Will A Close-Up Lens Suffice In Place Of A Macro Lens? - Digital Photography School

Will A Close-Up Lens Suffice In Place Of A Macro Lens?

Today’s post will not directly answer the above posed question for you. Previously I had written about how useful a simple close-up lens, which screws onto the end of a normal lens, can be when traveling. They are light, take up little space, cost less than a whole new lens, can be used at different focal lengths and are generally easy to use. Today I want to make a direct comparison with a lens lent to me by the folks at BorrowLenses.com, one of DPS’ sponsors.

A major misconception with camera lenses is that 100mm (or any focal length) is 100mm is 100mm. They are all the same, thus the same number! It must be true, otherwise they’d have different numbers. While the idea of different sized camera sensors create a cropping factor from 1.3x to 1.6 times, focal length seems like such an easier field.

Yet it’s not that simple. I have been asked a number of times, “But, if we both have 100mm lenses, why does your Macro lens make things bigger?” To put it simply, because it can focus closer. All lenses have a minimum focus distance. Check your lens’ manual or, if you are lucky enough to have a lens with a distance meter on it, pull the focus all the way in and read the number in meters or feet. This is as close as an object can be to the sensor plane of your camera and still be in focus. Anything closer and it will blur.

This is where Macro lenses shine. Macro lenses are almost exclusively prime lenses; the type of lens that doesn’t zoom. Giving up the mechanisms needed to zoom and the associated elements that go with the technology allows for a lens specialize in getting closer. Remember, a lens is not just a couple of elements like a simple microscope or telescope may be. They contain up to 25 different elements to help focus light.  Just how much closer matters?  That’s the part that’s up to you.

As a lens gets closer, the apparent size of the object will get larger. Most Macro lenses can achieve a 1:1 ratio, meaning the image will take up the same amount of space on the sensor as it does in real life. Looking through a viewfinder at an object zoomed this close will seem HUGE. But you have to remember, in the sense of your camera’s sensor, you’re looking at a space of only 36mm x 24mm (full frame) or generally 22mm x 15mm (various APS-C sizes). In other words, postage stamp size, more or less.  What you see through the eyepiece is what will fill the space of your sensor and that’s why it seems so big.  Hold a stamp up 6 inches from your eye; it will look HUGE.

So how does a normal zoom lens stack up against a Macro?  Let me show you.  First, I’ll start with a Canon 7D and Canon 28-300mm L. It is focused to its closest distance of 12″ or 305mm.  105mm, ISO 100, f/5.0 (minimum), 1/25 second. What did I choose for an image? Bank Of America was kind enough to send me a notice about how they use personal information. It seemed spell binding and exciting (and not directly copyrighted).

The space of the piece of paper covered in real world terms is 4.5″ x 3″, nearly exactly (114mm x 76mm).

Now I will add on the Canon 500D Close-Up lens, touted in my previous post. Focus distance is now almost exactly 7″ (180mm) from the front of the close-up to the subject. 105mm, ISO 100, f/5.0 (minimum), 1/25 second (NOTE: while the settings were kept the same, this second image’s exposure is increased a whole stop in post production as the close-up lens drops the amount of collected light)

This space of the piece of paper covered in real world terms is 2.625″ x 1.75″ (67mm x 45mm). A pretty good increase. Five inches closer does make a difference. Now to see how it compares to a real Macro lens.

Same Canon 7D but now with a Canon Macro 100mm 2.8 L. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/160 seconds with a focus distance of just 5 inches from the subject to the front of the lens.

This space of the piece of paper covered in real world terms is .9375″ x .625″ (23mm x 15mm).  Do those millimeter numbers look familiar? If you’re super geeky on your sensor sizes, you likely notice that number as being freakishly close to the actual size of the 7D APS-C sensor (22.3 x 14.9 mm according to Canon’s website).

Therefor the image is reproduced at a 1:1 ratio, where as the close-up lens was closer to 1:3 and 1:5 without it.

All of this information is to give you an idea of how much more ‘zoom’ you can get from using a Macro lens as compared to a standard 100mm or a close-up lens. I also hope it serves as a handy reference of different levels of magnification and what 1:1 looks like when blown up to screen sizes. A note on the focus distance: I measured the practical focus distance by measuring from the front of the lens to the subject, while the lenses themselves list their focus distances to the plane of the sensor.  Both are relative and work. I prefer the distance from the front of  the lens for this simple demonstration because it lets me know if the hood on the lens will block ambient light or not.

