This is a question that I commonly see asked on internet forums, especially when people see a good shot and want to try out macro themselves.
Whilst it’s easy to say go and get a macro lens, this I feel is not the best answer, unless the person you’re recommending this to has money to burn. For a start if they have a compact camera then using the macro mode on that is a reasonable starting position.
I will assume though for the purpose of this post, that the person already has an SLR camera, and wishes to try out macro photography.
Here’s some things that I would recommend trying out, before splashing out on a dedicated macro lens. For a video on using the first two options take a look at my video post, Simple Macro Equipment – Focusing Tubes and Teleconverter.
1) Try focusing closely with what you’ve already got. Have you got a wide angle lens, you can get close in with that without anything else. Also a telephoto lens can be used to take close up images. Most modern zooms in fact have a macro mode – it might not be true macro (1:1), but a good starting position, which can be complemented with the following 3 suggestions.
2) Use some focusing tubes with an existing lens. These allow you to focus closer to the subject, and thereby increase the magnification effect of the lens. It was by using these that I started out on macro, and got steadily more addicted to it. There’s two types of focusing tubes on the market, some really cheap ones (about £10), which don’t have any electrical contacts running through them, which means the lens you use in front of it will always be wide open in terms of aperture (unless the lens has a manual aperture setting) and it won’t auto focus, not that I’d recommend that anyway. The second type and which I use are sometimes termed auto-focusing tubes, they are essentially the same and have the electronics inside to pass to your camera. I bought mine second hand, and as there’s no lens element in them, I would assume that one brand works as good as another on this front. For the record mine are Jessops Focusing Tubes, which I think are now obsolete. Don’t forget to get the correct mount for your camera and lens.
3) Use a teleconverter. If you’ve got a teleconverter then you can use that to magnify you subjects, so using a lens you can get reasonably close to the subject, obtaining good closeups. It’s also something to bear in mind for use with an existing macro lens to get more magnification, the same applies to the focusing tubes of course.
4) Use a close up diopter, or close up filter. These are the same thing, they’re normally fairly cheap and essentially act like the teleconverter by increasing the size of the image, the difference being is that they attach to the front of the lens as a filter, acting very much like a magnifying glass in front of the lens. I’ve not personally tried this option, but have seen it recommended, though I also heard they can be difficult to use as you do need to get close to focus particularly with the higher strength magnification ones. When purchasing them they normally come as circular screw on filters, in which case you need to get one the same size as the filter thread on your lens that you will use it with, or the square shaped ones that go in a filter system. Eg Lee or Cokin.
5)Another fairly cheap option is to reverse an existing lens. This essentially mounts the lens back to front on the camera, thereby increasing its magnification. This is done normally by getting a reversing ring adapter which attaches to your camera like your lens would, and on its other side is a screw thread, which you then attach to your lens filter thread. Note that when using a reversing ring, you don’t even need to use a lens that works with your camera, just one that fits to the thread. In fact a lens that has a manual aperture control is again better here.
6) Another option, but not one I tend to recommend as I think they’re less practical for field macro work is macro bellows. If you’re only working indoors then may be worth a look into.