Stacked image shot with Canon 5D MK II f/8


3 Days to Better Live Bug Photos

Hand Held Focus Stacking

Macro Obstacles Macro Flash Brackets Exposure Basics Shutter Speed
Magnification Hardware Basics

Depth of Field

Macro Flash Processing Useful Links Contact Me

What you need:

Your requirements for hardware are really dependant upon if you are shooting live bugs outdoors or you plan on an elaborate staged setup. If you plan on indoor staged shots (depending upon the kind) it would be nice to have a tripod and focusing rails or better yet a really good tripod head mounted to a couple of 25lb weights. I know that sounds silly but once you start shooting indoors you are going to need more and more stability as you increase the magnification. (I'm talking 10 X here or microscope level) . One thing to keep in mind with a tripod for this kind of work, the heaver stronger tripod is well worth the extra money.

Many of the lens options below require focusing to be done manually with a minuscule depth of field and to top it off by moving the camera itself not just using the focusing ring. As a general rule if you are using a lens backwards, or add a bellows or extension tubes you will be focusing by moving the camera. All of the macro lens options will provide excellent results.  For one workshop I tested each option by shooting wasps in a nest. Each of the shots provided outstanding detail. I mention this as too many people get hung up on equipment. They think if I purchase this or this I will be a better photographer, the fact is, it doesn't work that way, at least with macro it doesn't. More expensive equipment just makes it easer to get a good shot. With whatever option you choose, before you try to shoot a photo of an insect pick something that has fine texture and a highly reflective part like a pencil eraser (you will find most bugs have texture in their eyes and some have very reflective bodies.  Photograph it using a tripod, at different ISO settings and apertures to find what produces what. Once you see how sharp you can get in a controlled environment then you need to match it in the field.


This site is based upon using a DSLR camera where you can change the lens, you can also take some pretty good macro shots with some of the newer smaller Point and Shoot cameras that have a wide angle lens and a macro mode. This site is not geared to that.

The brand of camera really does not matter. However the more pixels the better as on many shots you will be cropping the image. Once cropped you will still want a sharp photo so pixel count is important. I recently saw a YouTube video that tried to make you believe that you didn't need a camera with a lot of pixels. To demonstrate the point they had three photos hung up, they didn't say the size but I think they were 8 X10s. One was shot with a 5 megapixel camera and I think the highest was 10 megapixels. They asked people walking down the street which was best and the point made was you really could not tell.

However, if they were blown up to 20 X 30 or more there is no question you would be able to tell them apart. Shooting bugs outdoors with detail you cannot see with the naked eye means you will be enlarging everything and when you start cropping you still want to have a good image. The more pixels to begin with means the more you can crop out and still have a good image. This does not mean you have to have a 15 megapixel camera, but you have more options the higher the pixel count is once you start cropping.

That being said, there is sort of a catch to it which is Pixel Density. To understand this take a look at a Canon 5D MK II which is 21 megapixels and a Canon 60D which is a 18 megapixels crop sensor camera and calculate how many pixels for the same area (21/1.6 - crop sensor size) = 13.1 then look at the percentage 13.1/18 = 73, so how come a camera with 27% fewer pixels gets better images? Simple, pixel density.  So what you really want is a balance of high pixels with a great sensor.  This is an area that is way beyond this site.  So, a suggestion, go to Flickr and see what others used. What you will find is many incredible shots were made with what is now considered outdated equipment.


A true macro lens is supposed to have at least 1:1 magnification (although many manufactures don't adhere to that and offer a 50mm macro lens that is 1:2 and most zoom lenses offer a macro mode which is really just a close up mode).  Magnification of 1:1 means that the image is the same size on the sensor as it is in real life. Magnification of 1:2 means it is half size on the sensor and 5:1 means it would be 5 times the size on the sensor.

You don't necessarily need a dedicated macro lens to get to 1:1 magnification or above. There are numerous options such as close up filters, extension tubes, bellows, reverse mounting of a lens and the combination of a zoom lens with a reverse mounted lens and all kinds of combinations of the above.

