What is an Extension Tube?

Our readers frequently ask us about extension tubes for macro photography. Since I am not much into macro myself, I have not explored this area of photography enough to qualify to write about it. While I have done some macro photography for product shots and ring shots in weddings with my Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR lens (a very sharp lens that I absolutely love), I have not explored its full capabilities and I have not tried to use extension tubes and bellows to do crazy things that you can achieve with a true macro setup. Meanwhile, our readers have been gracious enough to fill in, and I have recently received the below post from one of our readers, Usama Nasir, who talks about what extension tubes are and how they are used in macro photography.

Extension Tubes

If you find yourself frustrated by the minimum focusing distance of your lens, if you constantly find that you’re unable to frame the shot you want, because you can’t get close enough to focus, then you may want to consider using extension tubes.

How Extension Tubes Work

An extension tube is an attachment that goes between your camera body and your lens. It’s not an optical element, so there is no glass involved. All it does, is get the lens further away from the focal plane. Now, the practical upshot of this, is that your minimum focusing distance gets smaller. So, with an extension tube, you can get closer to your subject; you can fill the frame with more of it, and still achieve focus.

Image using Extension Tubes

For example, I have the Canon 24-105mm lens, which has a minimum focus distance of 1.48 feet (0.45 meters). The above shot is as close as I can get to this flower. Nice enough, but I like to get in closer, so I’m going to add one of the extension tubes (I have three of them and we’re going talk about their differences shortly). Extension tubes simply go on your camera body like a lens. So, I’m going to take my lens off, attach the shortest extension tube on the camera body, then attach my lens to the other end of the extension tube.

The reason I’m choosing the shortest one, is I don’t want to go in real far – I just want to get a little bit of boost in magnification. With this setup, I am not able to physically get closer to my subject and photograph at a greater magnification. Now, there is a trade-off to using extension tubes – they can eat up some of the light. I may have to increase my ISO or potentially decrease my f-stop (aperture) to get a little more light. And if I use a wider aperture, then I’m going to have less depth of field to work with. So, there is this trade-off of magnification versus depth of field. But what’s nice, is that I got in closer – something that I was not able to do before with the bare lens.

Sample Image with Extension Tube

The nice thing is that I don’t have to worry about cropping my image in post-production just to try to get closer to my subject – I get to use more of the pixels in my camera. You can use extension tubes with any type of lenses: primes or zooms, portraits, or even macro! Extension tubes are an inexpensive way to get the kind of short focusing distances that you get from a dedicated and much more expensive macro lens.

Extension Tube Sizes

Extension tubes come in different sizes. I have a set of three Kenko Extension Tubes (here is the Nikon version). I have one that is 12mm; a longer 20mm one; and the longest one is 36mm. I can also stack these together. As I stack them, they obviously get longer. And, as they get longer, I get more extension, which means more magnification power. Once I attach this setup on my camera, I’m going to be able to get all the way into the full macro range, which is going to open up all of the macro concerns and practices that I’m going to have to think about as I’m shooting that close.

The effectiveness of extension tubes decreases as focal length increases. In other words, you’re going to see more of a change sticking this stack onto a 50mm lens, than you will when you put it on a 300mm lens. You also need to be careful when working with extreme wide-angle lenses. If I put the 68mm stack of tubes on a 20mm lens, I won’t be able to focus at all, because my minimum focusing distance will be pulled back into the inside of the lens. So, one other very important thing to understand about extension tubes is that some of them have electrical contacts that allow your camera to communicate with your lens, and some don’t (the above linked versions do).

If you get tubes that don’t, then you won’t have autofocus capability or aperture control. Now, Canon and Nikon both make sets of active extension tubes with full electronic contacts. While they work great, they are obviously very expensive. Kenko extension tubes that I personally use are much cheaper than brand versions and you could even get cheaper ones from other third party brands like Vello. My extension tubes have the much-needed electronic contacts, giving me full autofocus capability, and yet they cost much less than the Canon tubes.

Extension tubes are a very affordable way to start getting into macro photography. What’s more is that they are small, lightweight, and easy to carry around. If you are worried about whether you should invest in extension tubes, or go ahead and invest in a true macro lens, bear in mind that sometimes you’ll need to get a macro lens closer to your subject, so you’ll continue to use extension tubes, even if you eventually buy a macro lens. In the meantime, they’re a great way to start experimenting with close magnifications using your regular lenses in your arsenal.

