Extension Tubes: They May Save You From Spending Thousands

Extension Tubes: They May Save You From Spending Thousands

It's a mystery how this little one-inch wonder remained unknown to me for so long. I finally discovered it when — bemoaning my fate to spend over two thousand on a Canon tilt-shift macro — a colleague suggested trying an extension tube.

A thrifty little gift from the camera gods themselves. In case you also haven't had the pleasure of meeting it: let me introduce you to my new favorite piece of gear, the EF 25II Canon Extension Tube.

In my commercial work, I do a lot of macro photography. The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro is the lens that takes the title for the most-beloved lens in my bag. It has always delivered what I needed as far as sharpness, image stabilization, and more. It was the perfect lens... until this one contract. I was hired to shoot monthly for the biggest producer of CBD in the US. Each month, I photographed new strands and I found myself wanting to get closer, and closer, and closer. Each strand had unique leaf shapes, and the element that really drew me in was this minuscule part called trichomes which are fuzzy, crystal-like dots on the plant. My 100mm was just not cutting it. I was about to pull the trigger on a macro tilt shift, when I came across the EF 25II Canon Extension Tube.

Priced at $144.95, I figured it was worth trying it before investing over two thousand on new glass. Wow, was I impressed!

What Are Extension Tubes?

An extension tube is a ring that is mounted between your camera and your lens. This extends the physical distance between the two, allowing the camera to focus closer than your lens' minimum focus distance. In simpler terms: it allows you to zoom in closer.

My Experience Shooting With It

As I mounted the tube to try it out, I was concerned about two things: image stabilization and sharpness. I generally like to use gear the way it's designed to be used. I was pleased to find that adding the tube didn't degrade the sharpness or reduce the image stabilization in any way that I could detect in my images.

Here are some side-by-side images of shots I took with my 100mm with and without the extension tube.

You can see how much closer I can get with the extension tube

Here are a few more I captured using the extension tube. 

On an informal Instagram survey, I asked photographers if they knew what this was.

Close to 60% responded that they were not familiar with the little black wonder.

Another Convenient Perk

When doing research into some of the macro lens options, I learned that many of these lenses have a very shallow depth of field and require shooting with a focusing rail.

Since these macro lenses require you to shoot very close to your subject, it limits you to a very shallow focal depth. If you want more than a small sliver of your image in focus, it's likely you'll have to use a focusing rail. A focusing rail is a system that allows you to move your camera forward and backward in minuscule increments. With your camera mounted to the rail, you can photograph your subject, then refocus on a distance a little further away, click again, and repeat the process until you have shot the entire subject with various focal lengths. After that, you will need to use image stacking to combine all the photographs to create one finished image. 

Shooting with the extension tube still allowed me to get closer to my subject, without limiting my depth of field in a manner that I had to utilize this involved process.

If you're interested in diving deeper into the world of macro photography, this may be a great starting point. It keeps the process simple and it's a much more economical option.

Have you ever used them? The best part of the conversation is sharing your experience in the comments below. 

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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I am surprised that there were photographers who weren't familiar with extension tubes. Pretty much every photographer I know has one or more in their bag, or at home in a drawer.

The way extension tubes are most frequently used is to combine one or more tubes (yes they are frequently stacked) with a regular lens like a nifty fifty, 24-105mm, etc. Using this way helps to turn a regular all-around lens into a macro lens ..... or almost a macro lens.

The way you are using an extension tube with a lens that is already capable of 1:1 magnification is a bit different than the normal way most folks use them, but quite effective. That is also the way I usually use my extension tubes, with my 100mm macro lens.

Used along with a 1.4x tele-extender, a tube improves the magnification, but not to a satisfying extent. To shoot as close-up as I really want, I am going to have to buy a macro lens capable of 4x or 5x magnification, because even after adding all the tubes and extender onto my macro lens, it still doesn't let me get close enough to fill the frame the way I want to. But if you just need to get to around 2x, then the tubes are great!

Michelle, I am happy for you that the extension tube is sufficient for shooting what you are shooting the way you want to shoot it. Makes it so easy and affordable to achieve what you are trying to achieve!

One final point - you mentioned a whopping $125 for a Canon 25mm tube. OUCH! I can't imagine paying that much for a tube. I suggest searching classifieds for used 3rd party tubes. A comparable Kenko tube can usually be found for about $40, shipping included. There are no optics in extension tubes, so there is no advantage to going with Canon or other first party options, inasmuch as image quality is concerned.

"There are no optics in extension tubes, so there is no advantage to going with Canon or other first party options, inasmuch as image quality is concerned."

I couldn't agree with you more. It's only a spacer.

I have a couple from Meike that I use on my R5 and yes, it has all the pins necessary to use native RF glass.

Excellent contribution- I always buy Canon by default- thank you for adding this!

I also use Meike but I've used other 3rd party tubes that had electrical connection issues.

So far so good with Meike.