It’s also important to note that a Macro lens typically is not limited to the closest of photos.  That 100mm on a full frame camera will serve well as a faster portrait lens.

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Peter West Carey is the photographer behind the beautiful print book A World of Panoramas as well as the popular free photography series 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments which builds off of the 31+ Days To Better Photography series on his blog.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Macro shots are tricky and take careful preparation to set up and execute. Sometimes if might even be impossible to capture a subject a second time if you are not happy with the results after the shoot. Although I agree that some on optics might be the solution to travel, I would rather carry the extra glass of a proper Macro. This macro of the eye of a butterfly, I likely couldn’t repeat if I tried – i am happy that I has my trust Nikkor 100mm with me! Sure it is large, weighs a ton, but is sharp and fast – no compromise required.

    Touch Down: http://t.co/1aYHIz9

    regards, Erik

  • Frank

    Peter, Any examples of a portrait with a macro lens? I have been debating getting either a 85 mm 1.8 or a 100 mm 2.8 Macro. Up until I taking a macro course a few weeks back, there was no debate, but now I seem to want to play more with a macro lens.

  • Martin Stern

    I think something is missing in your comparison of a macro vs close-up lens. There are close-up lenses of higher diopters that let you get closer. Also you can stack close-up lenses. Nikon, Canon and others make very high quality closeup lenses that stack well. Raynox makes very high diopter closeup lenses.

    I think you can use closeup lenses to get at least as close as you can get with the macro lens.

  • http://www.shirleybehindthelens.com shirley

    I’ve had my 105mm Nikon macro for three weeks and it was totally worth the $ spent.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Another series of shots I trusted to the Nikkor 100mm Prime Macro – surprisingly executed with a Monopod…Tripod Police were watching!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/blue-morpho/

    regards, Erik

  • ScottC

    A macro is definitely worth the extra weight, some details just can’t be captured well without one.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5634822875/

  • http://www.swaheel.com swaheel

    The good thing about a closeup lens ( macro adapter ) is that you can screw it on a longer lens and achieve higher magnification. The same Canon 500D lens ( or a similar Raynox DCR-250 adapter ) on a longer lens ( on a 70-300 or a 55-250 ) will give a lot higher magnification. Would like to see a prime macro lens doing the same :)

    Another cheaper alternative to macro lenses is lens reversal. Risky, but effective. Some sample shots are at:
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.189439187767536.46093.158157040895751

  • Wendy

    I agree, a closeup lens is a poor substitute for a true macro lens. I use the Tamron 90mm macro and get great results, like this yellow ladybird http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollie487/5311868738/in/photostream. There is no contest between a macro lens & a closeup lens for sharpness & magnification.

  • Wendy

    @Swaheel marvellous photos! I also have a reversing ring for my 50mm lens, but I have not used it very much now that I have the Tamron. Your photos are beautiful.

  • Jerry

    I can’t say that I am a keen macro photographer. Nevertheless, my old Cosina 100mm macro lens, along with its 1:1 adapter have a permanent place in my camera bag, both for close-up use and the 100mm focal length:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/4493153254/.

    Then again, many years ago, I saw this, perhaps gory, sight and simply had to take the shot. A 200mm lens, Cokin 3x close-up lens and a tripod did the job:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/37847486/

    A 70-300 zoom with “macro” capability has also proved useful at times.

  • MarkG

    Very interesting. But what happens when you add one or two extension tubes? How does that affect the numbers you provided?

  • http://www.swaheel.com swaheel

    @wendy: Thank you so much! The yellow ladybug shot sure makes a strong case for the macro lenses :) Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.bvcphoto.com B

    Hm. Most zoom lenses hit maximum magnification at their longest focal length. Maybe that’s not true of the 28-300L, I don’t know, but how about repeating this with it at 300mm?

  • http://flickr.com/photos/benoxi benoxi

    close-up lens kinda degrades the IQ (cheap ones, at least) , if u stack multiples up, it’ll get worse, chromatic aberrations , softness, etc.

  • Tony

    A close up filter though is great if you only do macro stuff on a rare occasion. I can’t justify spending more the 20 I spent on my Opteka 10x ring and it’s been great for me so far.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyacker/4540281502/in/photostream/lightbox/

  • Major Bokeh

    I have the same Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro lens. It’s my second. I bought the first 100mm Macro Canon had, but they upgraded the new one to be an “L” series lens and it’s spectacular. This is a set from around my garden last summer. To see the real detail, use the “view all sizes” feature on Flickr and look at them in original format.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/39916185@N02/sets/72157624816818863/

  • Husain

    Extension tubes help reduce the minimum focus distance of a lens and are easy to carry around. Has anyone on this forum used them? What’s the downside on using extension tubes?