Other Means to Get Closer

Extension tubes are not the only way to get closer to your subject. You can also purchase close-up filters, dedicated macro bellows that have much more flexibility than extension tubes and can potentially be used to move your plane of focus like tilt/shift lenses do (can get quite expensive) and you can also utilize adapters to use normal lenses in reverse position (which basically converts normal lenses into macro lenses). There are also other types of cheap DYI solutions that can effectively achieve the same results as using extension tubes or bellows. I would encourage Photography Life readers to dig into this subject more, because there is so much to explore in the world of macro photography.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Monti
    July 24, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Extension tube is awesome thing for macro shoot.
    Also the magnification rings are awesome.
    But i find myself shooting macro very rare.
    And i can do it even with telephoto lens no problem.
    Check this picture I made with telephoto without any extension/magnification tools:
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=147467265450361&set=pb.124683377728750.-2207520000.1374705932.&type=3&theater

    • 10
      ) martin
      July 25, 2013 at 3:24 am

      Hello Monti
      I checked on the fb site. your shot is not sharp, maybe because you were too close for a tele lens

      • 12
        ) Monti
        July 25, 2013 at 5:57 am

        Well you see – i hear from comments on this page – people use tripod and manual focus and multiple focus combined for macro shots etc.

        My picture was made on telephoto zoom lens with VR on handheld “on the go” without any extension/magnification tools.

        So i wonder for a daily run and gun shoot do you really need anything of those?
        Is it not just okay to do what I did? Oh by the way i didnt focus long time.
        It was just autofocus that picture took me 2-3 seconds and then I go to shoot other events around.

        Ask for yourself… Is it worth for a hastle to use other tools and spend time?)

        • 13
          ) Monti
          July 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

          also i didnt do any sharpening or edits
          this is direct JPG straight from the camera

          obviously depth of field is narrow
          so u cant get in focus the flower and the sticks
          but this is because of apperture also not stopped down
          if i stopped apperture that would be in frame
          but i like to separate depth of field)

          • 15
            ) eric laquerre
            July 25, 2013 at 6:12 am

            That’s up to you , if you are asking yourself this question it isn’T but if you want a really good macro shot then yes it is worth it.

            • 16
              ) Monti
              July 25, 2013 at 6:16 am

              Let’s be straight.
              Extension tubes you need only for 1 reason.
              To be able to focus on macro subject such as flower but standing close enough so your focal length (mm of lens) can afford you a full frame coverage to get most of details out of the macro object (flower).

              So i did this mission without any extension tubes or macro rings)
              So I ask again – what’s the point of using them if without them its working?)

            • 17
              ) eric laquerre
              July 25, 2013 at 6:32 am

              Ok, if you don’t need it don’t use it but extension tubes will give you even more detail,magnification that was not possible if you are not using them. Try to take a picture of a fly with extension tube and without, with the tubes you will be able to do extreme close up that just a normal lense can’t do. Unless you have a macro lense, using a telephoto zoom won’t give you macro result, since it can’t reproduce a ratio of 1/1. Extension tubes will get you closer to this ratio. If you are satisfied with the picture you have taken, that’s all that matters but don’t think it is real macro pictures. can you get a pictures like that with your telephoto lenses??? http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v239/rick2906/830323_zps6050899a.jpg

            • 20
              ) Monti
              July 25, 2013 at 10:18 am

              Yeah well Eric
              I know that with microscope you can shoot microbs

              but whole point im saying is
              in real life situations
              in daily shoot out for event

              do you really that much need it?

              all im saying – it is pretty much versatile with 1 telephoto zoom you can shoot anything including macto

              and if you think it is not close enough
              (i posted the 100% crop center portion that same size as a fly you show magnification)

              then you really a scientist)

        • 23
          ) dissent
          July 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm

          If you’re satisified with your images, Monti, and don’t wish to spend longer times doing macro, then continue as you are and be satisfied with your efforts. I personally would not be satified with them, but that is just me.

          • 24
            ) Monti
            July 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm

            My images are perfect)
            Only i might use a better camera for high ISO (low noise) coz that was old good crop sensor Nikon d7000. if u put one of new full frame for same shot with same telephoto zoom – u get much cleaner image. and still no point for attachments) someone might go that way – no problem. but for me it looks like not real life photographing, some studio work probably with tripod and macro lenses and all those things… or if u use short primes then u need tubes and rings. but for telephoto zoom like mine – no need) one lens can do everything around. fast and easy. after if i want i edit raw file and get even better image. but im happy with this one coz i share it downsized anyways)

            other than that – u cant make it better in any ways even if u spend 1 day for 1 photo and all the tubes, macro rings and lenses)

            for those who shoot photography
            they understand what i mean

            i really dont understand why someone would like to shoot something smaller than what i did with simple telephoto and with no hastle on the go…

            • 26
              ) dissent
              July 25, 2013 at 7:01 pm

              “My images are perfect)”

              Well, then don’t let me stand in your way.

              “i really dont understand . . .”

              Exactly. I, and many photographers much better than I am, think otherwise. Good luck to you.

            • July 25, 2013 at 8:16 pm

              I am sorry, but that image on Facebook is far from being sharp or perfect. I think you should listen to other people’s advice here – they are only trying to help.

