Extension Tubes vs Macro Lens: Which is better for your use case?

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

When you need to get close to the subject and maintain a sharp focus, it’s hard to beat a good macro lens. Their focusing distance and 1:1 magnification make it easy to get the shots you’re after. The thing is, even the most affordable macro lenses can cost a few hundred dollars.

Not everyone can afford to splash out on a new lens, especially if they’re new to the field. Buying the right equipment for your kit is important if you need to produce excellent images, but a lens isn’t the only way to go. If you’re taking photos of small subjects with a close working distance, you may be able to use an extension tube.

Many photographers use extension tubes to produce images with similar results to macro lenses. So what’s the difference? Does using a cheaper option always deliver a lower image quality? What about focal lengths? Which is the right one to get if you’d like to get in closer?

There a few things you’ll need to know before going out and buying a macro lens or extension tube for your camera. The goal of this post is to help you make the right decision.

macro-photoExtension Tubes vs Macro Lenses

So what’s an extension tube? Extension tubes, or rings, are hollow cylinders that you mount between the front of your camera and your lens.

These tubes often come with no extra optics, bells or whistles and are therefore a cheap and cheerful option. Plenty of third-party models exist for extension tubes, and they’re becoming increasingly popular among those who need to get closer to their subject.

There are two main types of extension tubes available. The first and most affordable option is a non-electronic tube. These don’t keep any form of connection between the body of your device and your lens. Unfortunately, this makes it less convenient to control your setup.

The second option is an extension tube with electrical contacts that keep your device and lens connected. With these more premium models, you’ll be able to control exposure and focus. You’ll also be able to toggle between manual focus and automatic focus modes.

Macro lenses

What about a macro lens? If you want to guarantee focus at close range and take large photos with excellent image quality, you might like this option. A dedicated macro lens can really elevate your close up photo game. They have a much closer focus range, which allows them to stay sharp even when right next to your subject.

These lenses’ advantages for close up photography are obvious, but there are some applications that many beginners don’t think of. Macro setups are great if you’re into food photography. The close, sharp detail makes capturing a photo of your meal very easy.

Portrait photography in general is made much easier with a macro lens. There are plenty of options out there to add to your kit. It’s worth shopping around to see which ones work for you. As a general rule, the leading names are Canon and Nikon. Each come with their own list of pros and cons. Check out the rest of this site to learn more.

Picking the right macro sensor can be tricky. Years ago, the competition was less fierce, but there’s now a lot of research involved in finding the right option. One of the best tips, in our opinion, is to go with a prime macro lens. There are two variants out there: prime and zoom.

In our opinion, prime lenses usually produce a better image. Technically speaking, a zoom lens isn’t truly macro in the first place. When picking up a macro lens, remember to pay attention to the minimum distance for focusing and reproduction ratio. This will help you get a phenomenal image every time.

Related

How Macro Lenses Work

It’s much harder to maintain a sharp focus with normal camera lenses when moving close to your subject. The focus range isn’t right for macro photography. Every lens has its strengths, but it’s best to use equipment built for the job for close-up shots.

A true macro lens uses a minimum focusing distance that can stay sharp when very close to its subject. Be sure to choose an option with the right focal length. When choosing a macro lens, look for options that have a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1.

A 1:1 ratio means that what you see on the camera sensor or film plate is at least the same size as the real-world subject. So if you’re taking a photo of a flower with a 1-inch diameter, that same flower should be 1-inch across on your camera’s sensor. You’ll be able to focus closer to your target than with other options and achieve the 1:1 ratio that’s so important.

Macro Lenses With APS-C sensors

The thing about picking up photography as a hobby is that it’s a field full of baffling terminology. One moment you’ve decided to buy a shiny camera, and the next, you’re scratching your head, wondering where on earth to start. So what does APS-C actually mean?

Let’s look at the first three letters. APS stands for “advanced photo system.” Years ago, this was a term used to refer to a film format first introduced in 1996. This film format is now discontinued, but the term is still around. The “C” in APS-C stands for classic.

In the world of digital photography, this format is smaller than its original film counterpart. This is why you may see APS lenses referred to as “cropped” sensors. APS-C lenses are still very common. For macro photos, they have some distinct advantages.

These “cropped” sensors offer a higher depth of field. This makes it easier to capture macro images. With the same field of view, an APS-C setup can focus at a much tighter distance than other options. If you’re interested in macro photography, you may want to look at an option using APS-C.

If a dedicated lens is a little out of your price range, an APS-C sensor may be the answer. These are a more budget-friendly option that can boost your setup’s ability to magnify.

How do Extension Tubes Work?

