Building my list of macro essentials.


TPF Noob!
Jan 12, 2012
Reaction score
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Macro Enthusiasts,

I’m new to the photography world and am focused on learning the basics at the moment, but I’d like to graduate into macro down the road. I currently have a D5100 with several “okay” lenses, including a macro, that I got at a great price due to the local shop going out of business. Having read through a lot of back pages on the Equipment and Macro sub-forums, I’m realizing that I have no idea what I’m doing and could use some advice. Specifically, my macro interests are insects (my wife and I are beekeepers and want to get some good close-ups of the “girls).

Based on other threads, it seems that I might need the following (please correct me if I’m off-base):

1) Better lens: I’m currently using the Tamron 60mm f/2 1:1 SP Di II, but I have my eye on something like the Tamron 90mm, Nikon 105mm, Tamron 180mm, or Tokina 100mm. According to past threads, a little more distance is preferable when shooting insects and I assume 60mm will be too close.
2) Flash: Since I don’t have one, it seems better to get a “normal”, high quality one first for utility. Perhaps the SB-700 or higher. Secondary would be a ring flash. Either the Phoenix or Sigma EM-140.
3) Extension Tubes: I have the Kenko on my Wish List, but it sounds like it might not be as effective on my 60mm as it would be on something 90mm or higher.
4) Teleconverter: This is a bit confusing and intimidating since it sounds like there are a lot of compatibility issues, but it seems that the results are very good. As someone starting out, I’m not sure if this is right for me at the moment. Tamron has a couple, but if I upgrade, would I need the appropriate teleconverter for that lens (i.e. Nikon for Nikon, Tamron for Tamron, etc)? Even then, I’d need to ensure it’s compatible, right? Also, is this a case where more magnification is better (1.4 vs. 2)?
5) Tripod: I think the 190X with the Manfrotto 410 Junior head might be the right starting point.

Apologies if this is a repeat discussion, but I wanted to check with the experts before spending any more money. I appreciate the input.
Absolutely get a tripod, with macro work, your depth of field is so small that any movement will make your image out of focus. Also get a remote shutter release, either a wired version, or the Vello Freewave system, which will let you remotely trigger you camera, which could be great for getting really close up shots of your bees. I would suggest a ring flash, the Sigma is probably going to be much better than the phoenix. The extension tubes will give you better than 1:1 when used with a macro lens, so you can get some cool effects, or consider a bellows system-Fotodiox has one for about $35, and it will make any lens you have a macro lens. I wouldn't suggest a teleconverter, it will rob your lens of 1-2 stops of light, and when you are shooting macro, you need all the light you can get to focus.
First off you state you want a lens larger than 60mm to allow greater working distance for insects then you state you want extension tubes which will significantly cut down on your working distance. Extension tubes allow you to focus closer but the focus range is very limited. So those two statements sound contradictory. I feel that with extension tubes you will miss a lot of shots because the insects many times will be spooked before you get within focus range. As far as a tripod you're not going to have time to set up a tripod for insect shots. A 2X teleconverter will cut down a lot of light making focusing more difficult plus possibly cause some deterioration of the image. For lighting I use two SB600's and a macro flash bracket but my built in flash can be used in commander mode. If you plan on using one speedlight it would be advisable to use a flash bracket to get it off camera especially if using a long lens like the Sigma 150mm or Tamron 180mm.

Disclaimer: Some of my recommendations are based on only what I've read as I have had no experience with extension tubes, teleconverters, or ring flash. A 1.4X teleconverter I wouldn't mind experimenting with as that would not limit my in focus range. I have the Tamron 90 & 180. You may also want to check out Sigma. They have a 105mm and 150mm that I have seen super excellent shots from.

The longer the focal length, the farther away you can be to get that close up shot you want. With the shorter lenses, you might be so close, that the camera (and you) may be blocking out a lot of light. Might not be an issue if you're shooting with flash, but if certainly if you're shooting with natural light.

Also, you might look into a focusing/macro rail system...possible built into a 'geared' tripod head. The DOF can be so thin when you're shooting macro, that the best way to focus, is by moving the camera/lens closer/farther from the subject.
@davis: The tripod is certainly at the top of the list of Things To Buy since it, like a flash, are utilitarian. And thanks for the rec about a remote shutter release. I'll check it out. As for the teleconverter, it was a "suggestion" in the Close-Up book by Peterson and I've seen a few people mention its usefulness. But it sounds like it might not be right for me as a beginner.

@Jerry: You're right: those comments were contradictory. I didn't catch that. I hadn't ruled either one out yet simply because I wasn't sure what was better for my needs. Since I'll likely be focused more on the bees, I'm guessing I'll need whatever is required for moving targets during the day. Does that mean a longer lens with flash(es) to allow for faster shutter speeds? And thanks for the len recs. I'll certainly look at the Sigmas.

@Mike: The focal length is my concern about the 60mm I currently have. Perhaps a good quality, longer macro and/or a decent flash is the way to go. Good info about the rails. I hadn't thought of that.

