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How to Use Extension Tubes for Macro Photography

One limitation of macro photography when using a conventional lens is that there is a limit to how close you can focus due to the lens's minimum focusing distance. Extension tubes allow you to shift the focus zone of the lens you're using so that the smallest of items are crystal clear and tack sharp. Let's take a closer look (pun intended.)

In another article on Using a Macro Lenses I looked into one method using a dedicated macro lens. In that article I also mentioned a few less expensive ways of getting into macro including the one I'm going to cover in this lesson – extension tubes.

So let's take a look at what they are, how you use them, pros and cons, and some purchasing tips for extension tubes.

What are extension tubes?

Every lens has a minimum focusing distance.

When doing macro photography that often becomes an issue because you can't get in close enough to shoot your tiny subjects because your lens won't focus that close.

One solution is to get a set of extension tubes.

Macro photography extension tubes

What they are is exactly what their name implies – little tubes that extend the lens.

Essentially what it does is shifts the focus zone of the lens; you will no longer be able to focus at infinity but it will allow you to get closer so you can do those macro shots.

How do you use them?

You attach extension tubes between your camera body and the lens. You can use one or stack them for maximum effect. Make sure you get the right type for your camera body connector.

I recommend attaching the tube onto the lens first, then mount the whole thing to the camera body.

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 07

Once it's all attached you're ready to shoot like normal.

How close can you get with them?

You can buy extension tubes in different widths, so how close you can get will depend on which one(s) you buy and also the lens you use with it. But in some cases you can get pretty darn close!

Using a shorter lens like a 50mm will allow you to get REALLY close, in some cases almost too close.

It becomes awkward to work when you're less than an inch from your subject to obtain focus.

Choosing a slightly longer lens like an 85mm or your zoom will give you a bit more breathing room. You won't be able to make the subject as large but you'll be ale to have a usable working distance between the subject and the lens.

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 06

This was shot with an 85mm lens (on full frame) and all three extension tubes combined. It was still a manageable distance to the rose.

I tried with the 50mm lens and it was so close that the lens was almost inside the flower.

Not so workable.

How much does it magnify?

In this series of the rose I shot it first without any extension tubes, then with each one separately, lastly with them all combined. You can see the results visually.

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 01
85mm lens only
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 02
12mm extension tube + 85mm lens
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 03
20mm extension tube + 85mm lens
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 04
36mm extension tube + 85mm lens
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 05
12+20+36mm extension tubes (so effectively 68mm) + 85mm lens

Let's look at another example with a ruler so you can really see the difference.

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 13
Shot with a 50mm lens only
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 14
12mm extension tube + 50mm lens
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 15
20mm extension tube + 50mm lens
Macro photography extension tubes 750px 16
36mm extension tube + 50mm lens

Notice this one has a little blurriness to it? I must have jiggled something during the 10 second exposure. Remember to keep everything locked down tight for maximum sharpness – refer to the Ultimate Guide to Macro for tips

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 17
All three extension tubes + 50mm lens

To get the image above once again using the 50mm lens I was painfully close to the subject.

This causes two issues:

  • Depth of field is really shallow, and
  • You end up casting a big shadow on the subject so it is dark.

I switched to the 85mm lens using all three tubes once again to show you the magnification difference between the two lenses.

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 18
All three extension tubes + 85mm lens

Notice the image above is about the same magnification of the 50mm lens with the 36mm tube only. Still pretty good and a better working distance. So sometimes you have to play around a bit to find the right lens/tube combination for your subject matter.

Pros and cons

What are the advantages or using extension tubes?

  • Light-weight to add to your bag
  • Come with a way smaller price tag than a macro lens
  • You can use them with your existing lenses
  • You have the flexibility of combining them and trying different vocals lengths depending on your subject

What are the disadvantages?