So we’ve already discussed that when using an extension tube to boost your magnification, you mount what is essentially a hollow cylinder between the front of your camera and your lens. This moves your lens much further away from your device than it was before. The result is a setup with a great magnification capacity.

Thanks to this magnifying boost, you’ll be able to take images that are zoomed-in far tighter than before. If you want to add extension rings to your setup, it’s best to choose a lens with a medium to small focal length.

There is a variety of different width and height options available for extension tubes. The dimensions you go with will determine how close you can get with your set up. The dimensions of your optics will also affect things. If you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, you’ll be able to get super close!

If flexibility is what you’re after, a longer 85mm option will give you more wiggle room. The thing you’re shooting won’t look quite as large in your photo, but you’ll have more room to operate in.

Stacking Extension Tubes

It’s also possible to stack one extension tube on top of the other to maximize your magnification. If you think this is the right approach for you, there are a few tips to remember:

  • Use compatible tubes. Not all tubes are designed to play nicely with one another; buy models that fit together.
  • Watch out for light leak. Depending on the setup you use, you may experience unwanted light leaking into your system when taking images.
  • They can be used to “hack” extenders together. If you own multiple extenders that don’t usually fit together, an extension tube can help them fit. There are tutorials out there online if you’re looking for a more custom setup.

Limitations of Extension Tubes

If you use telephoto lenses, an extension tube might not be a great fit. The increase in magnification with a telephoto lens is minimal and would probably be a waste of time to set up. While we’re on the subject, if you like taking a photo of objects way off in the distance, then a tube won’t be a good option.

Thanks to their design, an extension tube ruins your ability to focus on faraway objects. If image quality matters to you, then we think a macro lens is a better option. Extension rings force your lens to focus more closely than it’s supposed to. This will result in lower image quality for each zoomed-in photo.

If you use a zoom lens for your macro photography, you would be better off with a macro sensor. A lens like a zoom lens will lose focus practically every time you zoom in or out. If you’ve used a setup like this before, you know how frustrating this can be.

The final limitation we want to discuss in this article is aperture control. If your setup doesn’t use manual rings, then an extension ring could drive you mad. Your lens aperture will be locked open at the widest setting. This can force an imaginative photo in the right context but can also be frustratingly limiting.

Bestseller No. 1
Fotodiox Macro Extension Tube Set Compatible with Canon EOS EF/EF-S Cameras for Extreme Macro Photography
  • Quick and inexpensive way to achieve macro focus; Any combination of tubes can be used for various reproduction ratios
  • No optical insert - maintains lens optical quality while remaining lightweight
  • Extension tubes are designed to enable a lens to focus closer than normal
  • Includes: camera and lens mounts, 7mm, 14mm and 28mm tube sections
  • Limited 2-year manufacturer warranty

Bestseller No. 1
Sony SEL90M28G FE 90mm f/2.8-22 Macro G OSS Standard-Prime Lens for Mirrorless Cameras,Black
  • A perfect match for α7 series, 35mm full-frame E-mount cameras, 90mm Macro with a bright F2.8 maximum aperture, Nano AR coating effectively suppress reflections, Dust and moisture resistant design
  • Minimum Focus Distance : 0.92 ft (0.28 m), Maximum Magnification ratio : 1.0x, Focal Length : 90 mm. The angle of view is 27 degree (35 mm) and 17 degree (APS-C)
  • Optical Steady Shot image stabilization for handheld shooting, Instant manual/auto focus selection via a sliding focus ring, Instant manual/auto focus selection via a sliding focus ring
  • Corner to corner sharpness w/ Advanced Spherical elements, Super ED glass w/ multi‐coating reduces flare and ghosting, 9-blade circular aperture contributes to gorgeous bokeh
  • Direct Drive SSM (DDSSM) for quiet, precise focusing; Weight: 602 g (21.3 oz)

Related

Conclusion

It’s always tempting to conclude that one option is better than the other. The thing is, though, it totally depends on what you look for when taking an image.

If you’re working within a tight budget, an extension ring could be the right choice. Just be sure to remember the following:

  • If you’re stacking your tubes, use compatible models and watch out for light leak
  • Manual focus will become a nightmare if you’re using a zoom lens
  • The quality of each photo will be decreased thanks to the way extension rings function
  • They’re no good for telephoto setups

If these limitations aren’t a problem for you, add an extension ring to your kit!

If you can afford one, then a macro lens is a phenomenal option. It’s hard to argue with the sharp details they bring to each photo. If you do a lot of food or portrait photography, then this could be the answer. Just remember to pick up a prime lens and choose an option with a 1:1 reproduction ratio.