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Taking Close-up Pictures on a Budget

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)

Keywords: micro, macro, nikkor, 60mm, 200mm, d600, filter, diopter_filter, extension_tube, 105mm, ai, close, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips, pipevine_swallowtail

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Sometimes you want to get very close to your subject. Maybe you’ve found a flower that is attractive to you, or a bee taking pollen. Maybe you need to photograph some coins or stamps from your collection for insurance purposes. Any time you need to take a picture up close, you need a macro lens. A macro lens is especially designed for close-up pictures. Most genuine macro lenses are also prime lenses not zoom lenses. They don’t look much different from a regular prime lens except that the internal lens elements are designed in such a way that it is easy to make “life-size” images.

A true macro lens (like the Micro Nikkor in figure 1 below) has a 1:1 ratio, which means it can take a picture of an object and render it in its normal size. A bee on a flower is the same size in the picture as the real bee on a flower. That is hard to do with a zoom lens—or a regular prime lens—because they will not focus close enough.

Some zoom lenses are advertised as “macro” zoom lenses. Those lenses can focus closer than most zoom lenses but they are not true macro lenses. Most macro zooms are limited to about half-life size or a 1:2 ratio, which means that a bee on a flower would only be half its normal size in the picture. You just cannot get close enough with most zoom or regular prime lenses. For maximum close ups only a true macro lens with a 1:1 ratio (life-size) will do.



Figure 1 – AF 60mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor Lens

Figure 1 is a picture of a real Nikon macro lens, the AF 60mm Micro Nikkor.  Nikon calls their macro lenses by the name Micro Nikkor. Most other lens brands use the word Macro.

In figure 2 is a macro image of a compact flash memory card with a couple of SD memory cards lying next to it. Notice how realistic the close up image looks. It is a true macro shot taken with the Nikkor macro lens above.



Figure 2 – A picture taken with the AF 60mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor lens

Real macro lenses are a bit more expensive than standard prime lenses because they are a specialty prime lens. They have special features to make the picture look its best, such as “flat-field” design, which keeps the edges of the picture from curving in a distracting way. Macro lenses are highly corrected lenses, which mean the lens elements are carefully designed to give maximum quality and lack of aberrations (color shifting or shape warping). They are optimized for up close work. That does not mean you shouldn’t use a macro lens to take a picture of a more distant object, they do fine there too. They are simply made to do their best work at 1:1 distances (extreme close ups).

For maximum image quality, it is a good idea to use a real macro lens. However, there are substitutes that cost a lot less money. Let’s consider one low cost way to get extreme close up images without the expense of a macro lens, screw-on close-up filters.



The lowest cost way to take close up pictures is to use a set of close up diopter filters on your lens, such as the four pictured in figure 3.



Figure 3 – A set of close up diopter filters for macro shooting on a budget

These filters cost only a few bucks online and do a reasonably good job with making extreme close ups. I bought a package of four filters with diopters (magnification factor) running from + 1 to +10 (figure 3).

These filters simply screw into the front of your prime lens (or zoom lens) and add magnification to the lens. It is sort of the same principle as using a magnifying glass. You screw the filter onto the front of the lens and it magnifies the close-up subject. There are different diopter “powers” in the filter set so that you can increase or decrease the magnification. The main limitation of diopter close-up filters is a very limited amount of focus control and somewhat lower quality images. They are not as convenient to use by any means, in comparison to a true macro lens. However, they do a pretty good job on taking extreme close up pictures and are much lower in cost.


Figure 4 – Same subject as in figure 2 shot with diopter close up filters

With a diopter filter on your lens it cannot focus sharply on anything farther away than a few inches; therefore, the filter cannot be left on a lens for any other purpose than shooting the macro shots. While these filters can’t possibly give you the same quality edge to edge as a true macro lens (figure 2.30), they do provide the photographer on a budget with a way to make interesting close up pictures without spending a lot of money. Look on the back of your lens’s cap to see the correct size of filter to buy. The filters must match the screw-in filter size of the lens you will use them with.



