Essential Macro Photography Equipment

Top Essential Macro Photography Equipment

This guide will give you an overview of the essential macro photography equipment you need consider if you are venturing into macro photography, and highlight some of our best advices for getting the best macro shots possible

There's more to macro photography than just finding the perfect lens.

In the quest for the ultimate close-up shots, a whole range of dedicated macro photography equipment has been developed over the years to help macro photographers get every last dioptre of magnification out of their equipment.

There are all sorts of lens accessories, as well as specialized lighting systems and tripods that are specially designed for use in the unique situations that macro photography requires.

Let’s not wait further and dive in.

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What You Need to Know About Macro Photography Equipment

There are a lot of different types of macro photography equipment, and each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Here's an overview of all the different equipment types we're going to look at and how they can help you take the best possible macro shots.

Extension Tubes

Extension tubes are a type of equipment designed to decrease the minimum focusing distance of the lens. They're relatively inexpensive because they don't actually contain any optical lens elements, but simply extend the distance from your rear lens element to your camera sensor. The only downside to using extension tubes is that they can decrease the available light slightly, which means you'll have to adjust your exposure settings more carefully than usual.

Most camera manufacturers have made extension tubes for their cameras and lenses in the past, but this practice is slowly falling out of use. Nikon appears to have discontinued their extension tube line, as it has completely disappeared from their website although second-hand models still exist for sale. Canon still produces their set of tubes, but because they are only suited to Canon lenses, you're usually better off with a cheaper set of third party extension tubes that are available for a range of lens mounts.

When buying extension tubes, especially if you're buying second-hand, make sure that the model you're looking at has electrical connections to pass control data from your camera to your lens. If your tube doesn't have those connections, your lens won't be able to autofocus, and it will be locked into its widest aperture setting unless it has a manual aperture ring. Most modern lenses do not have such a ring, so it's easier to simply buy a tube with electrical connections for maximum flexibility.

Reversing Rings

Reversing rings do exactly what the name says, as crazy as it sounds: they allow you to mount a lens onto your camera backwards. It sounds bizarre, but it allows you to get incredibly powerful magnification strengths without having to buy a special macro lens. You can increase the effect even further with a dual-lens reversing ring, which allows you to mount a lens normally on your camera and then add a reversed lens at the end of the normal one where you'd usually attach a filter.

The main virtue of reversing rings is that they are an extremely cheap way to turn all of your existing lens collection into extremely powerful macro lenses. Unfortunately, it also has the side effect of requiring you to use manual settings for everything as you cannot pass control data to the reversed lens. As mentioned in the extension tube section, most modern lenses do not have aperture rings, so this technique is best used with older lenses from your collection.

Macro Flash Systems

Being forced to work with very narrow apertures due to depth of field considerations can dramatically decrease the amount of available light that reaches the camera sensor. This means that getting a proper exposure can be extremely difficult during macro photography unless you have an external lighting system. There are a few different ways that macro lighting is handled: mounting a point flash at the end of the lens, side-mounting two point flashes, or using a ring flash that surrounds the lens.

Ring flashes can produce impressive and unique specular highlights in a circular pattern, but can also make subjects appear flat due to the evenly distributed light. Most macro photographers prefer to use a single lens-mounted point flash or a dual point flash system that allows for more dynamic and engaging light. Of course, there are some who also swear by a combination of ring flash and twin mounted point lights which offers maximum flexibility even when shooting in the field.

When choosing a flash system, it's important to pay attention to the maximum amount of light that it can produce. This is measured in with a system known as a guide number, which is a complex calculation that we won't get into here, but a higher number is almost always better unless you're concerned about power consumption. In short, guide numbers are a way of measuring the maximum distance that the flash will produce a proper exposure at ISO 100.

Macro-friendly Tripods

Because the extreme magnification of macro photography usually results in a very narrow depth of field, shooting with a tripod is absolutely essential. It is technically possible to shoot hand-held depending on how steady your hands are, but you'll wind up wasting a lot of your time taking multiple shots just to get the right focal point. Most tripods can be used for macro photography, but there are a few extra features that can make them perfect for the job.

The most important feature is rock-solid stability, because when you're working with a narrow depth of field even the slightest shift in position can push your subject out of focus. Strong locking mechanisms in the legs and the tripod head will ensure that no vibration reaches the camera while you're shooting. They will also ensure that your subject stays in focus once you get it there.

After that, you'll want a tripod that also has a very low minimum height, because you might find yourself in need of focusing on a subject very close to the ground while maintaining a good magnification level. Some tripods achieve an extremely low working height thanks to an invertible central post, which allows you to hang the camera upside-down extremely close to the ground. Others have a very wide maximum leg angle combined with a swivelling central post, which is great for tracking moving subjects without a focusing rail.

Last but not least, you'll want to make sure that your tripod can handle a lot of weight. Macro photography setups can get extremely heavy once you combine a heavy macro lens, a macro focusing rail and a flash lighting system. The last thing that you want is for all that expensive gear to go toppling over and break just because your tripod couldn't handle their combined weight!

Close-up Filters

Close-up filters are actually poorly named, because they aren't filters in the same sense as a polarizing filter or colored filter. Instead, they are really just extra magnifying lens elements that attach to the filter ring at the end of your lens. They're a relatively simple way of turning any lens into a macro lens, and they can be stacked up with each other to increase their magnification power.

The downside to this easy method is that you can introduce some serious optical aberrations into your shot when using them. You may also lose some sharpness, as your close-up filter will not be as well optimized as the rest of the elements within the lens itself. Just make sure that you buy the appropriate sized filter based on the lens you want to use them with!

