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A Comparison of Close-up Filters and Macro Lenses

How does a close up filter compare to a macro lens? Should I invest in a lens or try a close up filter?

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A Comparison of Close-up Filters and Macro Lenses

1,370 words, estimated reading time 7 minutes.

What kind of results can be obtained using close up filters, and what is the difference compared with a dedicated macro lens? What is the difference be between a macro lens close to the subject vs. a telephoto lens further away?

What is a Close-up Filter?

A close-up filter is a lens that attaches onto the end of a camera lens via a screw thread. The purpose of the filter is to decrease the minimum distance that a lens requires focusing. For example, most telephoto lenses need the subject to be at least a metre and a half away before they can focus. By attaching a close-up filter to the lens you can reduce this to maybe 0.75 metres.

Close Up Filters / Macro Filters
Close Up Filters / Macro Filters

Close-up filters are measured in Dioptre, with +2 being weak and +10 being strong. A dioptre is a measure of lens power.

Filters can be "stacked" together (one filter screwed onto the lens and another screwed into the first filter). When stacking filters always make sure that the strongest filter is closest to the lens.

Equipment Used

  • Canon EOS 350d Digital SLR
  • Canon 18-55mm EFS USM Lens (As sold in the Canon Bundle)
  • Canon 55-200mm EF USM Lens (As sold in the Canon Bundle)
  • Canon 60mm EFS USM Macro Lens
  • Hoya +2 Close-up Filter
  • Hoya +3 Closeup Filter
  • Hoya Step up/down adaptor rings
  • Manfrotto 055PROB Tripod

Settings and Post Process

All of the photos were taken on the same day, with the same camera and settings. Camera was in manual mode with aperture set to f/11, ISO 100 and variable shutter speed. Camera 10 second timer was used to reduce the effect of vibrations. I will be using an English 50 pence coin for the subject. The coin is slanted at approx 55 degrees away from the camera resulting in about 12mm difference in depth between the top edge (furthest) and bottom edge (closest). In each image the camera was on auto focus and directed at the G of REG.F.D top right.

For my friends outside the United Kingdom, here is a scale to show the size of the coin.

[rpw]

Macro Coin Photography
Macro Coin Photography
Macro Coin Photography
Macro Coin Photography
[/row]

Each image has been resized to 800 by 533 pixels and saved in JPEG format. Due to the way the file format works some image quality will be lost, however, I have saved the images with a fairly low compression setting.

The Tests

Canon 18-55mm Lens No Filter

Canon 18-55mm Lens No Filter
Canon 18-55mm Lens No Filter
Canon 18-55mm Lens No Filter 100% Crop
Canon 18-55mm Lens No Filter 100% Crop

To start off with, here is the closest focal distance for the basic Canon lens with no filters. The lens is at its maximum 55mm focal length. The photo appears to be nice and sharp with good detail shown and not very many distortions. The closest to the subject I could obtain focus was 115mm between the lens and the target, which results in a small image on the sensor.

Canon 18-55mm Lens +2 Close-up

Canon 18-55mm Lens +2 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +2 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +2 100%
Canon 18-55mm Lens +2 100%

Adding a +2 Close-up filter enables the camera lens to get 25mm closer to the subject which results in a larger image on the sensor. There is a noticeable decrease in the depth of field towards the bottom of the image, but overall it remains sharp without visible distortions.

Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 Close-up

Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 100%
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 100%

By attaching a +3 Close-up filter to the lens I was able to move the camera closer to the subject again and still keep focus, this time the subject was 85cm away from the lens. The improvement in magnification is clearly shown in the 100% crop and even clearer in the original image. The depth of field has noticeably decreased and the photo does not appear quite so sharp.

Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 and +2 Close-up

Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 and +2 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 and +2 Close-up
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 and +2 100%
Canon 18-55mm Lens +3 and +2 100%

Closer again at 75cm between the lens and the subject, however, the reduced depth of field has caused much of the image to blur. There is also some chromatic aberrations visible around the edge of the coin

Canon 55-200mm Lens No Filter

Canon 55-200mm Lens No Filter
Canon 55-200mm Lens No Filter
Canon 55-200mm Lens No Filter 100% Crop
Canon 55-200mm Lens No Filter 100% Crop

From 1 metre away the coin looks small, even through 200mm focal length. There is not much detail and the writing is blurry.

