Budget macro options for interchangeable lens camera owners

Cap'n Fishy

Well-known member
Options for photographing flies with an interchangeable lens camera in the absence of a 'macro' lens

Thought a few old threads on this subject could do with bringing up to date and coordinatiing...

A question comes up from time to time on the subject of photographing flies with an interchangeable lens camera, where the tyer/photographer only has a standard zoom lens. While such lenses are fine for large subjects, they are not designed to photograph items as small as flies, from only inches away.

All lenses have a focal length, or in the case of zoom lenses a focal length range, such as 17-50 mm or 18-55 mm. The longer the focal length, the more the image is magnified in the viewfinder. A 100 mm lens will magnify more than a 50 mm lens. However, the longer the focal length, the longer the minimum focusing distance. A 100 mm lens will typically focus no closer than 3 feet from the focal plane – a bit distant for fly photography! Macro lenses aim to bring the minimum focusing distance closer to the camera than a standard lens. A 100 mm macro lens can focus on an object only a few inches from the front of the lens. A macro lens stated as being 1:1 means that at the closest focusing distance, the subject will perfectly fill the viewfinder/sensor. Such is ideal for fly photography. A macro lens, such as a 100 mm f2.8 is a worthwhile investment for many, as they typically function as a normal lens, typically have a wide aperture, and are great for portraiture, nature photography and suchlike…

They will do landscapes too!

The above two shots were taken with the same 100 mm macro lens.

However, let’s say you have the interchangeable lens camera, and you have the kit lens (such as a 17-55 mm) but you can’t justify the expenditure of a macro lens. Can you bring the fly closer with a bit of help? The answer is very much, yes! There are several options. Below, three of the main options are investigated, and the results compared.

Firstly, let’s look at the problems of trying to photograph flies with a kit lens.

For the bulk of the fly shots, I picked a simple pattern that included dark areas, bright areas, reflective areas: a size 12 silver butcher. As things progressed, I realised how much I had left it adorned with tiny flakes of skin, just by handling it for the set-up. However, I realised that the more you can see the flakes of skin, the more detail you are seeing, and the better the set-up is working!

I set it up with a simple, flat, side-on alignment, and a neutral background.

All fly shots were taken with a C-size sensor camera, which is the most common size used in interchangeable lens cameras. If your sensor is a different size, results may differ.

The shot below was taken with a standard 50 mm lens (f1.4), at the closest focusing distance.

As you can see, it’s tack-sharp, but a bit small and far away. One option is to crop-out the waste area. How successful this is, depends on the size of the sensor and how many pixels you have to play with. The original above was 18 MP.

Below is the crop of it…

At this stage, the elephant in the room is: what do you consider acceptable image quality? If the shot above is good enough for you, you can stop here. For the others, let’s continue.

What we are looking for is to remove the need to crop, without compromising sharpness and detail. We should be able to see all those flecks of skin on the wing (you will be seeing them in due course!) and we should be able to see the individual micro-barbs on the henny hackle fibres. In achieving this extra detail, you need to be prepared to see just how bad your fly-tying is! I got over seeing how bad my tying is years ago, so I have built up an immunity to it! I spend far more time taking photographs than tying flies these days, and I would rather have a quality photo of a badly tied fly than a rubbish photo of the same fly that hides its flaws. In fairness, when you look at your fly, mano-a-mano, it’s a teeny thing, less than an inch or so. When you look at a digital blow-up of it, it can be a 36-inch poster. Errors you never knew were there, suddenly loom into view. Every gain in image quality comes at the expense of showing up misplaced turns of thread, stray fibre ends sticking out of heads, bad varnishing jobs... No hiding place! You may decide at this point that the results you get from your smartphone are good enough! For those willing to bare their fly-tying souls, let’s carry-on…

The first, and easily the most simple, inexpensive option to add macro capability to a lens is a set of close-up filters. These screw in to the front of the lens, the same as a UV or polarising filter does… except that they are not plain glass, they are like reading glasses...

They are often sold in sets of 4, of differing diopters, such as +1, +2, +4 and +10 (‘Macro’ – shown above). Expect to pay £10 to £25 for a decent set.

I went about getting the best result I could with close-up filters and the 50 mm lens. Firstly, I attached the highest magnification one – the +10…

As that had quite a bit of waste area (I hate waste area!), I did a crop of it…

Not bad. The skin flecks are starting to show better :eek:, as are the micro-barbs on the leading fibres. I then tried stacking the +4 diopter onto the +10, making a +14 magnification…

You can see how the addition of the extra glass is reducing image quality – the skin flakes are less visible than in the cropped +10 version!

I thought that was about as far as I could take close-up filters.

The next thing to try was 'extension tubes'. These work by fitting in between the lens and the camera. By drawing the lens away from the camera, they draw the focal plane in, towards the camera. The problem is that they need to come between camera and lens, creating communication issues. There are two types readily available, and there is a fundamental difference between the two.

