How to Use Macro Close-Up Lens Filters

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Are you interested in macro photography but not so interested in shelling the clams to pay for a specialized macro lens? Or maybe you’re not interested in lugging around another big hunk of glass that’ll only come out of your camera bag once a month? The feeling is familiar, but so is the drive that pushes photographers to want to capture every angle of the world around them. For those would-be macro shooters who are striving for a coexistence of budget, laziness, and passion, there may be a simple solution: Close-up lens sets.

Suffering from something of a bad reputation in the past, these close-up lenses aren’t as bad as many would claim. Sometimes called “close-up filters”, consider them to be a magnifying glass for your camera. They screw onto the filter thread of any lens, and can effectively diminish the lens’ minimum focus distance to allow super-close macro shooting. They’re extremely inexpensive and completely capable. Portable, cheap, and well-made, close-up lens sets are a truly viable alternative to the dedicated macro lens.

Read on to discover the pros and cons of close-up lenses, how to use them, and where to buy them. Before long you’ll be snapping shots of insects fit for National Geographic.*

*Your macro photo results may vary. Your shots will likely not be published by National Geographic, or by any other publication, or enjoyed by anyone anywhere.

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Stack close-up filters for increased magnification.

So what are the assets and liabilities to using close-up lenses? Firstly, they’re incredibly inexpensive, often less than $30. It would be nearly impossible to find a macro lens at this price point, and any macro lens this cheap will likely be damaged, or suffer terrible optical characteristics. A close-up lens mounted to a fantastic standard lens will almost always trump a poor-grade macro.

Impossible to ignore is the convenience and portability these sets offer. A complete close-up set is smaller than a pancake lens, and even lighter. They usually include a convenient carrying case, perfectly sized to fit in a pocket. For the amount of photographic creativity they can provide, close-up filter sets are surprisingly inoffensive.

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When using a dedicated macro lens or bellows, it’s often necessary to supplement the ambient light with an additional light source, since macro lenses, extension tubes, and bellows really choke the amount of light that finds its way to the camera’s sensor or film plane. This means that in addition to carrying a macro lens, it can also be necessary to carry a macro-light and a tripod. It can all get pretty hefty. Close-up lenses don’t diminish the available light at all, allowing normal use of auto-exposure and helping to promote a featherweight camera bag. Tossing a close-up set into your camera bag is one of the easiest ways to expand your capabilities, without affecting light readings or adding bulk  to your pack.

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Extreme portability comes at no cost.

Sounds pretty fantastic, right? Maybe not.

The older close-up sets have historically suffered from a reputation for poor image quality. While this is true in some cases, it’s largely an undeserved characterization. While there are close-up sets out there that cause chromatic aberration and smudge the sharpness of a lens, these are the exceptions to the rule.

As with everything in photography, be wary of brands that are known for poor quality. The vintage offerings tested from Hoya, Vivitar, and Cokin all perform admirably. Sets made by Canon and Nikon show no real improvements over other brands, but the familiar name may comfort some unconvinced shooters. Newer close-up lenses are said to benefit from higher standards of manufacturing, but if that’s the case it’s certainly difficult to tell from the final image. The takeaway is that while some makers do produce off-quality close-up sets, the generalized bad reputation is mostly undeserved. Buy a brand you’re comfortable with and your results will be great.

Also notable is the relatively new development of dual-element close-up filters. These filters are more expensive than their single-element counterparts, but offer improved image quality. With one element magnifying and a second element to correct the distortion and aberration of the first, they offer less color-fringing and enhanced sharpness from edge to edge. For most shooters, single-element lenses will be good enough.

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Canon’s dual-element close-up filter. Pricier than single-element sets. Worth it?

The biggest liability is, of course, the range of magnification. It’s possible to stack these filters indefinitely (until vignetting or excess softness occurs) to achieve greater and greater magnifications, but in all honesty these filters won’t get as close as the biggest, baddest macro lenses. Everything in photography is compromise, so if you’re shooting for the best possible macro photos then you’ll need to spend some serious cash.

Use of close-up lenses is simple. Screw one or more onto your lens and you’re ready to shoot. Auto-exposure and auto-focus work as normal, though using manual focus may be easier. For consistent maximum magnification, set manual focus to the lens’ minimum focus distance and vary the distance between the subject and lens. Simply move the camera further or closer to your subject until sharp focus is achieved.

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This shot taken with a Nikkor 50mm at its latent minimum focus distance of 1.5 ft.

It’s best to shoot at smaller apertures. When using these close-up sets the depth-of-field becomes extremely shallow. This is pretty obvious when shooting a +4 close-up lens mounted to a 50mm lens at ƒ/1.4. Shooting this way can create amazing subject isolation, but there’s a distinct risk of bokeh overload. Smaller apertures will yield deeper DOF and more comprehensible compositions, so stop it down to ƒ/8 or ƒ/16 for a photo that just makes more sense.

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Showing the impact of single and stacked close-up filters using the same Nikkor 50mm.

Stacking close-up filters is a common way to get more dynamic shots. While using a +1 will magnify things a bit, it’s usually not enough. Stack multiple filters, or the entire set (usually consisting of +1,+2, and +3 or +4), and you’ll be reaching magnification values of +7 to +10. This is where things get interesting. By using the full set stacked atop one another, it’s possible to really get into that sweet-spot of macro shooting in which the tiniest objects are expanded to ludicrous levels.

Let your imagination run free. Try to think of tiny things to which you’ve never paid much attention. Bugs, textured objects, plants, and everyday objects that are commonly ignored are great places to start. These examinations of often-overlooked subjects can result in the most interesting and halting macro shots around.

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When choosing what set to buy, act as you would with any other filter purchase. Find the diameter measurement of whatever lens the filters will mount to and purchase a set of that diameter, the same as you would with a polarizing filter or UV filter. Be sure not to confuse diameter with focal length. If your kit consists of many lenses with different diameters, the best course of action is to buy your close-up lens set to fit the largest diameter lens in your kit, and use step-up adapter rings to fit them on your smaller lenses.

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An iPhone taken under +7 magnification with a set of close-up lenses.

Using these close-up lenses on a standard focal length lens, such as 50mm, will yield great results. But as the focal length of the lens increases, so too does the magnification created by a given close-up lens. A +4 close-up lens will magnify much greater on a 200mm focal length lens than it will on a 50mm. As with using a dedicated macro lens, it’s important to determine your most comfortable working focal length and tailor your kit to suit. Happily, with close-up filters swapping focal lengths is as simple as swapping the filter to a different lens. Another convenience is being able to keep your close-up filter kit if you ever change brand.

Close-up lens sets are a fantastic way to get into the exciting world of macro photography without breaking the bank, or your back. More than any other type of filter, these sets open up an entirely new world of photography. They offer a chance to see things in a completely different way, and create a world in which the tiniest objects can be dominant subjects. Lightweight, inexpensive, and versatile, they’re one of those overlooked products that should be in every photophile’s camera bag.

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