  • They can still be a little pricey if budget is an issue (don't get the cheapest ones, see shopping below for more info)
  • There are more steps to put it together, so a bit of a hassle
  • The results are only as sharp as the lens you put on them
  • One more bulky thing to carry around with you

Shopping for extension tubes

If you've decided that extension tubes are the way to go for you, here are a few tips and things to consider before buying them:

Macro photography extension tubes 750px 12

  1. Do NOT buy the cheapest set, they are not all the same. Read the reviews – I read a few on Amazon and heard about some that got stuck on the camera (not good) and wouldn't come off. Others were too flimsy to hold a big lens and it flopped and the lens fell off (also not good). So lowest price is usually buyer beware and if you think “what could go wrong it's just a tube” – read the reviews first, particularly the one star ones! It's not worth damaging your camera to save $100.
  2. Be aware that some extension tubes do NOT have electronic connections. See the image of mine above that do have them. No connections – no aperture or exposure settings transferred and communicated to the camera. Make it much harder to work that way and you can't shoot a a small aperture like f/22 it always fires wide opened.
  3. Just get one to start if you can't afford a whole set. Get the widest one if you can swing that, it will get you the closest and most magnification.

Here is a link to a few I'd recommend. Stick to the camera brand if you can or one that is reputable. I have the ProMaster brand but I can't find them online other than on their website. You can check there and find a dealer new you to buy them locally.

As always, a good place to start learning about macro is my Ultimate Guide to Macro Photography.

So that's it for another installment of macro photography tips. In the next chapter of this ongoing lesson we'll look at reverse lens macro. Until then find some fun small subjects and get practicing.

Have you used extension tubes? Do you have a good shot to share with us? Or a brand you'd recommend buying or not buying, and why?

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • keepntch

    Just exactly what I needed. I just bought my set last week and have read Andrew Gibson’s great articles and ebook, now with your example pictures and the roses just starting to bloom, I’m on my way. Thanks

  • bv

    first attempt, a 35 dollar set on a Rebel T5……………..

    • Saurav Dhyani

      Nice contrast, but feel the pic is very soft on focus, being a bit,more closer may have helped. Pls correct me if you feel so. Do chk,my post as well.

      • bv

        I agree, but it was intended. As I set up the shot, I liked how on the left side started as soft, sharpened to the point of seeing the lines in the individual petal, then faded again. It also caused the very center of the flower to be sharpest. Moving back I could have created a larger DOF, but I wanted to fill the frame.

    • Pretty good 1st try I’d say!

      • bv

        the surprising part…..handheld. just for that shot….

  • Pete Mueller

    Darlene; 85mm on a full frame sensor, right? So would 50mm on a crop sensor… with tubes, work out to about the same (lens not unbearably close to subject) as your choice to use the 85mm?

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Thanks soo much Darlene for sharing this, I remember couple of weeks back I requested this to you on your article on Macro Photography. This was worth reading. Though I,learnt few facts from other sources but this added some more to my knowledge.
    Following is my latest click using a Tamron 90mm Macro lens with 36mm extn tube in a Nikon D90 (crop censor camera). Your comments are always welcome…

    • He he cute subject. Great side lighting. Well done.

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Thats an eraser for my daughter (gifted by a friend).. Thanks for liking:)

  • Suzanne Johnsen

    this is a macro shot of a patch of moss in my front yard

    • Amazing how different things look close up hey? I wouldn’t think of moss even having leaves.

      • Mark Young

        Nice shot,,, the moss down here doesn’t look like this. South Louisiana.

      • HUGO

        That shot absolutely does NOT depict “moss”. Moss does NOT have “leaves”… anywhere on this planet!

          • HUGO

            Sorry, Darlene… but if I recall my studies in botanical biology correctly (willing to ‘bet’ on it – I majored in botany at University of Virginia); mosses do not have any stems, roots, or leaves… as any of those three structures would mean it would be a vascular plant. A moss does contain rhizoids which are root-like structures, but roots are defined as having xylem and phloem, which mosses certainly do not have.

        • Israeli4Peace

          Who cares!? That is not the point of the article. He could have called them horses, but the point he makes is still valid. Stop worrying about your UVA degree and pinpoint accuracy and listen to the actual meaning of the article. Thanks.

  • Saurav Dhyani

    This,is,another example but with NIKON 50mm with 36+20+12mm extn tube. I literally,had to get into the flower to get this result. Also felt that its better,to stay in Manual mode while,focusing to get better output. Auto mode takes lot of time in moving the tripod.

    • Really nice and crisp on this one, well done. As I mentioned the tricky part when you get so close becomes lighting. This one feels a bit dark – maybe just brighten it up a bit in processing and your colors will really jump out.

