CDHPIX | Getting into Macro Photography - on the cheap

Getting into Macro Photography - on the cheap

July 21, 2014  •  1 Comment

Macro photography is addictive.

I mean it.

It is VERY addictive and highly rewarding on a personal level.

Initially sounds expensive when people throw words at you containing Macro Lens (£200+ for a cheap version), £370+ for a decent macro lens (Sigma 105mm DG HSM F2.8) and even more for top-end lenses (Venus 60mm or MPE-65) - but it does not have to be super-expensive. Read on !

There's no talk about ring led flashes in here, that will go into another more expensive setup blog, but briefly, you can get cheap led ring flash/lights for around £15-£20. Mid range at about £70-£90 and very expensive at £200+ - but none are talked about here. This blog will be updated over time and new macro budget-style blogs created in the near future. This is for the very budget conscious photographers who just want to "dip their toes into macro photography" using some of the simpler setups available. :)

Hence, I thought I would share my experience from simple setups to the more expensive, starting with a simple setup blog.

I am going to show you how you can get very sharp and very close macro photography images - with the least amount of kit, I have included my technique for getting these truly amazing insects/plants up close, that show the world, within our world.

You can do this. I know you can.

You don't need a macro lens or expensive kit to get into macro photography. You don't even need a tripod. In fact, to start with, I recommend not using one as its more kit to lug around and the legs on a tripod spread quite far so you end up damaging plants etc.. plus bugs will not hang around when you're disturbing all of their surroundings. Keeping it nice and simple just so you can see whether you want to pursue this exciting part of photograph further.

Everything here is hand-held based, manually focussed, shot on continuous shooting mode. You can use AI Servo, if you wish to do so, but for my own personal preference, I use I use One Shot mode, so I don't take <too> many photos.

After a while, you will create your own technique that is perfect to how you shoot - just like everything else in photography, it becomes your technique, your method and your style.

In fact, what I will be demonstrating here, will be done on a crop-sensor camera, a Canon 600d/Rebel T3i. 

Extension Tubes - anything from £10 for a cheap ebay metal set, to an electrical version costing £50 (Polaroid make) and upwards to £120 for a Kenko tube set.

Raynox DCR-250 - approx £38
A Neweer Speedlite TT520 - approx £30
A 50mm mk2 F1.8 - approx £80 lens.
A packet of Pringles crisps (approx £1 if you can find them on offer) - taste good too so pick a flavour you like ;)

So, not including the camera itself, you can get into the macro world with the above setup for less than £150, or even just £90 for a lens and cheap metal extension tubes.

You may already have a suitable lens (any lens will do, your kit lens 17-55 or 18-55 is perfectly fine - in fact, your kit lens will produce stunning images for macro - kit lenses are seriously underrated and when you start churning out fantastic macro photos and telling people its done with a kit-lens - they will be sat there with jaws hitting the floor - promise !), so all you need is the extension tubes or reversing ring (to be posted up in future updates when I have got my setup working correctly). So you can get into macro photography from just £10 if you have the camera and lens. Which, I'd be surprised if you did not have a lens when you bought your camera, otherwise it would be pretty pointless.

I will detail each setup, how it can be used, its pro's and con's and combinations of various setups using the above.

No doubt, you are waiting for images. So here are a few, just to show what you can get.

This image below, is with a nifty fifty, a raynox dcr-250, a 21mm section of extension tube.

and they called it buggy-love :PTaken with a 50mm F1.8 (at F10), 160th/sec, neweer flash, home made diffuser, 21mm section of extension tube and a Raynox DCR250, shot with a Canon 600d/T3i.

Thats pretty close, right? Hardly cropped, only slightly for composition purposes.

I'll most likely update this image with something not so rude, when I get the time. Feel free to click on the image to view my macro world, bugs section.

I will go through each section of components used, including the diffuser setup and how to minimize its cost, along with the build, which isn't my own I have to admit, but is a modified idea of someone else's from TalkPhotography.

Extension Tubes: These can be purchased fairly cheaply from Ebay or Amazon or one of your favourite sellers.
Ranging from £10 for fully manual metal tubes, which removes the ability to change your aperture (F-Stop) and autofocus functions, to £120  to electronic tubes that allow you to change your aperture (F-Stop) and use auto-focus (but I recommend not bothering with autofocus - go manual for macro!) settings on the go.

