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Canon dSLR Macro Photography On The Cheap - M42 Lenses & Extension Tubes


(If you can't see the video please click here.)

I remember when I got my Canon 350d / Digital Rebel XT. It was a second hand purchase from eBay, body only, no lens, but a bargain at the time for two hundred pounds. I already had a lens, an EF 28-80mm that I bought from the local car boot sale, so I was sorted for everyday photography. The problem was that I had been spoiled by my previous camera, the Fujifilm Finepix S5700 / S700. The little Fuji has an excellent fixed zoom lens, being able to focus on subjects a couple of mm from the lens, then right out to infinity.

So, as you can imagine, I felt a little restricted with my Canon 28-80mm. No macro capability at all, and that's a genre of photography I enjoy. I started to look around at the price of Canon EF macro lenses, but they're well out of my price range and budget. I had a really nice Minolta 50mm f/1.4, so to start off with I was looking for some sort of Minolta to Canon EF lens mount adapter. They are available, but have to include a lens, and that decreases the overall optical quality of the lens, so that kind of spoils the idea in the first place.

Then I discovered M42 lenses. M42 is a lens mount standard that was used by several manufacturers from the '50s to the '70s. Using a screw mount, with manual focus and aperture rings, the modern demands of auto-focus and auto-exposure, with the associated electrical communications required, meant that the mount was obsolete by the 1980's, along with the tens of thousands of lenses manufactured. Now, 30 years later, with a M42-EF lens adapter, we can use these lenses on our Canon dSLR's, and there's no lens in the adapter to degrade the optical quality.

That's enough of a history lesson, now I had a cheap way of adding a macro capability to my new dSLR. There's plenty of bargain lenses to be had at car boot sales, thrift stores, charity shops and flea markets. To give any lens macro capability you just need to add extension tubes. These go between the lens and the camera body, giving you the ability to take great macro shots. Luckily for us M42 extension tubes are cheap as chips and easy to use, just keep looking at those car boot sales!

As you can see in the video, using extension tubes and m42 lenses offers its own challenges. You're loosing a lot of light, and your depth of field can be only be mm wide, making focussing tricky. When shooting flowers and plants, I use a zoom (for easy focussing), a tripod, a remote release, and if the light is poor, flash or perhaps a torch to paint my subject with light on long exposures. If I'm photographing insects, moving objects, or I just don't want to be slowed down with a tripod, i will use a fixed focal length lens, and my current favourite is the Helios 135mm f/2.8. When shooting hand-held I'll be using the pop up flash on my camera too, so I can keep the shutter speed up to avoid camera shake problems.

The main problem you'll have when shooting macro with m42 lenses and extension tubes is focussing. dSLR's don't have aids in the view-finder to help you get your photos sharp, so you've got to be careful and practice a lot. Something that doesn't help is the way that M42 Lenses work with dSLRs. To adjust the aperture you turn the ring on the lens, but the problem is that the aperture blades do actually close up when you go to the smaller apertures. This is unlike with an electronic lens, where the aperture blades only "stop down" when you press the shutter button.

So, as you can imagine, with an M42 lens when you go to the smaller apertures your view finder gets pretty dark. What I do is to do all my focussing at the widest aperture, then "stop down" to a tighter aperture to increase my depth of field and get more of my subject in focus.

Hopefully I've convinced you to explore macro and close-up photography the cheap way, grab yourself a lens mount adapter, and get out there hunting down cheap m42 lenses and extension tubes!

Cheers, Rob.

What Do You Think?

Do you use m42 lenses with extension tubes for macro work? Maybe you could share your experiences with dedicated macro lenses or close-up filters? Please add your comments below.

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