The Secret to Awesome Macro Photography on a Budget

Blog by: gekong Updated:

The Joy of Taking Quality Macro Photos with $20 or Less (Granting you already have a basic DSLR and a cheap 50mm 1.8 lens or any prime lens.)

Back in 2010, a friend of mine, a fellow member of a car club that I used to be a member of (Mitsugbo), was playing around with macro photography. I was amazed at the macro shots of insects that he had taken. He showed me how he did his macro shots. Initially, I struggled with how to shoot macros  because there was a strange halo in the middle of my shots. Although I had the same exact type of lens and extension tube, we did not have the same camera. I am not sure if that was the reason why my shots were bad but after experimenting with lighting and some lens modifiers, I eventually got the image quality that I wanted.  Here are the things that I used:

  1. Prime Lens - preferably with a manual aperture ring. (I used a 50mm 1.8)
  2. Cheap Extension Tube (one you can buy for $10 or online-which is usually cheaper)
  3. Flash Modifier (basically a translucent plastic i.e., powdered milk can cover)

Okay, let's start with the lens.  I have used other lenses that have no manual aperture and even lenses with zooms. I don't recommend a non-manual aperture lens because even though you can use them, you will have a hard time adjusting the aperture while your shooting since the cheap extension tube decouples the lens from the cameras ability to control and meter the lens. The problem with a zoom lens is, it will add an extra variable when focusing because essentially, you will be focusing by adjusting the distance from you and the object that you are trying to shoot.

An extension tube is, if you are not familiar with it, is basically a  mechanism to mount your lens further away from your camera. It has 3 basic parts: 1) the part that attaches to your camera, 2) a series of metal tubes that you can screw on or off to adjust how far you need your lens to be away from your camera and 3) a part that you attach your lens to. Make sure that you assemble it tightly before using it as it would be unwieldy if you don't. Technically, the longer the tube, the closer you can zoom to the subject.

The flash modifier is a cheap way to "bend" the light from your built-in flash to your subject.  Without it, the built-in flash won't be able to hit your subject since shooting your subject really close to the lens will hide it from the built-in flash by its own shadow. You could easily buy flashes especially made to mount in front of your lens, but then this blog is about shooting macros on a budget.  Although there are some situations where you could get away with not using a flash deflector, like for instance, if there is a good amount of light hitting your subject. The reason you need a flash is mainly because moving your lens further away from the sensor, reduces the light that hits it.

Now that you have an idea of what these things do, you can now start experimenting with what you have. In my experience, it is a good idea to remember what settings work best for you since you will be shooting in manual mode. What I do is go as fast as my shutter can go with the built in flash on, which is 1/200 of a second and then adjust for the light using flash power setting and aperture opening. Since the tubes doesn't allow as much light in, you will end up with an artificial light setup.  This way you are in control of everything. Using a flash also eliminates problems with shaking when you are not using a tripod to stabilize your camera. I was stabilizing the camera with my hands only in all of my shots here.

Shooting macro is very rewarding!  Being able to see things this up close reveals a beauty that is not normally visible to us. Macro photography turns ordinary everyday objects into fascinatingly beautiful works of art! I always enjoy shooting macros.  In fact, I still use this same technique when I shoot wedding rings.

One last thing, there is another way to do macros on a budget.  Here is a link on how to do reverse ring macro.  I personally do not use this technique. I am not sure if it is better than using extension tubes but it seems like it works just as well.  I hope that this article will help you out with your photographic adventures. Now go out and shoot those macros!