Do you want to take extreme close-ups? Whether it is flowers, insects, coins, or any other variety of things, how can you get closer focus than your lens alone allows? I have discussed other aspects of macro photography in previous articles. This photography niche is fun to explore but is very expensive if you purchase a macro lens. There are other options like using a close up lens or lens reversal tricks, but there is also a simple addition to your camera equipment called an extension tube. Read on for the pros and cons of this option.
Extension Tubes Explained
Extension tubes have a very self-explanatory name--they are hollow, lightweight tubes that attach between the lens and the camera body to extend the distance between lens and camera. This attachment moves the lens further from the camera and closer to the subject. The result is that you get closer focus and higher magnification. Extension tubes can be used for close-up portraits and macro photography.
Extension tubes do not have any glass in them, it's truly a tube, so they do not alter the optical quality of your lens. They come in a variety of focal lengths and can be used in combination to focus even closer. They can be used with virtually any lens, but they enhance magnification most effectively when used with short to medium focal lengths lenses.
Types of Extension Tubes
Extension tubes come in two varieties. The first type is much less expensive because they do not have any kind of electrical connection to your camera. This means once you attach it your camera has no auto control over focus or exposure. It is manual all the way baby. In terms of focus, this is not necessarily a bad thing because manual focus is often best for this type of photography.
Losing control of aperture is a big problem. If your lens has a manual aperture ring then you can still use that to make adjustments. Otherwise, your lens will be locked at its widest aperture. I love shallow depth of field photography, but it is not ideal in this case. At such a close distance, the depth of field is like a razor's edge anyway--very narrow--so you really need the ability to stop your lens down (use a higher f-stop number) to get a large enough zone of sharp focus. In short, without aperture control it will be difficult to focus and you may be disappointed by blurry photos.
However, I recommend the second type of extension tube which maintains the electrical connection to your camera. You can buy them in sets for less than $100. This type of extension tube allows you to auto focus if you desire and use your camera body to control the exposure including aperture settings.
With close-up photography at narrow aperture, getting enough light without a ridiculously slow shutter speed is a challenge. You need that narrow aperture (high f-stop number) to have a reasonable zone of sharpness, but you will also need to compensate for light loss. Your tools are shutter speed and ISO. You can experiment with a longer shutter speed but only to the extent your photos are still sharp. Camera shake can be a real issue. If your subject is stationary, like a flower, try a tripod. You will likely need to bump up your ISO in addition to slowing your shutter speed. Also, experiment with manual focus. When taking an extreme close up, there is such a small zone of sharpness you will want more control over the focus of your composition.
Pros & Cons
You may have started wondering at this point if I was ever going to specifically discuss pros and cons of extension tubes. The biggest pro in my book is cost. If you want to get into macro photography without taking out a second mortgage, this is a great way to go. (That may be a slight exaggeration but to get a higher focal length macro lens you are looking at spending well upwards of $500!) Even the more expensive variety of extension tubes, which I recommend, are relatively inexpensive. Also, because it is simply a tube it will not change the optical quality of your images, and it can be used with virtually any lens.
On the negative side, as I previously mentioned, extension tubes do not work well with telephoto lens. You can use it, but it will not have the desired effect on magnification. Not such a big deal if you have other lenses in your current arsenal. Using an extension tube does allow you to get very close to your subject, but this can actually cause you to get in the way of your own lighting and in some cases disturb your subject (if it's alive). In addition, because the extension tube does cause your lens to focus more closely than it was designed to, this can cause decreased sharpness and image quality (not because it changes the optics but because it changes how you are using your lens).
I think extension tubes are a great way to get into macro photography. Taking close up photographs is a pretty technical field that requires skill and lots of practice. This is a way to get your feet in the water without making a huge investment. Macro is a whole new world, so get out and explore it!
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