with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Closeup Photography – Ways to Get Close

Whether with traditional lenses or macro lenses, there are a variety of accessories to add to your lenses which will increase the working distance and/or increase magnification.

We’ve put together a sample of pictures to show you what is possible with the variety of lenses and lens accessories available. This is to help you see the possibilities in the choices you have. Your results may differ so experiment and discover how close you can really get with what you have. Then save up to shop for some of these fun closeup accessories.

These images were taken from the same position in a studio setting in our living room. At each point we focused as close as we could with the lens and accessories we had on and then took the picture. We then changed to the next set of equipment and again focused as close as possible, showing you the closest magnification at each setting without moving from our original position.

Flower photographed at 35mm
35mm lens
Flower photographed at 70mm
70mm lens
Flower photoraphed with 70mm lens plus 2x teleconverter
70mm lens + 2x teleconverter
Flower photographed with a 70mm lens plus 2x teleconverter plus extension tube
70mm + 2x + Extension Tube
Flower photographed by 70mm lens plus 2x teleconverter plus Extension Tube plus Closeup Diopter
70mm + 2x + Extension Tube + Closeup Diopter


Remember Photography 101
From the book of basic photography, here is a reminder about aperture.

“The bigger the hole, the smaller the number. The bigger the number, the smaller the hole.”

Add to this:

“The smaller the number, the smaller depth of field. The bigger the number, the bigger the depth of field.”

Understanding how your lens works and how it sees is a critical part of closeup photography. By understanding the technical aspects of the lens, and what its strengths and limitations are, you can choose the correct lens for the subject and situation.

A lens is labeled for its focal length (how long) and its maximum (widest) aperture. This label gives information to the user about how fast the lens will photograph in any given situation. Closeup photography concentrates on maximizing depth of field, therefore the smallest aperture becomes more important when choosing a macro lens. The largest maximum aperture a lens has tells how capable that lens will be in low light situations. The larger the maximum aperture (the smaller fstop number), the brighter the image in the viewfinder for focusing and the more light that can reach the film for low light photography. In macro photography, we rarely photograph with our lens aperture wide open, but the extra light for focusing is really helpful.

Lens Types

There are a variety of lens types for photographers to use: fixed, zoom, macro, and combinations of fixed and zoom lens with macro capabilities. Let’s examine the differences among them.

Fixed focal length lenses
Most true macro lenses are of fixed focal length, that is, they don’t zoom. Macro lenses are the most highly corrected lenses a manufacturer makes. In making a zoom, there are more optical tradeoffs in the design. For the absolute highest quality, a fixed macro lens is the best choice. They will usually focus to 1/2X or even to life-size.
Zoom lenses
There are many zoom lenses that claim to be “macro” lenses. These lenses usually only focus to about 1/4X reproduction ratio, which is not as close as the true macros. Zoom lenses frequently have variable apertures, which is ok if you shoot on program mode. For manual exposure, however, this means that at different focal lengths, you will have to readjust your shutter speed as you zoom. Zoom lenses have the advantage of allowing you to move closer or farther without actually moving your tripod or camera. Zooms are also usually slower (have smaller wide open apertures) than fixed lenses.
Macro lenses
As already mentioned, macro lenses can be either fixed or zoom lenses, but the best quality is in the fixed lenses. These macro lenses are designed to be at their optical best at close focus. A traditional lens is optically best at medium distances. Most macro lenses will have maximum apertures of about f2.8 or f4, which is slower than traditional fixed focus lenses which often are f1.4 or f2.8.
Internal focusing lenses
The simplest way for a lens to focus closer is to physically move the entire lens farther away from the film plane. This is the method used in most middle range focal lengths. Another method was developed where certain groups of smaller elements inside the lens move relative to the lens case, and adjust the focus of the light reaching the film. This is called internal focusing (IF), and is much quicker and easier for the photographer to focus.

Other advantages of an IF lens include a front element which does not rotate, so use with a polarizer is simplified. There is no need to keep readjusting it when you focus nearer or farther. The other advantage is that you don’t lose light from extension when you focus, so IF lenses are brighter than other lenses when focused close. This is a plus for macro lenses, and the newer macro lenses are often IF lenses.

