How To Focus Closer With your Lenses

Every lens has a minimum focusing distance: the closest point where the lens can get a sharp focus. Generally, the longer the focal length of the lens, the greater the minimum focusing distance.

Most of the time, this distance isn’t a problem because with longer lenses you’ll generally be photographing a distant subject.

But, those longer telephoto lenses are also great for close-up photography, because they help you isolate your subject against a specific part of the background. In these cases, this minimum focus distance often becomes a problem because many lenses won’t let you get close enough to fill the frame with a small subject (such as a wildflower or insect).

So, how do you make your lens focus closer?

Use an extension tube

An extension tube (pictured above) is a pretty basic piece of equipment: it’s just a hollow tube that extends the distance between the lens and the camera’s sensor. The more you increase this distance, the closer the lens can focus.

Extension tubes come in a variety of different sizes, from 12mm to 50mm, but the one around 25mm is usually the most useful. For example, if you put the 25mm extension tube on a Canon 70-200 F/4L lens, you can change the minimum focusing distance from 4.9 ft to about 4 ft (which can make a big difference in close-up photography).

Although the 25mm tube is probably the one you’ll use the most, there’s also a benefit to owning a set of different tube sizes. One of the great things about extension tubes is that you can stack them together to make your lens focus even closer. Ever since getting a set of these tubes, I often stack a 36mm with a 20mm to make my lenses focus extremely close. This helps me fill the frame with small subjects like these wildflowers:

Purple Nightshade / Photo by Steve Berardi

Purple Nightshade / Photo by Steve Berardi

If you ever use an extension tube with a teleconverter, remember to attach the teleconverter to your camera first (so the extension tube should be between the teleconverter and lens).

Save $20 on a set of three extension tubes!

The nice folks over at Adorama (one of my two favorite online camera retailers) have agreed to give us $20 off a set of Kenko extension tubes for Canon or Nikon lenses. This is the same set of tubes that I use and recommend, so if you’re interested in trying them out, now’s a great time to get them :)

These deals expire at midnight EST on March 13, 2013.

Kenko also used to make a 25mm tube that sold for around $80, but it doesn’t seem to be available anymore at B&H or Adorama.

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Comments

  1. Hi Steve,
    I had a problem,lost all your Newsletters except #42 which is the latest.
    Would you do me a favor and e-mail them to me,I appreciate it very much.
    Kind regards
    Hans

  2. lee steiner says:

    hi i have a Pentax k20d . i have a vivitar 70-200 micro. consumer lens i got about 30 years ago for my pentax me super. still works with my k20d . want to get a tela converter for it . but have been told my pitures would not come out right. because the lens is cheap. i also have a pentax da 18-1035 3.5-5.6 ed al if cd lens. am intresded in a tele converter or extender for either one to take better close ups , birds landscapes. any suggestions would be very help full
    thanks

  3. Jeff Piper says:

    I have just bought the Kenko extension tubes for my Canon EOS400D but have been confused with using with a 55-250mm lens. I expected to be able to focus on subjects some way away to get them filling the frame more but as well as shortening the minimum focus point it als shortens the maximum focus point as well.
    I need to experiment with them some more.

  4. Wouter J. says:

    You wrote: If you ever use an extension tube with a teleconverter, remember to attach the teleconverter to your camera first (so the extension tube should be between the teleconverter and lens).

    If this is always the way to do it this may even open up a whole new range of possibilities with different lenses in ones collection. The thing is it is always possible to connect a teleconverter (I have the most recent 2x tele converter for Nikon) to the camerabody, but only very few lenses can be used with the 2x teleconverter due to the construction of the lens-elements just at the connection point.

    I have a Nikon 105 micro lens that works great with the 2x teleconverter. I am considering bying the new telezoom f 4.0 70-200mm that also can be used with the 2x teleconverter.

    But with the suggestion of placing an extension tube between the 2x teleconverter and a lens any lens can be used since the extension tube gives room where the extension tube itself would not for many lenses.

    Correct me if i’m wrong

    By the way I think it is important to be aware of the fact that focusing in macro or close-up will be easier and better with a focusing rail rather then on camera.

    • I have the same query as Wouter J. I cant find any TC for EF-S 55-250 but wonder if I could get one for EF and place an ET between TC and lens to fix the compatibility issue? I dont mind losing AF functionality.

    • Great question! One thing to remember is that when using extension tubes, they also limit how far you can focus (generally as you add more extension, your farthest possible focus point gets closer and closer). So, if losing that “far focus” ability is okay with you, then using an extension tube might be a good option for getting around those teleconverter restrictions. I’ve never tried this with any lenses, but if you try it out, please let us know how it goes! Thanks!

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