I Turned a 600mm Into a Macro Lens: This Is What Happened

I Turned a 600mm Into a Macro Lens: This Is What Happened

I wanted to see if I could turn a 600mm telephoto lens into a makeshift macro lens. Did I manage to get any decent macro photos out of it? You tell me.

I love macro photography, and I find great pleasure in doing it without the need to purchase a macro lens. There's something about camera hacks that I just adore: being able to make your own DIY setup and still get amazing photographs really appeals to me. Usually, it's because I get to save money and acquire great shots at the same time. But in this case, I just wanted to see what would happen if I took a $12,000 AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens and stacked it with 68mm of extension tubes for macro photographs.
Did I fail? Did I succeed? You be the judge.

The standard minimum focusing distance of the AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR is 4.4 meters, which, for macro photography, is useless. You want to get as close as possible for the given focal length in order to capture details you wouldn't normally see with the naked eye. That's why macro lenses focus close to the lens.

AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens

The AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR is normally reserved for wildlife and sports photography, but I've modified the experience with the use of extension tubes

Longer focal length macro lenses can benefit from a greater working distance, and that means you can stand farther back from your macro subject and still get close-up shots. A long working distance is ideal for shooting invertebrates and other live subjects that scare easily but doesn't really make much of a difference for other macro subjects such as products for commercial purposes. So, what's it like shooting macro on a 600mm lens, and how did I do it?

My 600mm Macro Setup

Opteka extension tubes image

The Opteka macro extension tubes I used to turn the 600mm telephoto lens into a macro lens


When I say I turned the 600mm lens into a macro, I'm being a little hyperbolic. What I actually did was place extension tubes between the camera and the lens. Extension tubes are essentially just rings that have no glass in the middle and are designed to set the lens farther away from the image sensor, thereby forcing the point of focus to converge nearer the end of the lens.

I Had Some Issues

With lenses of this size and weight, you mount the camera to the lens, and not the other way around. Another practical step you take is to hold the setup via the lens tripod collar when carrying it around to avoid putting stress on the lens mount and risk breaking it. However, because I used all three of my Opteka AF extension tubes, I was adding three other possible places for lost connections. It may be for this reason or perhaps the fact that I was using $70 extension tubes on a $12,000 telephoto lens, but I noticed the lens wasn't happy on this setup. There was intermittent shuddering, which I think may have been a communication issue between the VR in the lens and the camera body; either way, it was still useable, but it didn't fill me with confidence while experimenting.

It's Way Too Heavy

Man holding 600mm lens in garden

Your muscles feel like they've been put through their paces after handholding one of these lenses


This beast weighs nearly 4 kg, and holding it up without a tripod is something that even bodybuilder Terry Crews would struggle with. It's not just the weight but the length of it that'll burn your delts and biceps, as it's 432 mm (17") long. Luckily, it has four stops of vibration reduction (image stabilization to you and me), so it'll hold the picture rock-steady when you need it, but even so, I wouldn't recommend this for following butterflies around the garden unless you want to be a weightlifter.

Focus Was Incredibly Precise

Buddleia flower macrophotograph

Buddleia macro using the 600mm setup with extension tubes gave surprisingly sharp results thanks to the precise manual focus ring

The focus ring on this lens is huge and has an enormous amount of fine-tuning precision. You can turn the focus ring round one or two inches and have only a small focus change through the viewfinder. This kind of accuracy is essential for macro photography, because it means placing focus on exactly the right part of the subject. I loved capturing honeybees on the lavender using manual focus, because I could get the focus right on the bee's eye.

Working Distance Was Ace

Honeybee searching for pollen on lavender

I shot this honeybee on some lavender from 2.5 meters away, which meant I didn't disturb it as it searched for pollen

With all three of the extension tubes on, I had a combined 68 mm of extension on the lens, and that changed the minimum focusing distance from 4.4 meters to 2.5 meters. Now, I can tell you for a fact that I didn't get a 1:1 reproduction ratio (whereby the size of the subject takes up the same size on the image sensor), but it was still pretty close-up.

Images Were Tack-Sharp

Macro of honeybee on lavender

Even at 100% crop, the shots were incredibly sharp, which shows off the optical clarity of the lens

As you might expect from a lens this expensive and no macro filters getting in the way, the photographs were razor sharp. It looks just as sharp as other macro lenses I've tried out in the past, and I can't fault it. The only issue I had optically was the vignetting that occurred around the edge of the frame, but that was as a result of my use of extension tubes and not the fault of the lens.

