the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


Exif data.

About three inches away with stacked diopters equivalent to 7x magnification. Manual focus, 1/200 sec., f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm.


EVER SINCE I FIRST READ STORIES ABOUT THE ARCH-VILLAIN BRAINIAC shrinking and stealing cities from the across the galaxy (studying them like miniature trophies) in Superman comicsI knew that I would someday embrace macro photography.

Well, given the insane costs of dedicated macro lenses, maybe embrace isn’t the right word. Maybe one arm around its shoulder. Or a friendly handshake. Or a gentle chat in which I say I really like you, macro, but I think we should see other people.

Let’s face it. You shouldn’t have to mortgage to determine how often you’re going to want to use your camera to, say, count the crumbs on an Oreo. Yes, once you can crank in close enough to see the flea on the back of the buffalo on the nickel, you may become hopelessly infatuated with the world of tiny. But to make that decision, you needn’t assume the financial humility of a monk. Dedicated macro lenses are a monster investment (a minimum of $300, all the way to over $1,000), to be weighed against how many other shooting situations you’re likely to find yourself in, and the economics of whatever special hunks of glass you’ll need to accomplish all those other tasks. If macro is truly “all” for you, then that sort of justifies the complex construction and sharp autofocusing of a separate lens. Brutal honesty disclaimer: there is no substitute for the performance of a high-end piece of precision optics.

BUT, not all of us make a lifelong study of the number of dimples on a bee’s knees, and that can make a huge investment in macro an iffy indulgence. I’m a big one for not buying major toys until they justify their use in my work. Thus, the only photographic commandment I unflinchingly live by is: don’t buy even one more extra feature than you will actually use. 

Two main alternative options have emerged to serve the needs of “occasional” macro shooters. One of these are extension tubes, the hollow cylinders that attach between your lens and your camera body, creating an artificially enhanced range of maximum magnification. Being the same size as actual lenses (albeit with no glass inside), they do add additional bulk and weight to your setup, and may result in a loss of light, as well as a shallower depth of field. Investment-wise, you are still in for over $100 for a decent pair of these, as the cheap ones aren’t worth winding toilet paper around. Given the tubes’ limitations, you may be looking at sticking the camera on a tripod to lengthen your exposures, or jacking up the ISO. Different strokes.

The other, far cheaper option, and one which gives you a taste of macro without surgically removing your wallet, involves magnifying diopters. They screw on like filters, come in sets of three for well under forty bucks, and can get you in on the ground floor of macro (or the little tiny things crawling on said floor).

Diopters come in magnifying strengths of +1, +3 , +4, and above, so you can use a single diopter, attach several in series, or assemble a bunch into a custom mix and affix that to the front of your lens. Even with a cluster of them attached, you’re adding little more than an inch of extra depth to your lens body, and they’re easy to detach and stash in a spare pocket, something that cannot be done as easily with extension tubes. If you’re an on-the-go, travel-light kind of guy/gal, this is worth a mention.

Not good enough for recording sub-atomic particles, but, hey...


Now, let’s not delude ourselves. You can’t use your lens’ autofocus with diopters, which means you’re on manual. This is a serious consideration if you prefer to shoot hand-held, since you will louse up more frames, what with your every quiver being magnified and playing hell with sharpness. As with extension tubes, you may want to whip out the tripod.

If you are a techie as well as an artiste, do a Sherlock Holmes on the interwebs for the exact science of which option will give you the most control and best results. I am far from the best source for this kind of exact wisdom, since, as stated above, I acquired a good deal of my scientific knowledge from Superman comics. That said, if you need a peer review on the properties of Kryptonite, I’m your boy.

My point here is that I can only vouch for what has worked for me……and that’s the entry-level diopters option. Why jump immediately to the big-boy toys when you can master the baby steps with a smaller outlay of green, then move up as your needs dictate? Seems logical that training wheels should precede entry in the Tour de France.

Doesn’t take a Brainiac.

(reach Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)

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