system a close look.

ilker sahin , November 08, 1998; 08:52 A.M.

Having tried lots of ways for more practical macro photography,i can advise you using a reversed zoom lens with a bellows unit.This method provides you with adjustuble magnification by changing the focal length of the zoom,without changing the length of the bellows.I used sigma 70-210 APO with bellows on a Nikon,and i can say i was satisfied.

Michael Engelen , November 27, 1998; 08:54 A.M.

Great site! Well, there is actually a reverse- ring-system for Canon from the German company NOVOFLEX (I do not know if there is a distributor for the US (maybe Bogen?)). This system even supports autofocusing. In Germany it costs about 700,-DM (~400 US$ incl. tax)

Pepe Alvarez , February 14, 1999; 01:16 A.M.

Novoflex's EOS accessories and their other products as well, are distributed by Calumet. In addition to the EOS lens reversing ring which retains all EOS functions, Novoflex also makes a very compact auto bellows for the EOS system which likewise retains all EOS functions.

It may be of interest to note that when using a floating element lens on a bellows or other extension accessory, it is optically preferable to extend the lens to it's fullest extension (nearest focus setting) before extending the bellows. At the lower magnification range this may not always yield the magnification desired so it may be necessary to retract the lens the necessary amount in combination with bellows extension to achieve the desired magnification. The point is to leave the lens extended the maximum amount permissable because the floating element(s) corrects for close-up images when the lens extends.


balazs horvath , April 21, 1999; 08:01 A.M.

I use an 70-300 Apo Macro Zoom with an achromatic attachment lens and 60 cm extension ring. The subject can be illuminated with a camera mounted Speedlite. It gives reasonable images at aperture 22.

Neil Robertson , June 09, 1999; 04:38 P.M.

My favorite gear for macro photography on land is my underwater gear. Pause for head scratching. Huh?

For macro work underwater, I use a Nikonos with twin strobes. I use the 35mm lense and the 28mm lense with extension tubes and with a close-up lense. This enables me to shoot 2:1, 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:6, and 1:8 very simply. Twin strobes only inches from the subject allow me to shoot consistently at F16 (with Velvia). I use this rig on land and get brilliant macro shots of flowers and insects.

Because it's a viewfinder camera and not an SLR, focusing and parallax are a major issue. This is solved by using framers. A framer is bent coat hanger wire ;-) attached to the lense that precisely indicates the point of focus and the edge of the picture. You don't look through the viewfinder, you look over the camera at the subject.

What I have is a self contained rig that takes serious macro shots with twin strobes with a minimum of fuss.

However, since I wouldn't recommend anyone buy this unless they were also going to use it for underwater work, this is offered simply as a divertissement.

Cheers, Neil.

balazs horvath , July 02, 1999; 07:09 A.M.


I intend to take photos in very high magnifications (up to 20x). The only way to reach such magnifications is to reverse a standard or a wide-angle lens. I didn't buy the automatic reversing ring of the german company Novoflex, I made one by myself instead (it has only 8 electronic contacts but it's enough).It was a hard work but it was worth it. I used a 12 mm Soligor extension tube for this conversion. It has two long spiral cables (usually used in phones).It works very well. I need it because I hate awkward double cable releases.(It's quite a hard task to take hand hald shots in such a great magnifications, even if the aperture closes automatically.) Novoflex claims one can get brilliant images with a reversed 28 mm lens. I asked Leica but they said "we don't suggest you using a reversing ring because it gives miserable images. Use our Macrophoto lenses (Photar Lupenobjektive)". I know they have right but I can't afford it.(By the way: Nikon's solution to this problem is to reverse a 20 mm lens) I want the second-best way to get high magnification images: the reversing ring. Somebody could maybe tell me which one of the following lenses would be the best for the work with a reversing ring:

the new Sigma 17-35mm / F2,8-4 EX ASPH. or theTokina 17 mm /F3,5 with asph. lens and floating elements or the Canon EF 20 mm/2,8 with floating elements or the Sigma 28 mm /F1,8 ASPH.? (or something else?)