Below is a brief introduction to each of the most commonly used options. There are numerous websites dedicated to each. Without question the best option is a dedicated macro lens as they were specifically designed for this. But exceptional results can be had for a fraction of the price with some inconveniences, for instance for less than ten dollars you can get what you need to get a good true macro shot. I started this journey with a dedicated macro and my results were not as good as I wanted. (they actually sucked) I read about what others were using and gave there methods a try only to realize my poor results were caused by my inability to properly use what I had.  I trained someone who went through the same thing.  He wanted to shoot photos of bugs and someone said they would help him. They told him what to buy and he purchased a full frame Nikon and a 100mm Macro Lens. The person moved and he was never able to figure out how to get really good shots.

What you will find with different lens options is your distance to the subject is going to be different, you should look at this before making your lens decision. This is referred to as the working distance, which is the distance from the front of the lens to the subject. For the most part with a 50mm macro you will be around 3-4 inches, a 100 mm will give you around 8-9 inches and a 180mm about 12 inches. These are just approximations you need to check the actual lens before you purchase one.

The downside with many of the methods listed below is that you will need to learn to manually set your camera. Remember "M is for Maximum Quality Photo". Even with a dedicated macro you will end up using manual settings on many occasions. Years ago with film it would be price prohibited to learn to set your camera manually with some of these options (you would learn theory and do pages of calculations before trying them). With today's DSLR's, it is as simple as pressing the button, review the results, make an adjustment and try again. The big positive about this trial and error method is that by default you will learn a great deal about exposure. Actually you will learn more about exposure than you can possibly imagine.

You will also find that it is hard to see the results in the camera's preview window on a sunny day (you may have noticed that already). You will also find it is easier to see the histogram than the image. Once you realize this you will become more familiar with viewing and reading histograms. To understand them I found this page at the Luminous Landscape to be very helpful. If you are completely unfamiliar with histograms, in a nutshell a histogram just shows shows light as a curve on your display. By looking at it you can easily see if something may be over or under exposed. When shooting with flash don't try to expose all the way to the right or you may lose some detail as the photons bounce and the pixel may not be read as well. More on that later.

Option 1 - a Zoom with a Macro Function

Zoom lenses with a macro function really don't really get you close enough with enough clarity for a really great bug shot. (Keep in mind they are not true macro shots). That being said if you are after butterflies, flowers, large spiders etc which can be a few inches in size instead of portions of an inch they can work out well. They are super simple to use as most will work with all automatic functions. The only real negatives about this option are how much magnification you can get and the sharpness of the image. The positive is you may have this option already on the lens that came with your camera so the cost could be zero.

Option 2 - Close Up Filters

Close Up Filters are pieces of glass that screw on the end of your lens like a UV filter. The difference is that they magnify the image; however, they can also degrade the image as it is another layer of glass the light has to pass through. They come in various sizes for different diameteMacro Close up Filtersr lenses and in different powers of magnification. Usually they are purchased in sets containing 1+, 2+, 4+ and 10 power. How much you are going to get out of them is based upon what lens you put them on. The advantage is that all the automatic functions still work on your camera. But the negatives are you need a different size for different lenses, the quality of the image can degrade and magnification is related to the lens you put them on. All that being said they come in two varieties, one is an inexpensive single element (20 or so dollars) and the other contains usually 2 elements and can be 4-5 times as much. 

Online you will read that they are all terrible as you have the extra piece of glass etc. The truth is that the two element one from Canon is excellent. Hands down excellent, I have one and on my 100mm Macro it does not degrade the center of the image. Well when viewed at 100 percent on my monitor you will not notice any. The sides maybe off a little but not much and you end up cropping most of the time (with a crop sensor tlink to macro close up examplehere would not be as much). I have seen examples taken with a Raynox Macro Converter Lens that are excellent as well. I have read that Nikon used to make multiple element ones and that theirs were also excellent. This shot was done with a 100mm Canon Macro lens with a Canon 250D Close up filter. The way I look at it is I can see the fine hairs on his face with good detail and they cannot be seen with the human eye. (click on photo to enlarge)

One thing very nice about them is that they don't loose as much light as some of the other options, so you still maybe able to use autofocus. A downside is that you cannot use use your camera for a regular shot like you can a macro lens. What happens is it is just like a magnifying glass where you have a limited range of focus. And even on a Macro lens if you are shooting a bee and a butterfly shows up two feet away you will not be able to photograph the butterfly without removing the filter. Also with close up filters, focus as close as possible and move in. If your distance is not close enough you could actually loose magnification using one, see the Magnification Page for more on that.