I do recommend going for an electronic set, (I have a £50 set made by Polaroid so its mid-range) as it will allow you to change your aperture without removing the tubes, putting on the lens, changing aperture, removing lens, putting back on the tubes and back on the lens. The electric one's work just like your camera is designed to do, change it without all the faffing about removing tubes and lenses and then putting them back on. If you are really on a budget and £50 is out of your reach, see if there are any used electronic-extension tubes you can purchase for £25 or less - though the £10 tubes will do just fine for dipping-your-toes.

Extension Tubes
Extension tubes typically come in a set of 3. Small, medium and one a little longer than the medium. The one's I've used are 13mm, the next is 21mm and the final longer tube is 31mm.

You can use each tube independently, or combined with any of the other tubes or indeed, all 3 tubes at the same time for varying magnification.

Bearing in mind, the more tubes, the less working distance from the subject is required, though the longer the focal length of your length, the further away you can take photographs. Bearing in mind, the further away, the move sensitive movement is. It's a bit like looking down a scope of a rifle at something close, a little movement and the subject can easily be lost. You will also lose light with the tubes, typically a couple of stop-of-light. So prepare to up the ISO in the camera to get a nice exposure.

Photographing close up's of plants and stamen is easier than bugs as plants tend to stay still(ish) - unless its windy/a breeze. So start with some plants, flowers are pretty so find some nice flowers - wild flowers are quite beautiful and are usually in abundance.

For bugs, you may want to use one or two tubes maximum, so you at least have a few CM's of distance between you and the subject.

Here are some shots, using just  Extension Tubes. Some of the images have been cropped in post processing, to get a bigger view of the insect.





A water droplet, very small, but I focussed for the reflection of plantlife. You can just about see the leaves - they're not inside the droplet, thats a reflection from the outside world of the droplet, appearing inside the droplet through its reflection. Neat, huh?



Raynox DCR-250
The Raynox DCR-250 - is basically a close up filter attachment, which has a clip-on type fitment. Don't be fooled by going cheap - and dont waste your money on a cheap ebay close up filter - this blows cheap closeup filters, clean out of the water. The image quality, is truly amazing.
Cheap ebay filters can cost you £6-£15 and the Raynox is a little more expensive at £38 (at current prices), but the quality is so good, you're better off buying it once rather than going down the cheap filter route (which I did and now have them collecting dust on the shelves, so was a waste of money) - go for the Raynox if you can afford it. If you buy cheap, you'll end up buying twice and wasting your hard earned money.

The following images were taken with the Canon 600d/T3i, Raynox and Neweer flash with homemade DIY diffuser (details on build further on). No extension tubes used.






Fly on flowers

So you can see, just the Raynox DCR-250 on its own, coupled with the Canon 600d/T3i and nifty-fifty (50mm F1.8) can produce impressive images and can be shot from about a foot away. Shot at F10, to bag loads of detail along with a cheap Neweer flash  (£20) and homemade DIY diffuser.

Technique for getting in focus - and what should be in focus.

Get your kit together, go into your back garden or a nearby meadow/field/woods/playing field, where there are trees with low hanging branches or bushes/nettles/wild flowers. This is a good start - and a similar location to the above images were photographed.

In a playing field, early in the morning (for nice natural light and no one around to disturb me). Nothing worse than trying to focus in on a bug and getting smacked in the head by some child's football! :) So peace and quiet, gives you time to concentrate without any of the normal day to day disturbances you might encounter at 5pm when everyone is out and about, such as dog walkers, kids playing - definitely try not to do photography with kids playing around, you might not be photographing them (and I hope you aren't), but it doesn't stop people thinking that you are. You need to be able to concentrate! So peace, quiet and no one around will let you do that.

So you found a bush/bunch of wildflowers. You can see that there is a few bugs, maybe a fly (most likely a fly) or even a lovely spider. Spring through to summer is going to be your best bet for bugs. You wont see many in the winter so nice hot weather is going to be your best bet. There will be bugs around in the winter, just might take a lot of looking in the right places.

Another advantage for shooting early in the morning, is that it isn't as hot as midday, the lighting is nice and bugs are usually quite subdued at that time, due to the lower temperatures so they tend not to fly away ;) It is also comfortable weather to be photographing in, without the sun beating down on you.

