The $50 Macro Lens

No, you do not need to spend $500 to take a photo like this

Let’s get two things out of the way first: one, no lens is a true macro lens unless it delivers 1:1 or better magnification; and two, Canon makes some kickass macro lenses, so if you’re really serious about it you’ll buy one. These are what we call facts.

But let’s say you don’t have $950 to drop. There are still a few options open to you. You could reverse mount a lens, which, man, honestly that’s really weird to work with. Instead, I’m going to show you how you can experience all the frustrations joys of macro photography for $50. Yep, a macro lens for nearly one tenth the cost of Canon’s cheapest macro¹.

You’ll need three things. All of them can easily be found on eBay; you can get them elsewhere but eBay is the most reliable source for this kind of sketchy stuff. You want:

1) A normal, prime K-mount² lens (the 50mm f/2 is fine, but the field is open), $25
2) A k-mount to EOS adapter, $15
3) A set of cheap EF-mount extension tubes, $10

The normal k-mount lenses start at .15x magnification, and with the tubes you’ll end up well over 1:1. There are real equations out there but a good rough guide is to add to the native magnification to the length of the tubes divided by the focal length of the lens. So, let’s say we add 67mm of extension to that 50mm lens which already has .15x.

(67 ÷ 50) + .15 = 1.49

So you can easily go beyond what most consumer lenses let you magnify, by almost 50%. But the real key here is using the manual lens. You may be asking, why not just use those $10 tubes with the lenses I already have? Well, the $10 tubes are literally just tubes. You could use a toilet paper roll and lots of duct tape just as well. Since modern lenses have electronic aperture control, you’ll be stuck shooting wide open unless you want to spend $170. But hey, you might be thinking wide open is fine, you like bokeh! No. Even f/8 gives a focal plane so narrow your scary aunt’s drawn-on eyebrows would be jealous. Wider than that is closer to unusable than anything else.

But, these old manual lenses have an aperture ring. You can stop down and maximize your in-focus real estate. Now, this still isn’t a panacea; I’m going to be honest, by going the $50 route you’re giving up some conveniences. Most notably, once you start stopping down these manual lenses your viewfinder is going to get very dark. It’s a small price to pay for a small price.

So, now that you can represent objects one and a half times larger than they appear in real life, what to shoot? Well, flowers and bugs are the standard, so here you go. The setup I used to shoot these is exactly what I described above: an SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/2, adapted with cheap extension tubes on a Rebel. Below are a couple more quick shots. You might also have luck with an M42 lens and adapter, they’re also pretty inexpensive.



That dandelion photo? That’s f/8. That’s how shallow your depth of field will be. Good luck.

¹Do you shoot Nikon? Sorry, your lens options are a bit more limited. The good news is that older Nikon AI/AI-S lenses in most cases bolt right onto to modern Nikon bodies, no adapter needed.

²K-mount is not a requirement, I happened to have them lying around, and that 50mm f/2 is ubiquitous and cheap. M42, Olympus OM, C/Y, and Nikon AI/AI-S all work fine.

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6 thoughts on “The $50 Macro Lens

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Photo This » The $50 Macro Lens --

  2. TwinkieBear

    That Fly shot is sick. Nice work with the budget photographic sorcery once again. These certainly blow the Quantaray 70-300 on it’s macro setting out of the water… & for 1/2 the price!

  3. B

    Thanks! I have to give big ups to Paul and Justin for getting me to think about it.

    I have a 28-200 that, similar to that zoom you had, goes to .25x. But that’s at 200mm, so the tubes would only give another .33x or so, I think… still not shabby, I’ll have to try it out.

    PS: you can do this on the 5DMkII, since the tubes offset the lens so you don’t have to worry about the mirror hitting the bayonet.

  4. B

    Yes, but there’s a catch. If you use a lens that has shorter backspacing than the camera’s normal mount, you need an adapter with optics to focus to infinity. This page explains it well. The problem with this is that the optics act as a teleconverter, magnifying and decreasing image quality. The good news is that if you just want to use it for macro purposes, the magnification will actually help.

  5. shelly

    thanks, I have an Fotodiox Lens Mount Adapter – Minolta MD, MC Rokkor Lens to Canon EOS Camera Adapter. When the weather gets better I’m gonna give the macro a try.

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