Option 3 - Extension Tubes

Macro Extension Tubes

Extension Tubes look like a lens but they have no glass in them and the are placed between the camera and lens. Because there is no glass in them they are inexpensive to manufacture and naturally purchase. Plus since no glass is used the quality of your original lens is not degraded. Well at least that is the claim, no glass to go through - no loss in quality, however the light is sort of bent a little different and there is a small amount of image quality loss. This is a fact like it or not. Is it an unacceptable amount, no it is hardly noticeable but the fact is it does degrade the image. Can you notice it, no, but if you were to test it a lab you would.

They are usually sold in a set of three but can be purchased individually as well. Sets range in price from around ten dollars to hundreds of dollars. When purchased in a set you will usually get three of them in different lengths. Common sets include something close to 31, 21, and 13mm lengths. The more of them you use the higher the magnification.  With them to adjust your magnification you increase or decrease the number used.

The big difference in price is based on the manufacturer's brand name, is it metal or plastic, and does it have connections for automatic operation of the lens. You will get just as good a photo with a ten dollar set as you will a three hundred and fifty dollar set as "air is air". There are even websites that will show you how to make a set with PVC pipe and lens caps. I really don't know why someone would want to make their own plastic set when you can buy one for a couple of dollars more, but to each his own.

Extension tubes work by changing the distance of the lens to the sensor so naturally there is a formula for it that relates to magnification. In a nut shell the formula works like this, the wider the lens (shorter the focal length) the more effect they will have on the magnification. For instance if you use them with a 50mm macro lens that has 1:2 magnification (half size on the sensor) and you place enough in between to get 1:1 magnification you have doubled the magnification. The same number of extension tubes placed in between a 1:1 100mm lens would not double your magnification to 2:1 as the focal length was larger to begin with. There are excellent websites dedicated to understanding this and one of the best is this page at Cambridge Color. It is worth the read. But remember this with extension tubes, focus as close as you can and move in. There is a actually a range (small but it is there) where you can have things in focus based upon what the lens is set at and the distance. If it is not focused as close as possible you may actually lose magnification (depending upon the lens - see the Magnification Page).

Although some manufacturers claim the automatic functions work with their extension tubes it is sort of misleading as for the most part autofocus does not as it needs f/5.6 or better on most cameras. I opted for a set with metal rings and electrical connectors and do not regret it even though the autofocus is out I can still control my aperture.  You can also use them to reduce the focusing distance of other lenses which is sort of nice if you have a zoom where you have to be a few feet away from your subject (when used like this you also lose infinity focus)

What happens is when an extension tube is used a smaller amount of light makes it through (a lot less). So you will need an exceptionally fast lens for autofocus to work or use a very small extension. This loss of light. is one of the biggest draw backs to using extension tubes.  Keep in mind less light, means larger lens opening or/and longer shutter speeds each of which are a major issue in shooting bugs outdoors.  But once again since they have no glass they are almost as good as the lens they are used with. Ideally you want to use a prime lens with extension tubes. Someone asked me what a prime lens so I guess everyone does not know. It is just another way to say fixed focal length lens, or not a zoom lens. Prime lenses are always sharper than a zoom lens. Example of macro shot with enlarger lens on tubes

Now for a cheap tip: since you will be shooting manually you don't necessarily need a lens designed specifically for your brand of camera. This means you can use an old inexpensive high quality prime lens with an adapter. So when  you see an old camera at a garage sale look to see if it has a prime lens (fixed focal length). If it does and it is cheap purchase it, throw away the body and use the lens on extension tubes. It is not uncommon to find a camera with a great prime lens like this for $10-$20, add a set of extension tubes and adapter for another $10 (you will not need automatic ones) and you have an excellent tool for macro photography. Plus for about 10 dollars more you can reverse the lens on your current lens giving you another option. More about reversing lenses below.

