Macro photography with macro extension tubes

If you've got some non-macro lenses and you want to get started with macro photography, macro extension tubes are one of the first options that are recommended. But how close can you get with extension tubes? Does it affect image quality? How well does the autofocus work with them? What do you get and what do you lose?

In this post, I will test a set of extension tubes on the Fujifilm X-T3 APS-C mirrorless camera using 9 different lenses and provide you with the images and findings so you can decide for yourself. This is not a scientific test. It's meant to give you a feel for what images might look like using the tubes.

Keep in mind, though, that the macro extension tubes, while quite affordable, aren't the most convenient nor do they provide the best magnification. If you want to invest a bit more, some diopter lenses provide a more convenient set-up for converting existing lenses.

How much magnification and working distance?

Before you go on with this article, you should first have a general idea about how much magnification and working distance (distance between the front of the lens and the subject) you need. (Remember that working distance is not the same as the minimum focus distance.)

For insect photography, you typically want a working distance of 20cm (8in) or more. As you learn how to approach insects you may get by with less, but most insects will initially flee if you get too close. Larger insects will fill your frame at magnifications as small as 0.25 (1:4), but for tiny insects or insect head shots you may need to go well above life-size (2 times magnification and beyond), crop your images, or use a smaller sensor body like the micro-four-thirds.

I can tell you right now that extension tubes with conventional lenses is not ideal for insects, but you can start with this set-up anyway if you are curious. Just because it's not ideal, it does not mean it's impossible.

If you are shooting inanimate objects, any working distance will work if it's not really short, like below 5cm (2in). I do mostly flower photography, and the magnifications I use are typically between 0.2 and 0.6, with a working distance of between 15cm and 20cm (6in to 7.8in).

For product photography, professionals usually recommend longer working distances; the longer the better. I don't shoot product photography, find one ask them. My Laowa 65mm macro lens has a working distance of around 20cm (at the magnifications I use it at), and that works well enough for my use case.

The equipment tested

Usually in this type of blog post, we are supposed to start with a detailed description of extension tubes so we sound educated, but I'm sure you know how to use search engines. In fact you probably already know what they are and are just curious about what you can get out of them, so that's what we'll erm... focus on.

A set of Viltrox extension tubes for Fujifilm X mount cameras
A set of Viltrox extension tubes for Fujifilm X mount cameras

Pictured above are the 11mm and 16mm extension tubes for the Fujifilm X mount made by Viltrox. If you are a Fuji shooter, you will probably be delighted to hear that these work exactly the same as the Fujifilm ones, and they are a lot cheaper, too. Even if you are not satisfied with the quality, you will at least learn if you need them without breaking the bank. These particular tubes are note weather-sealed, but nether are the original ones for the Fujifilm camera, so you literally don't get anything by going for the manufacturer ones.

The tubes can be used either separately, or combined. So with two tubes, I have three possible options: 11mm only, 16mm only, 27mm (combined 11 + 16). I will test all three options with all of the lenses.

I will also use the following lenses:

  • 7artisans 1:1.8 25mm HD MC
  • Nikon Nikkor-O Auto 35mm 1:2
  • Nikon Nikkor-H Auto 50mm 1:2
  • Nikon Nikkor-P Auto 105mm 1:2.5
  • Nikon Nikkor 50mm 1:1.2
  • Nikon Nikkor 80-200mm 1:4
  • Pentax SMC Takumar 55mm 1:1.8
  • Fujifilm Fujinon Super EBC XF16-80mm 1:4 R OIS WR
  • Fujifilm Fujinon Super EBC XF70-300mm 1:4-5.6 R LM OIS WR

You will notice that only three of the lenses are native (7artisans and the two Fujifilm zooms). All other lenses are adapted. The advantage of using a set of native extension tube with a lens adapter is that you only need to get one set of extension tubes. If you were to put the tube on the adapter instead of on the camera, you would need to get the specific tubes for each adapted mount.

I will shoot each lens on my Fujifilm X-T3 body using Godox V1 flash for lighting. All shots will be shot using the exact same settings:

  • ISO 320
  • Shutter speed 1/1000
  • Aperture f/8
  • Flash strength 1/2
  • Manual white balance and my favorite film simulation profile (maybe in another post)

I will not compensate for light loss due to close focusing distances, so you can get a feel for how much light is lost. If you see a darker image, that's because the lens is very close to the subject, not a mistake in exposure or flash settings.

