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Macro lens on a budget

Posted by Donn Cuson  
Donn Cuson January 06, 2016 06:14PM
I recently bought a Nikon D3300 to replace some older digital cameras and I need a “good” macro lens to add to it and am hoping to keep the cost of the lens to under $500. I have been through the internet and have some ideas but I wanted to hear from some of you who may have some recent experience with some of the newer macro lens that may work on my D3300. Again I would like to stay under $500. Below is the link to My Gallery page with a few of the photos I shot with my old Nikon Coolpix 4500 I would hope to end up with my D3300 and a macro lens that would be better than these.

Volker Betz January 06, 2016 08:31PM
Hi Donn,

this kind of question is difficult to answer. You camera has resonable test results, but it woud better to first select a lens and then the camera body.

With the nikon body you are more or less limited to Nikon lenses, due to the nikon mount.
I would say a give the Nikon AF-S Nikkor Micro 60 mm / 2,8 G ED a chance and use f 5.6 and focus stacking.

So you can use the optimum resolution but you need a camera control software as well as a stacking software. Helicon focus ist both.
Not to forget a more spophisticated lightning. This is more than 500 $.

Mineralogical Research Company January 06, 2016 09:05PM
You may want to take a look at the Tokina AT-X 100mm f/2.8 PRO D Macro Lens. They are available at around $370 and the review below is favorable.
Tokina AT-X 100mm
Paul Brandes January 06, 2016 10:30PM
I would recommend going to either B&H or Adorama's websites and check out their used section for a macro lens in that price range. As along as you watch the condition, you can get a very good lens and save yourself some money this way.
Jeff Weissman January 06, 2016 10:33PM
Too bad you went Nikon, it is possible to hack a cheap but sharp Canon 35-80 zoom lens, by removing the front element, and getting a 0.7 to 1.8 x Macro zoom lens, still auto-exposure, but no longer auto-focus. I bought one for about $30, got the front element off in about 2 minutes, and it works like a charm with excellent sharpness and resolution. You may be able to get a Canon EOS to Nikon lens mount converter if this approach is attractive to you.

See http://orionmystery.blogspot.com/2011/02/cheap-macro-with-35-80mm-lens.html for more details
Mineralogical Research Company January 06, 2016 11:08PM
Perhaps the least expensive option is a Raynox conversion lens. These reportedly produce credible results at a cost of under $100.
Raynox Lens
Frank Craig January 06, 2016 11:48PM
Hi Don:

I would agree with Paul, but I would recommend B&H Photo to shop (new or used). I have both the Nikkor 60 and 105 mm macro lenses, both priced in the neighborhood of (the lower end of) your budget, both excellent lenses. Given, the body you purchased it may not be possible to purchase anything but one of the newer lenses. Nikon decided to make their "prosumer" bodies more compact and lighter by taking out the autofocus motor (moving it to the lens). So if you buy an older lens, you will lose autofocus. Check the specs on the camera body to see if that's the case - I am not 100% sure about the 3300. But, if you don't care about having autofocus capabilities (or vibration reduction), I would recommend the 'D' version of either the 60mm or 105mm macros. These can be found in the used department of B&H or sites like eBay...
Jeff Weissman January 07, 2016 02:49PM
Autofocus is not very useful or precise for macro photography, and if you do image stacking, not needed anyway.

Let us know what you end up with
Mineralogical Research Company January 07, 2016 05:07PM
I agree that autofocus is not necessary for stacking. However, when using an internal motor focus lens, one can do focus stacking without the need for a stacking rail. I do all of my macro stacking by incrementing the focus motor while in live view. The only thing that I physically have to touch is my mouse.
Donn Cuson January 07, 2016 10:53PM
Lot of good info on things to look into, thanks. I am leaning toward the Tokina AT-X 100mm pro D Macro but when I started to look into the pricing, it seems that no one has them in stock, I tried Amazon, BH, Adorama, and even the Tokina US distributer, all out of stock. Seems it must be quite popular. Will have to keep looking I hope they are making more of them........
Mineralogical Research Company January 08, 2016 12:21AM
Tokina AT-X 100mm pro D Macro
There appears to be a few on eBay.
Martin Rich January 08, 2016 04:20AM
Hello Donn!