Somebody on the net wrote that wide angle lenses with floating elements perform not very well when reversed. I disagree (I'm not sure however)

There are only a few centimeters between the subject and the front of the lens (in fact the back of the lens ). Does someone an idea how to illuminate the subject?

Horvath Balazs

Kevin Han , October 01, 1999; 06:47 A.M.

For magnifications up to 5 times, here's what I do. 100mm macro with 2x converter, stacked with a standard 50mm. The Vivitar macro only goes up to 1:2 and when set there, I am able to reach 5x. Working space between back element of the 50mm (now facing forward) and subject is only 4cm. The extreme but unavoidable shallow DOF wide open can in a way be an advantage. Focus on certain parts of a subject (bug's eyes for example) can be easily confirmed because at the correct distance, that specific part and everything else in its plane will be the only thing sharp. With the subject so close, a ringlight seems to be the only option, but can be replaced with a TTL flash on dedicated cord positioned just beside the front of your lens. Put a diffuser on that and a reflector on the other side.

Les Berkley , October 08, 1999; 07:48 P.M.

Hello! On the extreme magnification end of things: the late lamented Modern Photography published a wonderful article about 30 yrs ago on using an inexpensive movie camera lens (avail. in junk boxes at equipment shows these days) in reverse mode as a super macro. The shots they posted were incredible! It needed a bellows and a bit of do-it-yourself skill to set up, but the resolution blew away some expensive Zeiss macro they tested it against. Les

edward Everett , January 14, 2000; 08:14 P.M.

You do not need an expensive adapting ring to reverse a lense, handhold it. I just reverse my 50mm (haveing set the aperture wide open), and hold it onto my Contax 167mt body. OK, it is not the easiest or reliable way to do things, but it is geat fun, you get good results about half the time, and people who think they are 'real' photograpers look at you as though your mad. If you want to get even closer use a 28mm. The results are often bizarre, abstract, but nearly always beautiful.

Infact this way, you have a macro shift and tilt lense! Just give it a go, leave the camera's meter to do it's own thing, and enjoy.


Jan Senko , February 05, 2000; 09:26 A.M.

There is no question about that Nikon and Canon produce excellent lenses and cameras for 35 mm photography...but if anybody out there is looking for a 35 mm macro lens that satisfies even the most demanding Pro or Amateur photographers,then Leica 100/2.8 APO is the way to go...This lens is very expensive but delivers superior image quality over the entire focusing range from infinity to 18 inches.. also for greater magnification Elpro 1:2-1:1 is available at a reasonable price..... Sincerelly,Jan

Lan Tu , March 14, 2000; 03:41 A.M.

I would like to add to the above comments by Glen Johnson and Les Berkley on the subject of stacking lenses. First, this is the cheapest way to obtain high magnification, since you can use lenses that you already own; the stacking ring can be purchased for very little, or you can even fabricate your own. Second, it yields superior results because many many lenses can be used as the reversed lens (the one in front), and even a really cheap lens is usually quite well corrected in its center. The center of the reversed lens is all you're concerned about when shooting at apertures of f11 and smaller. People have even used enlarger and cine lenses, etc., with great results, and of course the reversed lens can be of any brand. Finally, in order to simply reverse one lens directly onto the camera body it is possible to make a reversing ring by epoxying a cut-out body cap to a junk filter ring.

Dan Carey , May 31, 2000; 06:46 P.M.

Macro is a great way to generate visually impressive and interesting shots. It's eyecatching, and you find yourself drawn into the shot asking "what's that?". You can spend a day shooting in the back yard. You can take a macro hike in the hills, shooting rolls of film within 1/4 mile of the car. It's fun. I've been using an FD bellows with a medium zoom and a lightweight tripod for general work. For critical work and copying slides I use an EL-Nikkor 50mm/f2.8 enlarger lens in a lens adapter, bolted onto the bellows. The zoom is nice because I don't have to get in really tight and I can adapt the magnification to match the shot. Great for shooting flowers, bugs, etc. The enlarger lens is optimized for flat field work, so shooting coins or duplicating slides is this lens' job. It is, however, a lot more work to use the enlarger lens but the results are worth the hassle. My suggestion would be to begin with a medium close up lens, something like a +2, and see how you like it. You can always keep the lens in the camera bag, and it's light and easy to carry. The next step is an extension tube. These are a lot of work to use, but at 1:3 or 1:2 they're Ok. I wouldn't advise high magnifications with tubes, though. Use a bellows with a tripod mount so that you're not supporting a heavy lens way out there, solidly mounted to your camera body's lens mount. It's easy to distort the mount and then your body is junk. The integral tripod mount on the bellows provides support, as well as flexibility.


ivan wayne , August 08, 2000; 04:58 P.M.

