Why am I writing this?: There are lots of mis-conceptions about macro photography and this is my attempt to clear some of them this post. Macro Photography need not be expensive just that you need to know the right technique. I do not claim to be an expert of the technique, just that i started bit early and i can share what i know. Please feel free to point any mistakes or contradict anything i may write here.. that will be great value add for me personally.
Why use alternative setups?: I have been doing macro photography for close to 4 years now (you may want to check if i am qualified enought to be taken seriously first :) https://www.facebook.com/YogendraPhotography) but have never used a macro lens.. instead of have played with various alternatives. Let me confess that using these alternatives have limitations and also bring few limitations but using these will help you assess if you are really enjoying Macro Photos before you decide to buy a dedicated Macro Lens which are pretty expensive. Some of you may settle for the alternatives permanently if you can live with the limitations or work around them.
Light: Before we get to the alternatives themselves, let me first draw your attention to the LIGHT. It's important to get sufficient area in focus for a macro to work but when you close the aperture (higher f number) the light drops substantially and you need to take assistance of another light source. That light source can be a 200 watt bulb, a bright LED battery, in built pop-up camera flash or external flash. Its important to get the light diffused to avoid harsh shadows or highlights. I will write about various ways to diffuse light separately. If you are using a pop-up flash on the camera, here are few ideas from google images which can get your brain-cells working. Also here are few examples of what i had created.
Why do i recommend using a flash (pop-up or external)?: Main reason i strongly recommend using a flash when possible is to avoid shake. Even at 1/400s you may get shake at high magnification. When you set your camera at high aperture (f/14 to f/22 or even more) and ISO 100 or 200, if your flash is not fired you will get a BLACK image.. this means that your scene is completely lit up by flash. even if your shutter speed is 1/200 the actual speed at which the flash is fired is far lower (1/5000 or 1/10000 depending on your flash type). So only the action happening at that instance is recorded on your sensor.. so you will almost never get a shake. Now you should get something in focus, and that's a separate challenge that can be met by practice. John Kimber explains this beautifully in the article (http://nocroppingzone.blogspot.in/2007/05/macro-technique.html) on his NoCroppingZone blog which i have referred to several times when in doubt.I will highly recommend doing through this blog when you have time.
Equipments and Results: I used Canon 1000D earlier and now use Canon 550D. Most of what i have written here can work on any other DSLR you just need to find the adaptors that fit your camera, which should not be that hard. All the photos below were taken with Canon 550D with pretty inexpensive speedlight YN467 mounted on the camera and fotodiox diffuser. I could have used a pop-up flash and home made diffuser with almost the same results.
All the photos here are un-cropped. All were shot in RAW, edited in Picasa (Free) (basic light / shadow and HDR emulate, text on the photo), noise reduction in Noiseware Community Edition (Free) and resized with signature in FastStone Photo Resizer (Free). (Yes when you use free software you may need to use more than one best-of-breed to get the work done!)
You can find all the photos below in better resolution here
1. Telephoto Lens + Macro Adaptor (Raynox DCR 250)
I use Sigma 70-300 but you can use any other tele-photo lens with 52mm to 67mm filter size.
You simply snap the raynox on top of your tele photo lens, turn of the auto focus (though you can, its a pain) and try to focus on something to take a photo. This is my primary setup because it gives great flexibility to me as i can move from 70mm to 300mm (I think .5 magnification to 4X magnification.. I don't know how to measure it exactly though :), would love to know if someone can teach).
PROs: Flexible. adjust the aperture real-time in-camera, pretty good quality, no issue with sensor / electronics parts exposed to light / dust / water (as in case of reverse lens).
CONs: Cost (Rs. 6000 to Rs. 8000, that's out of budget for someone who just wants to try!) and Availability in India. Guess with amazon.in that should be resolved now.
See the results on the right hand side at 70mm and 300 mm. You can get anything interim by just rotating the zoom on your lens.
2. Reverse Lens (18-55)
Reverse mounting your kit lens is the easiest thing you can do to get into macro world. And it practically costs nothing. You can order it on eBay.in under Rs.200/-
You need to do some fiddling around to set the aperture to an acceptable size (f/11 to f/18). On canon camera you can use DOF button and unmount the lens while camera is ON. Be careful while you do that. Here is a video which will help yo do this on Canon. For nikon it needs to be done manually by changing the aperture on the lens directly. I am not expert on Nikon but my friends have done is successfully. If I find a video i will post it here.
