Beyond the Macro Lens

Three ways to get close-up shots with different lenses

12-07-2011 // Rob Sheppard
Lichens at Arches National Park by Rob Sheppard

Lichens at Arches National Park

Have you ever seen a guy crouched over the rocks in Arches National Park, seemingly oblivious to the spectacular rock formations? That was probably me! The lichens on the rocks there can be amazing subject matter! (And yes, I do photograph the rocks formations, too.)

I love close up photography because it brings you right into nature and into new worlds to be explored since most people never get this close. As I share my passion for close-up and macro photography, I have discovered that many photographers feel that the only option for this type of photography is a macro lens.

This is so not true! A macro lens is excellent, to be sure, but macro lenses are only available in a few focal lengths. There are so many great possibilities when you shoot with a wide-angle or a telephoto up close (and this goes beyond any focal lengths available with a macro lens).

What does that mean for you? Well, with a wide-angle lens, you can include the environment of your subject which will place it into a very specific setting.

With a telephoto, you enlarge background areas and make them abstract with less depth of field. Backgrounds can be phenomenal this way.

Orange orchid by Rob Sheppard
Orange orchid shot with telephoto for nice, blurred background.

With a zoom, you can quickly change focal length to adjust your composition and to affect things like the background.

I get close ups with different lenses in three ways:

1. I set the lens to its minimum focus point and move in until my subject
is in focus.

That is the best way to maximize the potential of any non-macro lens for close work.

2. I use extension tubes.

These are a relatively inexpensive way of getting to macro (especially compared to a macro lens). They are literally tubes with no lenses and move your lens away from the camera body, allowing it to focus closer. They allow all moderate to telephoto focal lengths (any lens, zoom or fixed focal length) to focus closer (they do not work so well with wide-angle focal lengths).

Beetle on matilja poppy by Rob Sheppard

3. I use an achromatic close-up lens.

These are highly corrected lenses that screw into the front of your lens and allow any lens to focus closer. I get one larger than the filter size of my wide-angle zoom, then use a step-up ring, so that I can fully use the wide-angle up close without vignetting on the edges.

Achromatic close-up lens by Rob Sheppard

An achromatic close up lens screws onto the front
of your lens

There are some issues with these lenses and very wide focal lengths -- the biggest is that the light now goes through the achromatic close-up lens at an extreme angle so you can get some distortion along the edges. That doesn't bother me as long as the subject is sharp. Canon makes the 500D and 250D achromatic close-up lenses that will fit any lens with the appropriate filter size from any manufacturer.

So if you have been thinking about close-up and macro work and haven't been able to afford a macro lens, or you just want to explore new possibilities for this photography, check out extension tubes or an achromatic close-up lens. Maybe this is an early Christmas present for you!

None of the photos seen here were shot with a macro lens.

I go into more detail about these ideas and a lot of other ways of working with close-ups in nature with my new e-book, The Totally Biased Close-Up and Macro Photography Book. This is available for any e-reader at $4.99, though it will work best with color. And you do not need an e-reader to read this book. You can get a free app from that lets you read Kindle books on your computer (I love this app for my iPad, too).

Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in southern California. He is the former editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo magazines. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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