Macro photography is addictive! Once you try your first diopter, which is basically a cheap and nasty magnifying lens, you dive down the rabbit hole of macro photography. Walking into the back garden suddenly becomes a safari, and everything from the locust outside the door to the fabric of the chair you are sitting in gets pushed into the viewfinder’s frame. The close-up world is fascinating!
Of course, the first trials with a diopter lens also highlight its optical inefficiencies. To put it bluntly: the rubbish image quality that results. So, you end up searching for a dedicated macro lens, and are usually astounded, and mortified, at the prices that come up… for a single focal length lens at that. The current Nikon 105mm f2.8 AFS macro retails for just less than R15 000 while the highly regarded Canon 100mm f2.8 EF L macro goes for only slightly less. It’s no better in the new world of mirrorless cameras with the Fujifilm 80mmm f2.8 macro retailing north of R15 000 and the Sony 90mm at more than R17 000! As I say, it’s a rabbit hole once you start down the path of macro. The problem is that high quality macro optics is so expensive that photographers often end up skipping the world of macro entirely. This is a pity as the close-up world holds a veritable treasure chest of photographic opportunities.
When I first set foot into the world of professional photography I relied quite heavily on the sale of stock imagery as an income. I quickly found that a lot of my macro nature images sold well, so concentrated on shooting the small world for quite some time (close up images I shot over a decade ago continue to sell relatively well). A natural inclination to the natural world among photographers also means that close-up photography remains a popular genre for workshop students even on ostensibly landscape photography workshops. Suffice to say that even though I don’t do nearly as much close up photography as I used to, it is still something that I find myself playing in regularly.
First though, I need to give a brief synopsis of what macro photography actually is.
True macro photography is where the reproduction ratio of the subject being photographed is 1:1 (or has a magnification of 1.0x) or greater. This means that the subject you are photographing is exactly the same size on the sensor as it is in real life (or larger). At this magnification depth of field is thrown out the window and handling and focus become extremely difficult. To get to 1:1 reproduction a lens like a 100mm macro usually has a minimum focusing distance of about 30cm (from the focal plane of the camera to the subject). This is extremely close if you are trying to photograph skittish subjects like butterflies. At 1:1 reproduction a lens set at f11 aperture is going to give a depth of field of approximately 1.1mm depth (at f4 it’s only about 0.14mm). The good news is that to fill the frame with most butterflies you don’t necessarily need 1:1 magnification, but even at a magnification of half life-size (or 0,5x) the depth of field at f11 is only 2,4mm thick.
To get to this realm of close-up photography usually requires an expensive dedicated lens that is capable of focusing extremely close to the subject. That, or using a bellows or extension tube that mounts the lens further from the camera body. Regardless, the route to close-up is usually rather expensive. Enter the NiSi Close-Up adapter, priced at a fraction of all the macro lenses shown above. Designed for use on telephoto lenses (think 70-200mm), it gets magnification on the verge of 1:1 when used at a focal length of 200mm. The critical question is whether it obliterates image quality like the diopters of the old days or whether it is actually a viable alternative that offers magnification without compromise in IQ?
Build and Features
The adapter is a fairly hefty piece of glass that has 77mm threads both front and back (female and male respectively). The casing of the lens is silver aluminium with a ribbed texture, while the front and back threads are black anodised aluminium. If you are using it on a lens with a 77mm thread you can treat it like a very fat filter and use your existing lens cap on it if you so wish. Another advantage of using it on a lens with a native 77mm thread is that the existing lens hood will slide right over it. It’s a little more complicated with lenses like the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 AFS which has a 67mm thread at the front. The NiSi Close-up Adapter comes with 67 and 72mm step up rings, so you can easily attach it to the vast majority of telephoto zoom lenses, but the hood becomes a bit trickier to use. I managed by attaching the hood first and then used finger pressure to screw the adapter onto the front of the lens. It works, but it is inelegant. Still, the adapter was clearly designed for the larger 77mm diameter lenses, so this is not a criticism.
Along with the two step-up rings, NiSi also provides a high quality, well-padded circular zippered pouch for the adapter lens. It makes a pleasant change from the hard plastic filter holders that older adapters came in. I felt that if the pouch fell to the ground with the adapter inside, it would remain protected and importantly, intact.
The secret to the NiSi adapter, and the reason why it is so large, is that it isn’t a single piece of glass, like a diopter lens. Rather it has an achromatic design, meaning that there are two glass elements sandwiched together in the barrel. To put it simply, a single element lens (like a corrective filter or diopter lens) struggles to focus the light accurately as light waves separate slightly when passing through a transparent layer like glass. Achromatic lenses feature a second corrective element that focuses the different light waves more accurately. This complexity obviously means for a heavier, more expensive lens, but it also means that in theory you can add close focusing ability without degrading image quality.
NiSi finishes off the lens with multiple layers of coating, further improving colour dispersion. NiSi can be quite secretive about how they create the lenses (as they should be), but I get the impression that the coatings are internal as well as on the outside (where the glass is exposed) of the lens.