Another thing you can do is use extension tubes with enlarger lenses. The shot on the right was done with a 50m Nikkor Enlarger Lens on 77mm of tubes. It is not uncommon for Nikon users to use this lens as it is, or reversed on a bellows. It is known to be an exceptionally sharp flat field lens.  There are two versions of this lens and the most desirable is the newer plastic one and they sell for about $60 and in my opinion it is as sharp as my $1050 Canon MPE-65. Click on the photo above to check it out.

The negatives with extension tubes are that focusing is done by moving the camera, if you want to step down the aperture you may need to do it manually, you have a loss of light (a big loss) and a very short working distance.

Option 3 - Bellows

Macro Bellows setup

Bellows work just like extension tubes only they are adjustable. Actually they work exactly the same way; they change the distance of the lens to the sensor. However, unlike extension tubes since they are completely adjustable, so you can have more choices of magnification, plus when you want to change magnification you don't remove the lens and insert another extension you just turn a dial and it expands or contracts the distance.

A Bellows is really better suited for indoor shooting with a tripod as although it is adjustable the design may have the rails sticking out at either end, making it difficult for a hand held shot. On a tripod you should plan on using a very heavy one as with a bellows you may also want to add an extension arm which can change the balance point.

Depending upon your bellows you may need an additional focusing rail (or two) as some have one rail built in. The ones that do, allow you to precisely move the unit to and from the subject for focusing (twin rail as show above, the bottom dial moves the entire unit). What the built in ones usually don't do (I have not seen one that does) is allow you to frame your shot. So you really have three adjustments, one for magnification (the distance from the sensor to the lens), one for focusing (the distance from the lens to the subject) and what you don't have even on a really good one is the ability to go from side to side for framing the shot.

With a bellows you will be setting everything manually so you don't get any real advantage of staying with your camera manufacturer's lens or even bellows if they make one. Although there are specialty lenses for bellows they are not very common and they are very expensive. Most people use a normal prime lens, a macro lens or an enlarger lens with a bellows setup.  Enlarger lens can be found used at very reasonable prices and most are 39mm, so you would need to get an adapter to 39mm for the front lens.

One difficult part is in using a standard 50mm macro lens with a bellows. The reason being is that the front element is recessed quite a bit. Because of this it is extremely difficult to light the subject. This is where an enlarger lens comes into play or a reversed lens.

Again, since it is manual you may want to also look at getting an adapter for your camera to the bellows manufacturer of your choice  as this allows you to make your bellows buying decision based on features instead of what is being offered for your model.

Bellows units were more common years ago and now on the market you usually see ones that are very expensive (how about $1349.00 for a new tilt shift from Novoflex without a lens) or very cheap. The cheap ones you will want to stay away from as minuscule adjustments on the rails will be difficult. One of the best old models, at least most desirable ones is the Nikon PB-4 as it also allows for Tilt and Shift which can provide for a little more depth of field. If you decide to go the bellows route you should take a look at this web page that explains the Tilt Shift Function of bellows. However a used PB-4 bellows is not inexpensive either ($350-$400 - you can get a 50mm dedicated macro for less - as I mentioned they are very desirable). What you usually can find in the 75 -150 dollar range is a good quality twin rail bellows (with a lens) from a company like Canon, Minolta, Pentax etc. they all made exceptional quality ones. Every thing is manual anyway so it makes no difference as long as you can get an adapter for your camera.

Option 4 - Reverse Mounting of a lens

Reverse lens for macro shots

With an inexpensive adapter you can reverse mount a lens. The adapters fit in place of a lens and once mounted you screw the lens on with its filter threads. So each adapter is specific to a camera make and lens barrel size. The lens barrel size is the filter size. This is a real neat trick and you can get great magnification inexpensively.  However to do this you really should use an old manual lens. Newer ones control the aperture electronically and when you mount it backwards you loose this option. But since you are not using your camera's autofocus or aperture control you can use any brand of old lens. (Please note that on a Canon EOS Camera that has a depth of field preview button if you press the  button while the camera is turned on and dismount the lens it should remain stepped down then you just have to remount it backwards to use that setting.)

However, there are a couple of catches with this option, one is the lens element that is normally closest to the camera is completely exposed so you have to be careful not to scratch it. But again, since it is mounted by the filter threads you can use any old lens. This is where it gets a little tricky though, you want a lens where you can easily stop it down. On many old lenses, like today's lenses, when you look through them they are wide open (to allow for easier focusing) and when the shot is made they decrease the aperture.  If you use a lens like this you need to push the lever down and secure it before the shot. The sticky stuff you use to hold pictures on the wall with can be used for this purpose or or on some a rubber band will work. Personally, I think it is better to just get one where you don't have to but they are harder to come by as they are older.

