Using Freelensing & Extension Tubes for Macro: With Jessica Nelson

May 3, 2018 0 Comments

We love when people are so willing to share what they know with us, and it’s an even bigger treat when someone is willing to share even more of their knowledge with us!  We have Jessica Nelson back with us today, and she is going to share how she gets macro images using a reverse freelensing technique, as well as extension tubes!

How did you get interested in shooting macro and up close?

I have been shooting some form of macro for many years. I love being able to see the most mundane of things up close to get a new perspective. Plus I just love bugs. Seeing them with a different eye can make even the ugliest of insect look beautiful. Plus who doesn’t love photos of gorgeous flowers?

What do you look for first when shooting macro? (subject, lighting, background, etc?)

Shooting macro is quite different than shooting other subjects. I am drawn to textures and colors first when looking for subjects. In general for macro I tend to shoot fairly close up as well so I like more simple background as well as pretty light and bokeh.

What do you find the most challenging part of shooting macro or up close?

Getting good focus is definitely the hardest part of macro shooting. Shooting that close gives you a very small slice of focus. When I am shooting with my macro lens I tend to stop down as  much as my light and shutter speed will allow to ensure I get more of my subject in focus. That is a personal preference as I like more sharp images but sometimes I shoot more open so that I can get a more out of focus or dreamy feel to the image. But some part of your subject should be in focus so that there is a clear Point of Interest.

Do you have any tips or tricks that help you get the subject the way you want it?

I often use manual focus when shooting macro as well as freelensing so in order to manipulate your subject to get it where you want, I often find myself moving my body and/or the camera to reposition my composition. However, don’t be afraid to use solid color backgrounds behind your subject (like construction paper) and use tools to prop your subjects so that you have both of your hands free to shoot.

What tips can you share about reverse freelensing for those of us who are dummies about it?

Freelensing is another very fun way to shoot macro or at least get closer. This is done when you detach the lens from your camera and move the lens around to shift the slice of focus to where you want it. I recommend starting out using your live view on the back of your camera, if it has that feature, to get use to using it and seeing where your focus falls. One rule of thumb for normal freelensing is the closer the lens is to the camera the further your focus will be. So if you want to do more of a closeup or macro shot then pull the lens further away from your camera body. The trouble with doing that, especially in the bright sun, is the haze and light leaks that can create, which can be fun but also distracting. So instead you can flip the lens around backwards so that the front of the lens is covering your mirror and that will avoid extra light filtering in. Then you can move forward and backward until you can achieve a good slice of focus. This works especially well with my Helios and any standard prime lens. In general I try to keep my aperture at around f/4 when I am freelensing so I can get some good focus and some good dreamy qualities in the OOF areas.

(Just an FYI, almost all of the images in this post are reverse freelens macro shots by Jessica.  The only exception are the orange ranunculus images, which were shot with the Lensbaby Velvet and extenders. )

Do you set your shots up in any way, shoot on the fly, or get in a specific place and wait for the perfect moment to press your shutter?

In general for my macro work I plan out my shoots and subjects. I will go buy a bouquet of flowers to have on hand, I will pick a specific time of day (morning or evening) to shoot outside and I put a lot of thought in light and background as well. Occasionally if I am out looking for insects I will shoot on the fly when I am able to find some bugs that cooperate but for most of my macro shots I plan them out ahead of time.

How do you capture the perspective that you do?  (Standing, kneeling, down to the ground, all of them, etc.)

I am known to shoot in all those positions. However for macro I try to stabilize myself as much as I can so that I can get good focus. I tuck my elbows into my sides or sit/kneel down so that I am not moving too much on my feet. I am also known to hold my breath too.

What do you look for in terms of lighting when making detailed images?

As with all photography, light is so super important in macro. You need a lot of good light if you want to stop down and get more in focus. I try to shoot where there is good natural light, whether outside or near a large window. Shooting macro in low light can be difficult unless you want to make it a less sharp and more soft image.

What are extension tubes and how do you use them?

I have the Lensbaby Velvet56 which also is a great lens for macro/close up. However it doesn’t get as close to my subject as my macro lens so I bought extension tubes to increase that focus distance. Extension tubes sit between your camera body and your lens and it works to move the lens further away from your camera so that you can focus closer. They come in different sizes depending on how close you want to get to your subject. These are also handy for when you don’t have a macro lens at all, you can use them on any lens to allow you to focus closer. I’ve used it on a 50mm as well.


What gear and equipment do you use for accomplishing this?

I shoot macro with my Canon 5DMIII and a Canon 100L macro lens. I also love to freelens and when I do I almost always use my Helios 44-4 lens. I bought that lens specifically to freelens because I wanted a lens with a manual aperture ring so I could control my f/stop with the lens detached. I have also used my 50 f/1.4 to freelens but when I detach a Canon lens from my camera it defaults to wide open and sometimes I would prefer to stop down a little. I have also heard that Nikon lenses close down all the way when they are detached. So, I decided to buy a lens with that aperture control.

What are your typical settings?

When I shoot macro I use my 100L lens and keep it generally above f/7.1 to achieve good focus. Then I set my ISO and SS accordingly depending on my light but I try not to dip below 1/125. When I freelens I use my Helios on f/4 and keep my ISO fairly low since when you detach the lens you get a lot of extraneous light entering into the mirror so I try to underexpose slightly to minimize too much haze. I again then set my SS accordingly to deal with the light.


Jessica Nelson is a hobby photographer based out of central Maryland where she lives with her husband, three children and a spirited rat terrier. Getting her start as a kid in her father’s dark room, she now dabbles in lots of photography including natural light, studio, and macro but her real passion lies in wildlife and nature. She is drawn to all living things big and small and strives to capture much of our natural world.  You can find Jessica’s work on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Flickr.  She recently finished a magazine you can find here!

Emily Hamson

I'm a mom of 4 wild boys, who photographs mostly nature (partly because they don't run away or pull faces at me like my boys do). Being behind my camera is my therapy! In 2017 I decided to embark upon a personal photography project to find more creative ways to use my camera, and the CIC was born. I love to learn anything that goes along with photography, but I really love helping others learn new techniques even more!