This relates to medical photography which is a blend of portrait photography and macro closeup work. After reading reviews and comments on this site and others I decided to buy a Canon Elan IIE with the new USM 100mm macro lens. However I broke the tradition in the surgical field of using a ring flash. I am so happy I did. I bought the 380ex flash unit and installed a bouncer-diffuser. It extends the flash out over the barrel of the lens and has no detectable shaddow at the ranges I am using. The contrast is incredible-it blows away the quality of my mentor's Nikon F4 outfit. For anyone considering surgical medical photography-don't get a ring flash-it washes out the depth of the subject too much. Also the TTL system works so well at creating the right exposure I can't tell the difference between the ones I took at 2.8, 8, 11, or 16 F-stops-it was perfect everytime. The new USM macro lens has the best focus system I have tried-I demo'd the old AF system from Canon and spent some time using a Nikon macro system. It is fast and accurate without hunting around all the time trying to find its focus.

- Ivan

Joel Alves , May 31, 2001; 11:48 P.M.


Joel Alves from Rio de Janeiro - BRAZIL.

I agree with the comment of Dr Ivan Wayne about medical photography and macro closeup work. I don't like to use ring flash for portrait or view of patient's smile. I prefer to use my Speedlite 420EX bounced. For macro dental photo, the use of ring flash is very important. The mouth has many shadows and obscure areas between the teeth and the oral mucosa. I'm a very blessed dentist to work with my Canon EOS A2 (Canon EOS 500 for backup), New macro 100mm f2.8 USM and Canon ML-3 ringflash. The results of my slides are superb in f11 to f19 my most usable settings. The use of mirrors are very easy by the TTL presence. If I want more perspective and a different effect I simply work with half ring flash. The Canon 100mm macro lens is amazing. The colors are neutral and the contrast superb. Without doubts the best macro lens I have worked. There is no differences between the slides shot with EOS A2 or EOS 500. It's sharper than my Canon 70-210 f2.8 L USM ( a super pro lens) @ 100mm.


Stanislav Shalunov , June 02, 2001; 07:45 P.M.

The article says:

This is why lenses for your 35mm camera stop at f/22 and don't go to f/45 or f/64. View camera lenses provide these smaller apertures for two reasons: (1) the lenses are longer (f/64 on a 210mm lens is not all that small a hole); (2) the negative won't be enlarged very much.

This doesn't appear to be entirely correct. Namely, the first reason isn't valid. Independently of the actual diameter of the aperture, diffraction limitations are determined by the f-number. E.g., on p.96 (old edition), Photographic materials and Processes says:

With a lens stopped down to f/64, the maximum resolving power that can be obtained--no matter how good the lens or accurate the focusing--is approximately 28 lines/mm.

Additionally, a table that maps f-numbers into maximum resolution numbers (for diffraction-limited case) can be found in a Usenet reproduction of a Zeiss article from 1997 (it's supposedly reprinted from Camera Lens News, No 2, fall 1997.

So, only reason number 2 (negative enlargement) is valid. For large format cameras 28l/mm seems to be plenty.

Brent Wilson ' The Shallow DOF Man' , January 12, 2002; 10:05 A.M.