Right, back to it. You see a fly (for example), its sitting there quite nicely, you bend down and the fly buzzes off. What happened there?

Well, flies are very good at moving very quickly and when we move quickly,  they will move quicker! What you must do, is move slowly. Slow enough that they don't really take much notice of you. You must have tried this at home when trying to splatter one, you roll up your newspaper and try and swat one and off it goes. Dang!

So when you have been successful at swatting them, you most likely moved quite slowly, getting nearer and nearer before that deathly blow with the newspaper - same thing with photography, except dont whack them with your camera kit, you're there to photograph them, not kill them or break your lovely expensive equipment.

I try to not disturb any insects when photographing them. They're not in the wild to annoy me, I'm there, annoying them or trying not to ! I am also not out there to kill them. If they come in my house, thats a different story, but out in the wild, thats their home and I totally respect that, so please do the world a favour and do the same :)

A lot of insects can bite too, so not annoying them is a plus that you wont get bitten. Thats not to say an insect will still not find you tasty, even if you haven't annoyed them. Just remember, light attracts insects and your flash will be similar to a lighthouse light going off, attracting them to you. Just photograph and move along so other bugs do not get a chance to hone in on your flash. :)

To start with, forget autofocus. Its too much hassle and more luck than skill so make sure your camera is set to manual focus.

I'm not going to go into the technicalities of manual exposure and so on, because to be honest, if you're shooting macro, you should already have a good idea of how to manage your camera in manual mode, if not, leave this blog and get some experience under your belt of photographing flowers, people etc.. Macro should be after you've mastered your manual camera settings :)

So moving slowly camera and viewfinder in place, everything is blurry. Use your focus ring to infinity (turn the focus ring on your lens to the left, if looking down on the camera from the top) if you want some room between you and the subject - or turn it to the right (if looking down on the camera from top) to get it in as close as you can. You can experiment with what suits you best, depending on the size of the bug/plant.

Now lean - not move, lean forward until the object comes into focus.

You might want to have one eye looking through the viewfinder and your other eye open, for some reason - I see better, even though my one eye isn't looking through the viewfinder. Just gives you a better understanding of your surroundings as you lean forward i.e you can tell if there's a branch you're about to bump into.

As the object comes into focus, wait until the EYES are in focus - in the case of a flower, you might want the petal to be in focus, you might want the stamen to come into focus - whatever you're trying to photograph, lean forward and backward until that particular part of what you want to photograph, comes into focus. For bugs - go for the eyes. ALWAYS ALWAYS go for the eyes. It makes a much more interesting image than just having the body or wings or the background in focus. Did I mention, GET THE EYES IN FOCUS ! :)

** Not every insect's most beautiful part of their body is the eyes - it might be their tail, or wings - or even all three or you may just want the whole body. In which case, we might be talking about stacking images, but not always. Completely depends on the size of your subject and how close you are and open your aperture (f-stop) is to capture your depth of field. This is a method of getting certain body parts in focus and then "stacking" them using a piece of software that can find the most sharpest, in focus part of a photograph and matching it with other sharp in-focus parts of the image on other photographs and merging them altogether - giving a whole body in focus so show off that amazing insect/bug/animal/flower.

I'll do stacking as another blog, for now, we will concentrate on eyes only as it simplifies what we're trying to achieve.

When your subject /part of the subject comes into focus, hold your breath. Count to 400. Nah - dont do that hahahaha - hold your breath for a couple of seconds at a time, I don't want you going blue and passing out on me.

While you're holding your breath for a few seconds at a time (dont forget to breath after a few seconds, there's plenty of bugs around so dont get frustrated if they fly away or move) - lean forward or backward to get the bug EYES in focus, they tend to only come into focus for a millisecond - this is where your spideysense needs to kick in ;) Click, Click, lean, breathe out, breathe in, hold breath, lean in, lean out, click click click - everytime the eyes pop into focus through your viewfinder.

It will take practice. Surprisingly - not that much, but it will take practice. Dont look at the photos on your LCD screen after the bug moves away, other than to check your exposure/histogram - wait until you get home and get the image on a bigger screen and zoom in to check if the eyes are indeed, in focus.

You will take a lot of photographs and not have much to show for it. BUT - the one's that do end up in focus - will look amazing. I promise you.

