Currently I own only a 1X magnification macro lens (35mm F/2.8) but I am playing with a rented Canon MP-E 65mm lens which can go to 5X. The photography at that magnification is a world apart!

The question is then how much can I increase the magnification of the 35mm Macro through extension tubes or other macro adapters without losing image quality? What would it take to get beyond 2-3X if it possible?

  • You can't increase it at all past the 1x / 1:1 that it is already capable of on its own without losing image quality.
    – dpollitt
    Mar 14 '12 at 15:35
  • 1
    @dpollit I think you can, as long as the lens resolves more than the imaging medium can capture.
    – Imre
    Mar 14 '12 at 16:39

You should be fine stacking on a whole set of extension tubes. You will increase diffraction, however you'll also be magnifying your subject by a greater factor, possible several times more...so fine details will still stand out more than they would at a lower magnification level because the effects of diffraction remain smaller than the magnified details (up to a certain point...diffraction will grow faster than detail magnification, however long before it gets to the point where the airy disc is larger than your original details, other things will limit your ability to keep extending.) The facets of an insects eye become gigantic, and the fine details of EACH FACET could be visible with enough magnification, to the point where they span large clusters of pixels...where the airy disc of diffraction may only span a couple pixels. Extension tubes do not add any optical elements to the light path, so technically speaking, you should be able to extend and gain additional magnification without significantly affecting IQ.

For experiments sake, lets say that hypothetical insect actually is our subject. Lets say we are shooting with an 18mp APS-C camera, at 1:1 magnification. Lets say the facets of our subjects eyes span 8x8 pixel areas (very small!)

If you are shooting 35mm 1:1 @ f/5.6, and slap on a 25mm extension tube. Magnification gain is extension/focalLength, so your adding 25mm/35mm, or 0.714x more magnification. Magnification affects the effective f-stop that you are shooting at. At 1.0x magnification, you are already experiencing some of the effects, and your effective aperture is f/11. With the additional magnification, your effective f-stop is f/5.6 * (1 + 1.714), or f/15. Your subjects eye facets are now about 26x26 pixels in size, and diffraction is affecting about 4 pixel areas.

Similarly, 50mm of extension would be 1.43x additional magnification (50/35), so effective f-stop is f/5.6 * (1 + 2.43), or f/19. Diffraction at that level is visible and will have a moderate impact on IQ, but not anywhere close to as bad as optical aberrations are going to be at f/2.8. It still isn't affecting the ultimate quality of your image, however...as your subject has also grown in detail. Your subject's eye facets are now about 43x43 pixels, and diffraction is affecting about 6 pixel areas.

Lets take the experiment farther...you have to stop down to f/22 to get enough DOF, and your extending by a whole 5x magnification. That gives you an effective aperture of f/22 * (1 + 5), or f/132. At this point, the effects of diffraction would span about a 150 pixel area for an 18mp APS-C sensor (which is VERY high resolution, about 116 lp/mm...line pairs/millimeter.) You might be inclined to think the effects of diffraction are now obliterating all the detail you worked so hard to get. That wouldn't necessarily be the case, though. Your at 5x magnification, almost three orders of magnitude greater than you were at 2.43x magnification before, where those fine details spanned 26x26 pixel areas. The same details should be spanning more than 250x250 pixel areas now. Diffraction has grown, and will likely blur out fine details, but is affecting about 50 pixel areas. You'll still be extracting more detail than you lose to diffraction.

To answer your fundamental question: How much can you magnify before you lose detail? The size of the airy disc will grow slightly faster than the size of the original detail at 1.0x magnification. This is due to the non-uniform nature of diffraction, and the way it will interfere with/amplify itself as its effect grow. Diffraction is also dependent on the wavelength of light...so while I have used the wavelength of yellow-green light (564nm) for my calculations so far, visible light spans the range from about 340nm violet to 790nm deep red. Deep red light will diffract more than other wavelengths, and will produce greater diffraction. You may eventually reach a limit, wherein diffraction affects IQ enough that you don't gain any further benefits. That limit is very far beyond the point where other mechanical limitations prevent you from extending any more.

