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CHEAP MACRO -- Buying or exploiting a lens for ultraclose work
Posted By: RioRico, 07-18-2011, 12:39 PM

I see many questions like, "Can you recommend a macro lens for under US$200 (or whatever)?" Well, it all depends on what you mean by 'macro' and 'lens'.

'Macro' usually means reaching 1:2 (0.5x) or 1:1 (1x) magnification. (The exact cut-off between macro and near-macro is subject to dispute.) Reaching 1:1 isn't hard and needn't be expensive. 'Lens' can be anything from a superduper new multipurpose weatherproof wonder, to something you've salvaged from broken binoculars or eyeglasses.

Your lens choice may depend on whether flash is needed. On a Pentax P-TTL-only dSLR, using flash can be tricky without an AF or other A-type lens. All that trial-and error while the bugs run away... (Or maybe I'm just a wimp!) Some cameras, like early dSLRs and many film SLRs, DO support old TTL flash. Read your user manual.

The options:

* New or used AF macro lens -- not cheap, and you don't really need or want AF for macro work, but good for portrait and short-tele work as well as macro.
* Used A-type MF macro lens -- still not cheap, but you can easily use P-TTL flash.
* Used non-A-type MF macro lenses, still not cheap (usually) and flash can be tricky.

* Lens extension with aperture control: A-type macro tubes or de-glassed TC's.
* Closeup adapters -- very-to-fairly cheap, and you keep auto focus and aperture.
* Teleconverters -- macro-focusing or otherwise, A-type or not.

* Lens reversal using a cheap mount-reversal adapter.
* Reverse-stacking using a cheap thread-reversal ring.
* Lens extension, totally manual, with cheap macro tubes and/or bellows.

SOME BASICS: No lens can focus closer than its focal length, and that point is also where you get maximum magnification. Short lenses are for close work. Longer lenses allow (or force!) you to work a bit further off. On APS-C "crop-sensor" cameras, lenses 60mm or shorter are generally for studio and copy work; those 70mm or longer are more suitable for field work (90-105mm is a popular range); those 200mm or longer can be a bit clumsy handheld.

Lenses labeled as MACRO-ZOOM, ain't macro. They rarely go beyond 1:5 magnification. But printing MACRO uses less ink than CLOSE-FOCUS, eh? Anyway, real macro lenses, and enlarger and copy lenses (which I'll discuss below), are designed for edge-to-edge flatfield sharpness, while standard camera primes and zooms often display some field curvature. To shoot flat stuff like stamps and microcircuits, you want flatfield; for shooting a bug's butt or an orchid's ovary, a curved field probably doesn't matter.

Fine macro work often requires flash and/or a tripod. Autofocus and fast lenses are NOT your friends when shooting macro -- where the AF wants to focus, and where YOU want to focus, may not be the same!. A-type auto aperture is handy, though. And except with close-up adapters, MACRO SHOOTING EATS LIGHT! The more magnification you have, the less light reaches the camera. Bummer...

EXCLUSIONS: This article is a cheap-gear guide, not a review of new or used products, and not a tutorial on close-up and macro-shooting. So I *won't* go into specific macro lenses; focusing rails and stages and other nifty hardware; flash systems and lighting techniques; DOF and aperture and focusing issues; magnification calculations; macro-stacking warez; other technique-oriented stuff. Stay tuned for other articles, eh?
- Clean Macro: No extra glass between the camera and the subject.
- A-Type: Pentax-A manual lens or extension, with auto-aperture contacts.
- MF: Manual focus -- AF: Autofocus -- all Pentax AF lenses are A-type.
- Tricky Flash: trial-and-error; P-TTL flash is easier with A-type gear.

MACRO LENSES: For 'dedicated' AF or MF macro lenses with auto-aperture control, you must pay. Pentax, Tamron, Sigma and others make popular macro lenses -- see the reviews. For 'dedicated' MF macro lenses without auto-aperture control, you still must pay. I have three fine manual macro lenses, by Kilfitt and Asahi and Vivitar-Komine, relative bargains... and I rarely use them, preferring to put lenses on CHEAP EXTENSION (see below). Since macro lenses ain't cheap, and many threads here are dedicated to just such discussion, I'll say no more.