You can get by without a true macro lens or screw-on filters—by using either extension tubes or a lens bellows. I use a lens bellows in the Great Smoky Mountains frequently. When it’s time to shoot some skittish, small wildlife, such as salamanders or butterflies, it’s best to stay far away from them. You could spend a large amount of money on a long macro lens, or you could buy an inexpensive bellows, like I did (figure 5).


Figure 5 – Nikon D600 and an AI Nikkor 200mm f/4 lens on a low-cost bellows

These bellows are easy to use and allow you to stand at a good distance from small creatures to prevent scaring them. A good example is this image of a Pipevine Swallowtail female butterfly I shot while it was resting on the side of a mossy tree. I stood a good six feet (1.8 meters) away and cranked my bellows out to get the shot.  The 200mm Nikkor lens is sharp as a tack and sells for a couple of hundred dollars used (or less). It works great as a macro lens on a bellows (figure 6). A bellows made for a Nikon F-mount lens can be purchased for around US$50 or less.


Figure 6 – Female Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly taken with a 200mm lens and a bellows

Another consideration is our final close-up rig for this article, a set of extension tubes. They are merely hollow metal tubes with a lens and camera mount on either end. Extension tubes can be acquired for, again, very little money, on eBay. In figure 7 you can see my Nikon D600 with an AI Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 lens on the longest (17mm) extension tube.


Figure 7 – Nikon D600 with a 17mm extension tube and an AI Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 lens. Also shown, two extra extension tubes at 14 and 7mm.

In figure 7 you can see my entire collection of extension tubes, which includes 17mm, 14mm, and 7mm extension sections and an adapter for the Nikon F-mount. If I remember correctly, I paid US$15 for the entire set. There are, of course, much higher quality extension tubes sets than the cheapo set I bought for testing purposes. Nikon makes a much higher-quality set at a great price. Of all the macro systems I’ve used, I would have to say that extension tubes are the clunkiest and my least favorite, but they work okay if you match them with the best lens.

We have many choices when it comes to taking great macro shots. If you are serious about excellent macro photography and can afford to buy an extra lens, get yourself a true macro lens. It is a lot less hassle to use and gives you much better quality. If not, and your camera has non-CPU lens capability, buy a bellows, or an extension tube set and use your current camera and lenses.

If you’re a bit short of cash but still want to do macros, buy a set of the low-cost diopter filters that fit the screw-in filter ring on the front of your favorite lens. There’s more than one way to skin a ca … uh … take macro pictures!

Keep on capturing time…
Darrell Young




(12 Votes )
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Originally written on March 11, 2013

Last updated on December 7, 2017


dwight koehler (dkkoehler) on February 28, 2018

Thanks for the article. I've been using extension tubes for years with good to better-than-average results. They're a little more sophisticated than just hollow tubes, in that they have the electronic connections to allow auto-focus; a big help. But yes, they are a little clunky. When I really get good at macro, a dedicated lens makes sense.

Radu Constantine (radconsta) on May 1, 2014

Thank you, Darrell. Which brand of AF extension tubes would you recommend for macro?

Hugh Robinson (Love2Photo) on May 5, 2013

Darrell thank you for writing this. I have a bellows that I used with my old nikon film camera, but it will not hook up to my D7000. I was thinking of buying a single extension tube, attach that to the 7000 and then attaching the bellows.to the tube. Any other ideas? Again thanks for the article.

Gary Curtis (Bravozulu) on May 2, 2013

Since a big part of my subject matter is product shots, when I bought my D7000, the lens I bought with it was the 60mm Micro G. Ouch. The list price was $600. The sales guy told me that, bought together, Nikon allowed a $50 discount on the lens. OK. The price pain was lessened a bit further knowing that the lens would do double duty. I regularly use if for portrait shots. On a DX body, it gives me a 90mm FOV, which is my favorite length for portrait. If you go to Nikon's website and view the brochure for the D3s camera, almost all the shots in it were taken with the 60mm f2.8 G ED. Remarkable contrast & resolution. And Nano coating on top of that! :-)

Donna Read (DonnaRead54) on April 13, 2013

Hi Darrell! I love that you've just told me I'm on the right track! Great article!

Laddie Crisp (laddad) on April 13, 2013

For high magnification work on the cheap consider a cheap bellows with Nikon F-mount (~$50), Old enlarger lens (~$20-$50) and 42mm Leica mount to F adapter (Ebay for$10).