Close Focusing Distance

Almost every lens made will focus to infinity and can be used for scenics and people and just about anything else you would want to point it at. But at some point, it just won’t focus any closer. For the average 50mm lens, this might be about a foot and a half away. For a 200mm zoom, the close focus distance might be 4 feet, and Nikon’s 500mm f4 telephoto will focus no closer than about 15 feet.

Macro lenses are designed to photograph small things, close things. Nikon’s 55mm macro lens will focus to about 5 inches, and their 200mm manual focus macro will focus to about 20 inches, much closer than their traditional counterparts. If you photograph lots of small things, there are other options, but it might be worth your money to get a macro lens.

Working Distance

Which Lens Took This Picture?

A photograph of tree bark. Can you guess which lens took this picture?
Either lens could have produced this image. The difference is in the working distance.
A 55mm lens needs less distance from the subject to get the same picture.
A 55mm lens requires a much closer working distance to get the exact same image.
A 200mm lens needs more distance from the subject to get the same picture.
A 200mm lens requires a greater working distance to reproduce the same image.

For most subjects in nature, the distance your camera is from the subject won’t influence the subject. But photographing insects, butterflies and such, can be difficult because they are exceptionally attentive to your location and will respond accordingly – often by escaping the situation. Being able to get close and still maintain some distance becomes critical then. Add to this the challenge of low light, and the closer you are to the subject, the greater the chance of casting a shadow.

By using longer lenses, your distance from the subject and the camera increases. This is called the working distance. Working with live creatures, this distance is critical. Either way, it’s nice to have some room between the camera lens and the subject. Here are some examples of working distance based on the closest focusing distances of typical lenses.

Lens 300mm 200mm 100mm 50mm
Closest Focusing Distance 138″ 84″ 42″ 18″

Lens Accessories

Teleconverters, extension tubes, and diopters are just some of the accessories available to combine with your lenses to increase your magnification and ability to focus closer to the subject. Some of these accessories cause light loss, which must be taken into consideration. Used alone or in combination, these lens accessories can help you get seriously close.


The most common lens accessory purchased is a teleconverter, also known as a doubler or multiplier. A teleconverter, or multiplier, is a group of glass elements in a small lens casing which can be inserted between the camera and the lens to magnify the image. They are available in 1.4X and 2X magnifications, and some manufacturers even offered a 3X. When a lens is used with a teleconverter, its focal length is multiplied by the magnification factor. A 100mm lens with a 1.4 or 2X teleconverter becomes 140mm or 200mm, for example. The advantage, besides magnification, is that they can be used for far off subjects and macro subjects equally well. And your lens will still focus to the same close range as before.

The disadvantage is that the maximum aperture is reduced by the magnification increase. A 1.4X teleconverter costs 1 stop of light, and a 2X costs 2 stops. So an f2.8 lens becomes f4 or f5.6 with a 1.4X or a 2X, respectively. Light loss makes focusing more difficult, and results in slower shutter speeds. There is also a slight loss of quality with the use of a teleconverter, but if a quality prime lens is used, the loss should be negligible.

Extension Tubes and Teleconverters help increase the magnification of the lens.We recommend using the same brand teleconverter as the lenses you use, since the manufacturer designs them to work well together. Use Canon with Canon, Tamron with Tamron, etc. And be aware that some lenses will not autofocus when a teleconverter is installed.

Extension tubes

Any lens can be made to focus closer if moved physically farther from the film plane. An extension tube accomplishes this. It is a hollow tube which fits between the lens and camera. There is no glass inside, just a coupler on each end of the tube so the camera and lens can attach and communicate. The longer the tube, the closer your lens will focus, and longer lenses require more extension to gain the same magnification. Extension tubes can be stacked as necessary, but can only be used on close subjects, since your lens will no longer focus to infinity while the tube is installed.

It is easy to calculate the right amount of extension to add to get the reproduction ratio you desire. The reproduction ratio attained is equal to the ratio of the length of the extension tube to the focal length of the lens when the lens is focused at infinity:

Reproduction Ratio = mm of extension
focal length of lens

For example, adding extension tubes to a 100mm lens:

(Half Life Size) 1/2X= 50mm extension
100mm lens
(Life Size) 1X= 100mm extension
100mm lens

A 200mm lens would require twice as much extension to reach the same magnification as a 100mm lens. And if you set the focus on your lens closer than infinity, the extension required would be even less.

