Macro photography is some of the most fun you can have with a camera. But good macro lenses can be very expensive. There are other things we can do, however, to get macro-like images with our regular lenses, though, without actually having to buy a macro lens. There are close-up filters, reversing rings and extension tubes, for example.
But the latter of those three options, extension tubes, is generally thought to give the best results. But how do they really compare to a true macro lens? In this video, Karl Taylor takes a look at true macro lenses vs extension tubes on both Sony full-frame and Hasselblad medium format systems to see how the two techniques stack up against each other.
Extension tubes are, as the name suggests, simply tubes. They come in all sorts of varieties and capabilities for various systems to pass through information like the aperture the lens needs to be at, and some can pass communication data back to retain EXIF info. The one big advantage a true macro lens has that its entire focus range travels from its minimum focus distance all the way through to infinity. This makes them quite versatile lenses. I have the Nikon 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor myself and often use it for shooting portraits as well its usual macro duties.
When you’re using extension tubes, though, you’re limiting your range of focus. Yes, the lens can focus much more closely now, but you lose infinity focus. You might actually only have a focus range of a few inches, depending on the lens and how much extension you’ve applied to it.
For his tests, Karl uses the Sony 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS lens against the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 and some Kenko extension tubes on a what looks like the Sony A7R III. For medium format, he uses the mighty Hasselblad HC Macro 120mm f/4 II lens against the Hasselblad HC 100mm f/2.2 with a set of 13mm, 26mm and 52mm extension tubes on the H6D-100C. He keeps the same conditions as closely as possible throughout each test (even going so far as to check parallel with a spirit level) shooting throughout the aperture range.
Wide open, with both systems, the macro lens beats the regular lens with tubes every time. But as the lenses start to stop down to f/8, the differences become much less obvious. And once you start to go down to f/22, diffraction starts to become a big issue regardless of which way you go.
As to which is going to ultimately be better… Well, the actual macro lens has the extension tubes beat. But, for the most part, only just. If you’re shooting at f/8, depending on what lens you happen to be using with your extension tubes, the results may be similar enough for your needs to justify saving quite a bit of expense. But for some of you, you’ll definitely see the need to invest.
But if you’re just starting out, there’s no reason why you can’t get great quality with extension tubes.