Aquarium photography: I have photographed fish in aquariums on many occasions and have found through trial and error that to get the best possible results you need 2 flash head set at 45 degrees to the surface you are trying to illuminate. That is to say, you can have 1 head at the left hand and 1 at the top or 1 on the left and 1 on the right. It depends on how much space you have and what is in the tanks, rocks, plants etc. these can cast nasty shadows so be aware of them. Find the 'sweet' spot in the tank where the light and background is pleasing and take your flash meter readings there. Please note * you can loose up to 25% of your light through the glass and another 25% from the water * these are only guesstimates as glass thickness varies and so does the volume of water through which the light passes. I usually get f:16 at 125th using my 2 Profoto Heads. Next get a large sheet of black card cut a hole in the middle then stick your lens through. This does 2 things, it eliminates unwanted reflections and the fish can't see you. Light the tank for the type of fish to show off there scales to the best advantage. Remember don't feed the fish as this cause a LOT of unwanted particles floating in the water. And finally get your self a chair and get comfortable as this is not a game for the hurried person.... think like a fish! Observe them before you start shooting and you will see that they have a fairly predictable and mundane life inside a tank! which is good for you. Cheers and good luck Brent.

Darrell Harmon , April 05, 2002; 05:28 P.M.

I have had good luck with a Nikon 50mm reverse mounted on a 4x5. Because of the extension it more that covers the film. I have shot a few of my best macros this way and it is actually my favorite way of doing macros of objects that I can take to my house to photography. It is about useless for use in the field though. Be warned that there will be some long exposure requirements. One time I shot at about 20x magnification, and the exposure at f/8 was 4 minutes with powerful halogen lights.

Darrell Harmon.

David Silverman , June 16, 2002; 11:08 A.M.

Recently I started taking maro pictures with a Rollei 3003 and other Rollei 35mm SLR Cameras. I use the Rollei bellows with the 39mm screw mount lens adapter. I have been testing many different enlarging lenses with with the 39mm screw mount. I have taken some wonderful pictures with suberb results useing a Kodak Ektar 100mm lens, Nikon EL 50 and 80mm lenses, Wilonar Wetzlar 75mm lenes, and an Acura 105mm lens. I would like to know if anyone else has used this set-up with Zeiss luminar macro lenses and if so how do they compare???? I have not used these lenses yet because of the prices they currently sell for. (On Ebay) Please tell me about your results. David Silverman Tokyo, Japan

Robert Barzilla , November 01, 2002; 11:36 P.M.

Novoflex makes a reversing ring for the Canon EOS system (as mentioned above). The only U.S. retailer is B&H photo and with no discount off of retail. All of the Novoflex products I have are great, but quite espensive.

Nick Hulme , December 19, 2003; 07:35 A.M.

I'm just starting out in Macro Photography and bought a cheap second-hand set of Jessops' Nikon AI fit extension tubes for my S1. My first experiment was the back of a penny (UK), with a Nikkor 35-70 zomm at about 50mm and all three tubes together. I was able to get a very good full-frame shot of the portcullis & chains detail (about 12mm high) from the reverse side of the coin. I may need more sophisticated equipment if I persue Macro Photography further but given the cost I wholeheartedly recommend others to begin their journey into this area with extension tubes, it's a very cost effective way to get started and the results are excellent, Nick

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Bulent Celasun , April 26, 2007; 03:53 A.M.

Illuminating article. Perhaps you could also mention the now legendary Vivitar Series 1 105 mm f/2.5 macro lens as well.

John Vessey , May 13, 2007; 11:54 A.M.

Hi, Does anyone out there have any information on focussing distances when using PB6 Bellows with D200 & Nikon 50mm 1.4 standard lens attached? The focussing distances quoted in the instruction booklet don't seem to work out. Is this anything to do with digital/film compatability?

derek x , May 21, 2007; 11:20 P.M.

Hey, can anybody give me some advice? I just bought the Canon EF 50mm 1.4 and the Kenko Uniplus Tube 25 DG and mounted them on my 30D, and I can't focus at all - manually or AF. It's not the lens, that's working fine. What else could it be? It doesn't even ALMOST focus...it's all blur!

yj yan , June 08, 2007; 09:52 A.M.

lighttening is the most importent

On top of the other factors, lighttening is the most importent, in all fields of the photography

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Lincoln Westermann , June 09, 2007; 03:29 A.M.

Macro is one of my favorite genres, especially in the winter when outdoor shots are limited. My water drop shot - http://www.photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=5398983 is an example of this. Also flowers are always nice to photograph, along with random objects around the house and yard. My powershot A620 does the job, but macro lenses and a DSLR would be better of course :).