  • Chris Casselden

    Just one small inaccuracy. The distance registered on the lens is from the subject to the focal plane, not the front element of the glass. On many cameras this point is marked by a small circle with a horiozontal line through it. This is actually an important distinction because when my 18-200 is fully extended (200mm) the the minimum distance from the focal plane to the subject is 0.48M, but the subject to glass distance is only 0.27M
    Martin’s point about the diopter value of close-up lenses is valid too and while they are no substitute for a decent macro. or extention tubes, bellows etc. they can be useful. I always carry one when I’m travelling light.

  • http://thecareyadventures.com/blog Peter West Carey

    Chris, that is what I stated “while the lenses themselves list their focus distances to the plane of the sensor.” The sensor being the focal plane (unless you want things out of focus). I noted my measurements were to the front of the lens for practical reason. Can you please help me understand the inaccuracy?

  • Chris Casselden

    Hi Peter, Not wishing to be pedantic because the article is going to be useful to anyone starting out in macro-world and will give them a feel for the way the different pieces of kit operate, but if you look at your 3rd paragraph again it states, “… pull the zoom all the way in and read the number in meters or feet. This is as close as an object can be to the front element (glass) of your lens and still be in focus.” Maybe I’m reading this wrong.

  • http://thecareyadventures.com/blog Peter West Carey

    Ack! You’re absolutely right. I will edit that out. Thanks.

  • Ram
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/41898910@N03/ Rich
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/ Ram Iyer

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/5668300909/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/5668888210/in/photostream

    the above two shots was taken using screw-in 10+ lens and extension adapter with 18-55 std lens. pls. comment

Some older comments

  • Ram Iyer

    April 30, 2011 04:35 pm

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/5668300909/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/5668888210/in/photostream

    the above two shots was taken using screw-in 10+ lens and extension adapter with 18-55 std lens. pls. comment

  • Rich

    April 29, 2011 11:28 pm

    Taken with a close up lens:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/41898910@N03/5498042419/

  • Ram

    April 29, 2011 11:36 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ram_iyer/5660623147/in/photostream

  • Peter West Carey

    April 29, 2011 07:48 am

    Ack! You're absolutely right. I will edit that out. Thanks.

  • Chris Casselden

    April 29, 2011 07:46 am

    Hi Peter, Not wishing to be pedantic because the article is going to be useful to anyone starting out in macro-world and will give them a feel for the way the different pieces of kit operate, but if you look at your 3rd paragraph again it states, "... pull the zoom all the way in and read the number in meters or feet. This is as close as an object can be to the front element (glass) of your lens and still be in focus." Maybe I'm reading this wrong.

  • Peter West Carey

    April 29, 2011 04:38 am

    Chris, that is what I stated "while the lenses themselves list their focus distances to the plane of the sensor." The sensor being the focal plane (unless you want things out of focus). I noted my measurements were to the front of the lens for practical reason. Can you please help me understand the inaccuracy?

  • Chris Casselden

    April 29, 2011 04:25 am

    Just one small inaccuracy. The distance registered on the lens is from the subject to the focal plane, not the front element of the glass. On many cameras this point is marked by a small circle with a horiozontal line through it. This is actually an important distinction because when my 18-200 is fully extended (200mm) the the minimum distance from the focal plane to the subject is 0.48M, but the subject to glass distance is only 0.27M
    Martin's point about the diopter value of close-up lenses is valid too and while they are no substitute for a decent macro. or extention tubes, bellows etc. they can be useful. I always carry one when I'm travelling light.

  • Husain

    April 28, 2011 03:58 am

    Extension tubes help reduce the minimum focus distance of a lens and are easy to carry around. Has anyone on this forum used them? What's the downside on using extension tubes?