Joe Quezada (JJQ) on April 9, 2013

Hi DArrel, Great post. I enjoy macro photography, but have never used anything in-front or behind my macro lenses. I have been thinking about using tubes but, my concern is that auto focus will be hard to control on moving subjects, such as bees going from flower to flower. Do you know if tubes affect auto focus performance?

Philip Mastman (philm35) on April 7, 2013

There are also reversing rings, which screw into the lens' filter threads, and allow you to mount the lens backward on the camera. Not an ideal solution, but it works in many situations.

david benjamin (dbalvarez) on March 28, 2013

Thank you Darrell, it's a very interesting and usefull article.

Emory Hall (ehall) on March 25, 2013

Thank you Darrell, well written article for this greatful newbie. I will be visiting this again i am sure.

User on March 25, 2013

I wish to add that close-up photography is considered further than 1:1 (many zooms offering 1:2 ratio is close-up lens) ratio and real macro is closer to the subject than 1:1. Choice of macro lens should depend on what you are planning to shoot, if it is insect, over 100mm is a minimum.

Judy Maki (JudithN1) on March 24, 2013

I would like to be able to photograph snowflakes and once saw an article about the use of Canon's MP-E 65 mm macro lens to do so. This lense allows the user from 1 to 5 times life size, but cannot be used on a Nikon. Does anyone know how I could achieve something equivalent to this, perhaps with a bellows, or extension tubes? I have a 105 mm Nikkor macro lens, as well as a 40 mm macro, also by Nikon.

Peter Zettl (PeterZ) on March 22, 2013

I like my close focus filters for my 85 and my 70-210

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell) on March 17, 2013

Founding Member of the Nikonians writer Guild. Author of most of the NikoniansPress books. Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Darrell offers expert advice as the author of several Nikonians Press Books.

Edward, For an inexpensive lens the Nikkor 40mm micro is a great lens. It even works well for a normal, walk-around lens. I would prefer it in some cases over the 50mm f/1.8 for general use, with the added benefit of 1:1 macro. The only drawback is that you must get fairly close to the subject with the 40mm, which might scare some skittish insect subjects. Other than that, the 40mm is a great, low-cost macro lens.

Richard Saundry (Pistol_Ridge) on March 16, 2013

Great article since I've been needing to figure out some better ways of taking pictures of the opal I've been cutting. I'm using a a 55mm Nikkor 1:2.8 but the problem is I'm using a D90 which requires me to go full manual. I've seen this lens selling for some pretty big bucks, so I'm wondering if I should hold onto the lens for when I upgrade my camera to one that will allow full use of non-CPU lenses or sell it and buy a new Micro CPU lens. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

Stanley Sizeler (longlens) on March 15, 2013

The two element achromatic ( 1+,2+,3+) screw on close-up adapters made by Nikon , Canon, maybe some others produce a much sharper close up image than the cheaper one element adapters. The two element adapters are really small lenses, cost more and are well worth it. Regarding Macro lenses: longer focal length (90,105 mm etc.)give the photographer greater working distance to the subject, while also offering flat-field closeup performance.

Ariel Encarnacion (archer4219) on March 14, 2013

Thanks for this very useful article.

Victor Rakmil (VR8) on March 13, 2013

It seems to me newer G lenses would pose problems with the bellows, as you cannot set the Fstop. Kenko tubes allow for full use of the camera controls. I would appreciate more detail and guidance on using a bellows with either a G or AIS lens. Thanks for writing this up!

Rick P (s2sailorlis_nikon) on March 13, 2013

inexpensive macros like the 55 micro nikkor 3.5 can be had for USD$75 on ePray..

Justin Langley (justintlangley) on March 12, 2013

The information clarified my questions about Macro/Micro, and the steps I can take. Good read, Darrell.

David Randall (dprworld) on March 12, 2013

What great timing! I was just looking for the information. Thanks.

User on March 12, 2013

Darrell, What do you think of my recent purchase of the Nikkor 40mm 2.8 Micro Lense?

Marcin Gramza (temper) on March 12, 2013

Thanks for this useful information, Darrell. It is definitely worth trying the ideas presented by you in this article.