In normal photography, the more you stop the aperture down, the more the effects of diffraction affect the image. Since the detail in the image is not getting larger as you stop down, the more detail you lose as airy discs grow. When it comes to macro photography, your magnifying the detail as you increase extension...and while your also increasing diffraction, the original details are always larger than the airy disc. You WILL lose some detail as you extend (you'll be bringing finer and finer detail to light, and beyond around 3x magnification, diffraction will start to affect the visibility of finer details than what you started out with at 1.0x.) Eventually the effects of diffraction will prevent you from continuing to make useful gains with additional magnification. But you can push magnification very far. In the general case, you are far more likely to run into the problem where your focal plane ends up too close or actually inside the lens before you actually run into problems with diffraction affecting IQ in a truly detrimental way.

  • Quite a detailed explanation! Based on @Irme's answer, I suspect you are assuming a perfect lens, meaning the resolution is not limited by anything other than diffraction. Is this the case?
    – Itai
    Mar 15 '12 at 3:24
  • @Itai: Not necessarily. At f/5.6 and below, optical aberrations tend to be mitigated and diffraction is already taking a larger toll on IQ. That would be the reason I did not use a wider aperture, as its tough to guarantee anything wider than about f/4-5.6, and in some cases even then the lenses are slightly more aberration-bound than diffraction bound. The numbers above do assume diffraction limited, which should be the case in reality with most lenses at those apertures.
    – jrista
    Mar 15 '12 at 11:47
  • @Itai: Another bit of info. At f/5.6, spatial resolution of the lens is at most 123lp/mm. Canon's highest density sensors, the 18mp APS-C, resolves at most 116lp/mm. You would probably have to stop down to around f/6.5 to match the lens to the sensor from a diffraction standpoint. Anything more than that, and the lens will be diffraction limited more so than the sensor. Most sensors can't even resolve that much spatial resolution though...most full-frame sensors resolve around 70-80lp/mm. At the moment, I think the only thing that resolves more is Sony's 24mp APS-C...but it has it's own issues
    – jrista
    Mar 15 '12 at 16:03
  • You can find a handy chart of diffraction limited lens resolutions at LL in Table 1. Use the MTF 50% column...the MTF 9% column is related to the absolute maximum human eyesight can resolve, which is a fair bit better than what sensors or all but the best and most specialized lenses can resolve.
    – jrista
    Mar 15 '12 at 16:07
  • Thanks for all the updates. It makes a lot of sense but I may be confused. Are you saying that the magnification can be increased by extension tubes without losing much quality until the focus distance is no longer outside the lens?
    – Itai
    Mar 16 '12 at 1:16

First of all, adding extension tubes will bring the front of lens further from body, while bringing focused plane closer. There's a limit how much you can extend until your lens won't physically fit between focused plane and camera body. A 35mm macro lens already is very close focusing, so the physical length of the lens limits how much you can extend it.

When using extension tubes, you are moving your lens further away from imaging surface (film or sensor). The bigger distance means projected image circle will be bigger, and you're using smaller part of it - so to obtain same resolution, your lens must now project the image with more precision. The intrinsic extension of a 35mm 1:1 macro lens is 70mm; you'll have to add another 70mm worth of extension tubes to double magnification, but that also requires twice as much resolving power to obtain same projection quality.

Therefore, you'll start losing in image quality when your the resolution of your lens divided by extension factor falls lower than the resolution you need the image at. From there on, you could use cropping instead.

Similarly, reversal ring photography is constrained by resolution power of the reversed lens (which is optimized for resolutions like your sensor does have, not 2-3 times more). Obtaining high magnification without optics specially designed for that is either very cheap and simple (print a crop and accept the lower resolution) or impossible.

  • That's an interesting way to look at it. So what would the focus distance be with the 35mm extension, half? Is there a point when with enough extension, focusing is physically impossible because it would be inside the lens?
    – Itai
    Mar 15 '12 at 3:27
  • I don't know how to calculate change of focusing distance, so I've asked it as a new question. So far, I only know from practice that extending does bring the focal plane closer, so inevitably there must be a point where it meets the front glass.
    – Imre
    Mar 17 '12 at 20:10

Get a secondhand 28mm wideangle lens and reverse it. Then add extension tubes to taste.

Alternately, use close up lenses.

  • 5
    This doesn't answer the question.
    – mattdm
    Mar 15 '12 at 1:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.