When mounting a lens backwards you want a prime lens I have tried a 28mm three different 50mm lenses and a 43-70 Zoom. I have read you can use up to a 135mm. (the longer the lens the less magnification - you are using it backwards) Now for what you will not read elsewhere, the results are largely dependant upon the lens design. The three 50mm lenses I tried were not close to producing the same magnification. 

Mounting a zoom backwards also can work but you want a wide one. On the Magnification Page there is an example of the 43-70mm lens I used and at 43mm the magnification was 1.3:1 and very sharp. When on the page click on the image for a full size view.

Meike MK-C-UP for macro shots

There is one option here that is quite neat but was also very expensive up until now. Novoflex has a product called an "EOS Lens Mount" that allows a Canon lens to be mounted backwards while maintaining electrical control. What it really is, is two short extension tubes (one with threads) with wires between them. However, at over $500 you really have to ask yourself is this the way to go. Since I originally wrote this a company called Meike has released a similar one called the MK-C-UP. (shown on the right)  The quality is actually exceptional especially for the price (around $70). I have used it with a couple of different lenses and I got fantastic results with an old 28-90 Canon lens. You will also have to fabricate some sort of lens hood as lens flare with this setup is unbelievable. Macro shot with reversed lens and Meike MK-UP-CHowever, you can pick up an old lens like the one I was using for about $30-$40 dollars making the whole package around $100. The photo on the left was shot with it at about 2.5:1 magnification.  Click on it for a larger view.

The ideal scenario for reverse mounting is to find an old prime lens in the 5-10 dollar range (they are available at garage sales and flea markets) and an adapter for it which usually run 6-10 dollars on ebay or better yet click on the Adorama link on the left side and get one from them for about $10 including freight - sorry but I have to pay to keep this site up. I picked up a nice Yashica 50mm with a body for seven dollars at a flea market. I brought it home and threw out the body and I have an excellent prime lens for mounting backwards.  One thing about old lenses is if they are clean with no fungus they are usually of excellent quality. Fifty years ago there were only a few companies that made lenses and they private labeled the same lens under numerous names. Back then the big difference was not so much in glass but in coatings they put on them for film.

Option 4 - Lens StackingPhoto of reversed stacked macro lens

You can also reverse mount a lens on  another lens. When reverse mounting on another lens you want an adapter which is a set of male by male threads with your lens filter sizes. If you already have two lenses this is a very affordable way to get into macro photography. If one of your current lenses you plan on using for this is a zoom, mount the zoom to the camera and the prime to the end of it.

There are numerous web sites on reverse mounting of lenses one good one is at the Digital Photography School. There is a YouTube video showing how to do it here. The advantage is that you are not shooting in manual as you still have control of the lens attached to the camera. However you still have the bellows factor and autofocus may not work as there may not be enough light. What you are really doing is using it as a close up lens.

Option 6 - Dedicated Macro Lenses

By far the best option but naturally the most expensive. With the exception of Canon's 65-MPE most dedicated macros are are prime lenses near 50mm, 100mm and 180mm in focal length. Yes, Sigma has or had a 150mm, and now there is a 60mm for a crop body but for the most part they are near the ranges above. All of which are usually 1:1 (the image is the same size on the sensor) except for the 50mm ones which are 1:2 (the image is half the size on the sensor - not a true macro by definition). I mentioned a macro lens for a crop sensor body, personally I would not purchase a lens that would not work on full frame bodies. Why, simple, I upgraded to a full frame and had to dump my crop sensor lenses.

Canon's 65-MPE is a unique Macro Lens that offers up to 5:1 magnification. Yes, out of the box you can have your subject up to 5 times larger on the sensor than it is in real life. Canon's line is a grain of rice fills the sensor. It is adjustable from 1:1 to 5:1.  I have read that they are difficult to learn how to use, but then so is a bellows, really anything with extreme magnification is. In reality a Canon 65-MPE is really just an upgraded bellows with a specifically designed lens just for it. Since I originally wrote this I purchased one and it was not that hard to use; however if you are just starting off shooting macro shots of live bugs you may want to skip this option.