I use in the most cases a Mikro-Nikkor 85 mm 1:3.5 SG or a Sigma 105 mm 1:2.8 DG Macro lens. In my opinion, these are good macro-lenses. With these lenses, you get a fov of 20 mm. I burchased both on an Austrian second-hand webpage for about 300 € (~ 350 $) per item. For stacking, I control my camera with "digiCamControl" (see: http://digicamcontrol.com/ ). This is in my opinion a great software and it's free! The stacking program I use is CombineZB. If you want smaller fov, e.g. 1-5 mm, you have to save much more money to get the right equipment.... :-(


"Komme gleich" ("I'll be right there") - Godot
Joel Dyer January 08, 2016 07:29AM
A lot of good advise from very experienced Mindaters for Donn, here. I would like to add my own experiences here, as a Canon user, yet it really doesn't matter what the brand is, if the camera body is reasonable, and the user has a lot of patience.

Point I)
I looked at the several objective remommendations above, and many of them at least EXTEND considerably when zoomed out to the focal length necessary for finer macro work.

Personally, I bought (in 24 month installments, due to my very limited budget) the Canon 100mm F/2.8 Macro USM, which is very familiar to many Mindaters - the L version is even better, but simply too expensive. This lens is rather good, and it has internal focusing, so it DOESN'T extend. This makes for more stability and macro photography much more pleasant. I have a talented friend who also agreed on the problematics of a seriously extending macro lens.

Point II)
The issue of USM vs. STM focusing. The 100mm Canon above, for instance, uses a USM (ultrasound motor) for focusing. That works pretty nices and fairly quietly. However, after I purchased the very reasonably priced Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM via an Ebay deal, I've been very happy.
The purpose of getting a 55-250mm was to obatin a focal length suitable for microscope objectives that have a fixed or nominal focal length of 210-250mm. You see, if you use optics way outside there focal length, you gets quality issues, and also variously incorrect magnification, compared to the objectives' specifications. Extension rings can be used, but they have their own logic & cause many issues.
I can HEARTILY recommend STM (stepping motor) focusable models, as they are often even more quiet and more accurate / reliable than USM focus systems. Helicon Remote can produce much smaller/more reliable steps [using "Small Steps"] with the 55-250mm, compared to the 100mm Macro. Stacking systems almost always use stepper motors & I have an incomplete, cheap semi-manual system, too, for extreme closeup.

Point III) As has been discussed elswhere in Mindat, using pre-owned microscope objectives with adapters can bring you "much closer" to objects, but then you get a chain reaction started...and the costs and difficulties tend to multiply, whatever method you use. Frédéric Hède has his own, fabulous system & I wished I properly understood (pictures?diagrams?) the setup so I could try to humbly emulate this master's techniques.

I would imagine that the above listed points apply to Nikon and other brand cameras / lenses as well, but I've only tried Canon so far.

PS: Thanks BTW, Joylon, for your very interesting Every Other Shot website. I found it very entertaining, educating, it gave me some new ideas - and many a good laugh. I think I see some British humour there too, which I have long preferred to some other variations on the theme , but now I'm drifting away from the proper subject ;-)



JD aka FinnChaga

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 01/08/2016 08:55AM by Joel Dyer.
Account Closed January 08, 2016 07:50PM
Hum sorry not enough time for explain in english.

My systme is very simple and motorisation is not usefull !

I give some links in French, with a translation it's possible i think. Cloning is not the best. You must understand the physical principles used.

