Extension tubes and macro photography

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Macro photography is the photographic art of capturing small objects up close and personal and revealing detail that is invisible to the naked eye. Special equipment and optimal technique is required for good macro photography, yet results can be very rewarding.

Whether we understand or consider ratios, macro photography by definition is all about the ratios of the size of the subject to the size of the image on the camera sensor.
image formation in a digital camera - ratio.JPG

photo Credit Formation of an image in a digital camera | Download Scientific Diagram (researchgate.net) edited
pictures above shows how image is formed when a picture is taken, magnification ratios are the ratio of the image on the sensor and the original image size, in the case of a true macro image the ratio would be 1:1 or in other words size of image captured onthe sensor is equal to size of the object.

It is not the intention in this article to dwell into the physics of macro-photography, but in short a 1:1 macro picture means that the size of the subject on the camera sensor is the same as the subject size (life-size) magnification or true Macro. Respectively a 1:2 ratio means subject appears half of its real size on the camera sensor.

Many formulas, calculators… exist to calculate the magnification ratio physically but that is out of the scope of this article. For those interested in ratios I find the easiest way is to take a shot of a graduated ruler then view it at 100% without cropping on a PC and comparing the ruler picture size to its real size.

Going back to aquarium photography, macro photography is an integral part of aquarium photography, be it for reefers wanting to take closeups of their coral to show their real beauty or for frag traders or stores who want to showcase the best representation of their corals to potential buyers.

At times a closeup is more than enough to showcase a coral or fish, yet many times a real macro is desired and a good macro photo of a coral or an invert raises interest as we start seeing details we fail to see sometimes in real life.

There are many techniques to get closeups, macros or even higher magnification macro pictures. All have their advantages and their limitations and adding to that the limitations of aquarium photography, good macrophotography comes out as a very challenging form of photography.

A lens that focuses close enough and a higher megapixel camera to be able to digitally crop a bit might be more than enough for many yet it still comes at a cost as the minimum requirement would be:

Interchangeable lens camera (camera that allows you to change lenses)

With the many choices of lenses and cameras and how specific aquarium macro photography gets, committing to a camera and lens choice isn’t an easy task and trying multiple choices before committing isn’t always possible.

Looking at many threads where people ask about a cost effective method to acquire great macros you see advice mentioning 60mm macro lenses, 100-105 macro lenses and most threads will mention the low cost and trusted 50mm lens coupled with extension tubes. Many advise the 50mm1.8 and extension tubes without even having tried them even!

Comparing the different options would involve multiple criteria:

Cost

Limitations

Magnification ratio

Effect on lighting

Focusing range or distance to subject range

Depth of field

Magnification ratio.

So without dwelling into the physics of things we will try to go over multiple ways to get macro or close up pictures and discuss advantages , limitations and what makes them usable or not in the specific context of aquarium photography,

As the article is basically focusing on extension tubes, we will have more focus on them but will definitely consider other techniques (ones relevant to aquarium photography) advantages and limitations of relevant options to aquarium photography.

I will experiment only with the equipment I have but which I believe is a good representation of the most frequently proposed solutions for Macro phtography:


Tripod Manfrotto 190
A professional tripod and decent brand have used it for the last 15 years without issues. keep in mind a tripod might be carrying 3-5K worth of gear easily, so it is in ones best interest to invest in a quality tripod with a quality head to protect our investment as well as to have good stability



Tripod head Manfrotto MHXPRO-3W
Also a professional head which is capable of holding and stabilizing around 26 pound or 12 KG of gear.

Camera Nikon Z7ii
Mirrorless camera which is a pro Camera body. Mirrorless Camera offer an advantage for macro photography, as they don’t have a mirror that flips into and out of position when you press the shutter, so it saves you the motion created with mirror move. Yet pressing the shutter can sometimes create a bit of motion so you can chose to shoot with delay timer when shooting corals or still objects or invest in a remote trigger.

