Macro photography is one of my favorite photography genres. With alternatives to expensive macro lenses, the genre is available to almost every photographer without emptying your pockets. Getting up close and teasing out fine details from small subjects offers a unique way of looking at the world. However, macro lenses can often feel specialized and out of budget for photographers who only occasionally shoot close up.
Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to shoot 1:1 macro or even greater than 1:1 magnification! Here are a few alternatives to macro lenses worth adding to your camera bag!
Alternatives to Macro Lenses
Lens diopters go by a few names, including macro clip-on lenses and macro filters. They work the same way a magnifying glass does for your eyes. These pieces of plastic and glass screw on or clip directly onto the front of your lens. Typically they occupy the same threading you’d use for your front filter.
Diopters decrease the minimum focusing distance that you can normally achieve with a lens. Magnified in this way, you can double or even quadruple the normal magnification of a given lens.
A lens diopter can be used on almost any lens with the same filter thread diameter as the diopter itself. Two element diopters are a little pricier but typically higher quality than one element designs.
Lens diopters not only work with interchangeable lens cameras but compact and bridge cameras with filter threads. The diopter strength is typically +1 to +8 or more, with the larger number indicating greater magnification.
Be careful when pairing these with lenses that already have close focus capacity. You may find the glass needs to be practically on top of your subject to focus properly.
There are a few downsides to consider when using these. Unless you’re buying the best possible diopters, which are also the most expensive, you run the risk of slight to severe losses in image quality. Sharpness can decrease, distortion can be magnified, and purple fringing often becomes visible. Most of this can be fixed in post, however.
Lens Reverse Ring
If you look through the front element into a lens unattached from the camera, you’ll notice that you get an upside down image that’s also magnified. By reversing and then attaching the lens to your mount, you can often get an image with much better magnification than using the lens normally.
Lens reverse rings are some of the most affordable ways to get into macro photography because they are essentially just rings of metal or plastic. The reverse ring has a filter thread on one end and a mount attachment on the other.
The shorter the focal length is the more magnification you achieve. Wide angle lenses aren’t typically used in macro photography and offer some very interesting creative possibilities when paired with a reverse ring!
One downside of using reverse rings as macro lenses is that you lose all automatic control of the attached lens. If your lens has electronic aperture adjustments it means you won’t be able to open or close the aperture once it’s disconnected from the camera.
Once your lens is disconnected typically it reverts to being wide open. The shallow depth of field created by a wide open aperture can make it difficult or impossible to get enough of a subject in tight focus.
Be very mindful of your shooting environment when using a reverse ring because the rear elements are continually being exposed. Scratching these elements has a much greater impact on image quality compared to the front glass. Dust, sand, and other elements can easily cause damage if not properly removed.
Lens Coupler Ring
As an interchangeable lens camera owner, you might be thinking “but I already have a large collection of lenses!” In that case, why not put two of them together?
Lens coupler rings work similarly to reverse rings except you’re using a second attached lens to create an image through the first lens. Coupler rings typically result in a sharper, better-corrected image relative to standard reverse rings and with greater magnification.
Unfortunately, most coupler rings share the same problem as reverse rings: loss of aperture control with modern electronic lenses.
If you really want deeper depth of field there are two ways to approach this. One is to trick your camera into allowing you to disconnect the lens without resetting the aperture. How this is done depends on the brand in question.
Another is to buy an electronic coupler adapter. This includes a second attachment for the rear of the lens that sends it both power and data to control aperture size. However, these are about the same price as a cheap macro lens! You likely get more magnification, however.
Lastly, you can pick up a vintage manual film lens. These lenses don’t require electronic coupling to control their apertures and can be adjusted as needed.
Anyone shooting mirrorless should have a couple of vintage lenses in their bag. Not only are they great for macro work but when used with focus peaking you can focus almost as quickly as you can using autofocus.
This allows you to use them for portraiture, architecture, and other genres. Vintage lenses are almost always much cheaper than modern lenses as well, with thrift stores and eBay being some of the best places to start a collection.
Macro Extension Tubes
Macro extension tubes are pieces of plastic and/or metal tubing that sit directly in between your lens and the camera mount. These tubes create a gap that decreases the minimum focusing distance of your lens. In doing so, you can move the front element of your lens closer to your subject while focusing.
There are a couple of things to consider when using macro extension tubes. First, they stack with one another. The tubes are often sold in sets of two or three because adding a second or third tube decreases the minimum focusing distance of your lens even further.
Second, the shorter the focal length of your lens the closer macro extension tubes allow you to get. A longer lens like an 85mm will give you plenty of breathing room even with an extension tube attached. However something shorter like 50mm or 35mm will quickly have you right on top of your subject.
If you work mostly with still life under controlled lighting this might be desirable. But that level of close focus may be an issue if you’re shooting live insects out in nature.
Like lens reverse rings most macro extension tubes don’t have electronic couplings. This means the attached lens is shooting wide open. You won’t be able to close down your aperture to get a deeper depth of field.
However, there are also electronically coupled macro extension tubes that control the aperture and often the autofocus capacity of the camera. These cost more, of course, but work with any lens that shares that mount.
Macro Alternatives vs Actual Macro Lenses
Using a dedicated macro lens offers many advantages compared to the macro alternatives listed here. You have full aperture and focusing control as well as the right Exif data imprinted onto your images.
Macro lenses are typically razor sharp and well corrected for distortion. They can also easily be used for portraiture and other uses. However they tend to be f/2.8, which is a relatively fast aperture. Telephoto macro lenses in particular can be a pricey, heavy addition to your camera bag if you only occasionally shoot macro photography.
On the other hand, many of the alternatives to macro lenses provide greater than 1:1 magnification. These alternatives also work across all brands with the right filter thread or reversed lens.
There are a few true macro lenses that natively provide 2-4x magnification but they are rare and not every brand has one. You’re most likely to find them made by third party manufacturers like Laowa but only for popular brands like Canon and Sony.
It can be hard to know what impact using a lens diopter, reverse ring, coupler ring, or macro extension tubes will have on an image until you try them, though. Using one lens in reverse might not impact sharpness but another might cause severe softness.
Extension tubes sometimes cause some light loss or a minimum focusing distance that’s much too short with certain focal lengths. While they are more affordable than dedicated macro lenses there’s an element of experimentation that you’ll need to embrace.
Many photographers who decide to get into macro photography are put off by the specialized equipment used in the genre. While dedicated macro lenses offer the easiest way to high quality close up images, you can often get comparable or even better results with macro lens alternatives.
That said, true macro lenses do have a place. They need no trucks for controlling their aperture or focusing mechanisms. And you usually get the best image quality using one.
Lastly, you should experiment by combining the alternative methods above to see what works best! You can add lens diopters to macro lenses, for example. Some “macro” lenses on the market only offer 0.3x or 0.5x magnification. A good diopter can boost their magnification while still allowing you full electronic control of your lens.
Good luck shooting!
Want to learn more about macro photography?
After discovering a love at a young age for digital photography, Earl Goodson has kept a camera in hand throughout his years of world travel. Documentary, travel, and street photography are what most captivate him: the human experience in all of its permutations and expressions. And the closer he can get to his subjects the better.