When I post macro images on Instagram, I usually get one or more comments about how someone wishes they had a dedicated macro lens in their bag. Well, the good thing is, you don't have to have a macro-specific lens to shoot macro! To show you how easy it is to make macro images without one that's specifically labeled "macro", I pulled out my nifty-fifty, because it's a lens that most photographers own. If you don't own one of these, I highly recommend purchasing one! There are more expensive models around, but honestly, my $100 50mm f/1.8 is such a great lens I can't bear to part with it, even though it's not my main lens.
This first image shows my scene shot with my 50mm, as close as the camera would allow me to get. Then I share the same results with each method so you can see how each one performs. With each technique, I got as near as my camera allowed me to get and still have my subject be in focus, so some of them I was able to get just inches away, and others further away. I was shooting the ice cream cone at f/2.8, so I only have a narrow slice of focus. The coneflower was shot at f/5. I did not do any cropping to the images as I want to share them as they were taken. Only a bit of editing was done--I added contrast, highlights and darkened the blacks.
1. A reverse ring
This ring allows you to take macro with your 50mm backwards on your camera. To do this, you need to twist the reverse ring to the back of your lens, then connect it to your camera. Of course, you don't have to have the specific ring on your camera, you can always just hold the lens on there like you're free-lensing, but having the ring hold it in place allows you to have the use of both hands, keeps wind-blown debris out, and gives you a greater peace of mind!
When your lens is backward, it cannot communicate with your camera. You will still be able to adjust your shutter speed, but not your aperture or auto focus. If you're good at manual focus, this isn't a problem, but if you have never done it, I suggest using live view to make sure your images are sharp and in focus.
You can see that at f/2.8 the results are fairly blurry with only a small slice of focus.
2. Convex lens
A convex lens can be used for more than just macro, so it makes a great little tool to have in your bag, period! Though the magnification isn't as great with a convex lens as it is with some of the other methods, it's fun to play with anyhow. To use it for macro, just hold it in front of your lens. I find it easiest to place it directly on my lens. You can experiment with how far away the lens is from your camera lens, but this is hard to do in manual focus unless you have three hands! It gives a soft glow around the edges, and can give you a bit of reflection in there too if the conditions are right, making it look like a double exposure.
Filters are perhaps one of the best options to change any lens into a macro lens. I bought a set that has a +1, +2, +4 and a 10x. You can use them individually or stack them for greater magnification. My favorite is the +4 because it has the least distortion. These filters easily screw onto the end of your lens, just make sure you buy the correct diameter size for your lens! They allow complete communication with your camera, so you can use auto focus as well as changing all of the settings as needed. One little tip, is to make sure you have a lens cleaning cloth handy because they do collect dirt quite easily. Using these filters are perhaps my favorite way to achieve macro images with a non-macro lens! You can also use them with a macro lens to get in even closer. ;)
4. Extension tubes
An extension tube set is a great option, because once you buy the proper tubes for your camera you can use them with any of your lenses. And extension tube goes between your camera and the lens. There are two types of extension tubes, the cheaper ones do not communicate between your lens and your camera, but the more expensive ones do allow you to have that communication still. If you need to have auto focus and all of your settings available, I would look into the more expensive ones.
The extension tubes work by putting your lens closer to the subject, and allowing you to stay farther back. You've probably noticed that your camera won't focus properly when you were too close to a subject, but extension tubes allow you to be closer and almost "trick" your camera sensor into thinking it's further away than you really are. Extension tubes really are a great option if you want to be able to use macro with more than one lens. The drawbacks to extension tubes is that you lose light, so you'll have to slow your shutter speed or up your ISO. Also, I find that it's harder to get tack sharp images as easily--it does take some practice and time!
I made a quick video to show you the different tools you can use, so check it out if you want to see how each of these things work, and what they look like.
One of the final products, shot with my 50mm and +4 macro filter at f/5, 1/125 sec, ISO 640.
Cropped in a bit to center it, did some cleanup of spots and tweaking in Photoshop.
I hope this helps you realize that you don't have to purchase an expensive dedicated macro lens! Use some of these cheaper options, play around a bit, see if you really love shooting macro, then go for the big purchase if you decide you like it!
I'm a mom of 4 boys, in love with photography, especially landscapes, macro, and silhouettes.
"To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place...I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." -Elliott Erwitt