Macro bellows

Fotodiox Macro Bellows mounted on a Sony A7 with Sony FE 28–70 mm F3.5–5.6 OSS
Fotodiox Macro Bellows mounted on a Sony A7 with Sony FE 28–70 mm F3.5–5.6 OSS

What are macro bellows?

A macro bellows attachment is a device positioned between a lens and a camera body. Its purpose is to increase the flange focal distance and achieve higher magnification in macro photography. It constitutes a hollow pleated bellows tube capped with bayonet or screw interface connectors at each end mounted to a rig that allows it to collapse and extend. The setup looks and operates much like a view camera and relies on the same optical principles.

How do macro bellows work?

Macro bellows are used much like extension tubes or teleconverters, in that they go in between the lens and the camera. The bellows would typically have a male bayonet end that attaches to the camera and a female bayonet mount to which the lens attaches. Before you attempt this, you need to make sure that all the components you have (lens, bellows and camera) utilize the same mount.

A demonstration of the Novoflex Balpro 1 universal macro bellows system

A more flexible solution can be found in the so-called universal bellows systems. A prime example of such a system is the Novoflex Balpro 1 demonstrated in the video above. It uses a system of adapters allowing the bellows to be attached to cameras and lenses of virtually all formats and brands. For example, you have a Canon DSLR system, but you stumble upon a great deal on a manual Nikon macro lens. To use it on your universal bellows system, you just purchase the corresponding adapter and off you go.

After you have assembled the rig, you would usually need to mount it to a sturdy support system. Geared tripod heads are often used in conjunction with macro bellows. The higher you go in magnification, the more precise you need to be with your composition. Once the rig is assembled and mounted, the necessary extension is set through the bellows support system, which is usually of the rack and pinion type.

What are the different kinds of macro bellows?

By definition, all macro bellows provide adjustable image magnification through increasing the flange focal distance. However, there is additional functionality that can be found on some higher-end models.

Leica S2 with Novoflex Balpro Tilt Shift Macro Bellows and a 90mm f/4.5 Schneider Kreuznach Apo Digitar Lens
Leica S2 with Novoflex Balpro Tilt Shift Macro Bellows and a 90mm f/4.5 Schneider Kreuznach Apo Digitar Lens

Most notable is perhaps the tilt/shift functionality of some units. This allows focal plane manipulation, used for perspective correction and the implementation of the scheimpflug principle.

Novoflex BALCAN-AF Automatic Macro Bellows for Canon EOS Mount
Novoflex BALCAN-AF Automatic Macro Bellows for Canon EOS Mount

Another, yet rarer feature on some models is electronic contacts for lens control, as seen on the Novoflex unit pictured above.

Macro bellows vs Extension tubes

Macro bellows and extension tubes do the same basic task – they increase the distance between the lens and sensor/film plane to help you achieve higher magnification. In terms of optical effect, at equal extension you will not be able to differentiate between images shot with either one. However, mechanically the two devices work in distinctly different ways, each with it’s advantages and drawbacks.

First and foremost, the major difference between macro bellows and extension tubes is the maximum extension either option gives you. A typical set of extension tubes consists of a 12mm, 20mm and 36mm tubes. Stacked together, they give you 68mm of extension. A typical set of macro bellows like the Novoflex BAL-F offers a maximum extension of 116mm. One caveat here, however, is the minimum extension achievable. While you can get extension tubes as short as 10mm, the minimum extension of the Novoflex unit, for example, is 29mm.

Second, it’s the degree of control each option gives you. With macro bellows you can continuously adjust extension to achieve the exact magnification for the desired shot. Extension tubes, on the other hand, come in fixed sizes – 12mm, 20mm and 36mm are the common sizes. You can stack them to adjust extension, but naturally with much less precision than a bellows set gives you.

The next consideration when deciding between macro bellows and extension tubes is form factor. A bellows setup will usually be both larger and heavier than a typical extension tube set. If you are working in a studio this is no big deal, but if you have to hike up a mountain with your gear it might be something to consider. Furthermore, due to their construction, bellows are a lot less rugged than extension tubes and need more care in transportation.

In terms of workflow and ease of use, a bellows rig will usually be both faster and easier to work with. In addition, bellows can be mounted directly onto the tripod head. This allows you to achieve a much better balance, especially with larger telephoto lenses, while also reducing stress on the camera body and mount.

Macro bellows Q&A

Can macro bellows be used together with extension tubes?

Yes, in the rare instances where a bellows set does not give you enough extension, you can stack an extension tube in there too. However, bear in mind that a regular photographic lens might not be able to deliver much resolution at such extreme extensions. If you find yourself needing to stack extension tubes onto your macro bellows, it’s time to consider dedicated microscopic lenses.

Can macro bellows be used with a teleconverter?

Yes, a teleconverter can be mounted between the lens and the macro bellows set. A teleconverter will not work if macro bellows (or extension tubes for that matter) are mounted between it and the lens.

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