Close-up: Macro on the Cheap
With all the talk these past number of weeks about gear, you may be thinking that everything to do with macro is expensive. While it certainly can be, it doesn't have to be. There is, in fact, a lot that can be done without taking out a second mortgage. I'd like to take this week to list at least a few of these:
If you already have a lens with a moderate focal length (say, 200mm on up), you can add a two-element close-up diopter. The Nikon 3T, 4T, 5T and 6T sell for around $50 each. I often recommend this as a first macro purchase. These diopters are small and as easy to carry around as a regular filter. Regular through-the-lens metering will still work on all lenses. You need to find one with the right thread diameter for your lens, but if neither Nikon nor Canon has one to fit, you can always use a step-up ring.
If you have a shorter lens (perhaps a 50mm or 100mm), you could get an extension tube. The Kenko 25mm tube sells for about $69 with the full set of three tubes going for $149. These are preferable to Nikon's own since they pass the CPU contacts necessary for metering on some bodies.
An inexpensive male-to-male coupling ring may allow you to get to well over life size if you already have to lenses that will work well together stacked. Not all lenses will work though but you can try yours simply by holding them together before you go out and buy the coupling ring. You may find that this gets you too much magnification for most purposes. I occasionally use a 200mm lens with a 50mm stacked on top for four times life size or a 28mm stacked instead for a monstrous six times life size (well, almost 6x).
Some regular lenses come with a "macro" mode that allows you to get closer than the lens would ordinarily. While such a feature may seem advantageous, in practice such lenses rarely let you get beyond about 1/6 life size — not nearly as satisfying as you might have hoped. Consider such a setting as an occasionally convenient add-on, but don't rely on it to get you into the realm of true macro.
If you do decide to buy an macro lens, don't overlook third-party options. Tamron and Sigma macro lenses consistently get good reviews and generally cost substantially less than Nikon's own. Keep in mind that a macro lens can also be used as a regular lens for general purpose shooting. While a macro lens focuses closer, it still focuses to infinity as well.
As an entirely different approach, you can do some rather nice macro work with a point and shoot digital camera such as a Nikon Coolpix. These type of cameras allow you to focus remarkably close. You may find it difficult to control your backgrounds though because of the short focal length and thus wide angle of view common to such cameras.
You don't need a dedicated tripod for macro work. If you shop wisely, you can get one that will cover all your needs including being able to solidly position yourself near ground level. Tripods such as the Bogen 3021 Pro are a great buy. The top platform can be separated from the center column and remounted without it to remove the obstacle it otherwise presents for low-level work. The legs can be independently adjusted so you can contort yourself into almost any position you may need. While not up to Gitzo standards, it could serve you fine for many years and you can't beat it for the money.
Instead of spending money to buy reflectors, you can make your own with a piece of cardboard and some aluminum foil. Crumple the foil then flatten it back out and wrap it around the cardboard. You can similarly make your own diffuser from white nylon cloth stretched across a frame made from a coat hanger. Not fancy, but it would work just fine.
One of the best ways to save money is to shoot close to home. Explore your own backyard and neighborhood. There are countless killer macro images to be made no matter where you are. Macro subjects are small so there are a lot of them out there. Every dollar you save by not traveling to a national park is a dollar you can save up to buy more macro gear. Take advantage of this fact.
If you use a bit of ingenuity, you may be able to come up with other ways to save some money. And remember, you don't need to buy or even make everything all at once.