Editor's note: This month only – you can buy two of my favorite ebooks, The Creative Photographer and Square, for just $7 each! Limited time only – click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew
One of the biggest questions facing any photography who wants to try close-up or macro photography is should you buy a macro lens, or look for a more affordable alternative?
Before I try and answer this question, let’s look at the main ways of getting closer to your subject.
1. You can use a macro lens. This is the best option in most cases (I’ll explore this idea more in a bit) but you might be interested in a more affordable alternative.
2. You can put an extension tube between your lens and camera. You can use them with any lens (they work best with focal lengths of 80mm or less). That includes unusual lenses like those made by Lensbaby, giving you a creative option that isn’t available to macro lens users.
3. You can attach a close-up lens to a telephoto lens. This gives good results and if you have the right lens / close-up lens combination you can get 1:1 magnification (the same as most macro lenses).
4. You can use reverse a lens onto your camera or another lens. This is called reverse lens macro and (if you have the right lenses) the most affordable way of doing close-up or macro photography. But it’s not as reliable as the other methods and you may struggle to get a good working setup with the equipment you already own.
5. You can use a bellows unit to get lots of extension and magnification. This is a specialized area with limited applications, you see it most commonly used for photographing dead insects in incredibly fine detail.
The best macro lens alternatives
Reversing a lens isn’t reliable (I explain why in my ebook Up Close) and using a bellows has limited applications. So that leaves extension tubes and close-up lenses as the main alternatives to using a macro lens.
So, out of these three options, which is the best? Naturally, the answer depends on both your budget and what you want to achieve, but here are my thoughts, based on my experiences of extensively using all three methods.
1. A macro lens is the best option in terms of both ease of use and image quality. But before you rush out and buy one, there’s a couple of things to consider.
First, macro lenses can be expensive, and you may prefer to buy an extension tube or close-up lens as an alternative because of that (but read the section on affordable macro lenses below first).
Second, you need to buy the right macro lens for the job you want it to do. For example, if you want to photograph insects, butterflies or spiders, then a focal length of 100mm or more is ideal because it helps you keep your distance from your subject and reduces the chances of you scaring it away.
The downside is that telephoto macro lenses are heavy and take up a lot of space in your camera bag.
If you’re more interested in making photos of subjects like flowers you can buy a smaller macro lens (focal length between 35mm and 60mm, depending on your camera’s sensor size). These smaller macro lenses are easier to carry, take up less space in your bag, and are usually more affordable.
2. If you want to save money, or don’t want to carry a macro lens around with you, then an extension tube or close-up lens is an excellent accessory to buy instead. Both are small and light, relatively affordable and easy to take with you anywhere.
For example, I often take my camera and just a 35mm standard lens with me when I go out for the day. It’s a light setup and I add an extension tube in case I want to do some unexpected close-up photography.
3. A hybrid solution might serve you best. This is what works for me. I have a 100mm macro lens that I use when I’m doing macro photography indoors, or outdoors when I also take my tripod and focusing rail to make things easier. If I’m going to a garden specifically to make photos of flowers, for instance, then I’m happy to take all that stuff with me.
But if I’m just going out for the day and taking my camera with me, I don’t want to take a tripod. So I use the 35mm lens and extension tube combination instead.
Are macro lenses affordable?
It depends what you mean by affordable, but before you dismiss the idea of buying a macro lens out of hand consider the following options. This extract from Up Close explains what I found when I was searching online for current macro lens options.
“If you’re not bothered about autofocus, for example, then Rokinon/Samyang (the same company operating under a different name in North America to the rest of the world) makes great macro lenses. I have a Samyang 100mm f2.8 macro lens and I love it. I can sincerely recommend this lens if you don’t need autofocus.
(Note: I made all the photos illustrating this article with this lens.)
Another inexpensive option is the Laowa range of macro lenses from Venus Optics. If you’re interested in one of these I recommend that you read the reviews first (there’s lots of good videos on YouTube) as some of them are susceptible to flare.
Or consider a 7artisans macro lens. This company makes ridiculously cheap manual focus macro lenses. Are they as good as more expensive models? Of course not. Do they give results good enough for most photographers? Most likely they do. If money is tight, then check out the 7artisans lenses, read or watch the reviews, and buy one if you feel confident (I haven’t used one myself so I can’t comment from personal experience).
One thing’s for certain – an inexpensive macro lens is better than no macro lens, so don’t deny yourself hours of potential enjoyment because you’re worried about image quality or build quality.
If you want autofocus, then companies like Sigma, Tamron and Tokina have reasonably priced macro lenses in their ranges. When I wrote the first draft of this book you could even buy a 35mm Canon EF-S macro lens for under $350 from B&H. Now it’s discontinued, but would be a great second-hand buy. Or how about an Olympus Micro Four-Thirds mount 30mm macro lens for under $300? These are great focal lengths for photographing subjects like flowers with an APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds camera.
While looking on B&H for macro lenses I even found something I hadn’t heard of before – a Mitakon Zhongyi 20mm f2 4.5x Super Macro lens (Amazon UK has it listed under the slightly different name Zhongyi MTK20MF2FX Mitakon Creator 20mm f2 lens). The interesting thing is about this lens is that it gives you 4 – 4.5x magnification, and it only costs $199. It’s an unusual lens, and you’d only buy it if you were interested in working at such high magnifications. But one thing’s for sure – there’s no other way to get 4 – 4.5x magnification for under $200.
Most of the macro lens options I’ve just listed didn’t exist when I wrote the first version of this book ten years ago. It just shows how quickly things can change and how innovative the space has become since then.
So don’t assume a good macro lens is going to be too expensive for you. Go to B&H (or an online store local to you if you’re not based in the US) and see what’s on offer. And if you don’t mind buying second-hand, check out a store like MPB (www.mpb.com) to see what’s available.”
Up Close ebook
Hopefully these ideas will help you decide whether a macro lens is a good buy for you. For even more information, especially before making a final purchasing decision, then please check out my brand new ebook Up Close: A Guide To Macro & Close-Up Photography. It explores all the different ways of making close-up and macro photos in detail, so you can make smart buying decisions and not waste your money.
Thanks for reading. You can get more great articles and tips about photography in my popular Mastering Photography email newsletter. Join today and I’ll send you 47 PhotoTips cards and my ebook Introducing Lightroom Classic . Over 30,000 photographers subscribe. Enter your email now and join us.