Type 1) Inexpensive, largely plastic, no electrical contact between lens and camera.

Type 2) Expensive, more metal, full electrical contact between lens and camera.

Here is a set of the Type 1 tubes…

The main problem with the cheap type is that, in losing electrical contact between lens and camera, you have no control of the aperture of most modern electronic lenses (some, eg some Nikon lenses, do have manual aperture rings).

The aperture controls the depth of field. Wide open = thinnest. Closed fully down = deepest. When shooting very close to the subject, depth of field is critical, and at wide open apertures it is wafer thin. Here is a shot taken with cheap tube 3 above, on the standard 50 mm lens…

The lens is f1.4 wide open and, with no way to control it, I was stuck with f1.4 for the shot. There are some bits in sharp focus, but the eye is drawn to how much of it is blurry and out of focus, due to the wafer-thin depth of field.

(There is a method for reversing a modern lens on cheap tubes, whereby you can put your lens on the camera, set a narrow aperture, then press the ‘depth of field preview’ button to force it to stop-down. Then, while holding it there, you switch off the power, so the lens is trapped at f22 or whatever. Then take the lens off and attach it to the tube. It’s a lot of faff, I reckon!)

The alternative to the ‘non-reporting’ tubes is one or more ‘reporting tubes’. These retain full electrical contact between camera and lens.

Below is a ‘Type 2’ 25 mm tube. Despite the fancy looks, it really is just a tube, with no glass involved…

However, you can see it has the all-important contacts to convey the communication between camera and lens. The next shot is the 50 mm lens with the 25 mm tube attached, stopped down to just f8…

Same shot cropped…

Adding a 12 mm tube to the 25 mm one…

Still needs a slight crop…

You can see the huge improvement in depth of field, just by stopping down to f8. The down side is the cost. A ‘name’-brand 25 mm tube may cost around £100, and a 12 mm tube an additional £60, so they are not exactly budget items – especially when you need an additional tube for each additional increase in image size in the viewfinder. However, I have seen 3rd-party brands selling for £25 for a pair of tubes, and there is the 2nd-hand market to search.

OK, that is close-up filters and extension tubes addressed. The next option is to take the 50 mm lens off the camera and turn it round the other way. This takes advantage of the way the optics work and brings the focal plane in towards the camera. It also reverses the magnification aspect, so a 35 mm lens reversed will magnify the image more than a 50 mm lens reversed.

Obviously, this method runs into the same problems of aperture control that you run into with the cheap tubes. Also, if you do it with a digital camera without an adaptor to attach it firmly to the camera, you leave a gap for dust to get in and onto the sensor. To address both these issues, you need a lens with a manual aperture control ring and an adaptor ring to attach it firmly to the camera. As soon as you start attaching lenses back to front, any need to match the make or mount goes out the window, and any make of lens is an option for any make of camera.

Lenses with manual aperture control were the norm in the days before digital and before that, autofocus. A search of eBay will bring up plenty of options. There seems to be two types of seller.

1) Those who have sussed that old 35 mm film lenses have a market and can ask £20-£30 for one.

2) Those who have not sussed the above and have an ancient film camera with a lens and will sell both for £5-10.

Around 10 years ago, I was given a USSR-made Zenit camera – a special edition one, made for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I thought it might be worth something. On checking eBay, I found loads of the same cameras, selling for £1! These days, they appear to change hands for as much as £10 or even more! Googling it revealed that its Helios lens, which is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Biotar 58mm ƒ/2, was the most mass produced lens the world has ever known. It simply screws into the camera body. It is built like a brick outhouse – you wouldn’t want to drop it on your toe! I thought it may have its uses, and so held on to it…

Note the all-important aperture ring, labelled in white numerals.
Here is the front view, aperture wide-open at f2…

And here is the rear view, aperture stopped fully down at f16.

I noted that it is still very popular with ‘bokeh’ enthusiasts, due to its quirky elliptical aperture (Soviets unable to make it circular???) Intrigued, I fancied a go with it. I needed an adaptor to attach it to my own camera, and so I got one for it…

There are companies, such as SRB Photographic, that provide adaptors to mate esoteric couplings of lens and camera. As with rod ferrule protocol, your camera is the female, and the lens the male, so the camera end of the adaptor is male and the lens end of the adaptor is female. My camera is an EOS mount, while the Helios lens is an M42 mount. Plugging them in on the SRB website brings up the required adaptor…

Let’s park the direct link between the old lens and modern camera for a bit and go back to the idea of reversing a lens that has manual aperture control.

As it has an aperture ring, the Helios M44 was suitable for taking macro shots, if reversed. Reversing adaptors are much easier to source. They just screw into the filter thread at the front of the lens, the same as close-ups, UVs, polarising filters, etc.

They are male-to-male in type, with the lens fitting being the standard filter thread diameter. The one I bought for the 52 mm-threaded Helios to EOS mount cost about £5…

Here it is, fitted to the Helios…

The lens is then mounted to the camera, back-to-front.