Would I Use It Again?

Honeybee on lavender flower

I managed to get some great macro shots using this make-shift setup, but it's not something I'd like to take around every day

So, yes, you can use a 600mm lens with extension tubes to take macro photos, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's a ridiculous lump to lug around when out in the field, but by gosh, it was hilarious to do! My neighbor came out while I was capturing the buddleia, and he thought I had a rocket launcher! In all my time of reversing lenses, stacking extension tubes, and doing all sorts of crazy things to get macro photos without a macro lens, this has to be one of the silliest ways of going about it. But hey, it worked.

I managed to capture some nice close-up shots, despite perhaps not being exactly a genuine 1:1 reproduction ratio macro, and it was all pretty instant and simple. It's obviously not something anyone would ever seriously entertain because it's so expensive and heavy, but it's important to experiment and try new things out.

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14 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

This article reminds me of something I used to do for close-up work: I used my 400mm f2.8 with a 2x extender for close-ups of flowers and insects such as grasshoppers.

The 400mm f2.8 already had a pretty close minimum focus distance for a big prime, at 10 feet. Adding the 2x extender allowed me to put 4 times the pixels on subject, but did not change the minimum focus distance at all, as I was still able to shoot from 10 feet away, but now at 800mm instead of 400mm. So, the addition of the 2x did provide some good close-up ability, although not even close to the true macro magnification of 1:1.

When I added a 25mm extension tube to my 400mm f2.8, it hardly made any difference at all. I mean, it would let me focus at 8 1/2 feet instead of 10 feet - big whoop-de-doo. So I learned that adding a 2x tele-extender (called tele-converter by some) was a far more effective way to allow for better close-up work than adding extension tubes was.

Jason, I would be interested in knowing if you tried a 2x extender instead of, or in addition to, the extension tubes. If so, I would love to hear your thoughts on which option is better for converting the 600mm prime into a macro lens (or at least a close-up lens).

Tony Tumminello's picture

Same here, I use a 1.4x TC on my 300mm f4L IS which already has a pretty decent 0.24x native magnification at ~4.5ft. When I'm out birding it's great because I get that bit of extra reach but if I see an insect or something small I don't need to swap lenses to get a decent macro result.

Charles Mercier's picture

I love the first collaged photo! lol

Troy Phillips's picture

I bought the Nikkor 300mm f/4 afs-d and the 1.4 tc to get closer to insects. Then one day tried that with some extension tubes added also . Used them on flowers and it was a very melted butter background effect. Looked cool but hard to keep all that together.
Fun to experiment

Jon Kellett's picture

Fun exercise, but yeah... I look forward to seeing the next experiment with this lens!

Incidentally (sorry, trying not to be a fanboy) the Sony 200-600 has a minimum focus distance of 2.4m at 600 and weighs only 2.1KG.

I still love using a Panasonic G9 and 12-60mm for the type of bee photo that the author did. Not a macro lens, but very nice for the price and capability.

Matthew Davidson's picture

How did you determine the extension tube length? Is there a formula or just preference?

Michael Engshun's picture

Extension tubes typical specify a mm value. See OP's picture of his extension tubes. 12+20+36 = 68.

Tony Tumminello's picture

Cambridge in Colour has a tool that allows you to plug in your lens's focal length and native magnification to determine how much extension tube you need to reach your desired macro magnification:

https://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/macro-extension-tubes-closeu...

Jan Holler's picture

That is fun to read, please continue with the series.

Tilo Kahl's picture

that reminds me of the photos I took 6 years ago with the Elicar monster. :-)
https://flic.kr/p/niZs91

Evan Rabeck's picture

When I walk around in the summer with my Tamron 150-600 I keep a 36mm tube in my pocket and slip it on when I photograph insects. It's a much slower lens so unless the light is amazing I wind up manually focusing a lot. But in general I can pull in some pretty good dragonflies and butterflies.

Spy Black's picture

I've been doing this for ages with 200m, 300mm, and 400mm lenses. Great way to shoot timid critters or reach areas you can't get to.

Ray Lemar's picture

When I got my 600 mm lens for my Nikon D750, I chose a Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 mainly for its close focusing ability. I do a lot of shooting at Patuxent Research Refuge - North Tract which is in Laurel, MD and only a couple miles from my house. That property was previously owned by the Army and used for live fire training. You are restricted to staying on trails that have been cleared of munitions and roads. My 600mm lens lets me shoot some nice closeups of plants along the sides of the road from my car.

j haynes's picture

thank you