Lenses

50mm 1.8

is the first lens any photographer is advised to get when he posts any question on which lenses he should consider. Typically lower price than other lenses, 1.8 fixed max opening is a blessing for lower light situations or for being able to secure higher speed. Background blur is amazing with this lens. Unfortunately Nikon decided to push the price of all its new mirrorless series lenses where the 50mm 1.8 retails at around 630 usd where as most previous 50mm 1.8 retailed around 200-250 usd at max. on the bright side the new 50mm 1.8 is much better built and image quality has clearly come a long way.

105 Nikon macro lens

Dedicated macro lens from Nikon, pricing wise close to the DSLR version before it was discontinued but at current prices new the mirrorless 105 lens sells for around 1100 usd where as the DSLR version sells around 500 usd. There has been a quality improvement on the new mirrorless version and weirdly lens is way lighter.

I would have wanted to try the kit lens which is typically the 24-120 F4 as most people get it with the camera body however I don’t have it and instead have the 24-70 which is a pro lens and not a fair comparison, also a zoom lens will have a different performance in different focal length due to inherent physics, it will also have lower image quality than a prime lens like the 50mm 1.8 which might affect our assessment of the general image quality using extension tubes.


Lighting for the controlled shots (ruler shots)

As lighting and shadow can change with daytime I used a diffused on camera flash, flash was set on manual output to keep things stable and this allows us to check limitations of flash use on aquarium shots as with extension tubes, many times with longer lenses flash shadow can be seen when too close to a subject.



Kenko extension tubes 10-16mm for Nikon Mirrorless camera
DSC_3276.jpg
DSC_3281.jpg
DSC_3284.jpg
DSC_3293.jpg

Last and most relevant to the scope of this article Kenko extension tubes for Nikon Mirrorless cameras, these are more expensive than their DSLR counterparts:

Kenko extension tubes for DSLR cameras (DG version) sell for around 130 usd for a set of three extension tubes (12-20-36 mm and possibility to stack them for a max of 68mm extension tube)

Kenko extension tubes for Nikon Mirorless cameras or the Z lens version sell for around 220 usd for a set of 2 tubes (10-16mmand possibility to stack them for a maximum of 26mm extension tube)

Extension tubes as the name implies ae hollow empty tubes which work by moving the lens away from the camera for more magnifiction, they don't have any glass elements to affect image quality and we will check their effects in the following series of tests.
The newer Z version for mirrorless cameras although much more expensive and limited to 2 tubes only and a max tube length of 26mm only, is however way better built than the plasticky older version for DSLR cameras which felt very loose and also failed to support heavier lenses without causing issues due to compression of the tubes on the electronic contacts. At least this is the experience I had with my older set of tubes that I used on my older DSLR.
extension tube magnification.JPG

photo credit Kenkoglobal.com
image formation and added magnification with Extension tubes


I don’t really miss the DSLR version 36mm tube or ability to stack all 3 tubes together as:

-36 mm made the minimum focusing distance too close to front glass and limited the corals I could focus on, stacking up to 68 mm max resulted in crazy magnification yet focusing, and shallow DOF made it very challenging and that is for non aquarium subjects.

For aquarium use maybe a bit longer tubes would have still provided additional benefit like ability to focus even closer for super shallow frag tanks yet managing motion would have become very difficult.


To start with our testing, we went with few controlled shots on a graduated ruler to assess effect, advantages and limitation of shooting with different lenses I have with and without extension tubes.



For the first exercise we shot perpendicular at a ruler to look at following criteria:

focusing distance (minimum and maximum)

this guides the closest we can get to a coral in a tank and the farthest away we can focus on a coral .

  • magnification easy to compare magnification we get using lens alone and with extension tubes.
  • Effect on light allowed to go through the lens, lens with extension tubes as this will affect the aperture, Shutter speed and ISO to use.