            • 28
              ) Monti
              July 26, 2013 at 9:53 am

              Oh well
              i cant keep explaining my point
              if you didnt get it, then forget it)

        • 32
          ) marcelito
          July 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm

          I would tell at your luminosity that his photo has a lot of artifacts. Perhaps it is the kind of art your luminosity tries to teach us.

      • 14
        ) Monti
        July 25, 2013 at 6:10 am

        Also what do you call “is not sharp?”)

        Check this out it is a 100% crop from center of the flower

        Is it sharp enough for conditions i mentioned?)

        I see no issues besideds 800 ISO grain)
        this can be smoothened with noise reduction
        but i didnt make ANY edit. straight from camera)
        https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=148657691997985&set=a.124686487728439.1073741828.124683377728750&type=1&relevant_count=1

      • 35
        ) Nostalgy
        August 10, 2013 at 8:03 am

        There is no such a thing as “Perfect image”. There is only a “Perfect moment”.

  2. 2
    ) eric laquerre
    July 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I just want to warn others, I usually like b&h home brand (vello) but not there extension tubes. They don’t hold my 200 nikon macro lense well. It rotates at the mount, so I have to hold it to not loose even more light!! I use a tripod and macro rail with a remote for the shutter, it get annoying really fast when you have to hold the extension tubes!

    • July 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      Eric, looks like the Kenko tubes are probably a better choice…

      I have used Kenko products in the past and they are pretty solid.

  3. 4
    ) eric laquerre
    July 24, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    yes it does, I usually don’t skimp on my equipment and thought, hey there’s no optic involve so how Can I go wrong??? I guess it is the first and last time I make that mistake.

  4. July 24, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Some normal lenses can get pretty close, specially if you crop a little : https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10200089486588585&set=a.1433650609918.2058776.1492519470&type=3&theater Taken with the Nikon V1 with the 10-30 zoom lens. I didn’t even notice the spider in the middle of the flower until I viewed the image on my computer.

  5. 6
    ) Damian
    July 24, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Why would you ever need to pay for tubes with electronic contacts to get autofocus? This is macro, you’re on a tripod with a VERY narrow depth of field. Obviously you’ll need to manual focus, or even move the camera to focus – which is why they make macro rail sliders. Then you may even do focus stacking and will need to shoot 10 focal points to combine in software.

    Damian a.k.a. DSLRnerd

    • 7
      ) David Thompson
      July 25, 2013 at 1:30 am

      You need tubes with an electrical connection if you have a lens with no aperture ring like a Nikon G type, otherwise you have no control of the aperture setting for your shot.

      • 18
        ) Damian
        July 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

        I’ve read you can trick the camera by opening up the aperture before removing the lens.

        So the Kenko tubes are $200. Has anyone tried the $50 Chinese versions from ebay? This one even has tripod mount threads on its rings:

        http://www.ebay.com/itm/261142983553?ssPageName=STRK:MEWAX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1438.l2649

        • 33
          ) David Mackintosh
          July 28, 2013 at 8:32 am

          The eBay ones don’t give any money to this site. ;^)

        • 34
          ) eric laquerre
          July 28, 2013 at 8:37 am

          I bought some cheaper ones and wasn’t satisfied with the result! It rotates at the lens mount-loss of light! If it was to be done again, I would go with the kenko

      • 19
        ) Damian
        July 25, 2013 at 7:35 am

        What I’ve read: “You can put the lens on, set the f/ you want and then hold the dof preview button as you’re removing the lens and it will retain the setting.”

  6. 8
    ) Serge
    July 25, 2013 at 2:11 am

    Thanks a lot for your article. I am wondering whether the extension tubes would give even better magnification effect with nikkor 105mm micro. Have you had a chance to test this combination? Cheers!

    • 9
      ) eric laquerre
      July 25, 2013 at 2:32 am

      Off course it will, I use it with my nikon 200 macro lense. It is one of many ways to get better then 1/1 reproduction. You could use a tc with your macro to either increase working distance or to get a better reproduction ratio. You could also use a reverse lense.

      • 22
        ) Serge
        July 25, 2013 at 2:17 pm

        Thanks heaps, Eric! Much appreciated!

    • 25
      ) Usama
      July 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      It does indeed. Extension tubes are functional with most of the lenses out there and frankly they’ve been very useful for me as well.
      Even if you can’t afford an extension tube at the moment, you can always try the lens reversal macro photography. Although it’s difficult but I’m preparing a detailed article on that. So hopefully that would help.
      Thanks for liking the article. Cheers!

  7. 11
    ) AM
    July 25, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Has anybody used this macro zoomer?
    http://www.adorama.com/MCHETNK.html
    Thanks!