You may be wondering about the aperture setting. Macro photography is rarely shot wide open, because the depth of field is so thin that it is sometimes impossible to get everything you need in focus even when stopped down all the way. f/8 is the sweet spot for both sharpness and depth of field for most of the lenses that I'll test, so that's why I've chosen this particular setting.

I will test the zoom lenses at their shortest and longest zoom settings only. Most of the time, though not always, the focal lengths in between are going to result in in-between performance.

The subject is a Son Goku figure. For each shot, I will set the focal point at roughly around the closer eye of the figure. I will also hand-hold all shots because that's how I normally shoot. I also try to shoot with one hand where the lens' weight permits, and will report oh whether that was successful. I will also use autofocus on Fujifilm lenses.

In this article, I'll note the magnification using decimal notation, so 1:2 magnification (half life-size) is going to be written as 0.5.

I will provide a rough measurement of magnification and working distance for each lens. Please remember that these are very rough measurements due to differences in perspective for each shot, and so on. They are not scientific, and may be off by a few percentages.

Baseline

Since we want to know what it would look like to shoot macro with these lenses and extension tubes, I've shot a series of images using the trusty Laowa CF 65mm F2.8 CA-Dreamer Macro 2X lens. This is an optically superb lens and if any of our lenses can get close to this at any setting, I'll consider it a great success.

The images below are all shot with the same lens using the same settings. You can see the loss of light as we go beyond the 1:1 magnification.

Although these images are sharp and detailed, please try not to get distracted by that. I did not aim for sharpness contest here. I was more interested in the magnification and working distance. With more or less effort, all of these lenses can be persuaded to yield sharp images.

7artisans 25mm

The 7artisans 25mm is a budget lens. It has great image quality, and the only downside is the poorly controlled flare. The lens focuses very close as it is, without any extension tubes.

The 7artisans 25mm gives decent images at close focusing distance. It tends to overexpose at the same settings as the other lenses, but that's easy to correct. Because it is a bit wider than the other lenses, it gives a more dramatic perspective when up-close.

With the 16mm tube, this lens gives an impressive almost-life-size 0.85 magnification, but the working distance is a mere 3.5cm (1.4in), which is way too close for most subjects.

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes10.50.17
11mm40.63
16mm3.50.85
11+16mmtoo closen/a

Nikkor-O 35mm

The Nikkor-O 35mm is one of the legendary vintage lenses from Nikon. It's an all metal lens with buttery smooth and light controls. It's optics are really good. On an APS-C body, this lens has the field of view that is said to be "normal."

The images shot with the Nikkor-O 35mm lens are sharp corner to corner at this setting, and very detailed. Of all the lenses tested, it got closest to life-size magnification, but at the cost of an uncomfortable working distance of just 3cm (1.2in).

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes190.13
11mm70.45
16mm50.69
11+16mm30.9

Nikkor-H 50mm

Nikkor-H 50mm is a decent normal lens from the film era. This particular sample is of about the same vintage as the Nikkor-O 35mm, and has equally impressive optical qualities. On the APS-C, it will have the same field of view as a 75mm would on full-frame cameras, so it's a short telephoto.

With the extension tubes, this lens goes all the way up to 0.63 magnification, which is adequate for most subjects other than really tiny ones (like small insects). The working distance of 9cm will probably not be comfortable for live subjects, though.

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes470.11
11mm17.50.3
16mm13.50.41
11+16mm90.63

Nikkor-P 105mm

This lens was made famous by the cover photo of the June 1985 issue of the National Geographic magazine, called Afgan Girl. It's a good lens, with fantastic optics, although it's probably a bit more hyped than it actually deserves. It's also a heavy all-metal lens, and not well-suited for one-handed use on a lightweight mirrorless camera.

This lens has a long minimum working distance of over 1m (3.2ft) without the extension tubes. Because of this, despite its longer focal length, it is unable to achieve significant magnification with just 0.38 using both tubes. It has a decent working distance of 38.5cm (15in), though, so it is well-suited to larger subjects, live or otherwise, or even smaller ones if you are not afraid to crop.

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes1020.10
11mm580.18
16mm500.22
11+16mm38.50.38

Nikkor 50mm 1:1.2

This is a manual lens, but it's been in production till fairly recently. It's a large lens with the maximum aperture of F1.2. Although it is a bit soft at F1.2, it is extremely sharp at virtually all other aperture settings (except for very small apertures where every lens suffers from the diffraction). It's main drawback for macro use is color fringing, which is more pronounced in this lens than in others. That and the weight.