Table below summarizes min and max focusing distance as well as parameters used in all pictures. I kept aperture, shutter speed , ISO constant to avoid affecting the final exposure. I had to add a constant light source (on camera flash) to overpower ambient lighting and exclude daylight changes from pictures)



Lens ExtTube Min focus distance cmMin focus distance inchMax focusing distance cmMax focusing distance inch
Aperture
Shutter speed ISO Flash power
50mm
0​
28​
11.2​
Infinity​
Infinity​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
50mm
10​
14.5​
5.8​
31​
12.4​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
50mm
16​
10.3​
4.12​
19.5​
7.8​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
50mm
26​
8.3​
3.32​
12.8​
5.12​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
105mm
0​
13.5​
5.4​
Infinity​
Infinity​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
105mm
10​
12.5​
5​
130​
52​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
105mm
16​
12​
4.8​
80​
32​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128
105mm
26​
11.5​
4.6​
51​
20.4​
6.3​
100​
640​
1/128




Here are the pictures shot with above parameters

DSC_3311.jpg
DSC_3312.jpg
DSC_3313.jpg
DSC_3314.jpg

DSC_3311c.jpg

DSC_3315.jpg
DSC_3321.jpg
DSC_3322.jpg
DSC_3323.jpg
DSC_3315c.jpg

My observations looking at the above table and shots are the following:

Lenses comparison:

-50mm lens


which is a sharp prime lens and capable of 1.8 fixed aperture, focuses at a closest distance of 11.2 inches or 28 cm. This is not a bad distance to be close to corals in the tank, maybe one needs to back up lens a bit from tank for corals in front part of the tank which isn’t a huge deal.

Yet when it comes to frag tanks most of which are 10-15 inches high this means you need to be above water level when taking top-down shots. This adds the challenge of light reflection and water movement from touching the water or fish moving…

-105 mm macro lens

focusing minimum focusing distance is at 5.4 inches or 13.5 cm, so basically half the minimum focusing distance of the 50mm lens, which is expected being a dedicated macro lens.

-50 mm lens is a 1.8 max aperture VS 2.8 max aperture for the 105 macro lens, the 50 mm lens hence will allow shooting at a bit darker conditions or allow faster shutter speeds when used at 1.8mm. this has its own disadvantages still, mainly reduced depth of field which could be a desirable thing in some photography types, yet in aquarium photography we still want to see a bit more DOF and we most frequently shoot at the 5.6-8 aperture range for more of the subject in focus. So the faster 1.8 isn’t really a huge advantage in aquarium photography. Yet at 50% of the price of a 100 or a 105 macro lens this is something to look at. A logical intermediate solution would be a 60mm macro lens which is also available with most camera manufacturers, as well as third party lenses like the 90mm macro lens from Tamron.

The 105mm macro is more than enough for most tanks that are less than 20-24 inches unless you really want 1.1 macro shots of corals in the middle or back of the tank or if you have deeper front to back tanks. Another disadvantage of macro lenses is that they can be a bit slower to focus, that was the case of my older 105 macro lens meant for DSLR cameras, yet it was very much improved with the newer mirrorless version. Also macro lenses come with a very steep learning curve for autofocusing and reduced depth of field at same aperture vs normal lenses.



Extension tubes considerations.

Adding extension tubes to the equation somehow magnifies the effect of both, the advantages and disadvantages each lens has as above. With exercise above we were shooting perpendicular at the ruler so, depth of field and focusing ease and accuracy are not visible so will be assessed in the next exercise.

