Lenses for Macro Photography

The Beginner's Guide to Macro Lens Selection

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 their 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 close to 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 is what gets you those magnified, larger-than-life photographs. However, they start off being close to the actual size when rendered on the camera’s sensor (or frame of film). When these images are enlarged – as ‘most 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 a negative where the disc is 5mm in size. Of course, this becomes much larger when enlarged. The same happens in digital photography.

Selecting a Macro Lens

Since this series of posts is solely about lenses for various kinds of photography, we’ll deal only with lenses though there are other options (such as extension tubes and bellows attachments) available to the photographer in addition to the specialised macro lenses.

Check out our Lens Suggestions at the end of the article

The Best Focal Lengths for Macro Photography

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

A Macro Image of Pomegranate Seeds

Usually, getting a magnification greater than 2:1 (which means that the image formed on the focal plane is twice the size of the actual object! Wow!) 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 actual size (5x or 5:1). Now, while I haven’t used this lens, people who have used it report that it is a difficult lens to use, but the results that you get are well worth the time and effort.

Using Macro Lenses for Portraits

No, you’re not going to take portraits of people’s pimples. Many, if not all of the Macro lenses listed here focus sharply up to infinity and many photographers consider them to be exceptional portrait lenses with fast focusing and high 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 stabilisation 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 stabilisation (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.

Macro Accessories

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)
  • Bellows

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

Venus Laowa 24mm f/14 2X Macro Probe 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

Canon MP-E 65mm lens extended.
Canon MP-E 65mm Lens not extended.

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 specialising 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.

On the other side, there are options like focus stacking – where multiple images are combined to get greater depth of field – which can be done in software like Affinity Photo and Helicon Focus.

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 Manual Focus Macro Lenses

Canon Mirrorless RF Macro Lenses

Sony FE Macro Lenses

Macro Lenses for Nikon

Nikon Manual Focus Macro Lenses

Venus Laowa

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: July 30, 2021

2 thoughts on “Lenses for Macro Photography”

  1. Dear Sir
    regarding Macro photography
    I wish to take a photos of the human Iris
    most equipment for this purpose using the 15MP Canon T1i E or the 18MP Canon T2i EF-S. With Canon105mm macro lens
    the Flash can be seen in the two photos
    my question are :
    1, about the flash: where can I get such a flash where the flash marks land in the pupil as in the photo.
    2, about the lenses :is it making any different if it is f/2.0 ; f/2.8; f/3.5 or the 105mm to the 100 mm or the 150mm 180mm etc since I intend to take the photos from a stand about 3” from the eye about
    thanks
    veda

    the pictures mentioned can be seen at the following link

    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150488049251602.388790.692171601&type=1&l=952dbc4f06

    1. Dear Veda,

      Thanks for stopping by BeyondPhototips.

      The flash’s highlight comes from some sort of macro-flash. I find that it looks rather disturbing. Perhaps you could look into getting a ring flash…

      Aperture (f/2.0, f/2.8, etc) makes a huge difference, as does focal length. They both impact the depth of field (area in focus). Small f numbers and long focal lengths give you small depth of field (less area around the plane of focus is sharp) and large fnumbers (f/22, f/26 etc.) and shorter focal lengths give you greater depth of field.

      Hope that helps.

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