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Close-up filters: shoot macro photography without a macro lens

There are lots of ways in which you can get your camera closer to the subject, so that small areas look big in the image. The most common solution is to use a macro lens, though obviously this requires buying a new lens – and having another bulky thing to carry around with you, just in case. 

A less expensive, and less bulky, solution is a close-up filter, also known as a close-up lens. This attaches to the front of an existing lens, and works in the same way as a magnifying glass or a pair of reading glasses. This type of filter is available for most square filter systems, such as Cokin, but round screw types are more common.

Close-up filters are available in different strengths, measured in diopters; the higher the number, the higher the magnification and the closer the minimum focus of the lens becomes.

Get close to your subject without a macro lens, using a close-up filter

Get close to your subject without a macro lens, using a close-up filter

These lenses are often sold in sets with a +1, +2 and +4 diopter lens in a convenient carry case. Two or more filters can be combined to increase magnification – you just add the diopter values together to get the resulting magnification (a +2 filter used with a +4 diopter gives you a +6 diopter set-up, for example).

The optical quality of these filters is not as high as a macro lens; you tend to get more softening at the edges and more color fringing. However, they are more than capable of giving you a different view of a miniature world. They can record shots of stamps, coins and jewelry, for instance, but can also be used for artistic shots that show texture and detail that more distant shots fail to show.

With a close-up filter, your focusing range  becomes very limited (you can no longer focus on distant subjects). You can still use autofocus, however, and as there is no light loss, automatic exposure also works perfectly.  

01 Magnifying glass for your lens

A close-up lens screws into the filter thread of your lens (or slots into your square filter holder). The effect of the magnification is much greater with a telephoto zoom than it is with a standard one, so a focal length of over 100mm is recommended – and one of 200mm is ideal.

02 Buy the set

The three lenses you get in close-up sets can be combined to give you more than just three levels of magnification. The cost of a set increases with its diameter; we used a 72mm set from Kood, though other manufacturers include Hoya, Tiffen and B+W. 

03 Zoom in for maximum effect

Picking the right filter, or combination of filters, to get the crop that you want is usually a matter of trial and error. The focus range with the filter in place is limited to a few inches at best, and the minimum focusing decreases as the number of diopters applied increases.

04 Focus in on the detail

As with all close-ups, depth of field gets more limited the closer you get to the subject and can be as little as a couple of millimeters. Use a tripod for stability and, if you need to ensure as much of the image is as sharp as possible, keep the camera perpendicular to the face of the subject.

More videos: 

Photography tips and techniques videos
Focus stacking: how to get amazing depth of field in macro photography
How to use extension tubes for low cost-macro photography