Extension tubes on 50mm prime lens
  • Adding a 10mm extension tube allowed us to focus around 50% closer (11.2 inch Vs 5.8 inches) which is a huge advantage, added magnification is clearly visible looking at the picture with 50mm and the one with 50mm and 10 mm ext tube.
  • Adding the 16mm or the 26 mm extension tube instead of the 10 mm dropped the closest focusing distance from (5.8 inch with 10 mm ext tube) to 4.1 inch (16 mm ext tube) and 3.3 inch (26 mm ext tube) which I believe is a minimum gain. Adding 10 mm extension tube did add a considerable magnification gain, adding the 16 and 26 mm tubes did indeed add more magnification yet the overall gain was minimum when we consider the disadvantages we will consider below.
  • Loss of light going through with the addition of extension tubes and the additional light loss with more tube length added is very visible looking at the pictures:
  • Picture with 50mm is much brighter than one with 50mm and 10 mm extension tube, adding 16 mm or 26 mm tube further increase the loss of light. While not a huge deal when taking pictures with flashes or of stationary subjects, this is much harder to deal with in aquariums where lighting is limited for photography and where use of flash isn’t always appreciated as it washes out coral colours and is harder to deal with because of reflections.
  • One thing to note is flash was on the camera and was getting closer with each shot (extension tubes allowed us to get closer) so basically with closer shots we get a bit more light from the flash, this means in reality light loss is even more than what we see in above shots.

Extension tubes on 105 mm Macro lens
  • A noticeable increase in magnification compared to the 50 mm lens, the 105 macro lens provide comparable magnification to the 50mm with 16mm extension tube, yet with much more light allowed in looing at how much brighter the picture with the 105mm is compared to 50mm with Extension tubes.
  • One more noticeable consideratoin is the limited effect of extension tubes on minimum focusing distance when placed on a macro lens, which is understandable as macro lenses are already designed to focus close. Min focusing distance of 105 macro lens without extension tubes is 5.4 inches or 13.5 cm adding a 10 mm tube drops minimum focusing distance to 5 inches or 12.5 cm, 16 and 26 mm tubes only reduce the minimum focusing distance by further 0.2 inches more each, which is a negligible improvement in focusing distance as well as a minimal improvement in magnification added. Compared to the loss of light we get with addition of tubes, their use on top of a 105mm macro lens would be questionable. This assessment is mainly for aquarium photography, for other uses like insect photography where ring flashes are used for more light and the ability to use smaller F stops as we’re shooting under daylight with additional flashes and where any added magnification is appreciated, use of longer tubes might have more appreciated effects compared to the disadvantages it has.
  • One last thing noted is that the 105 with the 26mm tube, caused us to be so close to the object that the flash caused lens shadow on the bottom part of the picture, this is not an issue with the 50mm where we don’t notice this effect even as shot is taken at 3.32 inches from subject vs 4.6 inches for the 105 most likely as the 105 is a much longer lens in size than the smaller 50mm.
 
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The second test was shooting the ruler at a 45 angle at the closest distance it can focus with and without different tubes. This test is useful to show Depth of field and also magnification as in the first test the whole ruler was in one single plane perpendicular at the camera so most of it was in perfect focus.

  • While parameters and distances were the same for both tests, Flash exposure was a bit higher as with the camera tilted the flash was facing the object... As we know from physics and from the previous test that extension tubes will decrease light going through we won't focus on that aspect in this test and only focus on magnification and Depth of field.
DSC_3326.jpg
DSC_3328.jpg
DSC_3329.jpg
DSC_3331.jpg
DSC_3332.jpg
DSC_3333.jpg
DSC_3334.jpg
DSC_3335.jpg

