The BugPhoto Guide: Extreme Macro

This is the sixth in a series of posts about the BugPhoto approach to macro photography.

extreme close up of globular springtail  perched on a dandelion petal

A globular springtail, Bourletiella hortensis, about the size of a poppy seed, perches on a dandelion petal. Shot with reversed 18-55mm Nikon kit lens (at 18mm) on extension tubes (~60mm). Uncropped.

Yes, We’re Going Closer

If you have been following along with The BugPhoto Guide series, or just in general, you are probably aware that I have a bit of an obsession (if they can come in bits) for getting closer, for getting higher magnification. I showed the range of magnification of my reverse lens in my last post, which tops out at a little less than 4:1 (i.e. 4 times) magnification. Sometimes this obsession to get closer works against me: I go in too close, cutting off my subject, or I sacrifice my composition at the expense of magnification. So, you may be wondering why would I want to push the envelope further? That is, for reasons aside from compulsive behavior? Well, sometimes there are things so small that four times and even greater magnification won’t fill up the frame. Springtails (Collembola) such as the one pictured above, are some of the tiny creatures that beckon the ever-increasing magnification of extreme macro.

Extending Our Magnification

In studio set ups, usually for focus stacking, microscopic lens elements, reaching up to 10 times or great magnification, are used. I’m not aware of those elements being used in the field; instead extension tubes (separately or in conjunction with teleconverter lenses) are used to gain the extra magnification. In this series, I have primarily been discussing the reverse lens method as a means to achieve true macrophotography, but extension tubes — literally hollow tubes which when placed between the lens and camera body allow for closer focusing and higher magnification — are another good option in place of a true macro lens. When used in combination with a reverse lens, we can put the “extreme” in our macro. Here are a couple shots of the extension tubes I used to take achieve the macro shots in this post:

These are what are known as “cheap Chinese extension tubes” because…they are very cheap (usually around $5.00 USD) and…they are made in China. Their build quality is also cheap, as in poor, which can cause problems1, but they are tubes with appropriate mounts on either end so they can get the job done. Nicer ones that can preserve lens functionality (by bridging the electronic connection between lens and camera body) are available, but since I am using a reverse lens set up where lens functionality is already crippled, it doesn’t make much of a difference. So let’s add them to the rig, and see what we get:

extreme macro camera rig with extension tubes and reversed Nikon kit lens

An extreme macro camera rig. Equipment pictured: D5000; set of cheap Chinese extension tubes (~60mm); reversed 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G Nikon kit lens; Nikon SB-600 speedlight flash; and Nikon SC-17 flash cable. (Not visible: Nikon SK-E900 flash bracket.)

To say the least, it’s a pretty cumbersome beast. (Of course, if you want to get nuts, take a look at Eddie the Bugman’s monster of a rig — that’s taking a cannon (and a Canon MPE-65, as it happens) to a bug shoot!) Please note: I would implore you to take even more care with handling equipment in this type of set up, as stresses on lens and mount connections become greater.

To give you an idea of how the tube changes our results, going back to our cooperative (but, yes, unfortunately deceased) moth of the previous BugPhoto Guide post, we can see the difference between the reverse lens with and without tubes at a focal length of 18mm:

Guess which one has the tubes? Naturally, it is the left side, as I could barely fit the moth’s head into the frame (or the focal plane!); and those black lines, they are the marks of a ruler, measuring millimeters. (Quick note: the simple way of calculating magnification is to count the millimeters and figure the ratio between that and the size of the sensor — not necessarily a precise computation, but it gives you an idea.) Here are a couple more test shots with full extension tubes at 24mm and 55mm on the reverse lens, respectively:

Challenges? You need more than one?