I appreciate the help. This is going to help me build the list of things I actually need vs. stuff that may or may not be worth the money.
A tripod is nice and all but as far as I've seen bees at a beehive I don't really remember them sitting still so you can shoot a nice portrait.
Most of my insect photos are handheld and lots of other macro shooters do too.

A flash will allow you to shoot handheld insect pictures without a tripod because you can simply use a nice fast shutter speed.
Of course a tripod definitely is worth buying, I myself just don't use it for insect macro work.

As for the flash, there are several options here.
A ringflash is pretty handy when it comes to shooting macro although I've heard the light can be quite flat.
A lot of people use an off camera flash on a bracket with some kind of diffuser (sometimes homemade).

I myself have bought the R1C1 commander kit which is basically a ring bracket you place in front of your lens like a ring flash. You can put multiple flashes (the set comes with 2 standard) in that bracket and move them around which gives you lots of different lighting possibilities.
This kit also includes diffusers so you won't have to worry about that.
Of course you can also use these flashes for other work, I use them for portraiture too as they don't have to be mounted on that ring to work.
The only problem is that, just like any other complete high-end product, it is expensive.
I like a 180mm macro for bees. FLASH is nice to freeze bees in flight, and flash eliminates blurred images due to camera shake. The 180mm focal length gi e good working distance...about 18 inches or so at near closest focus with the Sigma 180/3.5 Macro, which has been replaced by a new 180/2.8 macro. I am not sure if the Tamron 180 macro you mentioned has the built-in focusing motor that would make it fully-compatible with your D5100. Tamron calls their D5100-compatible lenses BIM, for built-in-motor.

A ring flash is not really needed...ring flashes produce flat, virtually shadowless lighting that looks rather dull. I think a better system would be a flash connected to the camera with a TTL remote cord (Nikon SC-28 or SC-29),and the flash positioned either on a bracket with the flash firing at a sight angle ain relation to the lens's field of view, OR held by an assistant.

The 180mm focal length and the flash are all sort of inter-related. The reason for the flash to be held at just a SLIGHT angle is because at close distances, light falls off VERY rapidly, and so just a slight angle creates pretty good fall-off on the "off" side, which created three-dimensional effects due to the shadows the flash creates. With a 180mm lens, the flash is not "so doggone close" to the subjects as it is when a shorter lens is used and the flash is attached to the camera via either the hotshoe or a bracket that "rides along with the camera".

With a 180mm macro lens, you can SET a reproduction ratio on the lens's focusing distance scale, set the flash to the appropriate pre-determined output level in a manual mode, and can get reliably accurate exposures, with predictable, short flash durations, all from distances that allow pretty consistent exposure. With shorter macro lenses, a difference between say 6 inches and 8 inches is a HUGE difference in the light intensity, and besides that, you are so close to the subject that if you are shooting by natural light, your own camera and your own body are often impeding the natural light from hitting the subject. There is a genuine reason why 180mm, and 200mm macro lenses have been made for years!!!
Derrel is right in that the Tamron 180 does not have a built in motor. Even though my 90mm Tamron is a BIM lens no where on the lens does it indicate such. But it definitely is because it would auto focus on my D40X. And the box it came in had BIM on it.

In my opinion, the Sigma 150mm is a fantastic macro lens for the money. It gives you a decent focal length and the copies I've had are all very sharp.

If you are shooting live subjects that move on their own volition (and in my experience, bees certainly fit that description), you may find a tripod to be a bit limiting. By the time you get all set up with your tripod positioned and set to the proper height, etc (and remember with macro you have typically have razor thin depth-of-field) that your subject will have repositioned itself. If you're shooting this type of subject, my advice is to get yourself a lens you can hand hold.
When shooting insects I will usually prefocus the lens in manual then raise the viewfinder to my eye and move in slowly. When I have moved in close enough to attain sharp focus I will immediately snap the image. With an SB600 speedlight on each side of the lens providing the light, both in manual, I will use a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. to 1/160 sec. When shooting insects you must maintain maneuverability and a tripod for such situations is basically useless.

A few thoughts to add:

1) Tripod VS handheld (+flash) - this really is a personal situation, some macro shooters shoot all on a tripod others swing the other way. Personally I'd suggest approaching both paths and seeing how things fair. A flash and tripod are very versatile tools so neither one (if good quality are purchased) should be a wasted investment.

2) Tripod side - I'm not the biggest fan of the newer manfrotto design with the horizontal central column when shooting low down to the ground shots. I find that the arm has to be held near the middle for a stable shot and that ends up giving you a "4th leg" to worry about as you shoot. Some get around this by putting the tripod central column in upside down so that its not getting in the way.
The 190 legs are good legs, don't get me wrong, but you might want to have a peek at older second hand legs like their older series 055 legs. In them the lowdown angles are done with an adaptor that bolts the tripod head direct to the middle of the legs.

