Spring is here, and with it comes tiny bugs, tiny flowers, and tiny dew drops – all perfect subjects for macro photos. Are you interested in macro photography but not so interested in shelling the clams to pay for an expensive macro lens? Or maybe you’re not interested in carrying another big honking lens that’ll rarely leave your camera bag? 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 balance of budget, laziness, and passion, there may be a simple solution – close-up filters.
What’s a close-up filter? Think of it as a magnifying lens for your camera. They screw onto the filter threads of your lens and improve the lens’ minimum focus distance to allow close-up shooting. They’re inexpensive, portable, and do the job. For these reasons and more, close-up filters are an excellent alternative to the dedicated macro lens.
They’re inexpensive – often less than $30. It would be nearly impossible to find a macro lens at this price point.
They’re portable. A complete set of three filters takes up about as much room as a roll of film or an SD card holder.
They’re lightweight. Compared to a macro lens, filters are downright featherweights.
They’re convenient. Filters will work with any brand, any focal length, any type of camera (as long as the diameters of filter thread and filter size match).
No exposure adjustments. Unlike macro lenses, bellows, and extension tubes, which can choke your available light and can necessitate carrying a macro-light and tripod, close-up filters don’t demand extra stops of exposure to get the shot.
Image quality takes a hit. Decades of improved optics in both lenses and filters have helped bridge the gap between close-up filters and the dedicated macro lens in terms of image quality, but images made with filters can suffer higher degrees of chromatic aberration, lowered contrast, and loss of sharpness.
Most are not true macro. While it’s possible to stack these filters to achieve greater and greater magnifications, in truth these filters won’t get as close as the biggest, baddest macro lenses.
As with everything in photography, using close-up filters comes with a certain degree of compromise. But for me, the balance of pros and cons comes out heavily biased toward to the good. These things give much more than they ask, and everyone should try them. Here’s how to do that.
Tips and techniques
Use of close-up filters is simple. Buy a set of filters that match the diameter of your lens’ filter threads (look for the diameter mark on your lens or research the manufacturer’s website), screw one or more filter onto your lens, and you’re ready to shoot. Simple as that.
Auto-exposure and auto-focus work as normal, though using manual focus may be faster and yield more precision. For consistent maximum magnification, set manual focus to the lens’ minimum focus distance and vary the distance between the subject and lens by moving the camera further from or closer to your subject. Once you see things sharp, fire away.
When using close-up filters, depth-of-field becomes extremely shallow, so it’s best to keep your lens set to smaller apertures to create deeper depth-of-field and more comprehensible compositions. If there’s enough light, try to keep your lens stopped down to at least F/8, but don’t be surprised if things are still too blurry. You may need to really crush that aperture or focus stack in post-processing.
Using these close-up lenses on a standard focal length lens, such as 50mm, will yield great results. But remember that 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 provide higher magnify on a 200mm focal length lens than it will on a 35mm. As when using a dedicated macro lens, it’s important to determine your preferred working focal length. But unlike with a macro lens, adjusting focal lengths with a filter kit is as simple as swapping the filter to a different lens.
Stacking close-up filters is a common way to get more dynamic shots. While using a +1 will magnify things a little 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, interesting textured objects, plants, body parts (preferably attached to people you know), and toys are great places to start. These examinations of often-overlooked subjects can result in the most interesting and halting macro shots around.
What to buy
When choosing what set to buy, find the filter thread diameter 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.
As is often the case with gear, 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 and are more expensive, but the familiar name may comfort some skeptical shooters. Newer close-up lenses are said to benefit from higher standards of manufacturing compared to vintage sets, but if that’s the case it’s certainly difficult to tell from the final images. The takeaway is that while some makers do produce off-quality close-up sets, the generalized bad reputation is mostly undeserved. Buy a set made any time in the last thirty years from a brand you’re comfortable with and your results will be great.
Close-up filters are a fantastic way to get into the exciting world of macro photography without breaking the bank. 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, close-up filters are an overlooked products that should be in every photophile’s camera bag.