Canon 55-200mm Lens +2 Close-up

Canon 55-200mm Lens +2 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +2 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +2 100% Crop
Canon 55-200mm Lens +2 100% Crop

As you can see the coin fills much of the frame, but is poor quality. The focal distance is reduced with a +2 filter down to 340mm. The left-hand side of the coin is blurred, even the area the camera thinks is in focus has a soft feel to it. This lens does not seem to be able to cope with macro work!

Canon 55-200mm Lens +3 Close-up

Canon 55-200mm Lens +3 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3 100% Crop
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3 100% Crop

With a focal distance now at 290mm, the camera is having trouble focusing on the coin. It is taking several attempts to get the 'beep beep' alert. Even then it is clearly struggling. The coin is out of focus around much of the surface, only a few mm around the focus area are acceptable.

Canon 55-200mm Lens +3+2 Close-up

Canon 55-200mm Lens +3+2 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3+2 Close-up
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3+2 100% Crop
Canon 55-200mm Lens +3+2 100% Crop

Using a +3 and a +2 filter has given a much larger image, close to 1:1, due to its focal distance of 170mm. However the image has also become to blurred to be of practical use. There is far to much distortion from the double filters, and the quality of the 200mm lens isn't the best. There is clear chromatic aberrations all around the image.

Canon 60mm Macro Lens No Filter

Canon 60mm Macro Lens No Filter
Canon 60mm Macro Lens No Filter
Canon 60mm Macro Lens No Filter
Canon 60mm Macro Lens No Filter

These images just speak for themselves. They are comparable in size with the 200mm lens and a +3 Close-up filter and focus is achieved from 85mm, however, the quality of the image is far superior to any of the other combinations. Not surprising really considering that the macro lens is dedicated to macro photography while the other two lenses are general purpose and kit lenses.

Just Curious...

How would the macro lens work with a close-up filter? I am writing this section the day after the rest of the tests and the photography set has been dismantled, but I was curious as to what the images would look like and how much detail they have, so I set up again and took a few more pictures. Because these images are not taken at the same time as the rest they cannot be directly compared with those above. The above photos were taken in the shade on a bright sunny afternoon, today I am indoors and it is raining outside. I have tried to keep everything as close as possible to yesterdays work.

Canon 60mm Macro +3 Close up filter
Canon 60mm Macro +3 Close up filter
Canon 60mm Macro +3 100% Crop
Canon 60mm Macro +3 100% Crop

These were taken with the 60mm Macro lens and a +3 Close-up filter. At first glance, these images look better than those without the filter but remember that the light is completely different in these images, and the coin is at a different angle to the camera. This level of detail really is unbelievable, you must download the full image below to see how much detail has been captured. The focus was achieved from only 60mm.

The letters are measured at 2mm in height, which means that the dot is 0.39mm in diameter! The scratches by the F aren't even visible to the eye.

Conclusions

It's clear that if you are after pin sharp images close to 1:1 magnification then you need a good macro lens because close-up filters just cannot offer that level of detail with the lens bundled with the camera. If you just want to get a bit closer to the subject then a single filter will help reduce the focal distance, but the larger the dioptre the more distortion will creep in. With two filters stacked the camera found it difficult to auto focus, and the lack of quality reduces the image to near useless for macro work. If you need to stack filters, it's probably worth purchasing a higher dioptre filter (e.g. +5).

So you get what you pay for, in the end, Close-up filters have there uses and are good to start you off in macro work, however, to capture the fine details you can't beat a macro lens.

Last updated on: Sunday 18th June 2017

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Further Reading
Comments
  1. himani verma
    himani verma

    Love the detail in the article. Suppose I will try out the filter kit I purchased with my DSLR 70D Canon and wait till I buy the real thing- The Macro Lens

  2. ump
    ump

    Yes, well... I'm sure that you were well-intentioned, but the road to you-know where and all that... You used the lowest quality type of close-up filters to be had - albeit over-priced brand name ones - and the wrong (and anyway mediocre) lenses, compared the two zooms to a more expensive higher quality prime, and concluded that the CUFs don't work well full stop. Hmmm.

    A meaningful test would have used a lens in the same class as the macro lens and, most importantly, twin element achromatic close-up adapters. Which you can actually find in decent glass for about what those awful Hoyas cost you and work a LOT better. The next time you do something like this then think about the gear you are using - is a kit zoom a fair basis for comparison to a pro-level prime? sometimes it can be, especially in m43, but rarely in Canikon Land - and spend a little more time net researching the hardware to make sure that you buy the right thing.