PRO: Easiest to use; flatfield sharpness; for more than just macros.
CON: Fairly to quite expensive.

A-TYPE EXTENSION: With aperture-control extension, you use A-type macro tubes on your AF or A-type camera lens. Such tubes may be hard to find, and not cheap. But A-type teleconverters ARE fairly cheap, and their glass can be easily removed, and you retain aperture automation and thus flash support. These are usually about 25mm thick, so two of them on a 50mm AF lens puts you at 1:1. This is probably the cheapest way to do clean macro with flash. NOTE: A-type is NOT the same as so-called Auto macro tubes. See the CHEAP EXTENSION section below for details.

PRO: Clean and simple; easy flash.
CON: Not quite as easy as macro lenses; eats light; not flatfield sharp.

CLOSE-UP ADAPTERS: Simple uncorrected meniscus +dioptre closeup adapters are cheap and are not great; but corrected adapters can give brilliant results -- see the Raynox Club thread. The fairly inexpensive Raynox DCR-250 reaches 1:1 at about 150mm on a couple lenses I've checked on my K20D. Your mileage may vary! That is, the exact magnification depends on the actual focal length and the focus distance. Adapters don't interfere with AF or auto-aperture; flash is no problem.

PRO: Very to fairly cheap; simple, easy; auto-control if desired.
CON: Imperfect image quality; not flatfield sharp; can be quite acceptable.


I call these 'strap-ons' and they range from cheap uncorrected meniscus screw-ins to the not-too-expensive corrected 2-element adapters from Raynox, and their ilk. Dioptres are additive -- stack +1+2+3 to get +6dpt. For reference, the Raynox DCR-150 is +4.8dpt and the DCR-250 is +8dpt.

The close-up attachment lens diopter selects the working distance, while the focal length of the host lens determines magnification. Here are focusing distances in inches and metric:

+1 >> 20-38" (500-950mm)
+2 >> 13-20" (330-500mm)
+3 >> 10-13" (250-330mm)
+4 >> 8--10" (205-250mm)
+5 >> 6.5-8" (165-205mm)
+6 >> 6-6.5" (153-165mm)
+8 >> 5" ---- (127mm)
+10 > 4" ---- (102mm)

Simple uncorrected meniscus strap-ons show aberrations, especially at the image edges, that you might not like -- no edge-to-edge flatfield sharpness, nope! But they can be OK for shooting rounded stuff head-on. And a +1dpt strap-on can turn a cheap slow 18-55 kit.lens into a decent portrait lens with thin DOF. These only cost a few bucks per set and are worth playing with, and FUN!

I mentioned adapters made by Raynox. These screw into supplied clip-on mounts that fit lenses from all makers on all cameras, as long as the host lens' front diameter is 52-68mm. The spring-loaded Raynox clip *can* be forced onto a 49mm-diameter lens, but I prefer to use a cheap 49-43mm step-down ring.

Most macro work eats light. Close-up adapters don't, and are good for dimmer shooting situations. Meanwhile, meniscus strap-ons can do other things, and other optical strap-ons and filters exist. Stay tuned for the article on those. [I'll link it here after I write it, soon...]

PS: Member PaleoPete posted his binocular lens macro rig. From his description that its working distance is about 5in, I can guess that the lens is about a +8dpt, like a Raynox DCR-250. Some of you experimenters with extra binocs lying about can try this CHEAP MACRO trick, eh?
TELECONVERTERS: Using teleconverters, you add glass between the lens and the camera. Ordinary TC's increase focal length (and f-stop) while keeping the same working distance, effectively increasing magnification. Macro-focusing TCs let you work closer and with more magnification. TCs magnify whatever problems the host lens may have. All TC's reduce the light reaching the camera. AF TC's are rare and expensive; A-types are less so; both of these are suitable with flash. I have some TCs. I don't use them; that's all I have to say about them.

PRO: Simple.
CON: Not the cleanest; eats light; magnifies lens problems.

LENS REVERSAL: Many macro shooters work with a reversed prime lens -- but reversal just brings you close to your subject. (Working distance is about 45mm with Pentax-type prime lenses.) You still need some extension to gain magnification. A lens with a deep front inset effectively has built-in extension; others may need an added tube. Lens-reversal is cheap, easy, and clean. Just about ANY lens can be reversed. That's how I recycle some non-Pentax lenses that I would otherwise not use. Or I can use a Pentax lens normally, for non-macro work, then flip it around to get real close.