I still cannot believe I didn't know about extension tubes. Since then, I've asked many people and it's shocking how many also don't know. I didn't want to write the article at first because it seemed like such an oversight in my knowledge but since there were so many others, I took the hit on my ego and wrote it up. I just buy Canon by default. Everything I own is Canon- but that's an excellent contribution about the Kenko and also about the stacking. Great contributions as always Tom Reichner

Extension tubes also work with pinhole body cap for a "telephoto" effect. Here is a pinhole telephoto panorama using a EOS R5 with EF-RF adapter, 11mm and 18mm extension tubes and a 0.255mm pinhole body cap. This gives an F-Stop of about f/298

That's super cool, Dean! What an interesting and creative way to use gear!

Wow that's interesting!!!

Back in the film days I had tubes for my Hasselblad lenses, which worked great at a low price relatively speaking.
I didn't do a lot of super-duper close up work but the tubes allowed some closer focussing.
I sort of forgot they existed - good article.

I shot film for many years when I started. I didn't know they existed then either. Such a neat little gem- I don't know how they evaded my path for so long. They reminded me that I have a ring I bought years ago that allowed me to put my film lenses on my DSLRs. This was before the mirrorless cameras. Over Thanksgiving I found a film camera at my great aunt's house that has a great lens on it! I was thinking about rummaging through my closet and seeing if I could find that. Maybe an upcoming article!

I add them to my 200-500; great for shooting Turtles that are only 20 to 50ft away.

I have used an extension tube on a 100-300mm to photograph a turtle. Maybe around 15ft.

Yup, the closer the better for nice tight head shots of them.

Oh how fun!

Something @Tom Reichner hinted at is worth repeating: an extension tube may allow the use of a teleconverter that previously did not fit the lens, due to it's typically protruding front element, which can now fit in the space provided by the extension tube.

This will get you 1.4 times closer, which may not seem like a lot, but every bit helps in macro!

And I'm giving you a bonus +5 for such an impressively written sentence!

(Blush!) Thanks! Having a mother with a Masters in English Literature helps. :-)

I have a Tamron 35 f1.8 that as it is, focuses down to 7 inches. Add a 12mm extension tube and it makes for a pretty nice macro lens.

1.8- drool! That's so neat. What a clever little invention these tubes are!

Congratulations on discovering extension tubes. They open up a new world, though I also am surprised that you and so many are unaware of them.
Next step is discover bellows. Like a bunch of tubes that are flexible and essier to use. Contacts are not needed as you get an old manual macro lens. I use the incredible FLM 100mm f4 by Canon, fairly cheap but with FD-RF adapter goes to infinity and cheap extension tube can be added for higher magnifications.
Try the bellows for even more flexibility.

I know! I almost didn't write the article because I was embarrassed that somehow such a seemingly basic piece of gear was unknown to me. However, I figured since so many people had responded on my Instagram (@michellevantinephotography) that they also didn't know- I'll just take the ego hit and write it up. I just looked at B&H at the Bellows- WOW! Up to 8:1 magnification! I can only imagine that on my 100mm. Why would people spend the money on an expensive macro when there is an alternative like this? Does it degrade the image in any way? I'm starting a list of articles to write!

No optics so no degradation. What's fun is stacking the Tubes + Bellows + reverse mount ring. Was able to take photos of the filament inside one of those very tiny glass holiday lights; actually so magnified only half the filament would fit in the frame!

"No optics so no degradation."

Well, not quite.

The narrower your field of view, the more resolution is demanded of the lens. At some point, you're just magnifying lens imperfections as your reproduction ratio goes up. That is why many makers (Nikon and Olympus, at least) had a bunch of range-specific macro lenses, and why modern macro lenses have floating elements†, so you can get more resolution as you get closer.

So simply extending a lens that was never designed for macro reproduction rations does degrade the image.

Also, the more extension you use, the smaller the effective aperture, which means you need a lower shutter speed or higher ISO to get the same exposure. This can lead to image degradation, too.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of using extension to get macro out of your existing lenses. But in general, you can't expect that to have the same quality as a lens that is built for that reproduction ratio.

† If you use extension with a modern macro lens, be sure the lens is focused as close as possible, to fully engage its floating elements.

There is no degradation that I can discern.
When using a bellows set lens to infinity.
Canon made an awesome FLM 100mm f4 lens for bellows. Still available on ebay. It has no focus ring. All focus is by the bellows.
I really love it over all modern macro lenses. On R cameras with FD to RF adapter it goes from infiniyu focus to macro and using extension tubes much closer.
I use the Canon M39 threaded macro tubes and the Canon adapters A and B for each end.
It is a lot of fun.

I have these and they are fun. One tip of you want a cheap macro lens for Canon, buy a EF 35-80mm Canon lens (about £40) and carefully remove the front lens element. Replace it with a 52mm UV filter or similar to keep the dust out. Works a treat. They often get converted on Ebay. The Canon 50mm F2.5 Macro is another super sharp forgotten gem.

Ya ever look at an extension tube.... ON WEED??

No, however I have looked at a weed with an extension tube....or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”