System 1

My system does not use the standard methodology . It is light , flexible and inexpensive . You must take good objectives. Mitutoyo and clones are the best . But the rest can be easy to find . You must also understand the principles for adapting the resolution of objectives to sensor. Adaptation with the tube lens i important . Calculations show that t the size of the sensor isn't important ( micro 4/3, APS-C ... ) . Currently the best solution (see my spreadsheet ) is an APS-C sensor 24 Mpix because the micro 4/3 equivalent does not exist (or very expensive and complex). This adaptation exists when Stephan Wolfried uses its Raynox DCR 250 for example. Sorry for my english i can undertand but it's hard to explain.

My system is oriented on the side of the image
Don Saathoff January 08, 2016 10:28PM
Hello Donn,

This post is a bit late, but thought it may be helpful. I just purchased a Nikon d3300 because I've got a good number of older Nikon lenses from my old film days (if anyone would like some F3 bodies, PM me!!). My old 55mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor (an AI lens), my old 105mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor (also AI) and all my other AI lenses work wonderfully well IN MANUAL MODE!!! NO automation - either focus or exposure. I've adapted it to my Meiji 'scope (third tube) but haven't put light through the adaptation yet (T2 adapter arrived this morning). If you can handle the lack of automation you should be able to fit these older Nikon AI lenses into your budget....

Don S.
Joel Dyer January 09, 2016 06:10PM
Don S., I've read many tests & comments regarding the Micro-Nikkors: will probably try out one of those, too, sometime in the future, as reasonably priced pre-owned owns do crop up on Ebay.

Frédéric, many thanks for the link with the additional explanations! French language is no problem; I can understand some French, and can use translating tools & my own logic to fill in the question marks. I am studying more about optics, objective etc.all the time & that will eventually help.

However, when one starts speaking of Mitutoyo lenses, then things wander far, far away from my financial possibilities, however. so I'm stuck to a "less perfect" world.

Best luck to Donn with his experimentations, choices and learning processes!


JD aka FinnChaga
Donn Cuson January 09, 2016 06:43PM
A lot of great information here but going way beyond what I intend to do. I just need one general macro lens I can use to document some of the specimens I personally collect, mostly thumbnails. I do not have the time to spend on stacking, or microscope objectives and trying to integrate multiple lenses etc. Much as I might like to, I just have too many other things that take up my time, so it has to be simple and relatively quick. I appreciate all the information and I am sure you get great photos and enjoyment from what you do, it is just beyond what I need to do at this point. If I can get something a little bit better than what I did with my old Nikon Coolpix 4500 that are on my gallery page I will be happy. http://www.mindat.org/g/241
Donn Cuson March 28, 2016 05:58PM
I decided to go with the Tokina 100mm Macro but they were all sold out over the holidays so it took a while to get one at a reasonable price. Got it a few days ago and have just started experimenting with it. Even at f32 the depth of field is still pretty small so it looks like I may have to go with focus stacking, so will have to start looking for some reasonable priced software that is easy to use. I have been running tests on flat specimens just to get use to using the lens here are a few shots of some very small agates that I collected from Patagonia Arizona, each is marked with its maximum dimension so you can see they are not very big.

Mineralogical Research Company March 29, 2016 11:14PM
Hi Donn,

The Tokina should have best resolution around f5.6. At f16 it is most likely suffering from diffraction issues.
You may want to try CombineZP, a freeware stacking program as a starting place.
Donn Cuson March 30, 2016 03:22AM
Still experimenting with the Tokina Macro I was not reading the data correctly. The agates were shot at f 4.5 not F 32. So I ran another test this time with better data. This is some Patagonia Wulfenite I collected recently, the large crystal on the left is 2mm. First photo is at F32 at 1/8sec ISO 400. The second photo is at F5.6 at 1/320sec ISO 400. Depth of field is considerably better at F32. Will have to take a look at the focus stacking software

Owen Melfyn Lewis March 30, 2016 10:53AM
Interesting comparison, Don. It shows, conclusively I think, that whatever the theory re. diffraction and its effect on lens resolution and degradation of image quality, for a *single shot* macro pic one gets a more satisfactory result by stepping the aperture right down and letting diffraction go hang :-)