  • 50mm
  • Looking at the pictures we see a good effect on magnification for the extension tubes on the 50mm lens as we saw in previous test. The effect on the shallow depth of field with tubes is also very evident for the 50mm so overall on the 50mm the camera is focusing much closer, magnification gain with tubes is very clear, on the negative side depth of field does become shallow and we lose some light with addition of the tubes. To note that focusing struggles a bit and camera has to hunt a bit back and forth to lock focus when using tubes which is understandable ad not an issue if not shooting fish. We didn’t have to use manual focus on any of the shots but focusing on corals or in aquarium might be a bit more tricky than focusing on a graduated ruler where the graduation is much more contrasty and easier to lock focus than corals or fish.
  • 105 mm
  • The same exercise on the 105 was quite revealing, the 105mm picture without any tubes is more magnified that the 50mm with 26mm of tubes, exposure is brighter on the 105 alone and depth of field is a bit shallower than the 50mm with 26mm extension tubes. We see minimal gain in both magnification and a bit shallower DOF when we add extension tubes. One additional back draw is more focus haunting for the camera yet this is expected and as for the 50mm is not an issue unless shooting fish. We didn’t have to use manual focus for any of the shots where the camera haunted back and forth but ended up focusing each time.
  • The 105mm lens alone offers so much magnification and DOF is so much shallower even without tubes which explains the learning curve on macro lenses. Shots would have to use smaller apertures (larger A numbers) to get more of the subject in focus which will come at the price of shutter speed and ISO as lighting is limited in aquarium photography and use of flash isn’t always possible.
  • One more aspect to look at is max focusing distance which is the farther possible distance from subject. Looking at the table the max focusing distance of the 50 mm without tubes like any lens is infinity yet this comes at the cost of less magnification. Adding tubes reduces the max focusing distance when adding 10-16-26 mm tubes respectively to 12.4-7.8 and 5.12 inches which is rather a huge limitation for aquarium photography where many of our corals would be beyond 12.4 inches. Basically many corals beyond certain distance won’t be able to be photographed using tubes and this is something to consider if one is really after macro shots.
  • For the 105 we saw a proportional reduction of max focusing distance so 105 alone focuses up to infinity as well, adding 10-16 and 26 tubes brings the maximum focusing distance to 52, 32 and 20.4 inches. For tank photography I don’t see these values being any limitation except maybe the 26mm for reefers with very deep front to back tanks, yet with the previously discussed negligible gain in magnification I don’t see the real value of adding more than 10mm tube on a 105 macro lens.
  • So looking at the above and before going to aquarium shots our conclusion was that the 50 mm with extension tubes is very much capable of great macros, focusing distance is very much reduced, which is a plus for top down shots and shallower tanks for example. Loss of light can be a limiting factor yet limiting tubes used to 10mm or 26 would be a good compromise or more magnification, ability to shoot closer to subjects. 105 macro lenses would benefit very little from adding tubes.
  • One last test before going to aquarium shots was using the 50mm and 105mm alone and digitally cropping to see how much magnification we can get.
  • Digitally cropping has its own effects on images by reducing the pixels in a picture in severe crops which might make pictures noisy or unusable. The amount of magnification we can get before we start seeing severe image degradation will be affected by how sharp our initial image is and also by how much resolution is there in those pictures based on the camera MP. Higher MP cameras will allow more cropping and more magnification of pictures before degradation is visible. It is highly unlikely one would have to crop pictures from a 105mm lens but we will also check it to see if the gain is worth it as this can be replicated for reefers with 60mm macro lenses which might not be able to shoot corals beyond certain distance at 1:1 resolution and where magnification will start getting limited.
  • Keep in mind camera used for this exercise is the Nikon Z7ii which is a 45.7 MP camera, that is a much higher resolution than many cameras commonly used for aquarium photography so digital cropping might not be that effective for other cameras.
  • In below pictures 50mm and 105 mm have been cropped by 50%, further cropping was possible as it’s a high MP camera so we kept it at only 50% crop to make it relevant to common 20-25MP cameras images being cropped, then images were resized to 1200 pixels on the larger side of the picture to match all the pictures in the article.
DSC_3326.jpg

DSC_3326c.jpg


DSC_3332.jpg

DSC_3332c.jpg

  • Looking at the pictures and mostly at the 50mm original and digitally cropped pictures, there is considerable magnification to be gained from digital cropping especially on high MP cameras. Again this is more relevant for aquarium photography where pictures are mainly not intended to be printed and are mostly to be viewed on forums or social media where a resolution of 1200x800 is more than sufficient for screen viewing on PC and even less is more than enough for social media which is mostly viewed on tiny mobile phone screens.
 
