Macro Photography With Extension Tubes

An affordable alternative to using macro lenses

If you truly want to enter the magnified world of macro photography, you’ve probably been told you need a dedicated macro lens.

But these specialist lenses can cost a fair bit, and if macro photography is something you do just for the enjoyment, you probably don’t want to be paying hundreds of dollars for a lens you’ll only use occasionally. The good news is that there is a cheaper alternative: extension tubes.

To test the difference between these two options, I compared the Sony 90mm 2.8 Macro G lens against two extension tubes on a standard Sony 50mm 1.8 lens as well as the medium format Hasselblad 120mm macro lens against my 100mm lens with extension tubes added.

What are extension tubes?

Before we get into the results, let me explain what extension tubes are. Extension tubes are essentially relatively inexpensive spacers that move your lens further away from the recording medium (the sensor). In doing so, the image circle becomes bigger and therefore provides more magnification. Because of this shift, the lens is then able to be focused on very close objects.

However, using extension tubes means the lens loses its ability to focus at further distances.


Extension tubes are, as I say, basically spacers and because they have no glass, they are relatively inexpensive, making them a good option for close-up work if you’re on a budget.

What are macro lenses?

Dedicated macro lenses, on the other hand, are lenses that can focus from infinity to extremely close up, which means that lenses like the Sony 90mm macro can also be effective portrait or product photography lenses.

But is there much difference between using a $1000 dedicated macro lens against a $200 standard lens with a $75 set of extension tubes?

Extension tubes vs macro lens

To thoroughly test the results from the extension tubes and macro lens, I shot the same image at various apertures.

As you'll see in the video, the actual macro lenses have much better flat field performance, whereas we see the extension tubes blurring quite severely in the corners at the same larger aperture settings.

Image taken at f4 using Hasselblad 100mm lens with extension tubes.
Image taken at f4 using Hasselblad 120mm macro lens.

However, as we closed the aperture down to f8 and smaller we clearly see much better performance from the extension tubes as the depth of field helps bring those blurry corners sharp. By the time we hit f22 and smaller there isn’t a huge amount between them, but the macro lens still has the edge in terms of contrast and detail.

Image taken at f22 using Sony 50mm lens with extension tubes.
Image taken at f22 using Sony 90mm macro lens.
Image taken at f22 using Sony 50mm lens with extension tubes.
Image taken at f22 using Sony 90mm macro lens.

Personally I really love a good dedicated macro lens but I still find extension tubes very useful. For example, with much of my product work I like to get my camera physically closer to the product with the product still fitting in the frame. To do this I generally need a shorter focal length like a 50mm or an 80mm, but if there is no dedicated macro lens in that focal length range then I can achieve still get the result I need using extension tubes.

Now I’m sure you’re asking “But what about the loss of quality at the edges of the frame?” I use the technique of focus stacking in a lot of my work to achieve the maximum depth of field. This means the reduced corner sharpness of using extension tubes is eliminated during the focus stack.

Clearly, from this comparison, macro lenses still win when it comes to quality. However, it’s worth asking yourself what you’re using the lens for and whether you really need to be paying thousands  as opposed to hundreds of dollars. If focus stacking is an option, then extension tubes could be a great alternative as they’re able to produce some great results, especially at smaller apertures.

To learn more about focus stacking and photographing products, make sure to take a look at our extensive range of product photography classes.

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