To some extent all of us are creatures of habit, doing things the same way that we’ve always done them. How we use our camera gear is not immune from our habitual behaviour. My favourite lens to use with extension tubes is the 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 and I often only bring this lens with me when planning some close-up photography. During recent visits to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington Ontario to photograph frogs, I was reminded that considering the minimum focusing distances of our lenses is important when using extension tubes.
Photographing frogs in glass display cases served as a great reminder that we often do not have as much flexibility as we may want in terms of our physical distance to our subjects when doing close-up photography. This often means that we need to switch out, or stack, extension tubes to achieve the correct focusing distance and magnification effect we need.
While using longer length extension tubes or stacking them are viable options, these decisions do come with a cost. We lose more light with every increase in extension tube length which in turn affects our exposure. This can result in the use of higher ISOs and/or slower shutter speeds, both of which can impact image quality especially when shooting hand-held. Increasing the magnification effect of our lenses with extension tubes also can make the optical imperfections of our lenses more apparent.
I visited the frog display at the Royal Botanical Gardens twice during the past week. The first time I only took a couple of sets of extension tubes and my 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 with me. While this combination of gear gave me quite a bit of flexibility, I did take note of a number of specific situations when it was not the optimal choice. Typically these were situations where a subject frog was right up against the display glass, or conversely was a bit further back in the display. Under both of these scenarios I was not able to capture images exactly as I wanted.
On my second visit I took the same extension tubes, but also added the 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 and 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lenses to my kit which included the 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6. Each of these three zoom lenses performs quite differently in terms of their minimum focusing distances. For example, the 10-100mm f/4-5.6 has a quite short minimum focusing distance making it ideal to capture subjects that were very close to the glass on the display cases.
By mixing and matching extension tubes to different zoom lenses based on their minimum focusing distance and my camera-to-subject distance, I was able to more effectively use my gear in terms of reducing the number of extension tubes needed, maintaining reasonable shutter speeds and ISO levels, as well as achieve my desired magnification effect.
Regardless of the camera gear we may own, remembering to consider the minimum focusing distances of our lenses when using extension tubes can help us get better performance from our equipment.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light and are displayed as 100% captures without any cropping. All images were produced using my standard process of DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
Article and images are Copyright 2018 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use duplication or reproduction of any kind is allowed without written permission. Photography Life is the only approved user of this article. If you see it reproduced anywhere else it is an illegal and unauthorized use.
New new member here. Joined a few moments ago. A very informative and helpful article.
My daughter lives in Hamilton and we are frequent visitors to the RBG. A photographers paradise.
I can foresee my next visit will include my extension tubes and a visit to the frogs.
Welcome on-board here at Photography Life! The frog exhibit will be at the RBG until April 15th.
Thank you very much for the details of your shooting technique. Clearly, as in most endeavors, practice is the key and i confess i rarely practice but your encouragement is very helpful and i will practice, especially when i’m know i’m going to do hand-held macros shooting.
Always a pleasure to help a reader!
Thank you for providing helpful “know your gear exercises”. I enjoy using my V2 and find your articles both helpful and inspiring., I like closeup/macro shooting so guess I’d better get the tubes out and begin practicing.
Thanks Vickie – I’m glad the article was beneficial!
Thank you for your article about using extension tubes. I’m a big fan of using them but find that the DOF is so shallow, that hand holding, and getting a sharp image, in rather difficult. Are you using live view? You mentioned that these are hand-held shots – do you brace against anything? Is it all natural light? My efforts at hand-holding close shot images hasn’t faired very well and i’m looking for tips to improve the sharpness of my images: any suggestions?
All of the images in this article were shot with a Nikon 1 J5 which does not have a viewfinder, so the rear screen was used for composing images. The photographs were shot hand-held in available light. I would have had the end of my lens pressed up against the glass of the display enclosures to minimize the potential impacts of glare, and to help stabilize the lens. VR (set to Normal) was used for all of the images.
When using extension tubes I typically try to plant my elbows on a solid surface if I can, to minimize camera shake. With regards to the images in this article, I did not have the ‘elbow plant’ option so in some cases I pressed my should up against the display case, or shot from a kneeling position, some images necessitated me shooting from a standing position.
I find that frequent, ongoing practice shooting my camera gear (without extension tubes) at quite slow shutter speeds really helps when it comes time to use extension tube hand-held. For example, I regularly practice shooting my 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm fully extended (efov 810mm) at shutter speeds between 1/15 to 1/30. Obviously I don’t get 100% keepers at these slow shutter speeds hand-held but I like to push myself during practice sessions. Similarly I practice with the 1 Nikon 30-110mm, usually using shutter speeds of 1/10 to 1/15 when the lens is fully extended (efov 297mm).
