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Close-up lenses could be the ideal solution if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive and easy way to make close-up photos of flowers. But why stop at flowers? There are all sorts of interesting subjects for this type of photography and a good close-up lens could be just what you need to make it happen.
What is a close-up lens?
Despite the name, a close-up lens doesn’t look much like a lens. It looks more like a filter and the circular versions screw into the thread on your camera lens just like any other filter. For this reason close-up lenses are also called close-up filters or supplementary filters.
A close-up lens is a high quality magnifying glass that fits on the front of your camera’s lens. It works by reducing the minimum focusing distance of the lens it is attached to. As a result you can move your lens closer to your subject and get greater magnification.
The strength of close-up lenses is measured in diopters, just like eye-glasses. The higher the number, the greater the magnification. Most close-up lenses come in strengths of +1, +2, +3, and +4 diopter, although they can go as high as +10 diopter. The more powerful lenses can get you really close to the subject, but at the cost of a degradation in image quality.
You can also combine two lenses to increase the magnification (for example, a +1 and +2 diopter lens combined gives the same magnification as a +3 diopter lens) although again, you will see a significant drop in image quality.
What focal lengths can you use close-up lenses with?
Close-up lenses give you more magnification when used with telephoto lenses. The longer the focal length, the closer you can get to your subject, which gives you more magnification.
As a general guide, if you’re using a lens with a focal length of 50mm on a full-frame camera (or 35mm with APS-C or 25mm with Micro Four-thirds) then an extension tube is a better choice than a close-up lens as it will help you get closer to the subject.
But with longer focal lengths close-up lenses are more effective. I made all the photos in this tutorial with an 85mm lens combined with a Canon 500D close-up lens.
What are the benefits of close-up lenses?
When it comes to close-up photography there are four main ways of getting closer to your subject.
- Use a macro lens.
- Put an extension tube between lens and camera.
- Reverse a lens using an adapter ring (reverse lens macro).
- Attach a close-up lens / filter to a telephoto lens.
So why would you use choose a close-up lens rather than one of the other methods? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits.
Close-up lenses are usually (although not always) cheaper than macro lenses.
Lightweight and portable
They are easier to carry with you than a macro lens (you can also look at extension tubes if this is important to you)
No light loss
If you use a macro lens or extension tubes the extra extension means that less light reaches the sensor or film. That means you have to use a higher ISO, wider aperture, or slower shutter speed to get the right exposure. There is no light loss with close-up lenses, making them a good option at any time but especially in low light.
Auto-exposure and auto-focus work
This may not be the case if you use inexpensive extension tubes that break the electronic connections between the lens and camera body.
Better protection for your camera
You can add or remove a close-up lens without removing the camera lens. In dusty or dirty conditions, this feature prevents dust and dirt entering your camera body and helps keep the sensor clean.
Easier focus with telephoto zooms
When you use a close-up lens with a telephoto zoom, the lens remains focused on the same point when you zoom in or out. If you are using extension tubes, the point of focus changes when you zoom, and you have to refocus the lens afterwards. This is another reason why close-up lenses are a good match for telephoto lenses.
Are there any disadvantages to using close-up lenses?
The main disadvantage of using close-up lenses is that the diameter may limit the choice of lenses that you can use it with. If you buy a 52mm close-up lens, for example, then you can’t use it on telephoto lenses with larger diameters. You can buy a bigger close-up lens (and use it on smaller lenses with stepping rings), but the price goes up. Plus a big close-up lens on a smaller lens looks a bit silly.
Another is that image quality can suffer at wide apertures, even with good quality lenses. This depends a lot on the combination of lens and close-up lens. The more powerful the close-up lens, the more likely you are to get optical aberrations when the main lens is wide open.
In practice this isn’t a large problem as you need to stop down to increase depth of field. If you intend to experiment with wide apertures then go for a close-up lens with a strength of something like +2 diopter for a better result.
Another thing to bear in mind is that close-up lenses work best with telephoto lenses. If you have a 200mm telephoto lens, for example, then a close-up lens is a better choice than an extension tube as it gives you a bigger increase in magnification. But if you have a 50mm (full-frame), 35mm (APS-C) or 25mm (Micro Four-Thirds) standard lens then an extension tube gives a bigger increase in magnification than most close-up lenses.
It’s also a good idea to avoid buying single-element lenses as the image quality isn’t good enough (see below).
What types of close-up lens can you buy?
There are three types of close-up lens you can buy. The option that’s best for you depends on your budget and how important image quality is.
Single-element close-up lenses
This is the most common type. It’s the sort you normally see sold in camera stores and at trade shows, sometimes in sets of three or four, and often at bargain prices. It’s ideal if you’re on a budget or just want to try close-up photography without spending much money.
Single element lenses may be cheap but the trade-off for that is image quality. Single element lenses suffer from poor edge sharpness and chromatic aberrations. They can’t touch the quality of close-up lenses made of two or more elements, or images taken with extension tubes or macro lenses.
This means that single-element lenses are more of a fun item than anything else. They let you play around with close-up or macro photography without having to buy more expensive equipment.
Multi-element close-up lenses
Raynox makes triple-element close-up lenses that come with a snap-on mount that you can use to attach them to lenses with a filter thread from 52 to 67mm. They are surprisingly affordable considering what you get for your money.
They give you greater magnification than the Canon close-up lenses. The Raynox DCR-150 gives +4.8 diopters of magnification, and the DCR-250 gives an amazing +8 diopters.
Note that Raynox calls these macro lenses rather than close-up lenses, even though they are not true macro lenses. The table below sums up the options.
Double-element close-up lenses
If the Raynox lenses don’t appeal, then for optimum image quality buy a double-element close-up lens. Double-element lenses have two elements and are also called dual-element or achromatic close-up lenses. The second element cancels out the aberrations and poor edge quality of the first.
They’re more expensive than single-element lenses, but the gain in image quality is well worth the extra cost.
Several companies make double-element close-up lenses: Canon, NiSi, Kenko and Marumi. The tables below sum up what’s available at the time of writing.
Nikon used to make the 3T, 4T, 5T and 6T double-element lenses, but they’ve been discontinued. You may be able to buy them second-hand.
Schneider and Leica also make close-up lenses, but they’re much more expensive.
Note: There’s more information about all these close-up lenses in my new ebook Up Close: A Guide To Macro & Close-Up Photography
Close-up lens tables
These tables summarize the close-up lenses available from Canon, Nisi, Kenko and Marumi. Not all these lenses are sold by the big online stores like B&H, Adorama and Wex Photo Video, but you can find the others on Amazon. Note that all this information (with more detail) is available in my new ebook Up Close.
What subjects are best for close-up lenses?
You can take a photo of just about anything with close-up lenses. Flowers and insects are probably the most obvious choice. But with imagination you can use them to create interesting photos of lots of subjects. The close-up photos in this article should give you plenty of inspiration!
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