One downside is that the focal length of the Helios (58 mm) is on the long side for the reversing technique. If you are looking on eBay for an old manual lens (any make will do for reversing it) something a little shorter - more like 28 to 40 mm - should work better. With only the 58 mm Helios to play with, I soldiered-on.

In all the shots taken with the Helios lens, I set it to a mid-aperture setting of f8.

Reversed, uncropped…

As suspected, it is a little distant, due to the 58 mm focal length. Here it is cropped…

It's spot on - showing the skin flecks and the hackle micro-barbs well. One option was to add in one of the cheap tubes, to bring focus even closer. We have aperture control, after-all!

Helios, reversed, plus the +1 and +2 diopter cheap tubes added…

I was disappointed with that one, in comparison to the one before. Quite possibly my own technique to blame? :eek: However, at this point I thought, hang about… if we are using the tubes, we may as well turn the lens back round the normal way and put the bigger tube in! This is where the EOS to M42 adaptor I parked a while ago is essential kit for my set-up. Here is the Helios, plus M42 to EOS adapter, plus the No. 3 cheap tube…

Here is the resulting shot…

I don't think I got that capture quite right, either. However, I was convinced from what I was seing in the viewfinder that I was on the right track with this approach. How about a smaller fly with more magnification? I changed the butcher for a size 16 CDC and stacked the whole lot: Nos. 1+2+3 tubes, together…

Bingo! Loads of detail there. It made me think I just didn’t get the one before quite right. This is not an exact science, after all!

How about a bigger fly? I switched to a salmon fly and had to reduce the tube selection until it consisted of just the front and rear end-pieces, in order to fit the fly in…

Good sharpness there. While the above shot may not look fantastic at 750 pixels wide (the size I made all the fly shots to suit the forum dashboard) the quality is such that I can make a high-resolution print of the 18 MP original at A2 size. That is not something that could be done with the original, cropped 50 mm lens shot. I also suspect you would not get as good a result from the close-up lenses.

With a set of tubes, you have a range covered from about a size 20 to as big as you need to go. If you are wanting to photograph something huge, such as a 4-inch pike fly or similar, you don’t need a macro lens.

Of the various options, I was most impressed with the combo of ancient lens plus a set of cheap tubes. Add to this, it was more pleasurable to play around with old technology than quickly opt for the ‘Kenny Everett’ option. The old lens/cheap tubes set-up I used could be put together for £20-£60, depending on options taken. The Helios lens I used is a totally arbitrary choice. Whatever your make of camera, you can make use of any old film lens with an aperture ring on it, and then hunt down an adapter to join the two together.

A few notes:

If setting out from scratch, I suspect that something in the 28 to 40 mm focal range would be good for using the reversing technique without needing tubes. However, you only have one size of image field with a reversed lens. The close-up filters allow variable field size through positioning and focusing, while the cheap tubes plus old manual lens allow variable field size through varying the tube combination used.

In all the fly shots above, the camera was set on a tripod and fired with a remote release cord. Lighting was from daylight balanced fluorescent lamps. ISO was set to 100 and shutter times varied, depending on aperture – from 1/20 to 0.4 seconds to give a suitable exposure.

When using the reversed lens and/or cheap tubes, you may confuse the camera with the exposure metering, due to lack of communication with the lens. However, it’s not really an issue. If you have a regular lighting set up/background and so-on, it’s a simple matter of experimenting until you get the right shutter speed and aperture (for your ISO). Try aperture priority or manual mode, rather than shutter priority. Make a note of what works best, and simply dial that in every time, thereafter.

When using the extension tubes or the reversed lens technique, focusing becomes a bit sketchy. I found it best, generally, to set the lens to minimum focus, and walk the subject back and forth to bring it into best focus.

When using the old, manual aperture lens, you are best to start with it fully open, while you get everything set up and focused. When you are ready, stop down the aperture to your chosen f No. and then take the shot. This is what happens with an electronic lens. If you try getting set up while f16 is dialled in, it's all going to look very dark and difficult to see what you are doing.

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Well-known member
Col, on my old Nikon(Film) I used to use a reversing ring for close ups, on My Leica I had the close up fitting for the Elmar lens,I also had a Zenith I think they were built at the same place as the T30 tanks, but I got hold of the earlier Zenith with the 39mm screw fitting it took my Leica lenses,I have a few film cameras that are about worthless now plus all the lenses, sad days:whistle: easker1


Well-known member
An excellent and very informative post pitched perfectly at my novice level, thank you Col.
I spent a lot of time researching the options after your earlier advice, your latest post has everything in it in oneness place.
Apparently there are some old glass lenses in the family that can be mine to use, I’m not sure what they are yet so I shall wait to see what they are then acquire the appropriate adapters.




Well-known member
Very good article, I just wanted to say that some lenses have front elements that could touch a reversed
element on another lens and damage the coatings. Check out the possibility.