Michael Smith , December 03, 2007; 12:41 P.M.

I have an Adorama two-rail focusing stage for macro and sub-macro photography. It adjusts smoothly via large knobs from left to right for composition and back and forth for focusing at the millimeter level and locks down tightly once the adjustments have been made. I mount it on a Manfrotto 3021 tripod with a 322RC2 ball head. Unfortunately, this setup has no similar vertical adjustment. Does anyone know of a tripod, tripod head, or accessory that would provide a locking vertical adjustment at the millimeter level for macro photography composition?

Thanks in advance for any advice, Mike

Jewell BuncIII , February 15, 2008; 08:51 A.M.

Hello there I am looking for a good macro lens for shooting micro photography what are the best lens for shooting micro photography the nikon 105mm lens Nikon 60mm lens Tamron 90mm lens Tamron 180mm lens are the micro lens that I have readied about and all say that there are all good is this true

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SALVATORE PEDI , May 25, 2008; 01:55 P.M.

You make no mention of using Kenko Extension Tubes for Macro. It's a cheaper alternative to buying the higher priced Macro lenses. I've just started with Macro photography about a week ago and did purchase the Kenko tubes, and are very happy with it. Only problem I've been having is with focusing and thats entirely my problem and not really the extension tubes. I can only hope to improve.

Jerry Spette , June 21, 2008; 04:40 A.M.


I liked your video of the macro shots. I too am a macro shooter. I use a Nikon 105 mm macro for most of my work and love the lens. I normally shoot with natural light with a reflector. I just picked up an inexpensive ringlight flash to do some experimenting. Good luck and happy shooting. Big Jerry Pleasantville. NY

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pradeep gill , December 13, 2008; 09:05 A.M.

i my point of view even the comosition matters a lot and one can enhance the beauty of flowers by adding a few drops of water or fake dew... the new genration P&S camera do havea great capabilities to take a some awesome macro shots.. and what is the key thing to keep in mind is the fnumber factor the greater the dof the better the results as more of the subject would be in focus...

Jim Kerr , March 19, 2009; 10:12 A.M.

Am I right or does it amount to a hill of beans.......I have a Vivitar 90mm f2.5 Series 1 Macro that in my opinion is quit possibly the sharpest lens ever made for a 35mm camera.......I bought it new back around 1980.....Does anyone agree or does it matter anymore since the advent of digital slrs.......Jim

Arash khoshghadam , April 05, 2009; 12:55 P.M.

the most daunting task I have ever experienced with my 60mm Macro focusing on the right spot and keeping the focus as it is. At extreme end of micro, when you are 1:1 on your subject, the DoF is unimaginably narrow. The light is also a great concern. if you are interested in macro photography, you have to invest in a ring flash. Believe me; it makes a world of difference beside the fact that using any other type of light, if you don't want to tote your soft box all the way on a long walk in to the jungle, doesn't end up yielding good shots.

pradeep gill , May 28, 2009; 09:15 A.M.

hi this is regarding the use of the P&S for macro they are fun easy to carry and absolute delight at a very very low cost overall and the quality of image depends upon the man behind the machine... few eg: Six Stamens And One Stigma  Lily Lilium Stargazer flower gulmohar  the Pandavas flower both the photographs are with my P&S olympus sp 570 uz without a crop... best of luck.. pradeep

Sherry Osborn , October 09, 2009; 11:57 P.M.

I have a Kodak Z712. How can I get a good quality macro photo with this camera. What settings do I need to do.

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Jewell BuncIII , October 31, 2009; 10:59 A.M.



ranjith p , February 08, 2010; 04:46 A.M.

please tell me how really focal length matters in macro lense. i understand that in macro mode, we can go very close to the subject. In that case what is the importance of gerater focal length?Anyhow we are closing to the subject! If we are utilising the focal length and staying away from the subject, is the macro functions?

gabriel buta , February 17, 2010; 09:43 A.M.

hi ..i use for "extreme " macro a reverse ring..and the results are good..or so i think..but..as many have posted..you need a lot of good light.. for those who are interested..just go to my site and please send me all your feed-back..

thanks! br gabriel

Steve Walker , April 20, 2010; 10:35 A.M.