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Thanks soo much Darlene… I really feel proud of myself after reading your comments… ๐Ÿ™‚
        I agree with you on the darkness (just realized), have corrected this, pls do have a look at it.

  • Great discussion guys!

    • Saurav Dhyani

      Any comments from you our thoughts?

      • Well photography is subjective and if the photographer achieved their goal for the image then I’d say it was a success. We each see things differently and have different tastes and styles. So there is no right or wrong.

  • David Webb

    Hi Darlene
    First time I have commented on your articles Love them all. I have the Aputure extension tubes not used very much yet use on a Nikon D5100 with 18-55mm lens 50mm lens and even the 55-300mm lens the Aputure have all the electronics for changing aperture shutter and iso so are very good.
    f 6.3 1/160sec iso 100 spot metering
    18-55mm lens at 55mm zoom with 36mm extension tube
    Extension Tubes set of 3 12 mm 20mm 36mm bought online at dx.com

  • Leyden

    Thanks Darlene!! I had a SET in my wish on Amazon that probably would have been just about worth the $15 they were asking…..it’s been deleted. In an Amazon review someone mentioned they had seen a way around the aperture issue while using a ‘dumb’ tube…any ideas? Disconnecting the lens kills the power to the aperture and it defaults to wide open, yes? Jumper cables ?

    • Yes it defaults to wide opened. There is a trick for doing reverse lens that might work – you have to put the lens on normally, close down to say f/11, hit the depth of field preview button to close it down and hold that while you remove the lens. It’s tricky and not sure it will work with extension tubes as well

  • Christer Magnusson

    You can also use extension tubes with a dedicated macro lens. Here is a picture of my setup when taking pictures of saffron: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fihchrister/13195511335/

  • Norm-and Sandy

    My Ladybug, — EF 70-200 @ full zoom – f18 – ISO 250 – 125 sec – with manual flash 3 ext tubes

  • David

    I enjoyed this article, and I agree that not all extension tubes are created equal. I prefer the ones that have electronic pass-through to the lens so auto-focus, aperture, etc. still work correctly. Also, the lens info will appear in EXIF metadata in the photo file. Use of a tube might not be in the EXIF data, but you can always add that in comments.

    Extension tubes work much better in my opinion than close-up diopter rings. I took pictures of 2mm graph paper straight on with both close-up rings and extension tubes. This is a great way to see barrel/pin-cushion distortion, common with close-up rings, and to measure magnification factor. Some combinations caused vignetting, too. I also tried the reverse-lens technique, which is effective, but you have to get in real close and manual focus.

    I got into macro photography to copy film negatives and slides. It’s best to fill the frame with a slide or negative. When copying 35mm film, that means a 1:1 magnification factor on a full-frame DSLR. Smaller film sizes (like 110) require magnifying the image. Also, my camera (Panasonic Lumix G5) is a micro 4/3, so the crop factor is 2x, further complicating magnification. Copying 110 is 1:1, while 35mm is a 2:1 reduction.

    I’m still looking for a good macro lens for the Lumix system.

  • Awesome and thank you for the post Darlene….I am new to photography and wanting to jump into macro for a while…

  • Seth Bullis

    You can 3d print them now!
    http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:621794
    These extension tubes work great and they only weigh 20-30 grams
    here is a 80mm extension tube with a 58mm helios 44-2 prime lense

  • Ken Vensel

    Hi Darlene, thanks for the informative article, I purchased a Pentax set for my Pentax K-5II and Pentax 100mm macro lens. I was shooting some shots inside and had no problem with getting some nice exposures, manual focus. When I used an extension tube I could not see the shot on screen or through the viewfinder as it was too dark. Is there a reason there would be such a HUGE difference in the lightness on screen?

    • Hmmm, perhaps your extension tubes do not have electronic contacts to talk to the camera? It’s possible the camera isn’t getting the aperture information fed to it through the tubes? Check your manufacturers info and see what the manual says about that.

  • 100God

    I came back to read this article just to revise my basics. Thanks for this lovely article.
    Here is one of my recnt shots… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d3b57a6ee11debf3b4fe882b494d463ef4e841e75dfa6b3d2b4a377638b5d057.jpg

  • Janhavi

    This is perfect. Just bought extension tubes, and am gonna experiment with macros over the weekend.

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