“Should I buy a macro lens or extension tubes?” is a very popular question I see on the photography forums I follow and contribute to, and I have put my view across so many times it is getting boring, so I thought I would write a response to this on my own blog and simply direct the OP to my site.
I know that everyone likes to get value for money and go about things the most cost effective way, however buying extension tubes to have a go at macro photography is false economy and a total waste of money.
There are two types of extension tubes available for macro photography. Both types of extension tubes are plastic tubes that are placed between the camera body and the lens to fore the lens further away from the camera’s sensor to force the lens to focus closer. There is one distinct difference between the two types of extension tube, and that is one has electrical contacts and one doesn’t.
Your camera’s auto focus system won’t work using the extension tubes without the electrical contacts so you will have to rely on focusing manually. This shouldn’t cause too many problems if the subject you are photographing is stationary and doesn’t move, but if you are taking photos of insects, creepy, crawlies and the like that will scuttle away or fly off, you will struggle to get any of the photo in focus.
There are times when relying on manual focus for stationary subjects will cause some issues, such as when photographing flowers outside being blown around by a gentle breeze. The slightest movement in macro photography will turn the photo in to a blurry, unusable mess so manual focusing isn’t always a good idea.
The camera’s auto focusing system will work using extension tubes with the electrical contacts but given the stupidly expensive cost of these extension tubes compared to the results you will get using extension tubes (you pay through the nose to retain auto focus) the cost isn’t worth it.
Extension tubes reduce the light striking the sensor, the amount of which depends on what length extension tube you use. This loss of light is not an issue if you use a tripod or some stable support, however if you are taking handheld shots the loss of light is a real pain. I like to photograph insects, which involves taking photos handheld, and keeping the shutter speeds up is essential. In my experience using extension tubes for this type of photography is a total waste of time as the light loss is critical. Okay, I could compensate for this by opening the aperture but the depth of field is so crucial in macro photography this won’t work. I could also compensate by pushing the ISO but this results in noisy images, which is something I won’t accept.
Using extension tubes significantly decreases the image quality of photos, regardless of what length extension tube you use. I have read reports that using the shorter extension tubes have no impact on image quality and that using medium length extension tubes slightly decreases image quality. In my experience all extension tubes, regardless of the length, affect image quality and even the shortest extension tubes decrease the image quality I find acceptable.
Surely there are some advantages to extension tubes?
From the above I think my views on extension tubes are pretty clear. Looking at it subjectively though I am thinking really hard for some positives to say about extension tubes. Hmmmm….. This is not an easy one as I can’t think of a single thing. I guess extension tubes are readily available and you can buy them anywhere. Can you class this as a positive though? Probably not.
That’s it! I give up – I can’t think of any positives about extension tubes at all.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.