Strange things happen when using extension tubes with zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are designed to stay in focus when they zoom from one focal length to another. With an extension tube installed, they no longer work so conveniently. You must constantly readjust the focus and focal length to compose the picture. If using zoom lenses, check out the information on diopters below.


Bellows attachment on a lens open to full extension.Another device very similar to an extension tube is the bellows. The sides are made of a tough black folded fabric, much like an accordion or a jack-in-the-box toy. It is infinitely variable up to its maximum length, often 150 to 200 millimeters (6 to 8 inches). Bellows are mounted on a metal rack which has the length adjustments and locking mechanisms. Oftentimes, a focusing rail is built for allowing precision movement forward and backward.

While most 35mm camera manufacturers offer a bellows for closeup photography, the only articulating bellows for 35mm cameras that we know about is the Nikon PB4, which was discontinued in the late 80’s. This bellows has the added features of allowing the lens to be tilted and shifted relative to the camera body, giving the photographer the same control over depth of field and composition that the medium and large format cameras have. The new alternatives to bellows are called tilt/shift lenses, discussed below.


Nikon Closeup Diopter LensesA diopter is a supplementary lens which looks like a filter and screws on the front of the prime lens to allow it to focus closer. Some diopters have a single piece of glass, but the two element diopters available from Nikon, Canon and Minolta are technically superior and correct many of the distortions found in the former.

Flower photographed at 300mm with a 5T and 6T dopter combined.The advantage of diopters is their small size and light weight which allows them to be shoved into any corner of a pocket or camera bag. If you do lots of hiking, a diopter will give you closeup capability without your having to carry extra lenses or tubes. Diopters, unlike extension tubes and teleconverters, don’t cost you any light. And because diopters screw on the front of a lens, you can mix and match brands. You don’t have to stick with your camera manufacturer’s diopters. The disadvantage is in their sharpness, which is not as good as with other methods. If used with a good prime lens, however, your results should be good. The flower to the right was photographed with a 300mm lens using a combination of two diopters fitted together – 5T and 6T Nikon Diopters.

The following table gives the working distance for any lens used with the diopter when the lens is set at infinity. The Nikon models come in two sizes and strengths. Canon offers four sizes, but only one strength. They are listed here with their relative working distances:

Model No. Filter Thread Size Power Working Distance
Nikon 3T 52mm 1.5 667mm/26″
Nikon 4T 52mm 2.9 334mm/13″
Nikon 5T 62mm 1.5 667mm/26″
Nikon 6T 62mm 2.9 334mm/13″
Canon 500D 52mm, 58mm, 72mm, 77mm 2.2 500mm/20″

While more expensive, the larger sizes are the most versatile, since with stepping rings, they can be used on any lens with the same filter thread size or smaller. Of particular interest, the 72mm filter size will fit the 80-200mm f2.8 zooms and the 77mm will even fit the Canon 35-350 f3.5-5.6 zoom.

Reversing a lens

Reverse lens mounted on a camera body.Probably one of the strangest and cheapest of macro tricks is to take a lens, 50mm or shorter, and mount it to your camera with the back side forward. This is called reverse mounting or reversing a lens. The shorter the focal length of the lens used, the more magnification results. A 50mm reversed will give about life-size reproduction, while a 20mm gives 3X or 4X.

You lose lots of light this way, and your camera no longer talks to your lens. You have to focus with the lens wide open and manually close the aperture before exposing the film, much like using a bellows. But the cost of a reversing ring is less than $10 and the results can be amazing. Be careful not to scratch the exposed rear element of the reversed lens! Things get really close.

