The poor man’s macro kit: extension tubes

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Dedicated insect photographers normally employ specialized macro lenses to focus on their tiny subjects. These can be pricey. My MP-E lens cost $900, for example, and my 100mm f/2.8 is $500.

But macro does not have to be expensive. Consider the effect of a single extension tube mated to a regular 35mm lens:

The Canon EF 35mm f/2 lens can focus this close, but no further.
The same lens on a 12mm extension tube allows for a macro shot approaching 1:1.5.

What is an extension tube?

Canon's EF12 II extension tube

It’s a simple ring that mounts between the lens and the camera, holding the lens farther out from the sensor than usual. There’s not much to it: no glass, no moving parts. The tube pictured here is a Canon mass-produced model, but you can even make your own from a toilet-paper tube or an old pringles can.

The 35mm lens with a 12mm extension tube added (top), or absent (bottom).

Extension tubes work by shifting the minimum focus distance towards the camera. With the lens able to form images closer in, the subject is effectively magnified.

Extension tubes can be used with any lens. Short lenses do well with short extension tubes, but longer lenses require longer tubes for a similar effect. For instance, the 35mm lens is a good match to a 12mm tube, but a 50mm lens will require 25mm tube for similar magnification. With the right length tube any lens can be converted for macro duty.

The 35mm lens + 12mm extension tube is an ideal combination for catching bees in flight.

There’s a catch, of course. With a tube in place, lenses no longer focus farther than a few inches away. It’s macro or nothing. But that’s a small price to pay for adding inexpensive macro.

An extension tube transforms a 17-40mm wide-angle lens to a wide-angle macro.

26 thoughts on “The poor man’s macro kit: extension tubes”

  1. This may end up being (for me) the most useful photography entry you’ve ever done — Info the camera salespeople don’t want you to know!

    Now, off in quest of an inexpensive extension tube…

  2. I never thought to use try extensions on the wide angle lens – could be a lot of fun.

    James – the Kenco tubes I bought are a lot less expensive and provide the same functionality as the Canon tubes.

  3. Do extension tubes only help much for regular lenses, or would they be useful with an actual macro lens too?

    Also, what do you think of the other common “cheap macro” trick of mounting a lens backwards?

    1. Tim- tubes will also work with macro lenses just as they work for regular lenses. That is, you’ll get more magnification out of them in exchange for less working distance. But for a long lens like the 100mm macro you’ll need at least 40-50mm of tube to make it worthwhile.

      I’ve not tried the reverse-lens trick, but Thomas Shahan works wonders with it.

  4. Alex, your blog is getting better and better and that’s such great advice, thank you!
    What would you recommend for a 24-105mm 2.8 ?
    Thanks again!

    N.

    1. That’s a tough one, Nadege, as 24-105 is a huge range. I’d try a 25mm tube and see how you go, as that should hit the middle range of your lens about right. Full wide and the focal distance will be less than zero, full long and you’ll only see slight magnification.

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    1. Nikon hasn’t changed their camera mount in the intervening years, so standard Nikon F-mount tubes should work just fine. The link you provided is to Canon gear, and they use a different type of lens mount, so make sure you get F-mount compatible tubes.

      Autofocus and macro photography are not a good combination in any case- you’ll soon find that manual focusing is much, much easier anyway.

      1. Sorry, I wrote the other post a little quickly 😳

        I didn’t mean to link to Canon macro tubes – I was aware they would probably not work 😉

        As for the autofocus, I had read that manual focus was preferable for macro shots due to shallow depth of field. Perhaps I should have asked instead about aperture control, as my lens has no aperture ring. (Moreover, some the the *really* cheap macro tubes don’t even support automatic exposure…)

        Thanks for the fast response 🙂

  7. Thanks, Alexander, for this great post. I’m starting a new project in the rainforests of Costa Rica and had been looking for confirmation that a 12 mm tube will work with my 17-40 mm f4 lens. I found it here. BTW, congrats on some great macro images!

    Cheers,
    Greg Basco

    1. Thanks for your comment, Greg. The 12mm tube works well with the 17-40, but be warned that when you’re using that lens fully wide the focal plane is actually *inside* the lens and you’ll bump the front element. So, I find the 12mm tube works best in the 24-30 range.

  8. Alex –
    I have seen some shots with a canon 100mm f2.8 macro lense and extension tubes that look as good as similar shots with the Canon Mp-E.

    I have just bought the Canon T3i for the purpose of photographing insects via macro and photomicrography.

    Would you suggest I simply purchase the Canon Mp-e over the 100 mm and extension tubes? I could go either way. Also do you have a recommendation for a good light source? I have seen light rings ranging from less than a hundred dollars to $500.

  9. Hi, I’m using D600 with Kit 24-85, recenty bought Nikon Speedlight SP-910, I can also buy several cheap extension rings for that camera for the first try in macro. It’s perfect for my photo needs, but I nterested of your macro experience.

    Can I use this package out-of the box fot the macro photography (probably with some plastic shields, or paper rings)? I respect for your experiece in this field and really-really want to listen something different from my friends jokes (“buy another camera, pal, that one is a garbage”, “you can’t do macro using nikon” or “…using kit lenses”)? Is it really so hard and expensive to start macrophotograpy hobby, do I really need “real” full-frame, to make a great-looking photos?

    My previos experience follows (Lumix DMC FZ-7 video):

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=4564784716812

    Full version:
    http://youtu.be/KZQ4eP9AtT4

    Regards, Artur M.

  10. Will an Ext Tube work on a 70-300 Nikon lens so that I can get closer pics of aircraft flying at air shows ?

    1. An extension tube doesn’t magnify, it just allows the lens to focus on closer objects than usual. Extension tubes also remove the ability of the lens to focus on distant objects, you’ll find that they won’t be able to focus on flying airplanes, much less magnify them.

      What you need is a tele-extender.

  11. Kathleen D. Trombley

    I am thinking about investing my money into a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens…is the a way to know if this lens is compatible with my Canon EOS 20D before making a costly first time mistake?

      1. Kathleen D. Trombley

        One more quick question for today, how important is it for me to invest in a good external flash with that lens and could you recommend one that would be a good fit for my camera this not to pricey? Thanks for your last quick response!

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  13. This has been a super helpful article for me (a beginner). Thank you for actually labeling the lenses and extensions you used for each photo, it really helps visualize what each product does.

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