Ronno Tramper Photography
Review: Close-up lenses for macro photography; to use or not to use?

After switching to the Panasonic micro 4/3 cameras, and selling all my Nikons, I was confronted with a little problem. I do a lot of macro photography using a long focal length. Panasonic and Olympus have a very limited collection of dedicated macrolenses for four thirds and micro four thirds: Panasonic has a 45mm m4/3 and Olympus a 50mm 4/3. The Olympus f2/50mm macro lens is supposed to be very (!) good, but it is a bit too short for my taste. Not enough working distance.

So I started using a close-up lens that had been lying in the closet for years. A Nikon 4T close-up lens with a 52mm filter thread that fits on the Panasonic Lumix G 45-200mm telephoto zoom. A few weeks ago I bought the Olympus f2.8-3.5/50-200mm SWD. A great lens. I tried it with the Canon 500D close up-lens (77mm thread) that I have owned for years. It seems like a very good combination, but having to use a 67-77mm step up ring to be able to use it with the Olympus zoom means that I can no longer use the lens hood. So I ordered a couple of B&W close-up lenses with a 67mm filter thread. Although B&W has a very good reputation I decided to test them before starting to use them. I am glad that I did. The B&W NL-2 and NL-4 (NL stands for “nah Linze” or close-up lens) are horrible! I sent them straight back to where they came from.

My wife still owns a Nikon D5000 camera-body and I kept my Sigma 180mm Apo Macro for now. So the Sigma 180 Apo Macro on the Nikon body is the reference shot. If I am going to use close-up lenses in the future it has to be as good the Sigma 180mm Macro, or close to that. The Nikon 4T is a +3 diopter. The working distance on the Panasonic 45-200mm varies from 0,34 meters to 0.23 meters. The Canon 500D is a +2 diopter. It's working distance lies between 0.50 meters and 0.40 meters on the Olympus 50-200mm. The B&W NL-2 and NL-4 are +2 and +4 respectively. Working distance for the +2 on the Olympus 50-200mm is the same as for the Canon 500D, of course.

Specifications

I shot raw images, converted in Bibble Pro 5. The images below are actually partial screenshots from Bibble Pro 5 that has a function that allows you to compare several images at 100% in the same window. I used the sharpest aperture (f11 in all cases). I did not sharpen anything, except for the standard sharpening of the raw converter. I used auto levels for all images. The Panasonic and the Olympus had a tiny bit of chromatic abbaeration (CA) in the corners. I repaired that in Bibble Pro as well. I did not bother removing the CA from the images taken with the B&W close-up lenses. They were absolutely beyond repair anyway!

I shot the zooms at two settings (100mm and 200mm) leading to two magnifications (approx. 1:2 and 1:1, full frame equivalent). Upper left is the Sigma 180mm Macro on the Nikon D5000. Upper right is B&W NL-2 on the Olympus 50-200mm and a Panasonic G1 camera body. Lower left is Canon 500D close-up lens on the Olympus 50-200mm and a Panasonic G1 camera body. Lower right is Nikon 4T close-up lens on the Panasonic 45-200mm and a Panasonic G1 camera body. I used bubble levels to insure that everything was exactly aligned as it should be. Tripod, selftimer and mirror up for the Nikon (the G1 does not have a mirror).

Conclusion

More details are given below, but my conclusion is that the Sigma 180mm Apo Macro on a Nikon D5000 is the sharpest combination. The Panasonic 45-200 (with Nikon 4T) and the Olympus 50-200 (with Canon 500D) come very close. The center is just as sharp and has perhaps a bit more contrast than the Nikon/Sigma combination. The corners are a little less sharp (but still sharp; the corners will be out of focus in more than 90% of the real life images anyway). The 50-200 + B&W close-up lens is not an option for serious macro photography (for any kind of macro photography, I would even say). Paying twice as much money for a new Canon 500D is absolutely worth it! The Nikon has been discontinued as far as I know. But if you can get one second hand, grab it before someone else does. I have included a real world example at the bottom of this page.

Subject size 4 x 6 (5.4) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 100mm, overview
Even at 12% of the original image size the flaws of the B&W NL-2 (upper right) are clearly visible.
The Sigma (upper left) shows no distortion at all. The distortion with the 4T (lower right) and the 500D (lower left) is negligible for practical purposes.

Subject size 4 x 6 (5.4) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 100mm, center at 100%
In the center I see practically no difference in sharpness between the Sigma and the 4T and 500D close-up lenses.

Subject size 4 x 6 (5.4) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 100mm, corner at 100%
In the corners the Sigma macro-lens is clearly sharper than the combinations of a telephoto zoom + close-up lens.
The Olympus 50-200mm + Canon 500D is in second place, the Panasonic 45-200mm + Nikon 4T is in third.
Mind you, there is a clear difference in quality between the Olympus 50-200 and the Panasonic 45-200mm.
So the slight difference between second and third may not have been caused by a difference in quality of the close-up lenses. They are very close anyway.

Subject size 2 x 3 (2.7) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 200mm, overview
The conclusions at this focal length/magnification are virtually the same.

Subject size 2 x 3 (2.7) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 200mm, center at 100%

Subject size 2 x 3 (2.7) centimeters, focal length of the zoomlenses 200mm, corner at 100%


A real world example

I compared the Sigma 3.5/180mm Apo Macro and the Panasonic Lumix Vario f4-f5.6/45-200mm + Nikon 4T close-up lens several weeks ago in a real world setting. There are differences, but they have to do with differences in depth of field, probably because of the much shorter focal length (78mm) the Panasonic telephoto zoom was set to. Also notice that corner sharpness is not particularly relevant in images like these.

Meadow Cranesbill, Geranium pratense
Nikon D300 and a Sigma f3.5/180mm Apo Macro at f5.6, tripod

Meadow Cranesbill, Geranium pratense
Panasonic G1 and Lumix Vario f4-f5.6/45-200mm (at 78mm and f5.6) + Nikon 4T close-up lens, tripod

Sigma left, Panasonic right, 100%

Sigma left, Panasonic right, 100%