How To Get Up Close And Intimate (Part III) – Macro Extension Rings

It’s a long held belief of mine (and not just as a photographer) that the beauty of life is in the tiny details.

So for as long as I’ve been photographing with intention (since around 2006 with Sony camera phones), I’ve been drawn to photographing up close and intimate.

This is a short series on ways I’ve used cameras to get within breathing distance of that beauty. 

You can see all posts in this series here.

Part III – Macro Extension Rings

Anyone using a manual focus lens will have noticed that as you focus closer, the lens (either just the glass internally, or the part of the body holding the glass) moves closer to the subject you’re focusing on.

Macro extension rings take this simple aspect of the physics of optics and, well, extend it further.

Unlike close focus filters, which add a further element of magnified glass, extension rings are just hollow metal barrels that allow the lens to be moved even closer to the subject, whilst remaining securely attached to the camera.

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These can of course only be used for cameras with interchangeable lenses.

The ones I have used extensively are the simplest, for M42 mount lenses.

Because M42 is just a screw thread mount, rather than any kind of spring loaded bayonet mount, the extension rings are as primitive as you can imagine – just a metal tube with a thread at either end.

One end of the ring screws onto the camera, the other end on to the lens, so they shift the lens further away from the film plane or sensor, and therefore increase the close focus.

Personally the simplicity of these accessories in M42 mount are another reason to invest it if you have any kind of film or digital camera than can be adapted.

Which includes Pentax K, Contax/Yashica, Minolta MC/MD, Minolta/Sony A, Canon EOS, Sony NEX, Micro Four Thirds and a great number of others.

Once your native mount to M42 adapter is attached to the camera, then add the M42 macro extension ring between that and the lens itself.

As with the close focusing filters, these rings often come in sets. I have a set of three – 10, 16 and 32mm – I found in a camera fair about seven years ago and paid £5 for.

Again, like close up filters, they can be used individually, or stacked in combination to get even closer.

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I usually pick one, depending on the lens I’m using and its standard minimum focus, then attach it and go.

They are slightly more bulky that the filters, but usually very light, and because there is no additional glass element, there’s no loss of quality to the image.

If you’re obsessive about that kind of thing.

And because they fit between the camera and lens, they’ll work for every single lens you have in that mount, unlike close focus filters which need to be the correct size for the specific lens you’re using.

The only downside I have noticed for me is they generally go much closer than I need. Most of the time I only use the 10mm filter.

Stacking them all together gets amazingly close, but with that you get additional challenges, such a much higher likelihood of camera shake, and a far more shallow depth of field.

So ideally for super close work, you would use a small aperture, to increase the depth of field, and therefore because of the long shutter speeds required, you’d either need the camera on a stable surface or a tripod.

With the 10mm only on a 55 or 58mm lens, I can get away with hand held most of the time, but anything more, be prepared to fix your camera’s position and take at least a minute or two per shot to get the set up you want.

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You might also find if you’re stacking multiple rings you need to tweak the exposure as you go, as the light has further to travel physically between the lens and the film plane or sensor.

Again, with just the smallest 10mm ring I have, this rarely needs an exposure different to what the camera tells you it needs.

For anyone who likes to often photograph closer than their standard lens(es) allows, macro extension rings are a very affordable and enjoyable option. 

As I said above, you very likely already have a film or digital camera that can be adapted to M42, so getting yourself some macro focusing rings and a decent M42 lens (like a Takumar) is a fantastic option that will allow you to photograph anything from a matter of millimetres away (if you stack them) to infinity (with the rings removed entirely).

Have you ever tried macro extension rings? What are the pros and cons you’ve found? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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3 thoughts on “How To Get Up Close And Intimate (Part III) – Macro Extension Rings”

  1. Blimey… I think the last time I used screw fit extension rings I also had to apply exposure compensation for the differing sizes as it was on a Zenith camera with a separate (not TTL) light meter. Worked well on the 58mm f2 though, when I got exposure right. It was a luxury to use some PK auto ones on a Pentax ME Super after that!

    1. Ah yes the good old Zenits! I never used one with no light meter at all, but have a few times with the selenium meter ones, after a bit of a check of the readings against a camera with a light meter I trust… Never tried the extension rings on it though, in fact I don’t think I have done on film at all.

      Mostly I just use one ring, and the smallest, so it needs little, if any, exposure compensation.

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