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The last and most fun exercise was taking macro/close up of corals. Different corals were chosen based on placement in the tank, close to front glass, intermediate and far from front glass to check the limitations to picture corals based on distance as well as the magnifications possible with different techniques. Each coral was photographed with the 50mm, 50mm digitally cropped to 50 %, 50mm with 10mm Ext tube, 50mm with 16mm tube and 50mm with 26 mm tubes. The same sequence was followed for pictures with 105 mm and different combinations of extension tubes.

Starting with this Chalice which is around 6 inches 15 cm away from front glass

50mm
DSC_3337.jpg

50mm cropped 50%
DSC_3337c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3355.jpg

50mm +16mm ext tube
DSC_3368.jpg

50mm +26mm ext tube
DSC_3386.jpg

105 mm
DSC_3406.jpg

105 mm cropped 50%
DSC_3407.jpg

105 mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3427.jpg

105 mm +16mm ext tube
DSC_3443.jpg

105 mm +26mm ext tube
Camera couldn't focus with 26 mm of extension tubes


this chalice is around 8 inches 20cm from front glass
50mm
DSC_3338.jpg

50mm cropped 50%
DSC_3338c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3357.jpg

50mm +16mm ext tube
DSC_3369.jpg

50mm +26mm ext tube
DSC_3379.jpg

105 mm
DSC_3387.jpg

105 mm cropped 50%
DSC_3387 c.jpg

105 mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3408.jpg

105 mm +16mm ext tube
DSC_3428.jpg

105 mm +26mm ext tube
DSC_3445.jpg



This chalice was around 4 inches 10 cm away from front glass

50mm
DSC_3340.jpg

50mm cropped 50%
DSC_3340c.jpg

50mm 10 mm ext tube
DSC_3359.jpg


50mm 16 mm ext tube
DSC_3370.jpg


50mm 26 mm ext tube
DSC_3380.jpg



105mm
DSC_3389.jpg

105mm cropped 50%
DSC_3389c.jpg

105mm 10 mm ext tube
DSC_3409.jpg

105mm 16 mm ext tube
DSC_3429.jpg

105mm 26 mm ext tube
DSC_3447.jpg


This mushroom was around 8inches or 20 cm from front glass
50 mm
DSC_3341.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3341c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3360.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3372.jpg


50mm+26mm EXt tube
Camera didn't focus.

105mm
DSC_3390.jpg


105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3390c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3410.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3430.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3448.jpg


This green PAvona is around 6-10 inches away from glass 15-25 cm
50 mm
DSC_3342.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3342c .jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3361.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3373.jpg

50mm+26mm EXt tube
Camera Couldn't focus

105mm
DSC_3392.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3392c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3412.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3432.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3449.jpg


Orange Digitata in the back side of the tank so around 24 inches or 60 cm from back glass.
50 mm
DSC_3344.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3344c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube camera was not able to focus
50mm+ 16mm ext tube camera was not able to focus
50mm+26mm EXt tube camera was not able to focus
105mm
DSC_3393.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3393c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3414.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3433.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3450.jpg
 
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Oregon blue tort around 6 inches 15 cm from front glass.
50 mm
DSC_3347.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3347c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3362.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3374.jpg

50mm+26mm Ext tube
Camera couldn't focus

105mm
DSC_3396.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3396c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3416.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3434.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3452.jpg


Branching Cyphastrea is around 6 inches from front glass
50 mm
DSC_3348.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3348c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3364.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3376.jpg

50mm+26mm EXt tube
Camera dind't focus
105mm
DSC_3398.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3398c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3417.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3435.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3453.jpg


Bubble tip couple of inches f5 cm from front glass but expands around 10 inches 25 cm tot he back .
50 mm
DSC_3350.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3350c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3365.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3377.jpg

50mm+26mm EXt tube
DSC_3382.jpg

105mm
DSC_3402.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3402c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3419.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3436.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
DSC_3438.jpg



Slime ball anarcopora at around 20 inches 50 cm away from front glass.
50 mm
DSC_3352.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3352c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
Camera Didn't focus

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
Camera didn't focus

50mm+26mm EXt tube
Camera didn't focus


105mm
DSC_3403.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3403c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3420.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3441.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
Camera didn't focus

Lobophylia 3 inches 7.5 cm away from front glass.