Without question dedicated macros are easiest to use of all the options and they all produce exceptional results, I have never read a bad review on a macro lens. However, for the most part you can forget about auto focus as when you are real close if it doesn't hit you will lose the shot as it will go through its entire range. So you can plan on using manual focus (more on that later). Also, if you have one of the ones with Image Stabilization you need to read the fine print as it could be useless with macro shooting.

Option 7 - Macro with Tele Converter

tele-converters for macro useA dedicated macro lens with a Tele Converter increases the magnification (by the amount of the tele-converter) at the same distance. So, if you have a 100mm macro with 1:1 magnification at 6 inches, it will now have 2:1 magnification with a 2X tele-converter. The magnification will be the same at the distance multiplied by the power of the tele-converter. So, in the above example with a 2X converter if the 1:1 distance was 6 inches, it will now be 12 inches. In other words your minimum focusing distance stays the same and the magnification increases by the amount of the converter. macro photo with tele-converter

Since glass is being inserted the image will degrade a little. However the increased magnification maybe worth it or it may be worth while to be further from your subject. What I have found is that there is not much loss in image quality when it is used in a macro shot if you are using the right tele-converter.  (I can easily see the difference using a tele-converter when not taking a macro shot on my other lenses). The shot on the left was taken with a 100mm macro with a 1.4 converter.  Since I can see texture in the front things (they are not the eyes) and the hairs on the right I know from experience this is not a true macro shot as you cannot get that much DOF without stacking, therefore it is a cropped image and the DOF came from less magnification.

However tele-converters do not work on all lenses. For instance Canon's Extenders do not all work on their macro lenses (and they don't, you cannot mount them because of the design - I believe you maybe able to on the 180). However, on my Canon 100mm macro I have used a Kenko, Promaster and Tamron tele-converter. For more on tele-converters check out "Fine Art Photography" it is a really great site.  On the site he mentions that some tele-converters work better than others with certain lenses and he is correct. I think my Tamron 1.4 and my Kenko 2X work well with my Canon 100mm macro. The Promaster did not seem to work out nearly as well.  If purchasing one go to Adorama as if it does not work with your macro lens they have a great return policy.

To sum it up

There are numerous options to increase magnification.  What you need to look at is working distance and how much magnification you are trying to get and your budget. For instance, if you plan on shooting head shots of poisonous snakes I would not want to be three inches away with a 50mm macro or a reverse mounted lens etc., I would want the longest one I could get like a 180mm, or even a tele-converter on a 180mm.

If you have the money for a dedicated macro lens, go for the 100mm, you will not regret it. They are super sharp lenses.  The reason you want the 100mm is the working distance. You get to be a little further away from the subject. The second choice would be for a 50mm dedicated macro these sell for about half of what the 100mm goes for. Then you can add extension tubes or a tele-converter etc.

Both of these options are in the hundreds of dollars and if that is not in the budget I would start by purchasing a threaded reverse ring adapter for $10 or so and use it with an old prime lens, perhaps another $10 so for $20 you have the glass and the adapter. This is the least expensive way to go. With this small investment you can go out and get good shots of bees, spiders etc. I would not reverse it on my current lens as it is difficult to stop it down and it is not worth risking scratching it for $10. Keep in mind when looking for an old lens to look for one where you can easily change the aperture.

Next I would go for some extension tubes, a set with metal rings but the electrical contact decision I would make based upon what lens I was going to use it with. When making this decision I would try to remember that I may also want to use them to reduce the minimum focusing distances of other lenses that I may have or want to get. Mine are metal and have the electrical contacts and I paid $90 for them. I have seen sets of tubes for as little as $10 on ebay that will produce the same quality of image.

If you shoot Canon the Meike MK-C-UP adapter mentioned above is an excellent choice. That with an old 28-90 will run you around $100 and you will have the ability to change you magnification and control your aperture. If I recall correctly it goes from 2.7:1 - 1:7. However it is much harder to learn how to use. Starting off with it I would find the magnification I liked and use gaffers tape to keep it at that. Once I got better i would start to change it.

Continue to Magnification