You can get CRAZY magnification with this setup. At 55mm reversed it will look lot like the 70mm + Raynox above (slightly more magnified i guess), but at 18mm end it will be magnified at around 4-5X magnification (again i could be slightly wrong but will take any help if someone can confirm the magnification!)
It can be very risky to use in the field since the connectors are exposed. You can alternatively take a cheap back-cap, cut a hole for the glass and then screw it on which will protect your lens. Here is a good article on how to do it.
If you do this right and protect your lens, it can give you great magnification and also great flexibility since you can move from 55mm to 18 mm quickly and cover small to large insect / object.
Another limitation is that it gets a bit too dark at 18mm and focusing on ANYTHING is difficult at this magnification. So you may need to use extra focus light like a battery.
PROs: Works with your kit lens, very inexpensive
CONs: Bit clumsy to change the aperture, Risky for lens if not protected
See how you can even see the ink on the ball pen's ball head (photographic pun not intended!) which is smaller than 1 millimeter.
3. Reverse Lens (18-55) + Extension Tubes
Though extension tubes are normally used with prime lens for best quality, i thought of stretching the magnification further before i get into standard use of Extension Tube.
Extension tubes come in two types, manual and automatic. I use manual ones (cheaper it is, better it is for me :D).
Manual extension tubes are a set of hollow metal tubes without any electronic parts screwed together and which can be fitted between your camera body and lens (or reverse lens). You can order them from ebay for less than Rs. 500/-. There are few slightly expensive ones as well which may offer slightly better quality.
Automatic extension tubes also contain electronic connectors which will allow you to auto focus (which in my experience does not matter much at this magnification) and also able to meter and focus confirm (which can be useful for exposure and also if you are using magic lantern for AF focus shutter control.. more on that later).
In this example, i stacked the reversed 18-55 on full set of extension tubes. It gives somewhere around 5-6X magnification (again my guess, can someone help me calculate?). But it was very dark and i had to use a small focus light to see anything.
PROs: Works with your kit lens, very inexpensive (just the reverse ring and extension tubes)
CONs: difficult to use since focusing is hard and quite impractical on the field. OK for inhouse trials. (in short not for the faint-hearted)
4. Extension Tubes + 50mm prime lens
That's another of my favorite setup when it comes to the quality of the pictures (since the photo takes the great image qualities of a prime lens.
If you use standard 50mm 1.8 lens you will need to setup the aperture using DOF button (video which will help yo do this on Canon). Another alternative is to use any other manual-aperture ring lens. You can use cheap old M42 lenses (I use Carl Zeiss or OLD INDUSTAR 50-2 lens with the extension tube). You can find some real old gems on ebay.com if you know what you are looking for. Unfortunately the market does not seem to be existing in india, except for the "juna baazar" :)
It gets a bit inflexible though because you are stuck with a single magnification unless you reduce the extension tubes... you can do that quickly but not as quickly as zoomin in for 18-55 or 70-300 lens.
The image on the right is taken with full set of extension tubes with 50mm 1.8. If you reverse mount the 50mm (you need 52mm diameter reverse ring for that) you can get even higher magnification.
PROs: Great image quality, very cheap if you already have a 50mm lens.
CONs: Not very flexible for zooming in-out.
5. Reverse mounting 50mm on 70-300 or 18-55 lens
If you have a telephoto and a prime lens (70-300 and 50mm in my case) you can also get a coupler which will allow you to attache the lenses together. I ordered the 58mm to 52mm "coupler" ring from ebay (in under Rs. 120/-).
See the results on the side. I was frankly pretty disappointed when i used this combination. There is too much loss of light and its almost impossible to focus. I had hoped for better results than this. You do get good amount of magnification but takes too much effort (compared to other options above) to get the focus.
PROs: Very cheap if you already have a 50mm lens and a telephoto lens. Good flexibility for magnification range
CONs: Too much light loss. Very difficult to focus.
I would like to leave you with a beautiful video by Thomas Shahan in which he explains how he does the Macro Photography which is recognized worldwide with budget equipments.