    For example, this a test of 2 element cuf on a DP3:

    https://fotogenerellinternational.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/review-sigma-dp3-merrill/

    As the tester says, quality is as good as with the DP3's lens in normal mode - which is to say at least an edge better than any Canon prime, because the DP3's lens is made by Sigma to Art Lens standards - the DP3 is primarily a dedicated machine for the highest quality portraits and, with the cuf fitted, studio product shots, when DSLR quality won't do.

    Until you've done that I would urge you to delete this article or to post a warning that it may be misleading - because macro lenses ain't cheap and right now you may be causing people to buy them who don't need them.

  3. Ruud
    Ruud

    Interesting test and info, but I still ordered a Vivatar macro filterset lookalike on Aliexpress for 7.27 Euro to find out for myself. To be used on my Pentax X-k standard kit lens (being on a budget...)

  4. Nic
    Nic

    Hi Tim
    Thanks for your testing - I won't bother to buy a close up filter now!

    Have you tried using tube extenders that fit between the lens and the camera to shorten closest focus distance?

    Cheers
    Nic

  5. AnkurTG
    AnkurTG

    Hi, nice work there.
    In my experience of using a Close-up filters with a telephoto, the aperture needs to be as small as possible (you wish you could go smaller than f/22), and you can kiss autofocus goodbye.
    A combination of manual focus and actual camera movement usually gets me the right shot.

    I have a feeling your results with the telephoto can be much better without autofocus, once a very narrow aperture is used. It would probably still not compare with the macro-lens result, but would be closer.
    You would probably also need additional lighting and/or long exposures in that setup.
    Cheers!

  6. Rajesh
    Rajesh

    Excellent comparison :) Loved the conclusion including the tip of purchasing a 5+ filter to get started :)
    Must read for newbies like me.

    - Rajesh

  7. jay
    jay

    This is a great comparison because like most people I wanted to take product photography with my cheap lens that came with a kit and wanted to see the difference and what kind of quality I will get if I buy a macro lens vs lens filters. Helps people like me a lot. I ended up going with the lens filters as the products I have are no so small (cell phones etc.) and the filters does the job no need to get super close.

  8. NK
    NK

    Thanks!

  9. Yollande
    Yollande

    I want to get into macro - just bought a Raynox DCR-250 macro/close up conversion lens. (used) Don't have it yet but heard good things about it. Any comment out there on this one..... Allot cheaper than the big macro, which my budget doesn't allow right now and I just can't wait to play, so I bought it.

  10. Imrevince Dev
    Imrevince Dev

    Of course, a close up filter can not beat the sharpness of a macro lens, but the filter costs only P2,000.00 as compared to the lens that costs P50,000.00. However, photoshop can just take care of the sharpness.

  11. bari
    bari

    cool! very informative and well done article :) thanx!

  12. Denis
    Denis

    excellent always wondered why one thought by adding another lens ring/filter on top of a macro lens images would get sharper....

    great work/project and well done for getting the light right on a rainy day!

    Denis Ananiadis

  13. ashwani parik
    ashwani parik

    hi,
    thanks for above information it helps a lot . but i have a problem ,i hav buyed a closeup filter set and the photograph which i want is not coming properly .i means to say it gets blured when i zoom in .......any one can help me ...your tips will be highly appreciated .(i use 18-270 mm tamron with nikon body)

  14. ernest talusan
    ernest talusan

    hello, i have a tokina 28-70, 2.8 and a tamron 70-200, 2.8 too. i just want to ask if i can use close-up lens filter to both of my lenses?...thanks for your time.

  15. Stev
    Stev

    Good one, but have you used some cheap 1-element close-up lenses? You should try same test using close-up lenses like Canon 500D and 250D.

    Anyone who thinks about having close-up lens, DON'T BUY CHEAP ONE! You get them for some

  16. Roni
    Roni

    Hi

    I wasn't aware of your blog, when I did a similar test with a Macro lens, see here: http://sonyalphaa55.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/close-up-filters-and-macro-lens-do-the-work-together/
    Regards
    Roni

  17. Steven Campbell
    Steven Campbell

    Without a doubt the author did great research however if you have a lens that isn't telephoto and really do know what you are doing, AND are willing to go totally manual, you can create some amazing DOF and sharp shots with close up filters.

    The camera + lens doesn't create photos, the person using the gear does.

