If you want to shoot macro photography without the cost and bulk associated with a dedicated macro lens, a set of extension tubes is just the ticket. There are many options on the market, ranging from pricey OEM tubes down to dirt-cheap aftermarket junk. So, are those cheaper options any good? Or are they a waste of money?
Cheap Extension Tubes – Nice vs Inexpensive vs Junk
Like most things in the photography gear space, there’s the good stuff, the inexpensive stuff, and then there’s junk, and extension tubes are no exception.
On the high end of the price spectrum is the OEM extension tubes from the likes of Canon and Nikon. Canon’s tubes are sold invididualy (rather than in a set) and will cost you about $80 for the 12mm extension tube and about $150 for the 25mm extension tube. As you would expect, the Canon extension tubes are very nicely made, fit Canon lenses and bodies like a glove, and are sealed for dust and moisture intrusion. Full metering and autofocus function are retained as well. Nikon, Pentax, and others also make very nice extension tubes. If your budget allows, by all means get the good stuff.
In this price bracket and down, extension tubes come in two- and three-tube sets, ranging from about 10mm to about 35mm of extension. There are some really nice options here, including extension tube sets from Kenko ($150), Movo ($80), and Micnova ($70). The Kenko set is almost as nice as the Canon gear, but I’m not sure it’s worth twice the cost of the others. All of them have a nice fit/finish, and retain full metering and AF functionality between camera and lens. I’d start here if you’re serious about macro but not sure if you want to commit the big bucks for the OEM extension tubes.
The Cheap Stuff
Ebay and Amazon are awash with cheap photo gear, and your options for cheap extension tubes are legion. Some of these cheap options also, surprisingly, allow the lens to talk to the body for metering and autofocus purposes, although for macro work autofocus is not all that important. The main differentiators in this group are body materials and how well they fit body and lens mounts.
For all-metal construction, the cheapest of the cheap extension tubes is from the fine folks at Fotodiox ($15). The price is right, but you will lose connectivity between lens and body, so EXIF data will be lacking and there is no control over AF or aperture. You’ll have to trick the lens into locking at your chosen aperture, and you’ll need to do this every time you want to change apertures. This is annoying, to say the least.
For a mere $12, you can have full control of AF and aperture from the PIXEL extension tube set, but you have to deal with a very cheap build quality. The tubes are plastic with metal mounts, and they feel very flimsy. They do work just fine, but I would be afraid to travel far with these due to cheap and flimsy feel.
A compromise is the $40 Viltrox extension tube set, which combines nicer build quality with full lens-body connectivity. I’d go with this one if your budget can’t fit a mid-grade option.
Can You Get by with Cheap Extension Tubes?
Yes, I believe you can. Even the cheapest option above produced workable results. Extension tubes do not have any optical or glass elements, so the differences between all options come down to how nicely made they are and whether or not they electronically connect the lens and body. Otherwise, they are just a spacer to move the lens a little further away from the film plane to allow for close-focusing (at the expense of infinity focus, however).