Things change though when making stacked images. Now, there is simply no point in struggling to maximise the depth of field in the individual shots and one should select the aperture to minimise loss of resolution through diffraction. So, it's 'horses for courses'.
Donn Cuson March 30, 2016 03:33PM
Did another shot of a Wulfenite in my collection, again at F32 just to see how the resolution was. I collected this Wulfenite at Deering Springs, AZ. The crystal is 6mm x 4mm. It seems to hold up pretty well when you zoom in on it. The dendrite in the center is interesting.

Mineralogical Research Company March 31, 2016 10:19PM

Nice image of the Wulfenite! As you say, it does hold up pretty good when you zoom in. But, how good is good? To answer that question, I was lucky to find an actual test report on The Tokina 100mm f2.8 macro lens. You can see from the data below that f32 is way below the optimal operating aperture of a couple stops from wide open. In fact, while your image looks good, it could be much better resolution wise. In fact, at least two times better. Of course, for images that are reduced for web purposes, you may not see much difference. Still, the extra resolution would allow for cropping the size of the original.

Donn Cuson March 31, 2016 11:22PM
Interesting info I will have to do some tests at F11 and F16 to see how much difference I can see. If my shot at f32 rates in their poor range it still looks good to me. I do not really have enough time to try and get into the "perfect" group not to mention that this was to be a low budget project and I am already into it for about a grand, that's pushing the budget pretty hard.
Owen Melfyn Lewis April 01, 2016 03:21AM
Hi Don,

A quick and easy (and no cost) way to experiment is to make a series of test macro shots of sharp small size black print. Keeping all other settings the same, make a series of images of this, one each at f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 and f/32.These images are 2D and B/W only, so there is no colour to distract the eye or loss of sharpness due to DoF limitations. The difference in critical sharpness you should see at the smallest apertures is *all* due to a loss of resolution (in turn resulting from diffraction). Test takes 5 mins and a good lesson is learned.

When imaging complex 3D multi-coloured shapes there are many variables and so - as with your first pair of shots - increasing the aperture you use can give, overall a poorer result that using the smallest possible aperture. Reduction in DoF does more harm to the acceptability of the image than does some loss of resolution by differction. As said, if one changes from making single-shot images to stacking images, then the DoF issue is solved and for the best quality stacked images, one must open up the lens.
Donn Cuson April 01, 2016 10:07PM
Looking at the chart for the Tokina 100 macro there is a big difference from F32 to F16 so I shot one of my Wulfenite at F16. Does appear to be a visual difference between the two shots. Will have to stay away from F32 in the future. Will start checking out the stacking software.

Larry Eicher August 06, 2018 06:20PM

I am working at the edge of quality for my equipment. I use a Sigma 105mm macro, mounted on 68mm extension or more. I sometimes insert a 1.4x to 2x converter. I sometimes use a Mamiya 50mm reversed.

I was advised to use a 10mp camera, Canon EOS XSi.

My approach is based on using the Camranger for the captures. It advances the lens focus from closest to farthest.

I've had people suggest that I need to use microscope objectives instead of the lenses above. To my knowledge they don't have variable aperture. The other problem I see is that without auto-focus on the lens how do I move the camera closer of further?


The FOV here is 6.5mm.
Jeff Weissman August 06, 2018 06:57PM
Larry, I suggest visiting http://www.photomacrography.net/forum/ to answer some of the more technical questions, they are very friendly and can help you optimize the use of your existing equipment. You do not necessarily need a microscope objective, although many macrophotographers do use one. You can by screw-mount apertures on ebay, that are placed close to the rear element of the objective. For focus stepping, you will need a rock-solid micrometer stage.
Jeff Weissman August 06, 2018 06:58PM
By the way, your image looks very nice - good DOF, color balance and exposure with a difficult bright white subject
Hiro Inukai August 06, 2018 10:38PM
The optical performance of most consumer lenses are optimized for a specific range of use cases, so for example, a dedicated macro lens would be sharpest at close focusing distances, whereas a lens with a short focal length intended to be used for landscape photography would tend to perform better near infinity focus. Generally, the more you take a lens out of its design parameters, such as by adding extension tubes, teleconverters, reversing it, or stopping it down to its smallest aperture, the worse the performance.

