A lot of people get interested in macro photography, only to be turned away as soon as they see the price of a solid macro lens, such as the Canon 100mm f/2.8L

No need for expensive lenses! Extension tubes are more than capable of getting the job done with a cheap 50mm and some creative lighting.

What many folks aren't aware of, however, is that you simply don't need an expensive lens to get good macro results. While certain degrees of creative control will be reduced, perfectly adequate images, and in some cases truly great photos, can be produced with little financial investment. 

Shooting macro on the cheap requires a few pieces of gear, namely: a lens, a flash, your camera (obviously), and either extension tubes or a reverse ring. Today I'll be talking about how you can choose a set of extension tubes that meet your needs without breaking the bank. 

As far as extension tubes go, there are two varieties.  

      1. Manual extension tubes, with no electrical connections whatsoever. 
      2. Electronic extension tubes, with varying degrees of communication with your camera body.  

      The latter of these two will always  be more expensive, there is simply more technology put into the product. However, the price differences between a manual and electronic version deserve a glance. Roughly 50mm of extension (average) will run you:

      So you're likely wondering, what all do you get from spending that extra dough on the electronic tubes, and what do you lose by shooting entirely with manual tubes? Let's break it down:

       

      Manual:

      • No electronic communication with the camera at all. 
      • No electronic aperture control 
      • No DOF preview ability
      • No TTL ability for those using wired flash.  
      • No ability to autofocus. Focusing happens by moving the camera back and forth, no by using the focusing ring, resulting in potentially more missed shots/more difficulties in getting the shot.  

       

      Electronic:  

      • Partial or full communication with the camera. 
      • Full aperture control, just as you'd normally shoot.  
      • DOF Preview works as advertised. 
      • Full TTL support (assuming your camera has it) 
      • Easily autofocus, so long as it's within your lens and body's ability to do this on the macro scale. This could be interpreted as fewer missed shots.  

      So there we go. From the get go, one might wonder why anyone would bother at all with manual tubes. After all, the electronic variant seems so much more enabling, what with being able to change your aperture and such, right?  

      When shooting on extension tubes, watch out for your Depth of Field. It can produce great results, but also requires some practice to get right. 

      Well, not wrong, but not entirely correct.  

      Outside of purchasing an old lens with an aperture ring for easy manual F-stop control, Canon users (I'm unaware that Nikon can do this) have the ability to do what is commonly referred to as the "DOF Preview Trick" in order to vindicate their once restricted manual-macro aperture abilities. The steps go as follows: 

      1. Mount lens
      2. Turn on camera
      3. Set aperture to desired value (I shoot most images at f/8 or f/9 but this depends entirely on how much extension you are using).  
      4. Press your camera's DOF preview button, and hold down the button. 
      5. While holding down the button, press the lens-release button, and unscrew your lens.  
      6. Power off camera.  

      At this point, you can now place your lens on manual extension tubes, and it will hold it's previously assigned aperture value until the next time it electronically talks with the camera, at which point it will reset. 

      The good news here is that most lenses, IE whatever lens you have on the end of your extension tubes, are simply not their sharpest when "wide open" (set to their maximum aperture value). Without this trick, your lens is essentially "stuck" wide open anytime you place it on manual extension tubes, resulting in reduced contrast, sharpness, and a tiny  Depth of Field. Perform the simple steps above, and you've easily remedied those issues. 

      Now, a quick note about light "drop off," or simply the light which is lost between your lens (now way out there on those tubes) and the camera's sensor. Extension tubes have one flaw, in that they cost quite a bit of light. With all that empty space between lens and camera losing light, you need to supplement it. This could be through the use of a flash, as I do, or it could be by opening up the aperture on your lens. It would also be through higher ISO settings, or slower shutter speeds. Whatever you need to do in order to get the exposure you want. Generally, I would recommend using a cheap flash. 

      So, at the end of the day, which version do you pick, manual or electronic? It all comes down to personal preference. Personally , I have been shooting with manual extension tubes, and that is likely all I ever will shoot macro with. I enjoy the shallow DOF from being restricted to f/8 or f/9 on my Canon 50mm f/1.8, and I also enjoy the old-timey manual feel. There is no autofocus, so I'm forced to chase bugs around, wobbling back and forth to bring them into my 1mm wide depth of field. It's tough, but I enjoy it. 

      That said, if I had the money to buy electronic tubes when I first was looking to invest, it may be a very different story. The average shooter will probably dislike the hassle of hundreds of missed shots, all because they wobbled a bit too far forwards or backwards and their razor thin DoF just barely missed a set of spider eyes. I know I've gotten frustrated at times. Also, for someone who has never shot macro before, or perhaps is used to shooting in Program Auto mode, having full control of aperture and Autofocus would be a welcome feature. 

      So there you go. The quick and dirty on what you can expect to find when looking to purchase Extension Tubes. Don't let all the technical mumbo-jumbo scare you away. Macro shooting is easy  after you get the hang of it, and the good thing about bugs is that there is never a shortage of subjects! 

       

      Flies are a great place to start, they are everywhere and most present an easy subject when approached slowly. 

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