You can reverse a zoom. DA lenses lack aperture rings; they won't do. But any FA or F or MF zoom can be reversed, with a working distance somewhere around 1.3-2x the focal length. Even a lousy zoom, reversed, can give good results. I do this with the A35-80, arguably the worst lens Pentax ever sold. At 35mm I get 1:1 magnification at about 5cm distance; at 80mm I get 1:2 magnification at about 15cm, and it will focus past infinity. A real macro-zoom! Not quite as good as my Schneider Betavaron 50-125/4-5.6 enlarger zoom, but that's another story...

PRO: Cheap and easy; flatfield sharpness.
CON: Close working distance; no auto control.

REVERSE-STACKING: You can reverse-stack lenses and can gain great magnification. Mount a longer PRIMARY lens on the camera; then use a male-male thread-reversal ring, then screw a shorter SECONDARY prime on that. (If you're really cheap, just use gaffer's tape to hold the lenses nose-to-nose.) Magnification is the ratio of the Primary:Secondary focal lengths. A 35mm secondary stacked onto a 105mm primary gives 105:35= 3:1 magnification. A 25mm stacked onto a 200mm gives 8:1, which gets into MICRO-photography territory.

The Primary can be a zoom, although I prefer primes. The Secondary should be a manual prime with an aperture ring. Use the Secondary's aperture ring to control exposure, and leave the Primary wide open. Stopping-down the primary can cause vignetting. You want the front objectives to be fairly close together; lenses with deep insets can cause vignetting. Changing distance between the lenses will change magnification very very slightly. Try it and see.

Reversing or stacking primes ALWAYS puts you at that same close working distance of about 45mm. That is good for studio work; not so good for the field. Be sure to use a hood with any reversed lens, to reduce flare. HINT: Macro tube sections work well as hoods.

PRO: Easy to achieve great magnification; flatfield sharpness.
CON: Close working distance; no auto control; eats light.

CHEAP EXTENSION: I love simple cheap extension (tubes and/or bellows). You can put a prime or a zoom on extension for close and macro work; I prefer primes. An Industar-50/3.5 on 50mm of cheap M42 tubes with a safe cheap wide-flanged M42-PK adapter puts you at 1:1 for a pittance. For not much more, is my favorite: cheap bellows and tubes mounting cheap enlarger lenses, copy lenses, other lenses without focusing mechanisms of their own -- non-camera lenses. You can shove just about any optical material into a bellows!

Many many types of tubes and bellows exist; I can't discuss them all here. I prefer cheap simple ones, and not only for macro work. Both PK and M42 tube sections can be used as adapters for weird lenses -- just glue a tube section to the lens body. Tube sets are dirt cheap, often well under US$10 shipped for 50mm of extension in 3 modular sections. I have about 6 sets of each and I need more. M42 bellows are cheap, PK bellows are a bit more. Bellows for other mounts can often be easily adapted to PK -- just replace the mount hardware with a cheap flanged M42-PK adapter.

NOTE: A-type is NOT the same as so-called Auto macro tubes. Whether M42 screwmount or PK bayonet mount, these have a mechanical linkage to close the lens iris, not the electric contacts that allow camera-lens communication and control. PK 'Auto' tubes can be used in M(anual) shooting mode and will stop-down the iris with Green button use. M42 tubes will not work this way on our dSLRs.

PRO: Cheap; clean; flexible usage.
CON: No auto control; eats light.


I love cheap enlarger lenses! EL's have edge-to-edge flatfield sharpness; they need hoods to avoid flare; they are FUN! A small bellows, some cheap macro tubes, and a handful of EL's will take you far. They also give me a great feeling of freedom. I'm not limited by whatever lens designers thought was A Good Idea.

On my K20D or K1000 I use a 50mm EL for close studio work; 75mm for slightly further macro work, and portraits; 90-110mm for portraits, and short-tele and moderate macro work; and 140-200mm for even more distance. I buy such EL's for under US$10 usually, sometimes four for a dime, maybe as much as US$20 for a Leitz or Nikkor. Premium brands can get expensive but the cheap guys work well too.