I have to be honest. I wasn’t exactly expecting all that much from this adapter. In the past I used the highly regarded Nikon 4T close up lens, which is a small 52mm diameter attachment lens consisting of two achromatic lenses that have been sandwiched together and treated with multi-coating. As mentioned above, the NiSi is an achromatic design with multiple nano-coatings, but for a much larger filter diameter of 77mm. At any rate, I loved using the 4T, but it never really got me close to true macro as I was using it on a small 50mm lens. The NiSi adapter is different in that it is large enough for me to able to use it on longer lenses, which is exactly what it was designed for.
The sharpness really surprised me. It helps of course if you start by putting the adapter on a sharp lens to start with. Most of my images were shot using a Nikon AFS 70-200mm F4 G ED VR, but I also tried it out on the Nikon AFS 70-200mm F2.8G ED VR II, and had a student photographer pop it on to her new Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS III USM lens. All three are excellently regarded lenses with very high sharpness. That sharpness is not noticeably degraded by attaching the adapter to them.
Above is a side by side test of the adapter on the 70-200mm f4 Nikon and the older 80-200mm f2.8 ED lens against the 105mm Micro Nikkor lens. The light fall-off is immediately apparent on the zoom lenses and is significantly worse on the older 80-200mm lens. This was a studio setup so that any vignetting would be obvious. I didn’t notice it in particular when I was shooting outside. The studio setup also surprised me at how close to 1:1 I managed to get with the 70-200mm f4 (to be fair the 70-200mm f4 does have a surprisingly close focusing ability with a magnification ratio of 0,274x without the adapter, while the brand new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8E FL ED VR has a magnification ratio of 0,21x, so the f4 lens does have an edge in getting closer - the older 80-200 in the above test only has a magnification of 0,17x).
- 1st Image Below - 100% Crop of Nikon 70-200mm f/4 with NiSi Close Up Lens
- 2nd Image Below - 100% Crop of Nikon 105mm Macro
The one aberration I did find was when shooting wide open (meaning with my lens, f4). There is a sort of milkiness to the image that I just couldn’t get rid of and which is very different to shooting with my 105mm f2.8 macro lens (this might have to do with the fact that the 105mm is not actually at f2.8 when focused at minimum focusing distance, which is discussed below) The ‘milkiness’ pretty much disappears as soon as you stop down to f5.6. In fact, I was stunned at how sharp the results were once I stopped down to f8. As you can see above, sharpness is virtually indiscernible when comparing a 100% crop between the R15 000 macro and the 70-200mm with the R2 500 close-up lens. If I did a blind test between the two there is a good chance I would get it wrong as to which image was shot with which lens. Equally surprising was how sharp the image was at f22 and f32. I had not expected this as all. Due to diffraction limitation, a lens usually performs poorly once you stop down past a certain point (if you are interested in this you can google “circles of confusion” and “airy disks” which is the physics explaining depth of field and sharpness). It seems as though the close-up lens is much less susceptible to diffraction than normal lenses - a critical advantage when you are working with a focal plane that is fractions of a millimeter deep.
The image comparison (below) to show diffraction and depth of field at the different apertures was shot on the 70-200mm f4 again. The pattern comes from a Madagascan banknote and was shot at minimum focusing distance and is cropped into 100% pixel view. The small lego figurine (courtesy of my daughter was not quite at minimum focusing distance, but neatly demonstrates both vignetting as well as the depth of field changes. It also demonstrated the surprising sharpness at small apertures. I would not be afraid of using the lens and adapter combination at f22!
The close-up adapter is clearly not the same as a dedicated macro lens. The difference, however, is surprisingly close optically. Far closer than I expected with some pleasantly surprising results stopped down.
All macro lenses are difficult to handle when you are trying to shoot close to or at 1:1 magnification. This is due to the fact that the depth of field is literally paper thin. Trying to get a bug’s eye in focus, usually while uncomfortably spread-eagled on the ground, is trying at the best of times. Using the NiSi adapter isn’t all that different. If there is a difference it is that the working distance has increased slightly to that of a 100mm macro lens, making it slightly easier to approach skittish insects.
A particular downside to using an adapter is that the focus range is severely limited. Unlike a dedicated macro lens that can rack focus between infinity and its minimum focus distance (albeit slowly), using the NiSi Close-Up adapter means that the focus distance is limited to about 8cm of range. This can make it tricky if you are wanting to photograph a slightly larger subject like a green chameleon. You can get around this by using the zoom on the lens to try and increase the focusing depth of the lens with the adapter attached.