3) Dillard has linked to a good set of focusing rails, note if you search on ebay for focusing rails the exact same design rails appear from a multitude of retailers at very cheap prices. Note that there are two popular designs on ebay at present, the kind Dillard links to are generally the superior in design.
If you want to go higher budget with the rails you're really left aiming for Novoflex rails which are very good, but also very expensive (unless you are lucky to find them in a second hand deal).

3) Flash bracket - when you have a flash you'll ideally want a bracket to hold it as you shoot (assistants make it much easier but are not always the easiest thing to get). Personally, for budget, I'd ignore most of the cheap brackets on the market, they tend to be made with weaker metals and will wobble, they are aimed at regular shooting where this wobbling isn't much of a problem. The ideal is a RAM-Mount approach, which isn't too expensive and provides a rock steady support for flash units even up to the heavy top series options from Nikon or Canon.
The following thread details the basic setup and components needed for a RAM-Mount based approach My very flexible Macro flashbracket: Studio & Lighting Technique Forum: Digital Photography Review

4) Lens wise I'd say start with a regular macro lens, you've already had some good options suggested above such as the Sigma 180mm and 150mm (both are not discontinued and replaced with OS editions which have built in stabilizers to help with handholding, though effectiveness at macro distances is significantly reduced - note also that currently only the 150mm OS is on the market and the 180mm OS has yet to be released).
Just remember - from 35mm to 200mm - macro prime lenses when focused to their closest focusing point will give you the exact same frame of the subject; the difference is that a 200mm lens will give you both a much longer distance between the front of the lens and the subject and also increased blurring of background areas (note depth of field remains the same).
I'd say for bees that 90mm or longer is the ideal starting point for macro lenses. Shorter are certainly possible and you shouldn't have extreme troubles with options down to 60mm - going any shorter and things get much more tricky.
Also note with 150mm and longer you can get away with the flash in the hotshoe of the camera with a diffuser fitted and still get decent lighting - so you can postpone investing in a bracket; with shorter lenses the bracket becomes all the more important (because of the shadowing effects described above).
I'm not against tripods in certain situations. I use one at times for flowers and occasionally for spiders that are perfectly still on webs but for flying insects I find that a monopod is very useful. It does help one hold the camera steadier which makes for easier focusing.

@Judo: Appreciate the tip about the R1C1. That might be a good option for me down the road. I like the "twin" flashes concept of it and assume that you can control the "sides" with the 800 unit. Is that right?

@Derrell: I checked into the Sigma 180 f/2.8, but it looks like it's not out yet. Quick question about the f/2.8 vs f/3.5: for macro, is a f/2.8 better? Also, I'm trying to compare other current options like the Sigma 150 f/2.8 (like pburwell mentioned) against the 180 f/3.5 or even the Nikon 200 f/4. Thanks as well for the rec's about flashes and lens "lengths." These are the kinds of tips that are essential to buying the right gear and not wasting money on good, but not-right-for-me gear.

@pburwell: As stated, thanks for pointing me in the direction of he Sigma 150. It certainly looks like a great lens. And yeah, the bees have a mind of their own and never sit still, even when I ask nicely.

@Dillard: I hadn't considered rails. Might be worth looking into. Thanks.

@Overread: Wow. Thank you so much for the data and for the comments about the newer Manfrottos. The entrance of the hives are only a foot or so off the ground, so I'll likely want a tripod that can get down low. The inverse center column technique might work, but if I can accomplish the same thing without messing with the tripod, all the better. I still think I'll want to take more hand-held shots (and therefore it sounds like I'll need lens/flash), but some static shots would be good right at the entrance. Also, thank you for pointing me in the direction of the brackets. The more I look into this, the more I'm thinking that initially I'll need a longer lens, a decent flash (hot-shoe? brackets?), and a quality tripod (the last two for utility and non-macro functionality). From there, I'll probably experiment with something like the R1C1/ring flash.

@Jerry: I hadn't thought of a monopod, but that's an excellent idea. It might be worth adding to my gear and testing out around the hives. Any that you recommend based on experience?

Thanks again, everyone. The information is invaluable and I appreciate your expertise and experience.


I don't have the R1C1 Nikon light system but I do have something similar which is less expensive and that is one SB600 on each side of the lens with a macro flash bracket. And I use the camera's built in flash to trigger the SB600's. I have the D80 and D7000. Unfortunately the D5100 does not have a commander mode for the flash. The monopod I have is the Manfrotto 679B. As far s f/2.8 versus f/3.5 the aperture on the f/2.8 lens is open wider naturally letting in more light for easier focusing. But my Tamron 180mm lens is a f/3.5 and I have no problem manually focusing it. In my opinion the f/2.8 versus f/3.5 would not be a deal breaker.

I don't know what your budget is or even if you have one but I think starting out you need to place your primary focus on which lens, which lighting system and then which tripod and/or monopod. Other things such as extenson tubes, teleconverter, focusing rails you could hold off on until you've had enough experience to know if you really want or need them. Just my opinion.


Most reactions