For high magnification (which I will designate as exceeding a ratio of 1:1 image:object on sensor) photography of static subjects, the main difficulty is to achieve sufficient depth of field while avoiding excessive image softening due to diffraction. This is mainly addressed by the use of focus stacking, which involves taking multiple photographs of the same subject with different planes of focus, and then using specialized image processing software to create a composite image that contains the sharpest portions of each. For best results, this process involves the use of a macro rail, which allows fine control of the subject-to-camera distance.

To my knowledge, no consumer-grade lens is able to achieve a magnification exceeding 5:1 within its specified design (you could take certain lenses and use them in a way that they were not originally designed to be used, and possibly get greater magnification). Even so, the effective aperture is so small that diffraction becomes the primary cause of poor image quality. This is the reason for using a microscope objective. In doing so, you are using a lens that is designed to be used in such a manner, and it will have a greater numerical aperture. However, almost every image I have seen taken with a microscope objective at 5:1 or greater magnification uses focus stacking, and the vast majority of these are done with an electronically controlled rail with step sizes in the micrometer range.

As a collector of minerals generally no larger than small-cabinet size (preferring thumbnail to miniature), my interest is in photographs in the 3:1 to 5:1 range. I would like to get up to 10:1, but my current setup is inadequate for this purpose; I am researching suitable microscope objectives to purchase but I already have everything else. Many specimens have surprising features that are not visible to the naked eye and this is what motivates me to photograph, as well as to collect minerals. My previous expertise in macrophotography (mainly of insects) has been useful.
Larry Eicher August 07, 2018 05:34PM
I'm glad you like it.
Larry Eicher August 07, 2018 06:02PM

Thanks for your helpful input. I am wanting to make the jump to microscope objectives but and that is a big BUT, I don't think I have to bucks to drop on that.

I would be interested to read your recommendations for: "electronically controlled rail with step sizes in the micrometer range." I have been looking at StackShot but have read its rail is not ridged enough. I know that I am dawdling on this and I know why.

I have migrated from macro in the field on nature and outdoor subjects. That has taken me slightly beyond 1X with my Sigma 105mm Macro lens. I have achieved what I consider very acceptable shots using the Canon 500d close up lens, filter, on it. I now think the 500d lends chromatic aberration problems on susceptible images. I have come to the point that I do not incorporate it in my setups. I think that I do better with extenders and I have not been able to decide that the Mamiya 50 reversed degrades the quality of my shots. I find myself continually frustrated as I bump up against the limitations of my equipment.

I have come to using the 105mm mounted on 68mm extension as my starting point on a new sample. Now I would first put more extension or tele-converters before I add the 50mm reversed.

Thanks again for your input. I will think about it.


I am unable to walk pulling my yard wagon hold my equipment as I did previously. This type macro is a compromise. I've been buying used equipment in the last years after I retired.
The above has a FOV of 6.5mm and I used Sigma 105mm, Sigma 2x and 68mm.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/07/2018 06:07PM by Larry Eicher.
Wayne Corwin August 07, 2018 07:37PM
All I see is milky quartz and amethyst, on mica?
Which is the apatite?
Hiro Inukai August 07, 2018 11:22PM

You're doing a great job of extracting the maximum benefit out of your current hardware. Don't feel tempted to spend a lot of money to squeeze out what may end up being only marginally better image quality.

That said, if you find the process of high magnification photography rewarding in itself, I do think that an electronically controlled macro rail could be a lot of fun to use. I think of all the specialty gear I have, the rail + focus stacking resulted in the most dramatic changes, not only in the resulting photographs, but the entire process of shooting.