50 mm
DSC_3354.jpg

50mm with 50% crop
DSC_3354c.jpg

50mm +10mm ext tube
DSC_3367.jpg

50mm+ 16mm ext tube
DSC_3378.jpg

50mm+26mm EXt tube
DSC_3384.jpg

105mm
DSC_3404.jpg

105mm with 50% crop
DSC_3404c.jpg

105mm + 10mm ext tube
DSC_3422.jpg

105mm + 16mm ext tube
DSC_3442.jpg

105mm + 26mm ext tube
Camera didn't focus
 
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Looking at all the above, be it the physics of things, the magnification ratios, the ability or non ability of the camera to focus at specific distances with different lens/extension tube combination... Also adding to that the diversity of tank dimensions, frag tank depth, amount of light available, abiilty to support the camera to avoid handshake as well as what corals one is taking pics of (swaying VS non moving corals.... it is very tricky to come out with objective conclusions that will work for everyone.
I do own multiple tanks and frag tanks with different dimensions as well as a decent collection of lenses and the extension tubes, so here are my observations for different abilities/limitations when taking pics of ones tank, which I hope will help reefers make a more informed decisions when chosing a camera/lens/ext tube setup.

Starting with tank setup, how deep from front to back is the tank or how high is it in the case of a frag tank where most shots are top down... The answers to those questions might guide you more towards a 90-105 macro lense VS a 50mm prime or a 60mm macro.
how much lighting do you have, as without very good/strong lighting pictures with 16-26mm extension tubes would be very difficult as you would end up havingt to shoot wide open which with extension tubes will make for non usable depth of filed. Using flash and not washing out colors isn't always possible and High ISO might end up causing noise in your images based on which camera you use.
Looking at the picture sets above the direct conclusions you get are:
Extension tubes have little to no value on a good macro lense, it already focuses close enough, magnification ratio is already high and I didn't see an increase in magnification that justifies the loss of light, shallower depth of field, and added motion you get when you add tubes.
-50 percent crop of a picture taken with 50mm lens if your camera has a high Megapixel count allowing cropping is close to adding a 10mm extension tube and without the associated light loss or the reduction of your DOF. the added advantage of the tubes is the ability to focus closer when needed.
-50 percent crop of the pictures taken with a 105mm lens is roughly equal or more magnification than 16mm tube based on subject distance, without loss of light or added motion, lens focuses close enough so the added benefit from closer focusing is negligible.
Based on tank depth or where corals are in your tank it might be beneficial to add Tubes on a 50mm lense for corals 2-15 inches far from glass, I see no real value for having more than 16mm extension tubes as 26mm tubes over 50mm lens did not allow focusing for multiple corals in this experiment.