Inexpensive Macro

I enjoy your article and it helped get me interested in macro photography.

I have stared another article on selecting used equipment on a budget.


The article explores a manual focus 1:1 Vivitar 90mm lens, enlarging lenses used on bellows and the use of manual off camera flash.  Below is an image using this equipment and lighting technique.



Thakur Dalip Singh , May 25, 2010; 02:33 P.M.

Butterfly wing detail w 70-200+2xTC=400

Ranjith Though your question is answered in the article. I do it again. Bigger focal length gives more working distance from camera to the subject. Which is very helpful when shooting insects etc. which are shy creatures. Focal length has nothing to do with macro photography. Macro photography means magnified view of a small item. It can be with 20mm or 300mm lens.

Artur Matusik , July 12, 2010; 05:08 A.M.

I would mainly agree with recent comment - the bigger focal lenght you have, the more possibilities as a macro photographer you have. I would suggest here also this guide to macro photography: www.macro-photography.eu

Rishi J , April 06, 2011; 07:05 A.M.

I've tried reversing a lens using a reverse macro coupler on a Canon Rebel T2i, but the darn thing won't shoot any photos (even in Manual mode) b/c it can't communicate with the lens! It just says "Error 01: Communications between camera and lens is faulty. Clean the contacts". 


It doesn't even save the image.


Any way to get around this?




Robert Reinking , April 06, 2011; 03:19 P.M.

I am involved in a scientific investigation of fungi that require macrophotography. I have heard about a technique of adding micron-sized starch molecules to the subject to use as "markers" for measurement purposes. However, I cannot seem to find a scientific paper or other information that could explain how this is done.


I would appreciate a hint or a reference if you happen to know about this method.


Robert Reinking

reinking at u.arizona.edu

Jeffrey Sipress , September 09, 2011; 05:44 P.M.

There was mention of using macro focusing rails.  What do rails so for the focus that simply turning the focus ring on the lens will not do?  There needs to be more explanation.

Rishi J , September 09, 2011; 05:50 P.M.

When you're trying to focus on an object very close to the front element of the lens, the rear element of said lens need to be considerably far away from the sensor (i.e. the focused image of the object falls far behind the lens). In this scenario, the focus ring just doesn't move the rear element far enough away from the sensor (in a simple lens, the rear element is moved away from the sensor as you focus on closer & closer objects) to focus on the close object. Hence you use the rails to push the rear element (and the whole thing) far away from the sensor. That's also why extension tubes work.

Linda Fowler , October 17, 2011; 09:30 P.M.

I did not have the money for a Nikon nor a Cannon nor a macro lens, so I used a Minolta with extension tubes and a zoom lens.  I loved many of the photos I took, but had a large learning curve with 'depth of field' issues.  7 years ago I moved back to my home state of Oregon and discovered that we're a major flower farming state; big flowers like dahlias, tulips and roses.  And it rains a lot.  What a Great Place for macro photography for flowers!! Dewy flowers! Beautifully colored flowers!!  Morning flowers, midday flowers, dusk flowers!  We macro people can shoot any time of the day, Hurray!!

Linda Fowler

Juri Vosu , January 05, 2013; 07:29 P.M.

There are numerous methods of getting macro images as outline in the above responses but can anyone recommend the best method  to obtain magnifications of greater then 1:1 using the longest working distance?

Jon White , April 08, 2013; 09:41 P.M.

Even thought this article is a little dated there are still some great tips. 

My friend an I have started a blog and community based entirely around Macro photography.  Check it out here

johan ingles-le nobel , November 27, 2013; 06:29 A.M.

To respond to the question above, for "magnifications of greater then 1:1 using the longest working distance" it depends on the magnification you're actually after, but for extreme macro like 10:1 you'd probably want to look at using an ELWD (extra long working distance) infinity-style objective with a tube lens - see http://extreme-macro.co.uk/microscope-objectives/ and for say 1:1-5:1 a reversed enlarger lens on bellows/tube/focusing helicoid - see http://extreme-macro.co.uk/reversed-enlarger-lenses/



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