Many photographers have an interest in close-up photography but may find it hard to justify the cost of adding a dedicated macro lens to their existing interchangeable lens camera kit. They may decide to use extension tubes instead. The objective of this article is to demonstrate how extension tubes can be used with a range of different lenses to photograph the same type of subject matter. In this case, I used a combination of two extension tubes (10mm and 21mm) and five different lenses to capture close-up images of bees.
In order to provide readers with a good comparison of image quality and magnification effect, all of the images in this article are shown as 100% captures without any cropping. All were taken hand-held in available light on the same morning.
Depending on the preferences of individual photographers, extension tubes can be used with either zoom lenses or prime lenses. I happen to like the added flexibility of zoom lenses when using extension tubes and the first two sample images were captured using a 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 zoom lens. I enjoy using this lens because it is small, light and decently sharp. It also provides me with some flexibility in terms of the distance between my camera and subject matter.
Extension tubes do not contain any glass elements so they do not directly affect image quality, but there is a loss of light when using them. Since extension tubes shorten the minimum focusing distance of lenses used with them, they do provide a magnification effect. This can make imperfections in lens optical quality more apparent.
Images 3 and 4 in this collection were captured using a 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 zoom lens. This is one of my favourite lenses to use for general photography but is not one that I typically use with extension tubes for close-up photography as it trades off some sharpness for its wide focal length range. Doing some hands-on testing using extension tubes with your selection of lenses is always a good idea to help determine which ones best meet your specific needs from an image quality perspective. Like some other photographers, I much prefer to test my camera gear by photographing similar subject matter in real world conditions rather than using test charts.
When choosing lenses to use with extension tubes you’ll need to consider the camera to subject focusing distance of the individual lenses you may own. For example, the 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 zoom has a shorter minimum focusing distance than the 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6. When used with the same 21mm extension tube it causes me to come in closer than I would have to with the 30-110mm. When fully extended the minimum camera to subject focusing distance of the 10-100mm is about 7.5 inches (~19 cm) compared to about 16 inches (~40.6 cm) when using the 30-110mm fully extended. While having to move in closer to a subject may not an issue when photographing bees or static subjects like flowers, it could be an issue with more aggressive subjects like hornets or wasps.
Extension tubes can be used with long telephoto zoom lenses. This type of set-up tends to give photographers more latitude when photographing subjects that are a few feet away from them, for example bees or butterflies that are a few feet inside a bed of flowers rather than on the periphery.
Another consideration when selecting which lenses to use with extension tubes are the typical shooting angles and camera-to-subject distances that you use with various subject matter. Much like bird photography, I prefer to capture images of bees from angles that make at least one eye visible. This often means shooting parallel to subjects rather than from over top of them. Examining the position of the flowers and foliage near your subject helps to determine the best angle and distance from which to capture individual subject bees. This may necessitate switching out lenses and/or extension tubes to capture a specific image. To do this quickly it is helpful to be familiar with how various lenses in your collection perform with individual extension tubes, or combinations of extension tubes. When out specifically shooting close-up photography I typically pre-mount some of my lenses with extension tubes so I can quickly swap out the lens/extension tube assemblies. This enables me to respond rapidly to specific image opportunities.
The image above and the one that follows were both captured using a 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 prime lens along with a 10mm extension tube. I was unable to use a 21mm extension tube as it would have shortened the minimum focusing distance to a point where the camera simply could not obtain focus. You’ll need to do some experimentation with your collection of lenses to learn which extension tubes can be used with individual lenses you own. To capture the images above and below, the front of my 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 lens was about 3 inches (~7.6 cm) away from the bees, with my hands about 4.5 inches (~11.4 cm) away. I probably would not have used this lens if I had been photographing more aggressive hornets or wasps!
You’ll notice that bee images captured with the 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 prime and 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 are the sharpest in the collection displayed in this article. There are good reasons why some lenses cost more money than others regardless of the interchangeable lens camera system you may be using!
Another consideration in choosing lenses to use hand-held with extension tubes is whether the lens is equipped with VR or not. For example, the 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 is not equipped with VR. As a result I tend not to use it at the same slower shutter speeds at which I would not hesitate to use the 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6. Obviously this is not an issue if your camera has in-body image stabilization.
You may have done a little bit of a double take on the image above, thinking that you may have just seen it displayed in this article. If you scroll back and check the EXIF data you’ll see that this is a different image captured with the 1 Nikon 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD zoom, rather than the 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 prime lens.
As you toggle back and forth between the two photographs, the image quality differences between the two lenses will be readily apparent. But, there is also a significant difference in cost between the two lenses. The 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2 is priced at $1,000 in Canada, versus the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 which is the kit lens supplied with newer Nikon 1 bodies and priced at $330. Whether an individual photographer can justify this type of difference in cost is a personal decision. There’s a good chance many photographers will face similar lens cost/image quality trade-off decisions regardless of the interchangeable lens camera system they may own. As mentioned earlier in this article, using extension tubes creates a magnification effect which may make optical imperfections in lenses more apparent.
You will typically get better image quality when using a dedicated macro lens rather than going the extension tube route, as macro lenses have been specifically designed for close-up photography. One needs to consider whether making an investment in a dedicated macro lens makes sense or not. It comes down to the photographic priorities and available budget of an individual photographer.
It’s good to keep in mind that you can still have a lot of creative fun and get acceptable results with extension tubes! For a modest investment in extension tubes you can extend the shooting capability of your current interchangeable lens camera system. Depending on the lenses you have in your kit you may find that you are able to get good results with a number of different lenses when using extension tubes. For best results it is advisable to purchase good quality extension tubes that have solid lens and camera body mounts and are able to auto-focus with your specific camera gear. I use a set of Vello Deluxe extension tubes (10mm and 16mm) as well as a set of MOVO extension tubes (10mm, 16mm, 21mm) with my Nikon 1 gear.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light on the same morning, and are shown as 100% captures without any cropping. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
Article and all images are Copyright 2017 Thomas Stirr, all rights reserved. No use, adaptation or duplication of any kind are allowed without written consent. Photography Life is the only approved user of this article. If you see it reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Readers who call out websites that steal intellectual property by posting comments on offending websites are always appreciated!