High Magnification at a Low Price: How I Built a Super Macro Rig for $230

Last year, I bought a macro lens for the summer. Just a normal one with 1x magnification. I fell into a beautiful and mesmerizing world of minuscule flowers and bugs. I found that in macro photography, you don’t have to travel to beautiful places to take beautiful photos — you can just walk around in your backyard, and discover a whole new world.

Also, you don’t have to wake up at 4 AM to catch the golden hour, in macro photography any hour with daylight is golden!

This year, however, I decided I wanted to take things to the next level. I wanted a super macro lens with 2x or more in magnification so that I would be able to take close-up portraits of ants and bees. I started Googling around for the right lenses and soon discovered that there are only a couple of them out there. The best known is the Canon MP-E 65. But it costs north of $1000. There is a 2x macro lens from Venus Optics as well, but it still is $400 only for the lens. And then you need to add some kind of flash setup. I thought this was way too much money to try super macro photography, so I decided to look around for cheaper solutions.

That was when I discovered this excellent article by photographer John Hallmen on a Swedish site. It describes how you can build your own super macro rig with cheap parts off Amazon or eBay. This build works with any Canon EF compatible camera, meaning most Canon cameras and also mirrorless cameras with adapters. After some browsing, I was able to find all the parts on Amazon and I ordered them.

The rig is based around a Canon 40mm f2.8 STM lens. This lens is excellent for this purpose as it is very cheap, small, light, sharp and has beautiful bokeh (probably more beautiful than the Canon MP-E 65, as the 40mm has rounded blades). The lens is mounted reversed to get more magnification, using a Meike reverse adapter. This adapter has a cable that allows you to keep control over aperture despite having the lens reversed.

You will need a 52-58 mm step-up ring to fit the Canon 40mm with the Meike reverse adapter. Put an extension tube before the Meike adapter, and you have a super macro lens! Add more extension tubes for more magnification. I have found that 36mm of extension tube is my sweet spot — it gives me 2.3x magnification, meaning that the subject will be 2.3x bigger on the sensor than it is in real life. So a bug that is 10mm tall will cover all 24mm of a full frame sensor.

The rest of the parts are the flash and parts needed to mount it in a way that puts it as close to the subject as possible. You should also try to make some kind of diffuser, as shown in the video above.

Here are all the essential parts:

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Lens (around $50 used)
Meike reverse adapter (around $55)
MeiKe MK-300 Flash (around $33)
Vello CB-600 Straight Flash Bracket (around $10)
Articulating arm 7” (around $14)
Fotga Extension tubes for Canon EF (around $40)
Vello TTL-Off-Camera Flash Cord for Canon EOS 0.5m (around $20)
Goja 52-58MM Step-Up Adapter Ring (around $8)

The parts can be put together in a few minutes. In total (if you buy the Canon lens used), this will cost about $230 USD.

The finished rig without a flash mounted.
The complete rig with flash and a diffuser.

Here are some photos I’ve taken with this super macro rig:

Lastly, a small tip for shooting super macro insect shots with this rig: use a slow shutter speed, such as 1/40s. That way you will get a lot of color and light in your photo, making it more interesting and beautiful. Don’t worry about sharpness, the flash is a lot faster than 1/40, and it will make sure to freeze your subject in most situations.

About the author: Micael Widell is a photography enthusiast based in Stockholm, Sweden. He loves macro and nature photography, and runs a YouTube channel around these subjects. You can also find him on Instagram and 500px.