Macro photography for $10

So, you like the idea of doing macro photography, but you think you can’t afford it? Think again – with less than £10 worth of equipment, a little bit of sweat and tears (and blood, if you, like me, are a bit on the clumsy side), and you can build yourself a surprisingly good macro lens. Don’t believe me? Well, have a look at the article, and think again!

Of course, as I’m using a Pringles can to make this lens, you also have the opportunity to pause for a snack. Now that’s the type of DIY projects I like.

So you want to take pictures of things up close, do you? You have gone tired of all the regular ways of doing so? Ready for bellows and reversing rings, but can’t afford them? Have no fear, there is a far cheaper way to get a reasonably good result!

Also, Before we go any further… Need I say that you do all of this on your own risk? If you chop a finger off, ruin a lens or your camera body, it’s your own fault, and your own problem. Just be really careful, and you should be fine.


Cannibalising lens covers

This project takes base in cannibalising a few of the lens- and body covers that most of us have laying around. These are great, seeing as they are already created to connect to the camera – the easiest way to get the correct bayonet fittings to attach stuff to your camera body and lenses!

Obviously, the covers are solid, which is no good to us. So, in order to get them into an useful state, I attacked them with a Dremel tool.


Such a grind…

Carefully chopping the fronts out of a camera body cover and a lens cover takes quite a bit of time, not least because I wanted to do it as neatly as possible.

When you are done, remember to matte the cut by using emory paper (sanding paper): You want to make sure it doesn’t reflect light.


Pringles tube to the rescue

What you make the actual distance tube out of is relatively unimportant, as long as it is completely light-proof. I decided to use a pringles tube because I have done projects in the past with them, so I knew that they were approximately the right size. It turned out, in fact, that it was exactly the right size. Nifty.

After removing the top and decantering all the lovely crisps into a bowl (nope, I’m not affiliated with Pringles. And the jury is still out if the crisps type have any impact on the photo quality of the end product), it was time to attack the bottom of the tube…


Sparks! Oh, the pretty sparks!

Cutting out the bottom of the pringles can caused a lot of pretty sparks, so I couldn’t resist the temptation of taking a few shots.

Ladies: sorry about the unwashed hair, beard stubbles, messy room, and general colour mismatching of this photo. If this turns you on, marriage proposals go on an ePostcard to the address at the bottom of the article.


So… Why the lens cover?

There was no logistical reason for why I decided to cut holes in both the body and the lens cover, other than that I thought it might come in handy later. With the final design, it turned out to not be necessary. It did, however, come in quite handy: The lens cover cap works as a flare-reducing hood, and it helps protect the electrical contacts built into the lens. In addition, it makes it easier to grab on to the lens as it is stuck in the tube.

Chalk that one up to luck rather than than planning, but cut a hole in a lens cover as well, because it makes your life easier, and it reduces the chance of putting one of your lenses out of commission. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to keep my lenses in one piece. I’m not that rich: I’m writing an “on the cheap” guide.


A Sticky situation

So, once the pringles tube had a big hole in the bottom, I set out to attaching the body cover and the Pringles tube.

Any strong glue should do. I suspect a hot-glue gun would probably be best, but I was out of glue sticks, so decided to use epoxy glue instead.

Anything to make the two pieces stick firmly to each other. If the glue you use sets translucent, you may want to take a black felt-tip pen and colour it dark, to prevent light leaks.


Firmly attached

After the epoxy glue had set, I had to try to see if it fitted on my Canon 20D.

Sure enough, it was a perfect fit.

Professionality aside, I gladly admit to doing a minor victory dance at this point.

A snug fit – banishing light

My idea was to use black felt to block out the light leaks from outside the lens.

The particular lens I decided to use for this project is the cheapest Canon standard lenses, namely the Canon 50mm f/1.8 MKII.

It is just the right size, and despite being cheap as chips, it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve – more about that in a minute. Ideally, using an older lens would be a better idea – especially if it has manual aperture controls.

By wrapping black fabric (in my case, a t-shirt I didn’t really like anymore) tightly around the lens, I managed to block out all superfluous light.


Textile Hack

I’ll gladly admit that getting it right took a couple of tries, but eventually I found exactly how much fabric was needed. To hold the bundle together, I decided to tape it all together.

After this, the lens fitted snugly in the Pringles container. Not only did it not fall out, it slides quite easily, so if you need to move it, you can just push or pull it to where you need it. Once you let go, it stays put. This is actually quite important, as it’s part of the focussing strategy: You don’t focus using focus rings, but by moving the lens closer or further away from whatever you are photographing.


Finally: Taking photos!

Right, everything has come together, and now it is time to do the fun stuff: Take pictures!

Depth of field in Macro photography

You’ll probably find that, essentially, you have no depth of field at all. In macro- and microphotography, moving an item half a millimetre forward or backward from the lens changes things dramatically. Of course, you’ll learn soon enough to draw this to your advantage, but there is actually something you can do to increase your depth of field, if only a little: Stop down the lens – more info about that here.


Focussing is a serious challenge with microphotography, and it can be bitterly frustrating: The slightest movement throws the object completely out of focus, and even finding your object again can be a nightmare.

My only advice: Try it slowly. Wave your object in front of the lens, and then try focusing it by holding it in your hand, looking through the viewfinder. Once you get the hang of it, understanding how it works, you can try and set it up in a static setup: You are going to want to use a remote release button or the camera’s self timer to reduce shutter shake, so make sure everything is sturdily set up!


The internal light-meter is actually a good starting point – it isn’t always accurate, but it gives you an idea. The great thing with digital SLRs, of course, is that you can try and err as much as you like. And trust me, there will be a lot of that while you try and figure out macro photography.

Taking the photo

As mentioned briefly earlier, you’ll want to hold the camera perfectly still. Use the self-timer or use a remote shutter lead to make sure everything is perfectly still.

The photo below is off a simple Bic ballpoint pen (it was the first thing I had to reach).

It is by no means a great macro photo, but it does give an impression of how big things get. That is an un-cropped photo, by the way: I have the photographs below in all their 8 megapixel glory.

The reason for the glare in this photo is that the inside of the Pringles tube was still metallic. The light was bouncing around on the inside of the tube, causing it to look very fuzzy.

Ballpoint pen – Canon 50mm f/1.8 stopped down to f/16, shutter time approx. 10 seconds, ISO 100. Not cropped. (see bigger version)

Ballpoint pen – Canon 50mm f/1.8 stopped down to f/4.0, shutter time approx. 0.3 seconds, ISO 100. Slightly cropped. (see bigger version)

Now in video form!

This article was published in Make Magazine vol.6, and in late 2009, Make Magazine made this their Video Project! I’m proud to say that Kip and the rest of the Make team made a great video guide of it – check it out:

Further improving the system

The first change I made to my initial design was to add a layer of black paper inside the Pringles box. Ideally, black felt or another completely light-eating surface would be better, but felt costs money, and I decided to keep this project as cheap as possible.

Photos taken with the system

During my further experimentation, I decided to have a go at a pack of matches that was conveniently within an arm’s length:

(For all three images, click on them to see them bigger on Flickr. While you’re there, why not add them as favourites while you’re at it?)


I hope this article has inspired you to build a macro lens of your own. It is a tremendous amount of fun, and in the process you are likely to learn a lot about photography and optics: Which, in turn, will improve your overall photography performance. You can’t lose!