  • Major Bokeh

    April 27, 2011 05:20 am

    I have the same Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro lens. It's my second. I bought the first 100mm Macro Canon had, but they upgraded the new one to be an "L" series lens and it's spectacular. This is a set from around my garden last summer. To see the real detail, use the "view all sizes" feature on Flickr and look at them in original format.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/39916185@N02/sets/72157624816818863/

  • Tony

    April 27, 2011 04:10 am

    A close up filter though is great if you only do macro stuff on a rare occasion. I can't justify spending more the 20 I spent on my Opteka 10x ring and it's been great for me so far.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyacker/4540281502/in/photostream/lightbox/

  • benoxi

    April 27, 2011 03:13 am

    close-up lens kinda degrades the IQ (cheap ones, at least) , if u stack multiples up, it'll get worse, chromatic aberrations , softness, etc.

  • B

    April 27, 2011 02:52 am

    Hm. Most zoom lenses hit maximum magnification at their longest focal length. Maybe that's not true of the 28-300L, I don't know, but how about repeating this with it at 300mm?

  • swaheel

    April 27, 2011 01:22 am

    @wendy: Thank you so much! The yellow ladybug shot sure makes a strong case for the macro lenses :) Thanks for sharing.

  • MarkG

    April 26, 2011 10:46 pm

    Very interesting. But what happens when you add one or two extension tubes? How does that affect the numbers you provided?

  • Jerry

    April 26, 2011 10:34 pm

    I can't say that I am a keen macro photographer. Nevertheless, my old Cosina 100mm macro lens, along with its 1:1 adapter have a permanent place in my camera bag, both for close-up use and the 100mm focal length:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/4493153254/.

    Then again, many years ago, I saw this, perhaps gory, sight and simply had to take the shot. A 200mm lens, Cokin 3x close-up lens and a tripod did the job:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/37847486/

    A 70-300 zoom with "macro" capability has also proved useful at times.

  • Wendy

    April 26, 2011 09:22 pm

    @Swaheel marvellous photos! I also have a reversing ring for my 50mm lens, but I have not used it very much now that I have the Tamron. Your photos are beautiful.

  • Wendy

    April 26, 2011 09:16 pm

    I agree, a closeup lens is a poor substitute for a true macro lens. I use the Tamron 90mm macro and get great results, like this yellow ladybird http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollie487/5311868738/in/photostream. There is no contest between a macro lens & a closeup lens for sharpness & magnification.

  • swaheel

    April 26, 2011 02:42 pm

    The good thing about a closeup lens ( macro adapter ) is that you can screw it on a longer lens and achieve higher magnification. The same Canon 500D lens ( or a similar Raynox DCR-250 adapter ) on a longer lens ( on a 70-300 or a 55-250 ) will give a lot higher magnification. Would like to see a prime macro lens doing the same :)

    Another cheaper alternative to macro lenses is lens reversal. Risky, but effective. Some sample shots are at:
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.189439187767536.46093.158157040895751

  • ScottC

    April 26, 2011 12:28 pm

    A macro is definitely worth the extra weight, some details just can't be captured well without one.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5634822875/

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    April 26, 2011 12:20 pm

    Hi

    Another series of shots I trusted to the Nikkor 100mm Prime Macro - surprisingly executed with a Monopod...Tripod Police were watching!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/blue-morpho/

    regards, Erik

  • shirley

    April 26, 2011 11:59 am

    I've had my 105mm Nikon macro for three weeks and it was totally worth the $ spent.

  • Martin Stern

    April 26, 2011 11:41 am

    I think something is missing in your comparison of a macro vs close-up lens. There are close-up lenses of higher diopters that let you get closer. Also you can stack close-up lenses. Nikon, Canon and others make very high quality closeup lenses that stack well. Raynox makes very high diopter closeup lenses.

    I think you can use closeup lenses to get at least as close as you can get with the macro lens.

  • Frank

    April 26, 2011 09:40 am

    Peter, Any examples of a portrait with a macro lens? I have been debating getting either a 85 mm 1.8 or a 100 mm 2.8 Macro. Up until I taking a macro course a few weeks back, there was no debate, but now I seem to want to play more with a macro lens.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    April 26, 2011 08:56 am

    Hi

    Macro shots are tricky and take careful preparation to set up and execute. Sometimes if might even be impossible to capture a subject a second time if you are not happy with the results after the shoot. Although I agree that some on optics might be the solution to travel, I would rather carry the extra glass of a proper Macro. This macro of the eye of a butterfly, I likely couldn't repeat if I tried - i am happy that I has my trust Nikkor 100mm with me! Sure it is large, weighs a ton, but is sharp and fast - no compromise required.

    Touch Down: http://t.co/1aYHIz9

    regards, Erik

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