EL's have aperture rings, often with the numbers printed upside-down. Other lenses non-camera lenses can be put on extension: projector, copy, xray, process, other specialty glass. These typically DON'T have aperture rings. They can be used wide-open, or you can improvise baffles or Waterhouse stops for greater sharpness. Reversing an EL or other non-camera lens may increase sharpness also. EL and other non-camera lenses usually aren't designed for flare resistance, so be sure to use a hood.

Many European and some Japanese EL's have a 39mm thread, the same as M39 and L39 /LTM (Leica thread-mount) lenses. Some Japanese EL's have a 42mm thread, same as M42. Many USA EL's have inch-based or various non-standard threads. Some non-camera lenses have NO threads and must be taped or otherwise secured into adapters. Cheap adapter: a one-buck plastic body cap with a hole cut in it. Now stick that adapted lens onto bellows or/and tubes and have fun!

PRO: Cheap; EL's have flatfield sharpness.
CON: EL's rapidly become addictive!!
My recommendations: If you have the money and want a sharp versatile lens, get a new AF macro. (I'd love to crawl in the mud with a DFA 100/2.8 WR!) If you're real cheap and fairly lazy, get a set of meniscus close-up adapters; if not quite so cheap, get a Raynox. If you don't mind working real close, try lens reversal and stacking. If you want cheap clean basic macro, get a set of macro tubes or de-glass an A-type TC. If you want to experiment cheaply, get bellows and tubes and enlarger lenses. If 10x isn't enough magnification, get a microscope!

And there you have it -- the basics of Cheap Macro. I didn't say much about 'dedicated' camera macro lenses nor AF TC's because they ain't cheap! REAL cheapskates don't even buy macro tubes -- they get PVC pipe from hardware stores, and improvise. Online searches will reveal macro setups made from Pringles potato-chip cans. How cheap can YOU go? And I'm not discussing technique because enough is enough. I'll let the macro pros tell us how they do what they do, eh?

BIBLIOGRAPHY (actual books!)
FIELD PHOTOGRAPHY by Alfred Blaker (Freeman) ***
CLOSEUPS IN NATURE by John Shaw (AmPhoto)
CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHY by William J. Owens (Petersen)

And an online resource:

Thanks to members jolepp, yeatzee, jatrax, abacus07, pacerr, GeneV, PaleoPete, *Lowell Goudge*, newarts for suggestions and corrections. The fixes are in! The discussion thread for the draft version of this is here [ ] in case you want to read those comments. Please don't hesitate to post more comments-corrections-catcalls here.

Last edited by RioRico; 12-30-2011 at 03:32 AM.
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07-19-2011, 08:58 AM - 1 Like   #2
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another good contribution

Member newarts PM'd me a comment correcting one of my assertions. I finessed it and will later write a supplement on basic macro math. Here is something y'all should know (posted with permission):

There's another small error - "Space between the lenses will *increase* magnification VERY slightly."

Should be: "Space between the lenses will *decrease* magnification VERY slightly."

That's because the way the combined lens thing actually works is the combination of two lenses f' and f" has a new focal length:


As the distance d increases so does the new focal length - this decreases the magnification when the lens is at a particular distance from the sensor. The "VERY" adjective should probably be struck too (or at least uncapped) because the distance is almost as important as a focal length.

Say you reverse a 50 on a 50 - nominally the mag is 1:1 (that's because the new focal length is estimated as though the spacing is zero - 50*50/(50+50) = 25mm ) and the sensor is 50mm from the lens.

The actual new focal length is about 50*50/(50+50-10) = 28mm and it is 50mm from the sensor so the mag is about 0.9x

This math pretends we actually know where the "lens" (front principal plane) is in space and (we don't) nevertheless the conclusion is the same - increasing the spacing decreases the magnification...

Thanks for the good work..

Best wishes,
07-22-2011, 11:35 AM   #3
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This is a great article. I just received a bellows attachment, but my K-x camera refuses to take any pictures when I hook up the body and lens. There are some contacts on the body and lens, which probably need to connect. I was na´ve to think it would work. Should I return the bellows?
07-22-2011, 04:16 PM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by gruniongrady Quote
This is a great article. I just received a bellows attachment, but my K-x camera refuses to take any pictures when I hook up the body and lens. There are some contacts on the body and lens, which probably need to connect. I was na´ve to think it would work. Should I return the bellows?
Your camera sees a bellows as an ordinary manual-aperture lens. See for using it on your camera. Basically, you must tell the camera that manual aperture lenses are allowed. Have fun!

