There are some cheap alternatives to using expensive macro lenses which are discussed here. They can also be used with macro lenses to increase the magnification of a macro lens.
1. Extension Tubes
An extension tube is a tube that sits between your lens and DSLR. This lengthening in distance between the image sensor in your camera and the lens allows you to focus closer than the normal minimum focusing distance of the lens and as a result you can get in nice and close to your subject and make it bigger in your frame.
Extension tubes can increase the magnification by about 20-50% depending on the focal length of the lens. The longer the lens, the less effective they are. For example, adding a 25 mm extension tube to a 50 mm lens will give a magnification gain of 0.5X. Therefore, if the lens’s original magnification was 0.2X, then the new magnification will be 0.2X+0.5X=0.7X. Same extension tube (25mm) would only increase the magnification to 0.45X for a 100mm lens with original magnification 0.2X.
Canon makes extension tubes in 12mm, and 25mm lengths.
Nikon makes extension tubes in 8mm, 14mm, and 27.5mm lengths. The Nikon PN-11 Extension Tube provides a reproduction ratio of approximately 1:1 with both the 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor and the 105mm f/4 UV-Nikkor lenses.
Kenko is a cheaper popular brand that can be used with Canon and Nikon. They can be purchased in a set of 12mm, 25mm, and 36mm lengths.
2. Close Up Filter (aka close up lens)
This is the best choice if you want to move quickly around and not have to use a tripod. You don’t even need a macro lens! Get one that has two elements of glass bonded together! They cost about triple what a good UV filter is but are really worth it.
You simply take off your UV filter if you have one, and screw on the close up filter. Now you can take photographs much closer, with no loss of light! This produces high quality photos that can be used commercially. Canon and Nikon both make 2 element close up filters. This is the most economical way to get into macro photography with really good results.
You can also stack several close up filters to increase magnification even further.
These lenses often come sold in a set of 3 and are labeled as +1, +2 and +3 etc (with +3 being the largest magnification).
The positives of Close Up Lenses are their price and portability. They also allow you to retain all of the auto features of your lens.
The downside is that the loss of quality of image.
This goes between the camera body and the lens to extend the lens. High quality with high magnifications can be obtained. On some bellows any old high quality lens can be used of any brand as long as it will fit on the bellows. . However, a macro bellows is large and awkward to handle. The shutter and aperture needs to be manually set. You might also have to take an exposure reading with a handheld meter since your camera may not work properly without a lens on it. Also, a lot of light can be lost this way, which increases exposure time.
However, extreme macro pictures can be taken this way because the magnification increases the farther away from the lens is from the camera.
4. Reversing Ring
Use a “reversing ring” to reverse the lens on the camera for about $20. This special attachment connects to the filter thread on the front of a lens and connects the front of the lens to the camera body. The lens is now in reverse. Excellent high quality results can be obtained using this cheap attachment. Use Nikon cameras with reversing rings.
Why not spend $20 for a reversing adapter instead of $800 on a nice macro lens? You can get high quality results with a reversing ring and get some experience with macro photography! You can always spend the several hundred dollars later on a nice macro lens that will be easier to use, and give you more options.
5. Lens Coupler
Lens to lens stacking, or stacking lenses, refers to using two fixed focal length lenses. The shorter lens is reversed so the lenses are face to face. They are connected via a male to male filter thread adapter that costs about $20 or less. Called lens to lens stacking rings, they are available in most filter sizes. Stacking short lenses on longer lenses can give 1X to 4X magnification.
These options are really to ease you into the world of macro photography without breaking the bank. Many of the options come with their own set of problems though. For examples, close up filters will give you problems with chromatic aberrations and reversing rings can be a great way to get dirt inside your lens. Certainly none of these options is as “easy” as simply dumping a lot of cash on a great macro.