  8. 21
    ) Paul
    July 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I added 50mm prime lens in front of 85mm prime, 70-300mm zoom and 400m prime via male-male adapters to set up home-made macro lenses. 50mm/400mm combo didn’t work for reasons I don’t understand. I got very sharp images via 50mm/85mm and 50m/70-300mmcombos at working distances less than an inch! My object insects used to fly away when lenses approached too close. I want to achieve longer, 2-3 ft, working distances. Any buddy ever tried 77mm diameter macro dual lens kits onto 400mm? Any tips are welcome.

    • 29
      ) dissent
      July 26, 2013 at 10:15 am

      I thought I already commented here, but it may have been set aside for review because of the link included, so I’ll try again.

      Paul, I recommend you have a look at the Frequently Asked Questions link over at http://www.photomacrography.net/forum/
      Also do a search there on terms like “Lens combo”, “lens combination” or “stacked lenses”. There are a number of threads there that discuss this. My general recollection is that lens combos can be a real mixed bag in terms of success for macro.

  9. 30
    ) Nestor
    July 27, 2013 at 10:17 am

    As long as I know Nikon do not make extension ring for new lenses, the old series PK and PN were without contacts.

    If they make new ones I would like to have info.

    • 36
      ) MarkP
      August 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      Nestor is correct. Nikon has not made any extension tubes since the PK11 (a), 12 and 13. They were meter coupled only for AI type lenses, and did not have electrical contacts for auto focus or auto exposure. They work perfectly well with all pre G lenses including AF type lenses (although no AF possible) and will couple with the AI exposure system on the upper end digital bodies which have the AI coupling ring in them.

  10. July 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Hey Nasim and Guest Poster,

    This looks like a very good alternative to a real macro lens.
    One question, though:
    Will this setup actually get my 50mm f1.8 or 24-70 f2.8 into macro range (1:1 or better)?

    Thanks in advance for your feedback.

    Chris

  11. 37
    ) Tomas Manrique
    September 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Hey everyone!!
    I wanna tell my personal experience with extension tubes. Have a Nikon D5100 and a 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR. I recently bought the extension tube set from Vello (Nasim tell us about it in the article). They work just as expected. I have AF, metering, aperture control and VR.
    When I first mount them….it didn’t fit right and the camera pop-up a message saying that no lens where mounted. After some time…I realized that my extension tubes where not in place. I had to make some force to make them fit correctly on the F-mount….not big deal.
    Now they work flawlessly. At 57mm with 68mm tubes stacked I have 1:1 magnification on the 55-200mm (subject 15.6mm tall….nikon DX sensor height). At 70mm magnification is a little bit less…but gives you more room to work….and the results looks quite awesome.

    This article convinced me to buy the tubes….i’m glad to have them!

    Tomas

  12. 38
    ) james
    September 30, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    A rough guide to magnification ratio is that if the extension length = the focal length of the lens, you get 1 : 1. Genuine macro is seldom used, except for technical work, because of the very narrow depth of field.
    Longer lenses allow a better working distance from the subject, but run a greater risk of camera shake and the extra extension costs more light. By the time the lens is stopped down to its sweet spot, (usually 3 stops) the EV is so low that the shutter speed is too short or the ISO is too high.
    The ‘old school’ solution is flash. Which gives a sharp image and allows for a smaller aperture. I use 3. A main, a fill and a background light to avoid the ‘shot at night look’ of many close up shots.
    Macro/CU, opens up many interesting worlds, wildlife, engineering, food, still life, etc. It is also one of the areas in which ingenuity can substitute for mountains of money.

    • 40
      ) james
      October 1, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Oops, I was thinking about a piece on reciprocity failure, I should have written that the shutter speed is too long. Sorry for any confusion.

  13. 39
    ) neversink
    October 1, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Great article. I have been using extension tubes since my father taught me photography as a boy. He gave me an Exacta vxiia slr from the early 1950s with three Zeiss lenses, a set of extension tubes including a set of close-up magnifying filters. I certainly learned a lot using these as the Exacta had no built in meter, so I had to learn to compensate for the falloff in available light. I used my old Weston meter with a light cell and then did the calculations for the correct exposure depending upon the length of the extension tubes, or combination of tubes. I only used the 50mm f/2 Zeiss lens with the tubes as that was my sharpest lens.
    I suggest people who have an interest in macro photography experiment with these, if you have an inclination to go beyond the limits of your macro set up. I don’t use them that much anymore , but this article has inspired me to do so.
    Thanks again.

  14. 41
    ) nagi
    December 31, 2013 at 12:28 am

    Hi everyone,

    Since i bought my DSLR i am very much fascinated to macro photography. But my budget doesn’t permit
    me yet to buy a good macro lens. Can i use extension tube on my kit lens AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR??

  15. 42
    ) Perci
    April 23, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Yes, macro bellows have an essential role in macro photography. Bellows are used from earlier cameras to modern cameras. It is becoming various dimensions depend on the technology.

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