Macro on a Budget: Using Extension Tubes

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The awesome and exciting world of close-up or macro photography does not need to be yet another expensive foray into the world of photography. In fact, you don’t need to buy, rent, borrow, or steal a dedicated macro lens at all. You can do macro photography with the lens(es) you already own plus a few relatively inexpensive additions. For those looking for what I think is the best way to do macro photography on a budget, I have two words for you: extension tubes.

Non-product photos © Todd Vorenkamp
All photos taken with FUJIFILM XF 35mm f/1.4 R and FUJIFILM extension tubes

What Are Extension Tubes?

Extension tubes are metal (or plastic and metal) tubes that are mounted between a camera and lens to extend the physical distance between them. They are designed for a specific lens mount to attach mechanically to the camera and lens.

Extension Tube Set
Extension Tube Set

By physically extending the distance between the camera and a lens, you allow the camera to focus closer than its published minimum focus distance (MFD), allowing close-up photography. This allows you to use your “regular” lenses for close-up photography—no specialized or expensive macro lens are needed!

Microphone
Microphone

While the closer shift in the MFD certainly allows you to get closer to your subject(s), it does not guarantee true macro (1:1) reproductions.

LED flashlight
LED flashlight

Why Do I Prefer Extension Tubes to Other Methods?

The biggest advantage of extension tubes is that they are simply hollow tubes. There are no optical elements inside them. Whenever light passes through a glass element, regardless of its near perfection, the light is bent in undesirable ways. The lack of optics in an extension tube means your lens’s optical characteristics remain virtually unchanged.

Fin’s rock
Fin’s rock

When compared to the cost of most macro lenses, extension tubes cost much less. Also, extension tubes, even if you have two or three, are smaller and lighter than almost any macro lens you will find on the market. This makes them an easy addition to your camera bag to use for spontaneous close-up photo opportunities. Not every photographer has room for an additional lens in their bag, but most can squeeze in a lightweight extension tube, or two, or three.

Also, if you already have a favorite macro lens, you can boost its magnification with extension tubes. They need not only be used on non-macro lenses.

Cord
Cord

What Are the Possible Downsides of Extension Tubes?

While the lens-less extension tubes do not give light extra hurdles to pass through before reaching the sensor, some (many?) lenses are not performing their best at their MFD. That level of performance, good or bad, will pass, untouched, through the tubes to the sensor. All lenses perform differently, even identical models, so there is really only one way to find out if your lens is up to the extension tube/close-up challenge—taking it out for a spin!

Compass
Compass

In almost every case, adding an extension tube, or tubes, to a lens means that the lens will not focus accurately at infinity or other long distances. This means that, if you want to take a photo of something farther away, you will need to remove the extension tube(s). Find a close-up subject. Slap the tubes between the camera and lens and get your shot. Back to “regular” shooting? Remove the tubes and reattach the lens directly to the camera.

Because of the expanded physical spacing between the camera and lens, there is the chance that you will get some vignetting of your images. This is often looked down upon, but sometimes it can subtly help focus the viewer’s attention on the subject.

Ball chain
Ball chain

Extension Tubes Change Your Focal Length and Maximum Aperture

Forgive me for possibly getting too technical here, but when I state these two definitions, you will see how the extension tube transforms more than the MFD of a lens.

  • Focal Length: the distance from the lens’s optical center (or nodal point) to the image plane of the camera when focused at infinity.
  • F-number: The ratio of the opening of a lens aperture when compared to the focal length of the lens.
Switch
Switch

Adding an extension tube (or tubes) to the lens effectively changes the focal length. Because the aperture is calculated with focal length as a variable, the lens’s f-numbers change, as well. Therefore, your lens’s maximum aperture f-number is no longer the same when tubes are added—it is smaller. You can see this in your exposure data and through your viewfinder as you will see an extension tube image will be darker than one without tubes.

Coin
Coin

Magnification Math

Ready for some fun with math? If you are curious, you can calculate your extension tube-armed lens’s new magnification with a simple equation:

Extension tube magnification formula = Lens’s Native Magnification + (Extension Distance / Focal Length)

Focus slider
Focus slider

You can get your lens’s native magnification from the specs section of your lens’s page on the B&H Photo website, and all extension tubes are labeled with their depth.

Speaker
Speaker

Example:

Maximum Magnification 0.17x + (27mm / 35mm) = 0.94x

At 0.94x, the FUJIFILM 35mm lens with two extension tubes is almost a 1:1 (1x) macro lens!

Sea glass
Sea glass

Three Flavors of Extension Tubes

Are you ready to dive in? You might notice that there are a few basic genres (and price points) of extension tubes:

  • Basic tubes without electronic connections
  • Off-brand tubes with electronic connections
  • OEM tubes from camera manufacturers with electronic connections

The electronic connections, in general, allow the camera to continue to communicate with the lens for aperture control and autofocus. While autofocus is not always needed (or wanted) for close-up photography, many of today’s modern lenses do not allow control of the aperture without an electronic interface. If you are using non-electronic tubes with these lenses, you are likely going to be capturing images at the lens’s maximum aperture.

T
T

If you are using a “vintage” lens with a manual aperture ring and manual focus for your extension tube/close-up adventures, then you do not need tubes with electronic connections.

LED lantern
LED lantern

Totally Tubular!

If you want to get into close-up or macro photography, but do not want to invest in a macro lens, the extension tube is my preferred method for starting your adventure into the tiny world of close-up photography. You cannot beat the price point, portability, and versatility of the extension tube. Throw a tube or two in your bag for your next photo outing and a new universe of photographic possibilities is presented to you!

To see some shots with extension tubes in action, check out this article on macro photography gear and this one on extreme close-up photos.

Lens cap
Lens cap

Do you have questions or thoughts about extension tubes for close-up photography? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

Items discussed in article

4 Comments

I used to use extension tubes in the film days, but went away from them with digital. The reason is the problem of dust and pollen getting in when adding/removing the tubes. In the "old days" this didn't matter so much because each exposure had a new "sensor" (i.e. you advanced the film) but with digital, once the dust is on the sensor...and it's hard to see in the viewfinder...every subsequent exposure has spots. This leads to a lot of grief in post-processing.

One other caution is that for longer lenses (200mm and up, for working distance from the subject), the length of the tubes needed to exceed 1:1  becomes excessive and unwieldy.

Other than that, they are indeed very handy.

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for sharing your experience with tubes! I, too, find them pretty convenient to use. Yes, dust can be an issue and, you can really see how dirty your sensor is when you shoot with a pinhole "lens" after a few years of not cleaning your sensor!

This article was done exclusively with extension tubes: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/20-tips-for-photographing-watches-and-timepieces

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Same here; I prefer to have one versatile lens for my travel photography since I'm often in dusty or wet environments and would prefer not switching on the go. I'm considering renting a longer telephoto lens for wildlife on my Alaska cruise next year, but again I'm a little concerned about swapping lenses on the outside balcony with the seawater spray.

Hi Jeffery,

Thanks for chiming in. Close-up filters might be your next best option if you are trying to keep everything closed up!

I am working on an article on those right now!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

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