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The Wonderful World of Close-Up Lenses

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Are you ready for your close-up? Andrew S. Gibson, author of Exposure and Understanding the Histogram, discusses the capabilities of close-up lenses. Learn how to capture more detail, improve your portraiture work, and in general be a better photographer - just by taking that little close-up lens out of your pocket or camera bag and connecting it to your camera lens.
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My 85 mm prime lens is one of my favorites. I like its versatility, and I use it to photograph portraits and details. Its wide aperture lets me use it in low light, or I can open the aperture to utilize narrow depth-of-field. The only drawback of the lens is the minimum focusing distance. The closest point that I can focus on with that lens is 85 centimeters from the camera, which rules out using the lens for close-up or macro work, right? Nope—not if I use a close-up lens.

Get a Little Closer

There are several ways to shoot close-up or macro photos: use a macro lens, use extension tubes, reverse-mount a 50 mm lens on the front of another lens. But the simplest technique of all, and the one that I use most often, is to attach a close-up lens to the front of the camera lens I'm using.

The term close-up lens is slightly misleading. Technically it is a lens, but it looks like a filter and screws into the front of your camera's lens in the same way (see Figure 1). For this reason, close-up lenses are also called supplementary lenses or close-up filters.

Figure 1 A Canon 500D close-up lens.

A close-up lens works by reducing the minimum focusing distance of the camera lens to which it's attached. This design lets you move the camera closer to the subject, which gives you greater magnification (see Figures 2 and 3). A close-up lens is basically a high-quality magnifying glass.

Figure 2 I took this photo of a toy car at a market with my 85 mm f1.8 lens. This is as close as I could get.

Figure 3 Adding a 500D close-up lens to the 85 mm lens let me get closer enough to take this photo.

Close-up lenses come in two varieties:

  • Single-element close-up lenses. This inexpensive close-up lens is the most common type, ideal if you're on a budget or just want to try some close-up photography without spending much money. You should be able to buy these lenses from your local camera store, sometimes even in sets. Their strength (degree of enlargement) is measured by diopter; the higher the number, the greater the magnification. The most commonly available are +1, +2, +3, and +4 diopter. You can combine two close-up lenses for more magnification, but likely at the cost of a loss of sharpness.
  • The drawback of single-element close-up lenses is image quality, which drops off significantly toward the edge of the picture, with lack of definition and chromatic aberrations. You cannot use a single-element close-up lens and obtain the same image quality that you would expect from a macro lens or using extension tubes.

  • Double-element close-up lenses. Sometimes called dual-element or achromatic close-up lenses, these lenses have two elements; the second corrects the aberrations of the first. They're more expensive than the single-element version, and not as readily available, but their image quality is excellent. I use a Canon 500D double-element close-up lens with my 85 mm lens, and I can't see a difference in image quality between a photo taken with that combination and one taken with a true macro lens.
  • Canon makes two double-element close-up lenses—the 250D (+4 diopter) and the 500D (+2 diopter). Nikon made the 3T, 4T, 5T, and 6T double-element lenses, but they've been discontinued (sometimes you can find them on eBay). Schneider also makes double-element close-up lenses, but at a price. Olympus makes the MCON 35, which appears to be discontinued but is still available on eBay.

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