How-To: Options for Close-Up & Macro Shooting

How-To: Options for Close-Up & Macro Shooting
Text and Photos by Lynne Eodice

There is a small, intimate world that most people overlook, but it can be a rewarding experience for the photographer who chooses to explore it with a good close-up or macro lens (like the above photo of lavender). All you need is patience, a good eye, and a special piece of equipment or two.


There are several ways to shoot close-ups with your DSLR: with the close-up setting on your camera, a macro lens, extension tubes or bellows, or a close-up “lens” that attaches to the front of your lens like a filter. Although the close-up lens/filter is the least expensive option, it is inferior optically to a true macro lens or extension tubes or bellows.

The Close-Up Setting

Photos captured with the DSLR’s Close-up setting
click the thumbnails to see full-size images

Aside from some professional-level camera models that don’t offer basic shooting modes, most DSLRs include a close-up setting on their picture mode dials. This close-up setting is designated by a flower symbol. You can use this setting with a variety of lenses (the long end of a telephoto zoom works best), and you’ll need to check the lens for its minimum focusing distance. The lens’s minimum focusing distance is measured from the focal plane mark on the camera to the subject. If you get too close, the focusing light will often blink and you may not be able to press the shutter button to shoot the picture.

The close-up setting on your camera will allow you to get somewhat close to your subject (perhaps two to three feet), but the serious close-up photographer will want to invest in a true macro lens, extension tubes, or bellows.

Macro Lenses

Photo captured with a Macro lens

Some macro lenses have 1:1 magnification and render a subject as a life-size image, while others produce an image that’s about half the size of subject. For most close-up subjects—flowers, insects, coins, insects, etc.—this magnification works great. Many macro lenses are 50mm or 60mm, although longer lenses in the 100mm to 200mm range are also available from major lens manufacturers. Some zoom lenses have a macro function, making close-up work possible over a variety of focal lengths. And because these lenses often focus to infinity, they offer the versatility of shooting other subjects as well. When shooting close-ups, you must be especially careful in focusing because depth of field is very shallow. This selective focusing isn’t a bad thing, since a soft blurring of the foreground and/or background can make the sharp aspect of a subject stand out. If your subject has some depth — e.g., a flower or an insect—you will need to decide which portion of it you want to be in sharp focus. And because your focusing is so critical and any movement may be exaggerated, it’s best to use a tripod and cable release for best results.

The macro lens is by far the best choice of close-up gear for those photographers who are serious about doing making extreme magnifications of a subject. A quality macro lens can be a costly item, but is well worth the investment in the long run.

Extension Tubes & Bellows

Photo captured with an extension tube

Both are hollow devices that fit between your camera body and lens to extend the positioning of the lens and increase its magnifying power. Extension tubes are available in a variety of fixed lengths to give you different magnifications, and most camera manufacturers create models that couple the lens with your camera’s exposure system. Thus, the bigger the tube, the closer your focusing capability. Extension tubes can be used with many different lenses, with the exception of fish-eye or other very wide-angle lenses. Extension bellows work in much the same way as extension tubes, but the magnification is variable, as opposed to an extension tube, which has a fixed magnification. But because neither tubes nor bellows will allow the lens to focus to infinity, you must remove them to do other types of photography.

Extension tubes and bellows are less-expensive alternatives to macro lenses and offer greater close-up options than do the close-up mode on your camera’s basic mode dial. They also give you better quality optics than the close-up lens/filter.

In Conclusion

If you’ve viewed some serious macro photography—like a life-size view of a spider’s head—you know how fascinating this world can be. If this is the case, perhaps a macro lens is high on your wish list. On the other hand, if you simply want to shoot an occasional close-up or a portion of a larger composition, then consider using the close-up mode on your camera or even getting a close-up filter. There’s a whole world of close-up subjects out there, ranging from several feet to just inches away, and all of them can result in great shots—depending on how you want to portray them.


3 Responses to “How-To: Options for Close-Up & Macro Shooting”

  1. Pattazhy says:

    I have a problem with the overall premise of your article but I still think its really informative. I really like your other posts. Keep up the great work. If you can add more video and pictures can be much better. Because they help much clear understanding. :) thanks Pattazhy.

  2. Raj says:

    Thanks for the article. Very informative. However, I don’t agree that an expensive macro lens is necessary for great macro photography. I know many advanced amateurs without an inflated budget who use something like a Nikon E Series 100mm lens as their primary macro lens.

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