I am personally used to using an older AF-D Micro Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens for my macro photography. Optically this is a very good lens (in the past we would have said excellent but optical design has moved on somewhat since this lens was released in 1990). Autofocus on my 105mm lens is sluggish to say the least. On top of this, due to the massive range of focus to go from infinity to 1:1, if the lens starts to hunt - which it will - you are in for some frustration getting the image back into focus. The issues don’t necessarily go away when you use a more modern 105mm macro lens with ultrasonic (Canon) or silent-wave (Nikon) focusing. A huge focus range coupled to paper thin depth of field, means that the issues that plagued autofocus in the '90s continue to create difficulties for autofocus now. The advice is usually to put the lens into manual focus and use your body (rocking back and forth) to ‘focus’ the lens.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that my 70-200mm snapped into focus when using the NiSi adapter. The advantage of the adapter is that it isn’t trying to rack the focus from infinity to 47cm (from the focal plane), but rather from 47 to 55cm (remember there is only 8cm of potential focusing depth). This meant that chasing bugs in the garden was actually easier with the adapter compared to shooting with my 105mm Micro Nikkor.
The fall-back secret weapon of macro photographers is the ability to focus stack images. This is done by shooting a series of images at tiny focus increments and then stacking them either in Photoshop or a dedicated focus stacking application to create a stacked image with deeper depth of field while using a larger aperture (giving the advantage of sharpness and a faster shutter speed). I am used to using a focusing rail for doing focus stacks. The excellent news here was that the NiSi close-up adapter being used on an AFS lens meant that I could use the automated focus-stacking feature on the Nikon D850 (essentially doing small automatic focus increments and firing the shutter). My older Nikon 105mm is not compatible with the D850's auto-stack feature. The image of an echeveria is a focus stack of 28 images at f13. I use a program called Helicon Focus and it had no problems stitching the imagery together into a deep focus stack, implying that there is more than sufficient sharpness to find detail to match between the individual images. Of course one of the allures of macro photography is also the limited depth of field that occurs and the NiSi Close-Up adapter delivers this in spades if you want it to.
When you are not using focus stacking or small apertures expect razor thin depth of field. Even when you are shooting at about f8, the depth of field is going to be extremely narrow, as evidenced in this image below of a Setaro’s Dwarf chameleon shot using the larger Nikon AFS 70-200mm f2.8 EDIF VR II at f8. One thing that might be surprising to some beginners exploring the macro world is the fact that the actual aperture on most macro lenses changes as you focus closer. The AF-D Micro Nikkor 105mm, although touted as an f2.8 lens, is actually f5 when at minimum focus (it’s T-stop is probably even smaller). This is due to the barrel of the lens essentially extending like a zoom lens in order to get the lens elements away from the focal plane of the camera (the further you move a lens from a camera, the closer it will focus which is why bellows and extension tubes can be used to make any lens become a close-up lens). This doesn’t happen when using the NiSi Close-Up adapter as the physical characteristics of the lens haven’t actually changed by adding it. Weirdly enough it means you actually get less depth of field using the NiSi Close-Up adapter with the 70-200mm at 200mm than with the dedicated 105mm macro lens!
If you are shooting close up subjects the sharpness of the subject becomes an extremely important component of the image. Naturally, we always want images to be sharp and in focus, but in the realm of macro an image that is out of focus or slightly soft is more clearly so than a landscape or portrait image. For this reason, cheap diopter lenses are an absolute giveaway when used as the image quality falls apart when you put them on a lens.
If I look critically at the images shot between the 105mm and the 70-200 with the adapter, the 105mm might just have a slight edge in acuity. It’s tiny though. I would be equally happy shooting stock images for Getty or other clients using the NiSi Close-up adapter. For travel photography the adapter also has the advantage of being smaller, lighter and more durable than a dedicated macro lens. In fact, I’m thinking of bringing the NiSi adapter instead of the macro lens on my next trip to Madagascar next year; it’s that good. Weight and space are valuable commodities when you travel, and the adapter saves on both.
Ultimately though it is impossible not to consider the price of the NiSi Close Up Lens Kit. At R2 499.00 (August 2019), it is priced high for a close-up lens. However, compared to the fully fledged macro lenses that cost literally five to eight times as much, it represents extraordinary value for money. It is also clear that this product is a fresh departure from the diopters of old and not only feature the latest optical tech, but included step rings mean that you don’t need more than one for different lenses. The differences in optical quality are there but they are virtually, if not entirely, insignificant in the field when you are actually using the lens. If you are going to go the whole hog and venture down the path of extreme macro photography then the NiSi Close-Up adapter isn’t going to solve any of your problems. Then you are better off looking at one of the exotic lenses that go beyond 1:1 magnification (Laowa 5x Ultra Macro lenses or the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens for instance). If on the other hand you are looking for an easy entry point into the world of macro without having to break the bank, or overly complicate your gear bag, then the NiSi Close-Up adapter is definitely the best option. In fact, I'd say that, considering the high quality, the NiSi Close-Up adapter is the more obvious entry point into close-up photography.
Emil von Maltitz is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.
Emil is our sales representative for KZN and you can visit his studio in Kloof, Durban to check out or purchase any NiSi, f-stop gear or SIRUI products. He has stock of the close-up lens (23 August 2019). You can reach him by email on emil [at] limephoto.co.za or by phone on 084 584 9959