Selecting a lens for Macro Photography starts with the question: What is Macro Photography?
When objects in front of a lens are captured at almost the same size (1:1) on the camera’s sensor, that is Macro Photography. For this, special lenses are used. These lenses are typically able to focus very near the front element of the lens. Their design and clarity need to be exceptional in order to get pleasing results.
So, let’s look at what Macro Photography is, and which lenses are likely to suit your needs the best.
What is Macro Photography?
Macro Photography reproduces objects at larger-than-life sizes on print or screen.
However, the images start off being close to actual size when rendered on the camera’s sensor (or frame of film).
When these images are enlarged – as all our pictures are – they become much larger than real life, taking us into a realm where real, everyday objects become surreal worlds.
Perhaps this is where our fascination for macro photography comes from, the ability to change our everyday, ordinary world into an extraordinary one by the simple act of switching lenses.
In more technical terms, macro photography involves capturing objects at close to, or greater than 1:1 magnification. For example, a 5mm disc when photographed, would produce an image on the camera sensor where the disc is 5mm in size. Of course, this becomes much larger when viewed on a larger screen.
Selecting a Macro Lens
Since this series of posts is solely about lenses for various kinds of photography, we’ll deal only with lenses. You should know that there are other accessories (such as extension tubes and bellows attachments) available to the photographer that allow for magnifying a subject at 1:1 ratio. However, these are outside the scope of this article.
The Best Focal Lengths for Macro Photography
Macro prime lenses are available from 24mm to 180mm. However, the most comfortable and versatile focal length for macro photography is probably the 100mm macro lens.
When you look into macro lenses, you’ll find that there are some prime lenses that give you 1:1 magnification at 50mm, while others will give you the same at 100mm or even 200mm.
The difference between these lenses is the minimum focusing distance, the depth of field, and the perspective which each focal length offers to the photographer.
While the 50mm macro will make you go really close to the subject, the Canon EF 180mm L lens allows you to stand far away (about 0.25m). The Nikon 200mm IF-ED Lens allows you to stand even further away – .5m away while still getting 1:1.
Big deal, you may say – all I’ve got to do is take a couple of steps forwards, and it’s all the same with the cheaper 50mm lens… well, not really.
A longer Minimum Focus Distance means that you get the same magnification without having to disturb the creature you’ve got that lens trained on… and that makes a big difference. It also means that you will have more space to work with artificial lighting.
Magnifying More Than 2X
Usually, getting a magnification greater than 2:1 (image formed on the focal plane is 2x actual size) would involve getting an extension ring set, or a teleconverter, or a bellows arrangement, and possibly using them together.
However, the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens (details below) has a magnification range of up to 5 times the actual size (5x or 5:1). Now, that kind of magnification combined with a high-resolution sensor will deliver results that are well worth the time and effort.
Using Macro Lenses for Portraits
Many, (but not all) of the Macro lenses listed here focus sharply on infinity and many photographers consider them to be exceptional portrait lenses. They offer fast focusing and high contrast – sometimes too much contrast.
Some photographers consider these lenses to be too sharp to create a pleasing image, and I can see their point. Nobody wants to see their every pore in greater-than-HD clarity.
Do You Need Image Stabilisation for Macro Photography?
Yes, you may need optical image stabilization for your macro photography. This is more important if you plan on doing any hand-held macro photography outdoors.
Most macro photography is done with the camera on a tripod. If that is the case, then you probably don’t need image stabilization (IS), vibration reduction (VR), or optical steady shot (OSS). Besides, your camera may already have IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilisation), so these shake reduction mechanisms may not be required.
However, as a nature photographer who may have to do a lot of macro photography hand-held, any shake reduction is a godsend. If there is any chance that you may do even a little bit of macro photography off a tripod, I think optical shake reduction mechanisms are essential.
Given that macro photography requires a lot more control than most other genres of photography, there are a number of accessories that are suggested as well as required. I would broadly classify them as Optical Accessories, Support accessories, Lighting accessories, and accessories that make life easy. Here’s a list of accessories that I think would be essential to someone who does macro photography seriously, or as a profession. If you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments below, and I’ll add them in.
- A sturdy tripod that can extend forwards
- Remote trigger (shutter release)
- Macro focusing rail (focusing rack)
- Ring Flash for macro lens
- Extension tubes (a last resort)
Unique Macro Lenses
Two important mentions are the 24mm Venus Laowa Probe Lens and the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X Macro lens.
Venus Laowa 24mm f/14 2X Macro Probe Lens
The Venus probe lens is a lens that you don’t really think is a lens. It is a lens that can provide unique views of the world.
Considering that it is a probe lens, Venus has given it built-in LEDs to illuminate the area just in front of the front element of the lens. You may have seen videos taken using this lens without even knowing about the lens itself.
It has a 1.5ft minimum focusing distance, is macro focused, and offers a 2:1 magnification at that distance.
The probe design is useful… It gives you space to place additional lighting around the lens itself and pushes the camera way back from the subject so that operation is easy.
The 24mm focal length means that it gives you a lot more depth of field. The lens is also able to focus right up to infinity.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens
This Canon EF lens is another unique-looking lens. Just take a look at what it looks like as you shift focus and the magnification increases all the way up to 5x! Incredible!
As you can imagine, this lens is difficult to use, as it is manually focused. If you are really specializing in Macro photography, you already know about this legendary lens and know that you will most likely need to use focus stacking and already have some macro photography skills in the bag to get the most out of this lens.
There is a steep learning curve, so it would probably be best not to buy this as your first macro lens. The lens does not focus up to infinity and is best used in a studio setting where there are powerful lights.
Other Macro Photography Options
Macro photography gives you a number of options when it comes to ways in which you can get 1:1 or greater magnification. Brian Auer at Epic Edits Weblog has recently written a post on the various macro photography options that you can explore. He talks about Dedicated macro lenses, extension tubes, reversing rings, teleconverters, close-up lenses, and how you can use some of them together.
Lens Suggestions for Macro Photography
As usual, we’ll have a collection of Macro Lenses with links. Of course, Sigma and Tamron also make excellent budget Macro Lenses, but my personal preference is to stick to brand lenses for this purpose.
Canon EF Macro Lenses
- Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens – 1:2 Magnification
- Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM Digital SLR Lens – Made for the EF-S Mount
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens – Considered by many as an outstanding Portrait lens too
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens
- EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
Canon Manual Focus Macro Lenses
- Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens – incredible 5X magnification packed into one lens
Canon Mirrorless RF Macro Lenses
- RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM – A beautiful lens!
- Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro is STM, Medium-Telephoto Lens
- Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM Lens
Sony FE Macro Lenses
Macro Lenses for Nikon
- Nikon 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor Lens
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens
- Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D IF-ED Lens – 1:1 at .5 meters away
Nikon Manual Focus Macro Lenses
- Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 85mm f/2.8D Manual Focus Lens – Interesting for its ability to double both as a Perspective correction lens and a Macro Lens.
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor
- Nikon 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor
- Venus Laowa 24mm f/14 2X Macro Probe Lens with Built-in Ring Light – Such a unique lens!
- Venus Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro APO Lens for Canon RF
Do you own any of the lenses above? Do share your experiences with them in the comments below.
You can also find out more about lenses for specific kinds of photography at The Lens Resource index post.
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Published: June 5, 2007 | Last Updated: August 24, 2021