I set a photographic goal for myself this year to make macro images of snowflakes. As you know, snowflakes are quite small and even a 1:1 macro lens (a lens that projects a real sized image onto the image sensor) that is pretty awesome for most macro photography falls far short when you need to magnify greater than 1:1. My first attempt using some close up filters I already had attached to my Tamron 90mm macro lens was a huge failure and I won’t go into detail here as to why, enough to say that I had to try something different and that is where a set of macro bellows comes into play.
There are a few options when it comes to getting your lens to magnify to greater than 1:1, one of them is to reverse you lens and shoot through it backwards, the rear element becomes the front and vice versa. This is somewhat cumbersome and wasn’t the route I wanted to go. The other is to move the lens away from the image sensor. One very popular means to do this is via extension tubes, they simply sit between your camera and your lens and increase the magnification of any lens that you attach to them. There are advantages to extension tubes, if you get good ones you retain things like AE and autofocus since they have the electronic contacts to pass that information between the lens and the camera body. The downside is that you are somewhat limited as to how far you can move the lens out from the sensor. I knew that I was going to want to move that macro lens a long way, and thus the Studiohut macro bellows.
Bellows are about as old school as you can go when it comes to photography, look for images of really old, I mean REALLY OLD cameras and you will see all of them have bellows. What you might not know is that a modern tilt/shift lens simply replicates the functions of a set of bellows, but in the case of this review all I am using them for, and all that this set is cab able of, is to extend the lens from the camera and increase magnification. The biggest advantage to using a set of bellows is that they allow you to move the lens a lot further than a set of extension tubes will, the shot above shows the bellows extended about half their maximum distance.
This review is of the Studiohut branded bellows but upon doing a little shopping it appears that these exact same bellows are sold under a number of different names, I bought the Studiohut ones simply because they were available when I wanted them, the others were out of stock. You should also know that Nikon markets bellows but their price was outside of what I wanted to pay, nearly 10 times as much as these, and with Amazon’s liberal return policy if these 3rd party ones didn’t work I would simply return them.
The first thing I noticed when I removed them from the box was that they seemed somewhat well built for an aftermarket photo gadget that costs 1/10th of what Nikon wants for theirs, I was pleasantly surprised. The second thing I noticed was that while the bellows mounted smoothly to my camera, a Nikon D7000 in this case, attaching the lens to the front of the bellows was VERY tight. It did mount, but it made my wonder about the tolerances used in manufacturing. I will say though that after 2 or 3 uses things have smoothed up and mounting lenses to the bellows is now quite smooth. The third thing you will notice with these bellows is that there is NO electronic contacts between the front mount and the rear mount. While this might be a huge disadvantage to most, it isn’t to me, it simply means that you are shooting if MANUAL, and I mean totally MANUAL mode. As I said, this isn’t a disadvantage to me, I shot with fully manual cameras for years.
Optical performance really isn’t a topic for this review as there are no glass elements and the bellows are light tight. You will lose some light when using bellows though, just as you will with extension tubes, but it will be a lot more as you extend the bellows to their full extension.
The following series of shots show the difference is magnification between using a macro lens by itself and by adding the extension tubes. All of these shots were made with my Nikon D7000 (I prefer my crop sensor cameras for macro work in many cases, the same crop effect that applies to telephoto lenses applies to macro) and a Tamron 90mm macro lens (the older non-VC version). All shots are pretty much out of camera with the exception of converting from RAW to JPG and doing a little color and exposure correction, none of them have been cropped in any way. Please see the image captions for shot details. Also note, for both shots with the bellows the macro lens was focused to its highest magnification setting.
As you can clearly see, the bellows make a huge difference in the amount of magnification you can achieve with a somewhat standard macro lens. The cool thing is that you could turn an inexpensive “nifty fifty” into a very capable macro lens without dropping the cash needed for an even moderately priced macro. While I haven’t done the math, I do suspect that if you were to attempt to use this with a wide angle lens, the focal point would probably end up inside the lens barrel, with the 90mm lens the working distance in this last shot was a little less than an inch.
I can honestly say that I am quite impressed with this little bit of kit. I am always pleased when I can find something that costs a fraction of the “name brand” items and it actually works as it should. Will it stand up to the test of time and a lot of use, I don’t know, but at 1/10th the price of the Nikon alternative, I can replace it a few times before I get too upset.
*I was not provided this product for review, I paid for it out of my own pocket to fill a need I had.