Stacking lenses

Another odd trick is to photograph through two lenses at once. That is, choose a prime lens of 100mm to 200mm and reverse mount a smaller focal length lens on the front of the prime lens. The magnification obtained is approximately:

magnification= focal length of prime lens
focal length of reversed lens

So if you reverse mount a 50mm lens onto a 100mm prime lens, the magnification is approximately:

2X (Twice Life Size) = 100mm
50mm (reversed)

A stacked lens features a 200mm lens with a reversing lens mounted on the end.Make sure the reversed lens is wide open, and be really careful of vignetting with this technique. Check through the lens combination while pointed at a white wall or bright area. If you have a depth of field preview button, close your prime lens to f11 or smaller, depress your depth of field preview button, and look for dark corners. If your lenses are vignetting, you will see those results through the viewfinder. Save yourself some trouble now and find a different combination.

This technique requires a filter thread macro coupler which allows you to screw the two lenses together by their threads. If your lenses have different size threads, you must also use stepping ring adapters. If you want to see if this will work for you before spending the $5 to $10, duct tape is really cheap.

Salt crystals photographed with stacked lenses to 10x life size.In the image to the right, we used the 200mm lens with the 55mm lens reversed and stacked on the end to photograph salt crystals. You can see from the image that there is vignetting. The resulting magnification allowed up to be able to photograph the salt crystals at 10 times life-size.

Tilt/Shift Lenses

A unique lens type is currently only available from Canon called a tilt/shift lens. Remember when we told you that the best way to get the maximum amount of depth of field was to align your camera back parallel with the most important plane of your subject? These lenses allow you to break that rule.

The Scheimpflug Principle says that if you tilt the front of a lens so that it is not parallel with the film plane, then the depth of field plane will be tilted in the same direction as the lens. In other words, it allows you to set up your camera without regard to the plane of your subject, and adjust your depth of field for maximum sharpness just before exposing the film. For more in-depth information on the Schleimpflug Principle, see the appendix.

This gives you an enormous amount of flexibility, since you can choose your camera position for convenience or for the background of your choice.

The shift feature allows you to shift the front of the lens left or right or up or down relative to the camera. This has the effect of moving the image in the view finder without having to move the camera. It also allows you to correct for wide angle distortion (the distortion that makes tall buildings lean into the photo) by letting you point the camera straight ahead, rather than up, and shifting the lens for a higher view.

Canon makes three versions of tilt/shift lenses: 24mm, 35mm, and 90mm. These lenses are a specialty item, but are very popular with the pros, and some non-Canon shooters have purchased a Canon EOS body just to use these lenses. They work quite well with teleconverters and extension tubes, and the 90mm makes a wonderful macro lens. Expect to pay around USD$1400 per lens.

Nikon has PC lenses, perspective control lenses, which shift but do not tilt, and are less useful that the Canon lenses for nature photographers.


All the techniques mentioned can be used in combination with each other. For example, you can reverse a lens and use extension tubes and teleconverters, all at the same time, with good results. We’ve photographed up to about 10X in this way (photographing a subject 2.4 by 3.6 millimeters or 1/8 by 3/16 inches). The problem is finding your subject at such high magnifications and seeing to focus. Use a bright focusing light and photograph with flash. With experimentation, you can explore a new dimension in the world of the ultra closeup nature.

Using Close up Lenses in Combination

200mm lens with two extension tubes

200mm lens with two extension tubes combined with a 1.4x teleconverter


  • Gerald
    Posted April 17, 2006 at 22:29 | Permalink

    I am using a Nikon 200mm f/4 AF lens with a reversed 6T diopter. I would like to add my SB-29 macro flash. The diopter reversed has 62mm threads. I am looking for an 62mm adapter (spacer, tube) with 62mm female threads to attach the 62mm adapter from my SB-29. Do you know where I can get one?


  • Posted April 18, 2006 at 0:11 | Permalink

    Here is a good article about stepping up, stepping down, and reversing rings that may help give you keywords to assist with searching the net for lens ring resources. I assume you have checked Adorama and B&H, traditional photo equipment supply houses as that is where I get my stuff most of the time. I’m not familiar with these companies, but they came up on a Google search for lens rings: PhotoSolve, Kood International, Kirk Photo, and even on Ebay. One of these or another similar company might have the specific ring you are looking for. We have so many different lens ring sizes, we used to have to scrounge around through different resources to find the right ring for the right need. Now, there are lots of choices.

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