Close Up Filter, Extension Tubes or Macro Lens?

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Previously, I have tested using extension tubes as an cheaper alternative for macro photography. I have tried the extension tubes on both Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR. You can re-visit the posts from the below links.

If you compare both articles, you will notice that using the full set of extension tubes (13+21+31mm) on the Nikon 50mm f/1.4, it is possible to go beyond 1:1 macro (see below).

In this test, I have used a 52mm lens cap as the test subject and the below image is taken with a 50mm f/1.4 at minimum focusing distance using a FX body.

When using the full set of extension tubes, you are able to go well beyond 1:1 macro , but you will lose some image quality on the edges.

Nikon 50 f/1.4 with 13+21+31mm extension tubes

Compare to 1:1 macro using a Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR. Image quality wise, it is better than using extension tubes.


If you want to achieve extreme macro, you can add a full set of extension tube (12+21+31mm) and a TC-14E (1.4x teleconverter) on top of the 105mm macro lens. You will get to this close as shown in the below image. Note that the below image is taken at f/16 already. The extension tubes do indeed degrade the image quality at the edges.

Now what about using close up filters? Close up filter is another cheaper alternative to achieve macro photography. It simply enables you to increase the magnification of your subject by allowing you to shoot closer (reduce minimum focusing distance). The filter simply screws on to the front of the lens similar to CPL filters. You can also get different strength of close up filter ranging from +1 to +10 diopters.

Unfortunately, I only got my hands on the Marumi +1 and +3 diopters for this test, but you can still see the effect of having close up filters on. In this test, I used the close up filters on the Nikon 50mm f/1.4.

Here are the results with different strength of close up filter attached to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4. With the close up filter attached, both exposure metering and auto focus are maintained. You can see that there is quite a bit of magnification with +1 and +3 close up filters stacked. Certainly that’s no macro, but if you have a +10 close up filter, you will probably achieve near macro. I didn’t notice any degrade in timage quality with the +1 and +3 close up filters stacked, but you might with the +10 close up filter.

Marumi Close Up Filter test 2

I don’t shoot a lot of macro, but I find close up filters to be very useful and very easy to use, especially they are light and easy to carry around and all you need to do is simply screw them on. It is less hassle than carrying a macro lens or putting on the extension tubes.

Close up filters are not only for macro, but you can use them when you just want that extra bit of magnification. For myself, I don’t shoot a lot of macro, but when I want to travel light, I will simply bring the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 “D” (only 230g). The only problem (perhaps not wide enough for some, but not a problem for me) is that the 50mm f/1.4 has a small maximum reproduction ratio (1/6.8), so sometimes I find it hard to capture those “detail” food photos which I usually do when I go travelling.

Carrying a close up filter like a +3 diopter will certainly let me shoot a bit closer while still travelling light.

So what should you get?

  • Simplest to use – Macro lens
  • Cheap alternative and simplest to use – Close up filters
  • Only want a bit more magnification – Close up filters
  • Cheap alternative and don’t mind the hassle of detaching lens – Extension tubes
  • Require greater than 1:1 macro – Extension tubes
  • Want the best image quality and have money to burn – Macro lens
  • Extreme macro – Macro lens + Extension tubes

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About Kent Yu

Kent is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based in Wellington, New Zealand. He and his team specialise in modern and contemporary weddings. Kent has his work published in international magazines and is a regular author to a number of photographic publication. He is fascinated by photographic equipment and enjoys showcasing the gear used in creating his images. You can find him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Google+
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Comments and Feedback? Fire away !

avatar Kent Photography Blog says:

Bikram, thanks for your continuous support, very much appreciated 😀

avatar Bikram says:

kent, as ever – i find your posts so easy to understand and comprehensive !! you rock dude :-)

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