Compared to the other 50mm lens, this one achieves a slightly better magnification, but at a slightly shorter working distance. The sweet spot for this lens is probably the 16mm extension tube alone as it is capable of achieving a 0.45 magnification (almost half-life-size) at a decent working distance of 11cm (4.3in).

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes410.10
11mm150.26
16mm110.45
11+16mm7.50.63

Nikkor 80-200mm

This is probably the sharpest manual telephoto zoom lens Nikon has ever produced. It's also quite heavy at over 800g (28.2oz). Definitely not for one-handed use.

Since this is the first zoom lens in this test, I'll mention one advantage of using zoom lenses for macro: zoom lenses tend to have different working distances for the same magnification at different focal lengths. With extension tubes, the total focus range (near to far) are very limited, so you end up having to focus by physically moving away or towards the subject. With zoom lenses, however, because the working distance can be varied using the zoom, it is possible to use the zoom as a focusing mechanism. With a little bit of practice, zooms can become a lot more versatile for macro than fixed-focal-length prime lenses.

First the wider, 80mm, end:

And here is the 200mm end:

Since this lens has pretty much the same native minimum working distance as the Nikkor-P 105mm, it also performs similarly in terms of magnification and working distance, achieving only 0.38 magnification at the distance of 22cm (8.7in). Although the longer end starts with a respectable 0.25 magnification using the 11mm extension tube, it appears to cap at the same 0.38 maximum magnification as the 80mm end, albeit with a working distance of 66cm. Overall, this lens' maximum magnification is 0.38 regardless of the focal length (and we will notice this phenomenon with the other telephoto lenses as well).

Just like the Nikkor-P 105, this lens can be used for larger subjects, live or otherwise, thanks to it's long working distance. Additionally, it can be focused using the zoom, which is a welcome bonus.

@ 80mmworking distance (cm)magnification
no tubes1010.07
11mm42.50.18
16mm330.21
11+16mm220.38
@ 200mmworking distance (cm)magnification
no tubes970.19
11mm810.25
16mm750.34
11+16mm660.38

SMC Takumar 55mm

The Pentax SMC Takumar lenses are well known for their interesting bokeh called soap bubble bokeh. The bokeh is not as dramatic as the Meyer Optik Gorlitz lenses, but the Pentax lenses are modern and optically far superior. The 55mm F1.8 version is less appreciated than the better-known 50mm F1.4, but that's a good thing because you are getting it much cheaper and yet it is every bit as Takumar as the other one.

This lens flares more readily than other lenses, but this can be used creatively as the flare is not ugly. The image at the top of this post was shot with this lens and I took advantage of the flare to create a lighting effect.

This lens is probably the best performing out of the lenses I've tested here. It focuses close even without the tubes. It has a decent 11cm (4.3in) working distance with at the maximum magnification of over a half-life-size, 0.63. While this is too close for small live subjects, it will be adequate even for smaller still subjects. You can also trade a bit of magnification for an even better working distance of 15cm (5.9in) when using just the 16mm extension tube. The images are sharp corner-to-corner and detailed, and color fringing is well-controlled.

 working distance (cm)magnification
no tubes350.14
11mm180.36
16mm150.45
11+16mm110.63

Fujinon XF16-80mm

The XF16-80 is probably the most versatile lens in the Fujifilm lineup. It has a large zoom range that encroaches on the short telephoto territory, a fixed F4 aperture throughout the range, and it is optically quite good. Its optical image stabilization is also quite good for normal shooting and autofocus is fast, albeit not always accurate as shot on the X-T3.

The wider end of this lens was not tested as the working distances were pretty much non-existent. The lens becomes somewhat usable at 23mm and longer. Here are the images using the 80mm end:

This lens would have been illegal if it achieved better results with extension tubes as it would have made most other lenses in this focal range obsolete. Sadly, although the lens can achieve a decent 0.69 magnification, complete with autofocus, it does so at the abysmal working distance of just 3.5cm (1.4in). This is way too short for any kind of macro work. With just the 16mm extension tube, the working distances becomes a workable 7cm (2.7in) while the magnification is still quite good at 0.52, but I wanted to see something longer. This is adequate for many still subjects, though. Autofocus works well at macro distances, too, but the optical image stabilization is just barely better than none.

