Exploring Macro Photography: Dedicated Macro Lens or Extension Tubes

At a recent workshop I was exposed to some macro photo techniques that has prompted me to dip my toes into the macro world as a compliment to landscape photography. I am looking for input on which is the better route to go: extension tubes or purchasing (used) a dedicated macro lens.

In favor of the extension tubes is their attractive cost along with the fact that I can easily carry them in my pack and always have them with me. I assume that they will work fine with my Sony 24-105 F4?

In favor of the dedicated macro lens (Sony FE 90 F.8) is its ease of use and likely (?) better image quality. I am probably fine with the cost of a used macro lens but question how frequently I will carry it along with my 16-35, 24-105 and my 100-400.

Any thoughts or suggestions on how to explore the world of macro photography from an equipment perspective?

Hi Pat, I am sure you’ll get a lot of great opinions here. The answer may depend on the type of macro work you’re interested in doing.

For me, I have had both. A macro lens is more versatile, because you can focus close as well as out to infinity. So it can double as a semi longish landscape lens. Extension tubes on the other hand change the optics of the lens, by setting it further from the sensor. The result is that you can focus more closely, but you lose the ability to focus out to infinity. And depending on how much extension you use, your area of focus can be quite small.

The tubes should work with the 24-105 (better at the 105 end). But they would really work nicely on the 100-400. You can use the zoom in addition to the focus to change your focus point and in some cases the size of your closeup subject.

My current kit is a Fujifilm medium format one and I used to have the Fuji 120mm macro. I eventually sold it and now use a 250mm lens with two extension tubes for my macro work. I should say that my macro work is pretty much flowers (Iris, Dahlias, Tulips) so I don’t need a lot of versatility.

Anyway, one person’s opinion. Best of luck in whichever direction you end up going.

Well I think it comes down to a couple of things - do you want to do real macro or just close ups? Some wide-angle/short telephoto lenses can focus remarkably close and will do for some subjects. If you want to get 1:1, you’ll be best served with a true macro lens. I have used extension tubes with macro lenses to get even closer. It’s fascinating and addicting. Another consideration is how much macro photography do you see yourself doing? If you’re not sure, extension tubes might be the way to go provided they give you full connectivity with your camera so you can do nifty things like focus bracketing (if your camera does it) for focus stacking.

How about renting the lens you want to buy? That might help you with how big/heavy it is and whether you want to lug it around.

Another idea is to use your long telephoto as a macro. I’ve done that (if you search tiger beetle here on NPN, you’ll find an example). Yes you will need to have some distance, but it can work really well for close up work.

Anyway…whatever you choose, have fun with it.

David and Kristen thanks for your very valuable feedback. As to the type I see myself initially interested in flowers/plant life and abstracts especially water related abstracts. I am probably not interested in insects at this point.

Then I think working with what you have and maybe adding a tube or two will give you a lot of what you want. I shoot flower and mushroom close ups with three lenses - my 12-35mm f/2.8, my 35-100mm f/2.8 and my 45mm f/2.8. I am a micro four thirds shooter so bear that in mind for the focal lengths. The last lens is my macro, but the other two are nice for including leaves and other environmental elements into the shot. I spend a lot of time with my camera on the ground, or nearly so. A tripod that goes flat is nice, and if that’s not low enough, I have a ziplock bag with some packages of barley inside it. I’ve used that for years and years and it’s great.

Pat, I’m coming in late it seems. It sounds like you have received some excellent advice already, and not sure I really have any to add. I particularly like shooting tiny insects, so for me a macro lens was a necessity. I do use the tubes on occasion as well. They sound like for what you plan to shoot, a pretty good and relatively cheap way to go. I haven’t used the Sony, so can’t address your questions about the lens for it.

Wishing you the best in your search for the right equipment. Looking forward to your macro photos with whatever you obtain (lens or tubes).

Hi Pat - I’ve been considering getting a macro lens to go with my a7r3. I have Sony’s 30mm macro lens and it works fine and is really nice and light. The downsides are (1) that it’s for their crop sensor bodies so I lose some file size and (2) you have to get really close to your subject which doesn’t work for critters (they get scared off) and lighting (when you’re so close the natural light is blocked, and I don’t have accessory lighting).

I just rented the 90 2.8 that you mentioned and I’ll post a report when I’ve had a chance to use it.

Hi Bonnie

Thanks for your input…its my understanding that the Sony 90mm is pretty much the standard from which the others are compared. Thus I will appreciate learning of your experiences. That being said, I did do a quick image comparison, not macro, between the 90mm and my 24-105 in the store and while the 90mm is sharper, I didn’t see all that much difference between the two lenses…which is pretty amazing considering I was comparing a prime to a zoom.

Let me know what you find…thanks

Pat

Not to make this even more confusing, but you could also consider a close-up filter if you want a bit more flexibility with the setup you have. Close up filters work the best with telephoto lenses and you can get quite the magnification with the 100-400, whereas the extension tubes will work better with the 24-105, but give you less magnification.

Just to give you an idea, I was just experimenting on our bees. This is at 500mm with the NiSi close up filter, nothing exciting but it shows how close you can get.

Here’s a great article that explains the differences:

https://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/macro-extension-tubes-closeup.htm

This is what I have:

The only downfall is they’re a bit heavy compared to most extension tubes, so when I want to go lightweight I’ll just bring the 70-200 with Vello extension tubes which are very light. The Fotodiox tubes are very nice, but incredibly heavy.

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Hi David…belated thanks for providing this very helpful information. I opted to go with a set of extension tubes just to get my feet wet. However I did find the information on the close-up lens very interesting. A close-up lens wasn’t even on my radar…so thanks.

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