Macro Photography Equipment

Now that you know what to look for in your macro photography equipment, it's time to look at some examples. Here are a few of our favorite models of macro photography equipment in the categories we discussed earlier.

Extension Tubes

Vello Extension Tube Set

This simple set of extension tubes come in 3 different sizes: 12mm, 20mm and 36mm. They all offer electrical connections to allow use of autofocus and aperture control, and they can be stacked together to maximize their effect.

They are available for all major camera manufacturer lens mounts, and they're much more affordable and capable than any legacy tubes available second-hand.

Kenko Extension Tube Set

Also available in the standardized set sizes of 12mm, 20mm and 36mm, these extension tubes can be stacked together and provide electrical connection for autofocus and aperture control.

Unfortunately, they do limit the use of autofocus to f/5.6 or f/8 and wider, which means they're not quite as flexible for macro work that often uses narrower apertures, but autofocus is not usually a major concern for macro photographers

Reversing Rings

Reversing rings are all created more or less equal, so the only thing you really need to do is match the right mount system for your camera manufacturer with the right filter diameter for the lens you want to reverse.

If you want to use a dual-reversing ring, all you have to do is match the filter diameter of each of the lenses. Unfortunately this means you'll need a different reversing ring for every combination of lenses with different filter diameters, but these rings are quite cheap so that's not too big a problem

Vello Macrofier for Canon

The only exception to the rule that all reversing rings are created equal seems to be the Vello Macrofier for Canon photographers.

Unfortunately, this is something of a shame because Vello doesn't make a similar product for Nikon, Sony or any other camera brand.

The Macrofier allows you to reverse your lens but maintain electrical connection viable a flexible cord attached to the mount, which allows you to use your camera's automatic focus and aperture control systems.

Macro Flashes

Venus Laowa Macro Twin Flash KX-800

The KX800 has a major advantage over similar two-light systems thanks to its signature feature: two long and articulated arms for holding your flashes.

The whole setup only weighs one pound, so you don't have to worry about it interfering with your tripod's load capacity.

It's also extremely bright, with a flash guide number of 190' at ISO 100, although you may have to dial this down depending on your subject.

Bolt VM-160 Macro Ring Flash

If you're looking for a ring flash, the Bolt VM-160 is an affordable way to see what all the fuss is about. It features a ring of high intensity LEDs which are very power efficient, although they don't illuminate as well as a standard hotshoe flash, with a guide number of only 21' at ISO 100. The advantage is that this flash doesn't rely on your TTL system, so it can be mounted on any type of camera with a hotshoe.

Macro-friendly Tripods

3 Legged Thing Eclipse

This is one of my favorite tripods, and not just because of its bizarre name. It is an extremely solid and stable tripod with a minimum shooting height of 4.75", and it folds down to 13" for easy carrying when you're on your way to an outdoor shoot. It can support up to 22 lbs when used at its lowest setting, enough for even the most demanding macro setups, and only weighs 3lbs.

Vanguard Alta Pro

If you find yourself in need of a more specialized tripod head for your macro work, the Alta Pro has a unique swivelling central post that can make it easier to position your camera and track subjects. It only supports 15 lbs at its lowest leg angle, and weighs around 4.5lbs, but if you want to use a swivel post tripod this is a great choice. It's especially useful for macro photographers who want to shoot subjects that move more rapidly than a focusing rail can handle, such as flying or fast-moving insects.

Close-up Filters

Canon 250D Close-up Filter

Canon is one of the few major camera manufacturers still producing close-up filters, and they have excellent quality optics, although they are the most expensive close-up filters by far.

They tend to lose a bit of sharpness around the edges, but they're still much more affordable than buying a dedicated macro lens. Despite the fact that these are made by Canon, they can be used with any lens that has a matching filter diameter since they simply screw on without requiring a Canon-specific mount.

Vivitar Close-up Filter Set

Vivitar close-up filters are a bit more flexible than their Canon counterparts, as they can be stacked together just like extension tubes. They come in a variety of filter diameters and magnification strengths, which allows you to fine-tune your magnification level to match a variety of situations. The strength is measured in diopters, and these come in a set of +1, +2, +4 and +10 diopters for a total of +17 when fully stacked.

Our Conclusions and best picks

Extension Tubes: Vello Extension Tube Set

Both tube sets we looked at do more or less the same job, but the Vello version wins based on its lack of aperture limitations. Their electrical connections make them compatible with the widest possible range of lenses, and they are conveniently stackable for an incredible degree of adjustment.

Reversing Rings

Reversing rings don't really have a best pick because of how basic these items are, unless you're a Canon photographer. In that case, go for the Vello Macrofier for maximum flexibility as well as autofocus and automatic aperture control.

Macro Flashes: Venus ​Laowa Macro Twin Flash KX800

These incredibly powerful lights are also incredibly flexible. Easy and immediate adjustment of light sources is essential when shooting moving subjects, and these lightweight flashes are perfect for the narrow apertures used in macro shooting.

Macro-friendly Tripods: 3 Legged Thing Eclipse

It's strong, portable and solid as a rock, which means it's great for macro work as well as any other photography uses. The extremely low minimum working height offers a great deal of flexibility for static subjects, and the detachable monopod leg can be a great help for shooting more active subjects.

Close-up Filters: Vivitar Close-up Filter Set

Bundling these stackable filters together was a smart move that allows you a huge range of customized magnification levels for a fraction the cost of a single Canon filter. The optical quality isn't quite as good as what you'd get from the Canon filter, but the added flexibility more than makes up for the difference in optical quality.



Essential Macro Photography Equipment

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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