I can take, within 30 minutes, maybe 130 photographs (on average when I'm out in the mornings or evenings) of just 5 or 10 bugs and only get 10-15 good images. Thats not a bad percentage, but thats only because I have  taken many thousands of photos of bugs/plants. You may get 1 in 50 to start with, but you will get more and more and more keepers, the more you practice and the more you get better with the technique I have outlined above.

Homemade DIY Diffuser
There are many ways you can make one yourself, from using opaque packaging material to plastic white tops (from a Pringles tube for example) just to make your flash lighting, not so harsh and spread it out a little evenly.

Even if you don't have a diffuser, you'll most likely already have a slip-over one for your flash gun and white-card to do some reflective bouncing of light. The more light you have, the less noise and grain you will get in your images. The more diffused light you have, the smoother the light passes over your subject and your won't get "white spots" or harsh-highlights.

The homemade one, used in the images above, was simple a empty Pringles tube. Any flavour will do, just keep popping 'em until they're all gone. YUM. I do like Pringles. So does the wife. Unfortunately.  Rachel helped me out by scoffing them all. Two tubes in fact so I have a spare one just in case my DIY one falls apart. It shouldn't, I used enough tape to repair a car :)

Two reasons to use a Pringles tube, one is they taste so nice! and the other, more importantly, is the reflective surface inside the tube - aha! Yes the reflective surface, helps the light bend and travel around the tube so when it pops out of the open end at your lens, it has retained most if not all of its power. Nice ;)

So, empty Pringles Tube in hand, I cut off the bottom of the tube (the aluminum part/metal end) and removed the opaque top. Binned those two parts, though thinking back, the opaque end could have been my actual diffuser - so dont throw yours away, yet - it might be better than the plastic packaging I used that came with my Raynox. Its a opaque packaging material, you tend to get it protecting bits and bobs you get deliveries online. Am sure you have some, to reuse when you're peddling your wares on Ebay or another bidding/selling site.

On the tube, there is already a sort of stitching of the cardboard, it goes into a "V" shape. Cut along the V shape so you now have TWO tubes. One with a "V" inwards, and the other has a "V" pointing outwards. Get some electrical tape, sellotape isn't going to be up to the job and neither will brown packing tape. Electrical rubber-type tape. Perfect.

Tape up the two rolls so you have an almost "L" shape. Make sure the tape covers all leakages of light. One end is going to go over your flash gun head, the other will be pointing down, at an angle almost touching the very end of your lens.

While taping, preparing your new homemade DIY diffuser, it is best to have the tubes already on the flashgun so you know where to position your tubes before making them as sturdy as possible with the electrical tape.

Here's what the finished product looks like. I'll make another diffuser, taking photos as I go, but its really simple, shouldn't take you more than 15 minutes to make. Enjoy your crisps/chips :)


If you don't have packaging to use as a diffuser - I find toilet paper is very good at diffusing the light, nice and softly. White is best otherwise it will act like a flash-gel :)


I'd love to hear from you - let me know what you think about the blog. Have I missed anything - do you have any tips you could share (where they are useful, I will include them in the blog - and credit your name or website in my blog too).

Credit for my skills go to many users at Talk Photography, including Bryn, Les, Nick, GardenersHelper, Minnit, Sharky, Ian Clark and a dozen more users  - you know who you are :) These guys and girls are great photographers who helped me understand that Macro Photography is not like normal photography, its very refined, more detailed in a lot of ways and certainly requires a lot more physical skill than other types of photography and I've shot a lot of different subjects, from sports (pro boxing, world archery, wrestling, equestrian) to weddings, dogs,  family portraits, kids portraits, automotive and more. Macro photography is very addictive and I think it even helps with the other subjects I just highlighted in that detail becomes a high factor in what you photograph, as well as framing and composition.

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Take care and good bug hunting! :) Macro doesn't have to empty your pockets - you'll most likely already have a camera, a 50mm focal length on one of your lenses and probably a flash, if not the built-in pop-up flash that you have, so you just need an extension tube or a Raynox closeup filter - or even a reversing ring (to be detailed here in the near future when I have mastered it ).

Carl Harrison
Owner of CDHPIX.


Don't forget to check out my mini Macro Photography Image Video:





Cracking article there Carl, well written and informative nice one. Look forward to future blogs. TP member.
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