08-11-2011, 11:04 AM   #5
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Where can I buy an enlarging/enlarger lens? I have done searches online, amazon, google, ebay, and cannot find any. Do they use different terminology?
08-11-2011, 11:31 AM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by pdxfive Quote
Where can I buy an enlarging/enlarger lens? I have done searches online, amazon, google, ebay, and cannot find any. Do they use different terminology?
If you search eBay for ENLAR* LENS you will find many!
08-11-2011, 02:20 PM   #7
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Perfect! I see 649 of them

Now I have a Pentax K-r, are they made to mount directly on the body, or onto the end of one of the lenses I already have? Do I need an adapter?

08-11-2011, 04:10 PM - 1 Like   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by pdxfive Quote
Now I have a Pentax K-r, are they made to mount directly on the body, or onto the end of one of the lenses I already have? Do I need an adapter?
Y'know, in my rush, I forgot to make this clear in the ENLARGER LENSES ETC section of the article, so I added a sentence there. Yes, EL's require adapters, and some extension: bellows or/and tubes. With tubes only, you're stuck with a fixed focus. I use a 75/3.5 EL on tubes with focus fixed at 1m for full-face portraits. For flexibility, get a cheap bellows, preferably M42 screwmount. For EL's longer than 120mm you may want tubes also, so you can focus closer than infinity.

Extension: The optical center of a lens needs to be distant from the camera frame (film or sensor) by at least its focal length; that is where it reaches infinity focus. More extension means it focuses closer. On a Pentax dSLR the register (distance from the lens mount to the frame) is about 45.5m; add that in. Bellows have a minimum thickness; add that in. When the total extension (distance from optical center to frame) is twice the focal length, the lens will shoot 1:1 macro.

How much extension is needed? It depends on the lens. Some EL's are on rather long mounts; my Leitz Varob 50/3.5 mount is ~20mm longer than my EL-Nikkor 50/4. So to reach 1:1 magnification, one needs 20mm of tubes and the other needs 40mm. Longer EL's need a LOT of extension. I put my Eastman 190/4.5 on 100mm of tubes before mounting that on a bellows that stretches out to 150mm. Add in the ~45.5mm and I've got a total extension of almost 300mm, which lets me focus from infinity to 50cm (at 1:2 magnification there).

And as I mentioned in the article, EL's come in various mounts, so there is no one-size-fits-all adapter -- it depends on the lens. An EL may have 39mm (M39) or 42mm (M42) or 25mm or 1.25in or 2in or some other diameter thread, or even no thread at all. The cheapest adapter is just a two-buck M42 body cap with a hole cut in it for the lens.

So much depends on the lens. Where to start: Get a cheap bellows and a few sets of macro tubes. I see M42 bellows (but not the overpriced Russian ones) selling for about US$20-30 recently. Simple tubes are priced BIN at US$6 per set, shipped. A cheap safe wide-flanged M42-PK adapter sells for around US$7. Then, if you want to do macro, get a 50mm EL; for portraits and macro, 75mm; for general photography, something in the 90-140mm range. Have fun!
08-18-2011, 11:28 AM   #9
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Wow, awsome article, i consider myself learned! Thanks Rico.
12-23-2012, 03:29 AM   #10
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This article is really helpful.
If I want to use DA *55 1.4 with TC modified extension tube to get 1:1 magnification, which and how many TCs should I get?(I find that there are ones that have 6 contact pins and ones have 7 (expensive?))
02-28-2015, 02:40 AM   #11
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Thank you 😄
03-18-2015, 11:04 AM   #12
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So reverse mounting a 15mm prime to my 105mm Sigma Macro would bring me to 7:1 mag?

That would be interesting for studio shooting...

Now I just need a 15mm prime, lol

04-22-2015, 09:11 AM   #13
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A 15 mm prime with filter thread
04-22-2015, 03:11 PM   #14
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good stuff! thanks

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