  18. Craig
    Craig

    Has anyone else noticed there may be a mistake in the focal distances given. For starters the first photo (without filter) starts with the 50p being 115mm away from the lens and the first +2 filter helps him come 25mm closer to the coin! That's awfully close to begin with and if the filter only lets you come 25mm (about an inch and a quarter) closer I say why bother?

    Surely he means 115cm and 25cm closer, respectively.

    Nice article, though. I'm thinking about getting a filter for my Konica Auto S2 rangefinder. My only option, I'm afraid. Won't go above the +2 by the looks of things due to dop dropoff.

  19. Fajar Priyanto
    Fajar Priyanto

    Thanks for the article. You answer my question ^^

  20. Craig
    Craig

    That 60mm macro is quite the lens compared with the kit 55-200mm used. Is there a chance you could compare apples to apples by using a 50mm prime?

    I sure see a difference using my 50mm prime vs the 50mm setting on my 50-200 or even my 18-50.

    C

  21. rhoel
    rhoel

    Hi,

    Thank you for the highly detailed tests. It was just the info I was looking for!

    BR,
    Rhoel

  22. richie
    richie

    hi tim,
    i have found your information here VERY useful.
    the majority of my work is macro, using the standard 18-55mm lens, i cannot afford a real macro lens, so over the past couple of months i have been researching the close up filters and i was comtimplating buying a close up filter, but thanks to your write up here, i now know that i have to save my pennies and buy the real deal when it comes to the macro lens
    this info was just what i was looking for
    nice one tim, cheers
    richie

  23. mario
    mario

    Thanks for the nice article, however I just bought a close up filter with +3 just before reading your article. I just want to know whether a macro lens would suit me or not so I tried to buy this filter first.

    I shot with Canon EF-50mm f1.4 and found out the result is sharp. I'm just wondering whether you have tried this combination and compare the result with EF 100mm f2.8 macro? if yes, would you recommend the lens?

    Thank you

  24. Arun
    Arun

    Excellent article, this is exactly what was bugging me for a while.
    Thanks.

  25. yoachan
    yoachan

    Thanks! It answered my questions :)

  26. jonathan
    jonathan

    It would be interesting of comparing a fix focal with a macro for having a more realistic result. It would be more like comparing aple with aple. If you do this test, I would be really interested to see it.

  27. Ray
    Ray

    Thank you ever so much for sharing this info. It has given me tremendous help.

  28. Im thinking of purchasing a macro lens but looking at tubes. Will I need a special flash to use them?

  29. Ingrid
    Ingrid

    Tanks for doing this article! It was really helpful for an amateur photographer like myself.

  30. Wunna
    Wunna

    Thanks Tim, you saved my money ....I am about to buy close-up filter ...but I think I should consider some more

  31. Sahan
    Sahan

    Thanks a lot Tim,
    As a amateur photographer i have just started my search on macro photography and was wondering exactly what you had explained in such detail. Thanks a lot for taking the time to put this up, its been a great help to clear my mind as to which direction i should go for when thinking of macro photography.
    On a side note, I have come across telephoto zoom lens with the macro function and I

  32. Eth
    Eth

    What a painstaking piece of work but sooo useful for an enthusiastic amateur like me. Thanks!

  33. Karen
    Karen

    This article was just what I needed, it has answered all the questions running through my head about which to purchase. Thank you!

  34. Andy
    Andy

    Hi I was also very interested in this test,I have a nikon 105mm macro lens and there are times I would like to get more than a 1to1 magnification so Iam now wondering what it would be like if I purchased a top quality pro close up filter like a hoya pro x2 or x3 and put it on my Nikon 105mm macro lens.Iam also wondering if a x3 or a x4 close up filter might be pushing the boundries abit to much so Iam tempted to try a x2 Hoya close up filter on my macro.Has anyone out there any experience of this set up?

    1. Vesa
      Vesa

      I was thinking exactly the same thing (except I'm a Canon guy with a 100mm macro lens). Might just have to try. At least the filters aren't terribly expensive.

      ---

      Anyways.. Thanks Tim for the informative article.

  35. curious photographer
    curious photographer

    thank you, you have set my mind to ease. i was always concerned with the optical qualities of these macro filters, and your sample photos prove this point. i'll save up for a real macro lens. for the time being maybe i'll look for some cheap macro extension tubes.

  36. Eric
    Eric

    The point of using a close up filter is for you to be able to get closer to it. It decreases your minimum focus distance. It looks like you were just using those filters from a distance where you didn't even need them in the first place. This just added a needless air / glass interface.