@ 80mmworking distance (cm)magnification
no tubes180.22
11mm9.50.45
16mm70.52
11+16mm3.50.69

Fujinon XF70-300mm

The XF 70-300mm is as modern of a lens as it gets. It was released in early 2021 as a mid-range telephoto zoom. This lens has a variable maximum aperture of F4 at 70mm to F5.6 at 300mm, which is pretty normal for a lens like this. It has superb optical image stabilization which makes the tripod obsolete under most shooting conditions. Autofocus is generally snappy and accurate, but it tends to hunt for very close subjects and/or in dim light.

The lens is made entirely of plastic except for the bayonet mount (and glass elements, of course), which makes it quite light for its size. However, one-handed shooting is somewhat hindered by it's length, especially as the extension tubes push it further away from the camera body. A body with a larger grip may help with this (e.g., X-H1, X-T4), but I can't know for sure. I know for sure, though, that the metal hand grip attachment for X-T3 is not effective when this lens is attached.

Here are the images shot at the 70mm end:

And here are the images at the 300mm end:

Unlike the Nikkor-P 105mm and Nikkor 80-200mm lenses, this lens achieves a much better maximum magnification of 0.54 at the 70mm end at the working distance of comfortable 14cm (5.5in). Even at the 300mm end, the magnification is still above half-life-size at 0.52, and the working distance is much longer at 42cm (16.5in). While this still won't allow you to shoot tiny insects, it's adequate for most live and still subjects. As with the 80-200mm zoom, we see that the maximum magnification appears capped at the long end.

Autofocus works ok, albeit acquisition doesn't work as well as I hoped. On the other hand, I am happy to report that the optical image stabilization makes a meaningful contribution at maximum magnification.

Regarding image quality, it's very sharp and detailed, but in some situations the out of focus areas may swirl which may be distracting.

As with the 80-200mm, it is possible to use the zoom to focus. However, this is not practical with one-handed use as the zoom ring is quite stiff.

@ 70mmworking distance (cm)magnification
no tubes590.10
11mm240.29
16mm180.38
11+16mm140.54
@ 300mmworking distance (cm)magnification
no tubes590.36
11mm510.44
16mm490.44
11+16mm420.52

Conclusions

Macro extension tubes generally provide adequate-to-good magnification for medium-to-large subjects. They are probably not very good for insect photography. The magnification and working distance of the setup depends on the native magnification and working distance of the lens itself. Lenses with medium working distance and high magnification work well (e.g., normal-to-telephoto lenses that can focus relatively close). Wide lenses with short minimum focus distance will not work well due to extremely short working distances.

Extension tubes will not affect autofocus performance by much, but they may affect image quality to an extent. Some lenses are less tolerant to the change in flange distance (distance between the back element and sensor plane).

If you go for 3rd party macro extension tubes, they can be quite inexpensive (less than USD 40 for a pair of Viltrox tubes, for example), and they work just as well as the ones made by the camera manufacturers.

What about your lens?

It is possible to find out what the approximate magnification is for different extension tube lengths based on your lens' focal length and its own maximum magnification.

To calculate the maximum magnification, you need to know the exact size of your camera's image sensor (usually mentioned in the specs). Shoot an image of a ruler at the closest focusing distance. Set to manual focus mode, and then turn the focus ring all the way to the closest setting, and then move the camera in and out until the ruler is in focus. You will get the magnification by dividing the length of the ruler that's visible in the frame by the matching dimension of the sensor. It does not have to be particularly accurate as approximate magnification is good enough (unless you are the type that worries about numbers while shooting).

Image of a metric ruler

In the above image, the visible portion of the ruler is approximately 68mm. The sensor width of the Fujifilm X-T3 camera is 23.5mm. When we divide 23.5 by 68, we get 0.34, which is the magnification of the XF70-300mm lens at 300mm (give or take).

Now to calculate the magnification gained by using a 16mm extension tube, we divide the length of the tube by the focal length: 16 divided by 300. This gives us 0.053. This is the amount of additional magnification that the tube will get us. Combined with the magnification we already have (0.34), we should get a total of 0.39-ish. I've measured 0.44 by measuring elements on an image, which is close enough given the difference in perspective, etc.

There's an online calculator that can do all the math for you, although you will still need to find the magnification of your lens first.

Sample images

Without getting too bogged down in technical details, extension tubes can provide quite a bit of fun. Here are some images I was snapping at home using different lenses.

This article was updated on December 30, 2021

Hajime Yamasaki Vukelic

I'm a macro photographer based in Europe. I took the first macro photos using the Nikon F film camera and extension tubes in late 1990's, and have since tried myself in various genres using various types of camera. In 2020, I returned to my first love, macro photography. I love hunting for abstract details in plants, and playing with photography gear.

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