another question to ask is what is the purpose of the macros you are after, I realize in certain applications like insect photography, ultra high magnification ratios are desired. yet in coral photography we still want to see a larger portion of the coral rather than 1-2 inches of it when we have 16-26mm tubes and have to be very close to focus. The article above allows you to view what sort of results you will get in your pictures and allow you to make a more informed decision on what lenses and tubes to invest in, factors to look at would be:
-Magnification desired
-Size of the coral in the picture
-depth of field, realize many are after creamy bouqueh or blurred backgrounds behind the subject in many types of photography, yet is this really the case in tank photography and to what percecntage of your pictures? many times I want to have a nice closeup showing a colony or a large portion of the colony for people to get an idea about the gorwth pattern and color, or is it that we want extreem closeups of less than 1 inch of the corals to look at polyps.
one last factor to discuss is an advantage to digital croping that we found during processing pictures for this article. While we always thought that digital cropping or any digital manipulation takes away from the quality of a picture vs getting it right in camera, we saw that newer cameras with higher Megapixle counts made it easy to crop without visible effects on pictures, especially pictures to be used for online viewing on PC screens or mobile phones or tablets... cropping gave the following advantages vs pictures taken with a 50mm or a 105mm with tubes:
-No loss of light
-No reduction of depth of field
-no limits with focusing distances.
-On top of those aspects the real advantage to digital cropping was the ability to focus on composition and framing much more than in camera. normally focusing on framing in camera is a bit of a learning curve and a habbit, it is however made much more difficult when on a macro focusing rail and with tubes and limited ability to focus where moving the camera a few millimiters to the front or back kills the possibility of locking focus and the attention moves to locking focus and securing the shot VS a nice composition.
I'm from the school of the less digital manipulation and the more of getting things right in camera is better so this came as a complete surprise to me. Maybe experimenting with 50mm and only 10mm of extension tubes and then cropping in post processing and adjusting framing and composition to what works best would be a nice compromise between all the techniques above.
-Another financial aspect that caught my attention was the following for Nikon, where the price of the new extension tubes for mirrorless cameras and lenses is around 220 usd for 2 Tubes (10 and 16mm) vs 120 usd for 3 extension tubes non mirroless cameras and lenses (12-20-36). In line with that I also disconvered that the 50mm 1.8 which was always a lower cost good quality prime lense is selling at much higher prices now:
550 usd for 50mm 1.8 for nikon mirrorless vs around 175 for its canon counterpart. both the nikon and canon 50mm 1.8 used to sell for around 150 usd. I am sure there has been improvements on the 50mm 1.8 from nikon to support the price and I will be doing a review on it for aquarium photography yet looking at the price of a 50mm 1.8 (doubt it can be found used as it was recently released) and the tubes you are already at around 750 usd which would easily buy you 50mm, extension tubes and tamron 90mm or nikon 60/105 mm all used and for non mirorless nikon cameras. I don't shoot Canon but believe price wise canon 50mm and tubes won't be anywhere near this price.


Conclusion
Does this article answer the question which camera/lense tubes to get for any scenario (tank corals fish choices....) ?
Clearly not and i doubt anyone or any article can get there. of course with compromises any of the above choices aline or combined with extension tubes, will work and qaulity pictures can be aquired for fish or corals using the 50mm or 105 mm with or without tubes.
other intermediate solutions like the nikon 60mm and the Tamron 90mm or the canon 100 mm especially ones for non mirorless cameras used on mirorless cameras with adapter or on non mirrorless camera without adapter might be worth considering.
In the end I go back to a scenario we mostly face in photography and at the risk of being perceived as a photography snob which I'm definitely not, i feel that photography like reefkeeping or maybe even more is that these are not hobbies where we can cut corners.
Slowly building your lenses arsenal and going with quality choices and preferably new lenses will go a long way. I remember buying my old 50mm 1.4 more than 20 years back and I only sold it now after I upgraded to full mirorless and got AN
Ok buy back amount on it. Lenses and cameras if well taken care of will last you years to come and will justify the somewhat heavy initial investment if you are really into photography.
For just getting a camera and lenses for decent quality pics any older non mirorless camera and a 50mm coupled with either a 60mm or a 90-105 macro depending on how deep your tank is, as well as a set of extension tubes will not cost much and will allow excellent image quality for our purpose for years to come. Having multiple.lens choices abd tubes will allow you more versatility facing different scenarios in your tank l, where distance lighting, colors, magnification needed.... Will require ever changing lenses and camera setup.
 
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Jeremy_d

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This is incredible. I have a Canon EOS R that I plan to start using to get some good macro shots of my corals to blow up and hang in my office, this will be a very helpful resource.
 

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