  37. Vaughan
    Vaughan

    Really useful information - I had been wondering why I should get an expensive macro lens
    rather that a 'low' cost filter - now I know! Thanks for sharing!

  38. Jim
    Jim

    Well done! Very interesting comparisons. Regards from across the pond!

  39. sara
    sara

    Hi
    I really like what you have done here! Very informative!
    But I still don't know which one I should choose..
    I have a Canon 450d and I love to take really good and sharp close-ups.
    This is a jungle! I thought that a close-up filter would be a good and cheaper option then to buy another lens... Can you help??

  40. Rasyid
    Rasyid

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your insight... I am about to purchase a filter.. I think I just hold on for macro lens instead

  41. Sunil
    Sunil

    Good information, Thanks for sharing.

    Regards
    Sunil

  42. gracie
    gracie

    Hi! Thanks for sharing! ;-)

  43. Pratim
    Pratim

    Hi Tim,
    Excellent set of tests. Thank you for all the pains you have taken to help us all.

    Regards,
    Pratim

  44. Asim
    Asim

    Thank you for this comparison. I found it very useful.

  45. Niels T
    Niels T

    Hi

    Informative article, but I thought most macro photographers used manual focus? Am I wrong? The same test could have been interesting with manual focus.

  46. Roy Van Morales
    Roy Van Morales

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for sharing. Very helpful.

    Cheers,
    Roy Van
    Philippines

  47. David Young
    David Young

    This info is precisely what I was looking for as I looked thro all the filters available for my Nikon 55mm lens! Thank you so much for putting this info on the net!

  48. Bill McComack
    Bill McComack

    Good set of tests.

    Have you done a similar thing for tubes?

    I bought a cheap (

    1. Eric
      Eric

      To use a lens stopped down on manual extension tubes ... just use the depth of field preview button and hold it down while removing the lens ... works on Canon Rebels and I suppose other cameras.

  49. Steve Wood
    Steve Wood

    Wow - a lot of work, but really useful, thanks. I am trying to decide what to buy and this makes it really clear that you get what you pay for.

    nb Digital Camera magazine, August 2009, has a review of macro lenses and comes up with the Tamron 90mm f2.8 as better than the Canon or Nikon macro equivalents.

    ps there is something wrong with the right hand captions - the HTML shows. (I am viewing with Firefox)

  50. Mario Rossi
    Mario Rossi

    Hello! This is great info! Thank you very much for sharing. I am learning about photography and this is exactly what I was looking for. Cheers!

  51. Jimi Mayhew
    Jimi Mayhew

    Tim, wow! thank you so much for that schooling. you just saved me the hassel of purchasing something that
    would not work for me. (This tight-ass will now get
    a macro lens,or at least an extension tube!!)
    Thanks

    1. gavin
      gavin

      im going to go against the grain here :) and say i disagree totally. you have compared a fixed-focal-length macro lens, with 2 piece-of-total-crap zoom lenses that no one in their right mind would buy anyway, precisely because the are such poor quality. you described them as 'sold in canon bundle' which basically means canon are giving them away, and yet you had a good quality macro lens to compare them to? this is a no brainer....ofcourse the macro lens will be better, and you can see that in the images u shot without filters.....there is already a massive difference between the lenses, so this is not even a fair comparison. and further to that, the main difference in quality appears to be when you zoom those crappy zoom lenses out, which is when the images deteriorate completely, but thats more to do with the lens itself than the filter. to do this test properly, you need a fixed-length, good quality lens with a filter attached, vs a fixed-length, good quality macro lens.
      i use these filters, alot, primarily on an 85mm 1.8 lens, (with filters single, never stacked) and the results are outstanding. with the lens set to f 16 or 22 (to reduce the depth-of-feild issue), the results are superb, and anyone wanting to buy a

  52. edesigns
    edesigns

    Hi I found your article very interesting and informative. I have got a Canon 400d, a 18-55mm lens bundles with the camera, a zoom lens 100-300mm. 4 canon macro rings and I have just bought a hoya close up filter x 4, I am really undecided whether to stretch myself to a sigma 105 ex dg lens or just use the equipment I have got. My income is low and find 350.00 a lot to shell out for but I would if the results are superior to the close up and macro rings. So far I have used the macro rings and done okay with 2 or three but when using all four together that's when i have the difficulties. Thanks for an interesting read.

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