The Homemade Macro Lens

Text and photography copyright Mike Ash 2003. All rights reserved.


My interest in macro photography came about when I came into the possession of a digital camera, an Olympus D-400z point and shoot, but was unable to go places to take pictures because I'm disabled. That limited me to what I could find in my yard. I experimented with holding close up filters in front of the camera lens, and then tried jewelers loupes. Both have limitations because they cast a shadow on the pictures if you have to use the flash. I've settled on using magnifying glasses. Any magnifying glass will do, and can even be hand held in front of cameras whose lenses are flush with the camera. They are thin, and cast no shadow if you use the flash. You can also stack them to get even closer if you like. The ones that seem to work best with my camera are the student magnifying glasses that I ordered from Acorn Naturalists and are a whole 67 cents each, but there are a number of sites on the Internet that handle different sized magnifying glasses. Still, taking pictures was a 2 handed job, and sometimes I simply needed my other hand for something other than holding a magnifying glass in front of the camera lens. Since my lens extends out from the camera body it was not hard to come up with a way to "make" a macro lens to slip over the extended lens tube.

What I used is a simple toilet paper roll, but paper towel rolls, or even the biscuit containers that you get at the grocery store could be used. It depends on the diameter of the camera lens tube. You need to use something light though because the zoom lenses on the digital cameras are very delicate, and will not support much weight.

The first step is to split the roll lengthwise so you can get at the inside of it. There I lay out "stripes" of silicone seal lengthwise. They help to form a buffer between the camera lens, and the homemade macro lens. It also stays rubbery after it is dry, and this helps to keep the macro lens from slipping off. When the silicone seal is dry I wrap the roll around the lens to get the idea of the length that I need, and then cut it off.
Next is to wrap that around the camera lens so it can be taped to size. I use strapping tape for its strength. Be careful when you do this part. You don't want the tube to be too tight. You want it to slip on easily, but also stay there if you have to point the camera downward. After that I generally put on several layers of strapping tape to reinforce the whole thing.
Next you cut out a notch the size that will fit the handle of the magnifying glass. You want the front of the magnifying glass pretty much flush with the end of the tube you've made.
This is the tricky part. Slip the tube onto your camera lens, and while holding the magnifying glass so that it is centered on your camera lens, fill in the gaps with silicone seal. It's reasonably stiff, and doesn't run, but be careful not to get it on your camera lens. You will also want to make sure that the magnifying glass sits flush with the camera lens. Once the glue has started to set up some you can take it off the camera, and set it aside.
As a final step I generally add a layer or two of silicone seal to the outside of the paper tube. It helps to hold everything together, even under heavy use, and strengthens the whole assembly. When it's dry you're ready to take pictures with it. I've made 2 lenses so far. One contains a single magnifying glass, and the other has 2 magnifying glasses stacked on top of each other. I've stacked as many as 5 of the magnifying glasses together, but your depth of field drops to about the thickness of a sheet of paper, and is not very practical in use. 3 of them stacked will have you taking pictures of butterfly eggs hatching, or tiny things like aphids. It's the single one that I use the most, and the double one comes in handy for such things as getting really close to bees or wasp.
The advantage of using this with a digital camera is that you can use the LCD screen for focusing on your subject. That can take some getting use to, and with really small objects it is more guess work than anything else. You learn how to look for the things that you can see well enough to focus on. I've also started to use the kind of reading glasses that only magnify. They are available most anywhere. I got mine at the grocery store. They will magnify the LCD screen for you so you can get a better focus. My success rate tripled when I started using the glasses.
The next problem is with the flash. They were not made to work very well at a half inch away from something. I have no answer yet for the flush mounted flashes, but my camera uses the pop up kind, and that was easily dealt with. I used the semi clear plastic cut from a milk jug, and notched it, folded it to size and shape, and then taped it with strapping tape to hold it together. The end result looks something like a box with an open end that slides down over the pop up flash. I've made 2 of these to handle differing lighting needs, but both of them have a sheet of paper that is cut to size, and placed between the plastic, and the tape. I have several layers of tape wrapped around it, and also a layer of silicone seal to dampen it even more. There might be better ideas for this, but this one works, and is easy to make.
My simple point and shoot doesn't have much in the way of manual adjustments, but it does close down the aperture more when you use the flash, and that gives you a better depth of field to work with. The flash also helps to stop any action since what I mostly take pictures of are bugs. They don't exactly pose for you. I have found macro photography to be down right addicting, and with these easy to make attachments, just about anyone can join in on the fun.
Go in peace my friends.
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