There are a number of rails on the market that I know of. StackShot is probably the most well-known, but lower-priced alternatives include MJKZZ and WeMacro. I went with the WeMacro rail because according to the reviews I read, I judged it to have the right combination of affordability, features, and build quality for my purposes. In retrospect, it would have been nice to go with StackShot since it integrates well with Zerene Stacker (my choice of focus stacking software), but the WeMacro rail suits me fine and I haven't had any issues with it.

Currently, I'm using the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens with the MT-24EX flash. At 5:1 the diffraction and chromatic aberrations are a bit too high for my taste, but for the sheer convenience of being able to flexibly select the magnification from 1:1 to 5:1, it can't be beat. I have pushed it to 10:1 with a 2x teleconverter but the color aberrations become unacceptable for me.

Microscope objectives can be found for a surprisingly reasonable price if you are willing to compromise on some design aspects. You can get a high NA 10x objective that is infinity corrected, but without a long working distance, for much less than a Mitutoyo. For mineral photography, a long working distance is desirable but not absolutely essential, especially if you are clever with your lighting.
Larry Eicher August 10, 2018 02:08PM

I read that Apatite is often mistaken for other minerals. I think the lavender is apatite. I think the flat reflective material may muscovite. The id's are not my own. I buy these samples already identified. I've found no errors in the ids as I look them up. I work accepting the id and try to find it. Could I confirm apatite by hardness. Quartz is 7 Apatite is 5. I am reluctant to scratch up my samples. I am unsure what to do now.

Larry Eicher August 10, 2018 02:33PM

Boy, what a wealth of information!

I have heard of the MP-E 65mm. I have noticed chromatic aberrations are a problem with the Canon 500D close up filter. For that reason I have begun avoiding it. I used to regard it highly in the field. I have an old 50mm canon lens which I have begun avoiding and I don't like the results as well and Mamiya 50mm.

I did stumble into "make your own" stackers the other day. It was extensive and I ran out of time. I did notice what looked like a microscope objective mounted as a filter on a macro lens. I must get back and look at that more carefully. With that arrangement, if it is, I could still use my CamRanger.

The shortest "working distance", (subject to front of lens) is 10mm with one of my setups. I can still deal with lighting by using several types of lighting. I am currently using Fotodiox Portable Studio, LED 440. It bounces lots of light around and I rigged it with a nylon translucent cover under the top mounted led lights which acts like a softbox. I am currently happy with it. Super short working distances, I have noticed, require different and probably expensive lights.

I have tried a free version of Zerene Stacker but could not see that it was better than Helicon Focus which I have had for years.

Thanks Hiro, you have given me much food for thought.

Larry Eicher August 10, 2018 02:37PM

That is a sweet shot of the Wulfenite. With my Sigma 105mm macro, I would use f/5.6 or f/8 and use stacking.

Larry Eicher August 10, 2018 02:44PM

Thanks for the compliment. I used a Sigma 105mm mounted on a Sigma 2x converter and 68mm. Also included in the setup as a Mamiya 50mm reversed as a close up filter. It was a stack of 88 captures using a Camranger and a Canon Rebel XSI. I used a FotoDiox LED 440 portable studio.

Jeff Weissman August 10, 2018 07:06PM
Larry, sometimes it is best not to overthink these things. For posting on Mindat what you have is probably just fine. I get by mostly with my collection of old lenses, hacked lens, and reversed enlarger lens, but I do admit on splurging on the Canon MP-E macro zoom. Controlling CA is something we all deal with, lighting, polerizing filters and PS helps, although I try not to use PS excessively. Image stacking, coupled with f5.6 or so, seems to be the best, especially for those of us with failing eyesight. CA is very hard to avoid at magnifications greater than 4x, due to range of visible light wavelengths and limits of optic designs, except for top end optics. Probably the best place to spend any additional money is on good, balanced soft and controllable illumination.
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