The challenges of handheld extreme macro are not unlike the challenges of more “normal” handheld macrophotography. First off, the unit becomes that much more unwieldy and heavier. Shooting one-handed becomes prohibitive (though I will defer to individual arm strength). Keeping the camera steady becomes more paramount, if not necessarily to ward off camera shake and image bluriness, but to keep your subject “in focus.” I put it in quotes because the depth of field is almost comically narrow at the higher magnifications. Tiny things like springtails which can be less than a millimeter in size fit right into the focal plane, but the slightest movement also pushes them right out. Having something sturdy to brace against — like the ground, which fortunately is often where springtails are — really makes this type of endeavor more feasible.

extreme close up of a click beetle head

Portrait of a click beetle (family Elateridae). Shot with reversed 18-55mm Nikon kit lens (at 18mm) on extension tubes (~60mm). Uncropped.

The issue of illumination becomes exacerbated with the extended passage light must travel through to get to the camera’s sensor. Not only is it very hard to see through the viewfinder — it’s dark in there! — at this focal length/extension, diffraction becomes a serious problem with the very small apertures needed to get a workable depth of field. Some people use “live view” and set up the shot via the LCD screen. I personally have a hard time using this method, as I just can’t brace the camera well enough. One tactic that I employed to get some of the extreme shots from this summer was to use a flashlight to give extra illumination. It was a little difficult to hold the flashlight and the camera at the same time; I tried tying it to the camera/lens at one point, which sort of helped (admittedly I could have put a better effort/devised a better way of securing the flashlight).

extreme close up of beetle head

Extreme close up of a beetle head. Shot with reversed 18-55mm Nikon kit lens (at 18mm) on extension tubes (~60mm). Uncropped.

That’s all great, and now, assuming you can see your subject through the lens, you’re ready to shoot! Well, probably not. Not until the flash is taken care of. And you’re going to need flash. Loathe as I am to do it (usually because of the quality of light but more so battery life in this case), I have found it necessary to fire the flash at full output. Positioning the flash also becomes crucial so the fullest strength of the light can enter through the lens. A jointed arm really would be ideal, but the Giotto mini-ballhead in conjunction with my rigid flash bracket allowed me enough wiggle room to extend the flash head all the way to the front of the lens. Note in the beetle head shot to the left/above and yesterday’s extreme jumping spider that the directional lighting has caused heavy shadows on the right side of the image. It is also evident, if not as pronounced, in the springtail shot to open this post. (Also note that the green background is somewhat darker to the right side — also a product of the imbalanced flash positioning, though somewhat mitigated by the very (very!) bright sun which helped me give me a nice reciprocally-bright background.)

Go Nuts, But Go Looking

extreme close-up of pollen-filled anther

Extreme close-up of a flower’s pollen-filled anther. Shot with reversed 18-55mm Nikon kit lens (at 18mm) on extension tubes (~60mm). Uncropped.

I only started to dabble in this extreme macrophotography this past summer, and it was very frustrating and eye-straining at times. Maybe I would have been better served taking some breaks in between failed shots. Though, it did all seem worth it, when I got the springtail shot. Thinking on it now, the real payoff (not to get too corny) might have been gaining a greater appreciation for the ever-hidden, infinitesimal natural world that we hardly think of. And let’s face it, it’s tough to think of things we can barely see with the naked eye. But it’s worth looking, I’d argue more than a little, with or without a ridiculous camera rig.


In the next BugPhoto Guide post, I’ll look at shooting video with a reverse lens.

Previous BugPhoto Guide posts:




1. The cheap extension tubes that I had purchased had a specific problem: a ghosting effect that gave any images shot with it a hazy white “X”. For the longest time I could not figure out the source of this problem, but it turns out irregularities in the paint finish on the inside of the tubes cause reflections which creates things like hazy X’s on your images. Someone might take this as a sign to buy some better extension tubes, but I’m too stubborn and poor for that at that moment, so I turned to the Intertubez. And they came through for me! “SteveSnaps” on Flickr had a very simple but effective method for fixing this problem. He created “baffles” for blocking out the reflections using black cardstock. Essentially, a couple little rings of black paper cut out and inserted at each end of the tube fixed it right up. Here are some photos of what the baffles look like with the tubes:


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