If you fancy the idea of capturing the smallest of subjects but can’t quite stretch to the cost of a dedicated macro lens, then macro filters are a good option. Also referred to as close-up filters, these inexpensive accessories are more lenses than anything else, turning any regular zoom or prime lens into a macro lens.
Macro filters themselves are a product of the old film days where photographers had to rely on filters for any type of effect or optical corrections. They weren’t so much an option, but rather a necessity at times.
As macro lenses were less common back in the day, having a bunch of filters that could turn a regular lens into macro mode was highly beneficial. Hypothetically, if photography had started in the digital age, these things may not exist, so thanks to the film guys for doing the groundwork.
As these little devices are designed like filters, they can be stacked up to increase magnification or used in conjunction with other creative filters. All this means that if you want to dabble in the world of macro photography, they are a good place to start, costing less than a few cups of commercial coffee.
Although this sounds wonderful, macro filters won’t replace a dedicated macro lens. Basically, a filter set up with only a few pieces of glass can’t replicate the fancy elements and optics in a dedicated macro lens. Maybe this is possible if lots of filters were stacked up and carefully arranged with ideal spacing, but then the cost would be bumped up to the same price as a dedicated macro lens.
Therefore, macro filters can produce good results, but they ultimately won’t be a sharp as a dedicated macro lens. However, they are a wonderfully cheap way to enter the macro photography world. Plus, owning a bunch of these things means you can always have them at your side without having to cart around an additional lens.
1. HOYA CLOSE-UP Lens Set II (Overall Winner)
HOYA has always been a good choice for high-quality filters, so it’s no surprise they offer macro versions in their lineup. This set consists of three filters with +1, +2, and +4 diopter strengths, with HMC anti-reflection coatings for increased image clarity and reducing the effects of reflections and internal ghosting.
Each filter has an aluminum construction with a guaranteed 97 percent light transmission for the highest quality images. The carrying case is also extremely well-made, which shouldn’t really be a factor, but it is a nice added bonus.
With the right amount of light and a camera set on a tripod, these macro filters can produce wonderfully creative shots if you work within their limitations. Images are going to be ultimately softer than with a dedicated macro lens, but within this category of macro filters, this set provides very high quality.
It may be the case that you only need one macro filter, which is where the Hama Close-Up Lens comes into play. This version has +4 diopters, with +2 and +3 options available. The filter is double-threaded, which means it can be stacked with other filters for extra magnification or creative purposes.
This filter doesn’t diminish image quality in any way, in the respect of colors and saturation still being retained. Center sharpness is acceptable, while the corners can look soft, depending on the subject matter. As with all these types of filter, a small aperture is needed for the sharpest results.
This set of filters comes from the popular brand Tiffen, with different magnification levels for each piece of glass. This set is available for various sized filter threads from 37mm to 77mm.
This set doesn’t have any fancy multi-coatings, but it does provide a good deal of magnification and a very close focusing distance of just 1.1ft/34cm. Overall, the image quality is respectable considering the price and although there is slight softness across the frame, sharpness levels are still of a good standard.
This is another four-piece filter kit, this time from the old school camera accessory guys, Vivitar. This particular version has a 58mm filter thread and comes with +1, +2, +4 and +10 diopter filters and a nylon wallet.
Although the ultimate resolution and quality may not be up to the standards of a macro lens, they provide plenty of magnification. With the closest of subject matter, softness can be seen across the frame, especially when compared to a dedicated macro lens. However, it’s the usefulness for the money which counts here, with these filters providing lots of creativity for the price.
5. Polaroid Optics 4-piece Filter Kit (Budget Winner)
The Polaroid Optics 4-piece Filter Kit represents great value for money, coming as a four-piece set of +1, +2, +4 and +10 diopter filters, with a well-made waterproof carrying case. Each diopter number corresponds to the amount of zoom of each filter, with the +10 version providing the most magnification.
Each filter has a dual thread design for stacking up or using other filters. Plus, each filter has a Pro-Grade Multi-Coating to increase clarity and performance. The filters come in a wide range of sizes from 37mm-77mm, which covers the most popular of filter threads.
We are in the world of evaluating macro filters rather than dedicated macro lenses here, so expectations aren’t too high. But surprisingly, this four-piece kit provides good quality close-up images. They may look a little soft at times, but they can still produce a reasonable amount of detail.
As with most macro photography, a tripod is needed for the sharpest results. But considering how much these filters cost, they are loads of fun for the money.
Zooming in on the Best Macro Filters
The above list will hopefully show you a good variety of macro filters that can start you off with shooting small subject matter. As originally stated, there’s only so much optical quality that can be forced into a filter, especially at these reasonable price points.
As with all filters, the additional pieces of glass are ultimately changing the optical properties of a high-quality lens, so in order to produce the highest quality light flow, the highest quality filters are needed.
Therefore, if macro filters appeal more than diving into a fully-fledged macro lens, then opt for the highest quality versions, if possible. They will always be there for you with careful usage and are very lightweight solutions when you need macro facilities at a moment’s notice.