It really comes down to practice, practice and more practice. All of the images in this article were shot using a single tube (most often 16mm), at shutter speeds of 1/50th or faster, with an aperture setting of f/5.6 or f/8. Experience has taught me this is within my current physical capabilities. We all need to discover what these are on an individual basis, then operate within them.
I forgot to mention that I always use single point auto-focus and typically place it on the eye of the subject.
Great pictures Thomas. Thanks for the insight. You don’t say anything about the extension tubes you used. Can you give us a bit more information about the gear, the options you have to choose from, and perhaps a suggestion of a good basic extension tube to experiment with?
I have two sets of extension tubes for my Nikon 1 gear. The first is a two tube Vello Deluxe set (10mm and 16mm) which feature metal mounts. I also have a three tube MOVO set (10mm, 16mm, 21mm) which appear to have plastic mounts with a metal coating. I use these interchangeably. The Vello Deluxe tubes may prove to be a bit more robust in the longer term.
I have also used a set of standard Vello tubes in the past but I would not recommend these since they have plastic mounts without any metal coating and are prone to cracking.
Since I don’t have any experience with extension tubes for other camera mounts I’m not able to make any specific recommendations in that regard. I suggest looking for tubes that have metal mounts if possible, and that have good reviews for auto-focusing capability and durability.
In terms of how I approach my photography using extension tubes, I typically use the 1 Nikon 30-110mm lens since it gives me a nice balance of size/weight and minimum focusing distance – like Goldylocks…not too short and not too long. The 1 Nikon 10-100mm has quite a short minimum focusing distance and I typically only use this lens when I need to get up very close to a subject. From time to time I also use the 1 Nikon 70-300mm, usually for subjects that are a bit further away but inside that lens’s minimum focusing distance. For shallow depth-of-field and a ‘creamy’ look I use a 10mm tube with the 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2, typically for flower photography. I mix and match extension tube length with various lenses with the intent of using as few tubes as possible to lose the least amount of light.
I tried to compute these values for my lenses and extension tubes, but sadly, the simple formulas for simple lenses do not work well for modern camera lenses, very few of which even come close to being regarded as simple “thin lenses”, or even behave the same in front and behind.* I found the best solution is to do some boring but necessary exercises in a controlled environment, seeing exactly how the lenses and tubes perform in various combinations, so that I am armed with the data, saved into a text note on my tablet or smartphone, when I am out trying to get some interesting photos.
*My Canon 100mm macro is an example: its published and marked closest focus distance at 1:1 magnification is 300mm, which using the standard lens and distance formula means its focal length is 75mm, not 100mm. Zoom lenses become even worse to try to apply this formula to.
I’ve also done the same kind of “boring but necessary exercises” to learn how various combinations of camera gear perform in the real world. I use zoom lenses almost 100% of the time with extension tubes so trying to apply a formula, as you point out, is even more difficult. I think this comes down to each of us getting to “know our gear” and how it performs under a range of different situations.
I have observed that the minimum focus distances for most longer lenses, measured as distance from sensor plane to subject, remain (nearly) the same when using extension tubes, but working distance decreases. This is not true for wider lenses, or zooms at their wide end. In fact, at their wide ends, many zooms are unusable with extension tubes – the image seems to form too far in front of the sensor until one zooms in a bit. As mentioned, one must experiment with one’s gear to see what works and what doesn’t.
I typically use a two-stage focusing process when using extension tubes. Stage one is adjusting the focal length of my zoom lens to acquire approximate focus, then I use the camera’s auto-focusing system to finalize subject focus.
A nice little write up and amazing photographs … as usual. I always wait in anticipation for your next set of photographs with the Nikon 1 gears. It is practice and practice and shooting more which will make us better photographers.
I can no longer use NIK softwares anymore as it is always crashing. Hope DxO Optics comes up soon with a compatible ones to use with Photoshop …
Thank you Thomas for the wonderful post.
Thanks for the supportive comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
I haven’t been quite as active with articles the past number of months as I’ve been dedicating most of my free time to completing a number of photography eBook projects that I’ve been working on during the past year. I’ve recently published four eBooks, these have included a book on the Nikon 1 system (The Little Camera That Could, tomstirrphotography.com/nikon-1-ebook ), and three travel photography eBooks. I’m currently working on finishing up an eBook on New Zealand. I’m hoping to be more active with articles later in the spring.