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Methods for Extreme Close-up Photography

There are several ways of going beyond macro including:
  1. specialist lenses direct to a DSLR body
  2. extension tubes or bellows unit with macro or other lenses
  3. coupling lenses

1. Specialist Lenses

I use the superb Canon 65mm MPE macro lens. This starts at 1:1 macro and extends to 5:1 magnification. It is the most straightforward way of achieving continuous magnification. Many find it tricky to use and does need some perseverance. A couple of pointers: don't stop down to f16 or it causes massive distortion. My sharpest pics are between f5.6 and f8. Depth of field is therefore very very limited, hence focus stacking. Hand-held photography is difficult and ideally use a stand. I have made several stands based on old microscope stands - see below. These can then be held vertically or horizontally.
The MPE lens is non-focusing and like all photography beyond macro you focus on the subject by moving the whole (camera and lens) back and forth until it is sharp. This will need a focusing rail (discussed at end of this section).
 For Nikon and other users it is possible to buy adapters for the MPE lens. It helps that you do not need to focus the lens but you will need to be able to select apertures. There are other special lenses, one of which is the excellent Zeiss Tessovar. Built in the 1960's they occasionally appear on Ebay, with or without a stand.

DSLR and bellows units on a stand made from an old microscope stand. Firmly fixed to a solid base of wood. The scissor jack enables easy movement of subjects.
 Zeiss Tessovar lens on a stand. Right, the microscope stand in vertical position. Also a stage has been made to hold a glass petri dish with aquatic specimens above a large hole. LED lights (from Ikea) illuminate from above as well as below. Movement /focusing of the camera in all of the microscope stands is made using a focusing rail.

2. Bellows and Extension Tubes

Both of these move the lens forward away from the sensor. An image is projected from the rear of a lens, like a cone, ever increasing in size the further it moves from the sensor. As the latter is a fixed size it means that it takes just a small part of this projected image, therefore magnifying the subject. The greater the extension the greater is the magnification. I use extension tubes on the Canon 65mm MPE lens and so can go more than x5 magnification, up to x8.
Try all sorts of lenses on the tubes or bellows. There are specialist bellows lenses. The one on the bellows above, right, is a Minolta micro 12.5mm bellows lens. In the 1980's when it was first produced it was very expensive but is really just a modified microscope objective lens. The lens top left is a 40mm Olympus copier lens. Lenses from film enlargers work extremely well.
Below is a very simple setup I often use for magnifications beyond the MPE lens, around 10 - 25 times magnification using objective lenses. The one in the photo is an old Vickers microscope x10 objective. On occasions I use a x15. Objectives are easily obtained but try Ebay and pay £10-20 or less. The screw thread is 20mm diameter and I drill a 19mm hole into the centre of a DSLR body cap. If you don't want to do this to your own then buy on Ebay for a pound. These tend to be softer plastic


A set of extension tubes with x10 objective lens attached. Right, a single photo of a mosquito head taken with the above setup. Note the very limited depth of field. Below is a composite image made from 190 images focus stacked including the one on the right. x22 magnification

3. Lens Coupling

This method produces magnifications typically between x1 and x4 and is ideal if you use a bridge camera  or CSC but works fine with a DSLR. The principle is to reverse a lens over the front of an existing lens. The latter works well if it is a zoom lens and the reversed lens, an old manual standard lens like a 50 mm f1.4. Some of the lenses produced in the 1960's and 1970's are perfect as they are cheap to obtain and have manually operated diaphragms so the aperture can be set wide open. Auto lenses typically shut down the diaphragm as soon as you remove them from the body. If you are happy to a bit of Bluetack and a piece of matchstick will wedge them open!

Using a Minolta 58mm f1.4 lens reversed on to a Fuji bridge camera plus a Vivitar 285 flash to photograph the red ants, top left. The greenfly on the stinging nettle was without a flash. This was a technique I used extensively between 1999 and 2006 before switching to the 65mm MPE lens. Note that the flash is an old film camera flash and not recommended to be used with digital cameras as they have a different trigger voltage (likely to blow out the circuits). I did not know that back then and had no problems with it!

The bottom three photos show the effect of zooming of the lens attached to the camera body, in this case the bridge camera. On the left the lens is equivalent to 28mm and severe vignetting occurs. As you zoom through to 200mm on the right the vignetting goes and achieves a x4 magnification. Work magnification out by dividing the body lens (200) by the reversed lens (58).

Focusing Rails

Typically these are manual. Attach the rail to a tripod or stand. Attach the camera to the rail and a knob either at the side or end is rotated to move the camera along teh rail. I use an automatic rail which moves the camera by means of a stepper motor. Mine is a StackShot produced by Cognisys in the USA. a superb system. However, auto rails can be produced by screw mechanisms and plenty of people make them.

Above are a pair of manual focusing rails. Right is an auto StackShot rail which allows very precise movements of fractions of millimetres. Far right the StackShot control box can be seen which can be used to control the action with movements being possible of 0.01mm. All this allows auto stacking possible

Now look to see how to Focus stack to create amazing depth of field. Click here:

2. Achieving a greater depth of field - Focus Stacking

 If you want to know much more please check out my book Extreme Close-up Photography and Focus Stacking