Macro Lenses

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Regardless of the focal length of your favorite lens, I'd venture to say you've been in situations where you've tried to focus in tight on your subject and inevitably hit the wall—the minimum focus point of your lens. Sure you can crop, but in a perfect world it would be swell if each of our lenses would focus as close to our subjects as our mind's eye focuses. Alas, the world isn't perfect... but we do have macro lenses.


Every class of optics has its own unique qualities. Landscapes aside, wide-angle optics can add an element of drama to the most mundane subjects, especially when photographed close up or from an angle other than eye level. Telephoto lenses can produce equally powerful imagery by their ability to bring distant subjects closer to us as well as their ability to seemingly "crush" the airspace, foreground to background, between individual elements within the frame. 

Just as telephotos are interesting in their ability to bring distant subjects closer, macros are unique in their ability to focus in on subjects that, while readily within arm's reach, often remain as far away as distant  landscapes. We've all looked at leaves on a tree, snowflakes, caterpillars, the inner workings of an old pocket watch, but how many of us have taken the time to really look at leaves, snowflakes, caterpillars and the innards of old pocket watches? 

Macro lenses are available in a variety of focal lengths and for every camera format we sell at B&H. Some are designed for specific formats such as FourThirds or APS-C and others can couple with the full range of formats from full frame on down. When considering a macro lens, keep in mind there's a difference between true macro lenses and lenses—mostly zooms—that feature "macro focusing" or "close-focusing." They might focus close and take wonderful close-ups, but unlike true macro lenses they seldom deliver the same levels of resolving power as true macros, especially toward the edges of the frame.

For general, all-around macro shooting, a "normal" focal length should prove to be fine. If you're shooting with a full-frame DSLR, you'd want a 50mm or 60mm lens. If you shoot with an APS-C or FourThirds format camera, a normal will be in the 35mm range. There are also a number of macros in the 70mm, 90mm and very popular 100-105mm range.

Macro lenses allow you to get close up
and personal with your subject.

 

All photographs © 2010 Allan Weitz. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

Depending on the format and brand of your particular camera model, macro lenses are also available in longer focal lengths up to 200mm, and with few exceptions, all of these lenses focus town to life size (1:1). There are a couple of advantages when shooting with longer focal length macros. As with all telephotos, longer focal lengths allow you to bring distant subjects closer, but from a greater distance. You're less likely to scare away skittish subjects such a butterflies, turtles and bullfrogs when photographing them from a few feet away as opposed to a few inches away, even if you're lucky enough to get that close in the first place.

When shooting with longer focal length macros at closer range, you're also less likely to cast shadows onto your subject, which can be a challenge when shooting at closer range. Longer focal length lenses also allow you to bring accessory lighting gear closer to your subject, compared to shorter focal length optics.

If you shoot with a Canon DSLR, you also have the option of shooting with a Canon Macro Photo MP-E , which can focus down to 5x life size, or as Canon's website spells it out, "fill the frame with a grain of rice."

Back in the day, macros had maximum apertures that rarely exceeded f/3.5 or at best, f/2.8. Today you have the option of shooting with macros with maximum apertures of f/2.0, which allows you more wiggle room when it comes to playing with selective focus. It's also worth noting that Nikon's PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D ED and Nikon PC-E Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/2.8, as well as Canon's TS-E 45mm f/2.8 and  TS-E 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lenses all focus down to half life size, which when combined with their tilt-shift functions, can be produce interestingly dynamic close-ups in the field and in the studio.

Note: While Canon does not officially recognize their 45mm and 90mm TS-E tilt-shift lenses as being macro lenses, Nikon's 45mm and 85mm PC-E tilt-shift lenses are recognized as such and since they share remarkably similar specs and functionality, we've decided to include them in this article. For the record, the photograph below of the toy taxi (about 3" long) was taken with a Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 at its closest focusing distance (approx 1.6'), making full use of the lens's tilt, shift and swing movements, with the lens stopped down about 3.5 stops from maximum aperture.


Tilt-shift lenses from Canon and Nikon can be
used to create dynamic close-ups with lots of wiggle room for focus adjustments.

When shooting macro photographs handheld, it's important to keep in mind that camera shake becomes increasingly evident as you get closer to your subject. As such, it's always a good idea to use a tripod or monopod to ensure sharper results when shooting life-size close-ups. And if the lens you are interested in is available with image stabilization, strongly consider the additional cost. When shopping for a macro lens—or any new lens for that matter—always check to ensure that the lens you are interested in will function properly with  your current camera.

Macro Lenses

 
  Format Compatibility Max. Mag. AOV Min. Focus Image Stabilized Filter Size
Nikon AF Micro 60/2.8D Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1 39°/26° 0.72' (0.22m) No 62mm
Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60/2.8G ED                          Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1 39°/26° 0.6' (0.18m) No 62mm
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 85/3.5G ED VR        APS-C 1:1 18° 1.0' (0.3m) Yes 52mm
Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 105/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR  Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1 23°/15° 1.0' (0.3m) Yes 62mm
Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 200/4D IF-ED  Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1 12°/8°  1.6' (0.487m) No  62mm
Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 45/2.8D ED  Tilt-shift Full-Frame / APS-C 1:2 51°/35°  0.83' (0.25m) No  77mm 
Nikon PC-E Micro-Nikkor 85/2.8 Tilt-shift  Full-Frame / APS-C 1:2 28°/18°  1.3' (0.396m) No  77mm 
Canon EF 50/2.5 Compact Macro Full-Frame        APS-H APS-C 1:2 46°/37°/30°  0.8' (0.23m) No 52mm
Canon EF-S 60/2.8 Macro USM  APS-C  1:1  24°  7.8" (0.198m)  No  52mm 
Canon Macro Photo MP-E 65/2.8  Full-Frame        APS-H APS-C 5:1  18°/14°/11°  0.8' (0.23m) No  58mm 
Canon EF 100/2.8 USM Macro  Full-Frame        APS-H APS-C 1:1  23°/19°/15°  0.97' (0.3m) No  58mm 
Canon EF 100/2.8L Macro IS USM                              Full-Frame        APS-H APS-C 1:1   23°/19°/15°  0.97' (0.3m)  Yes  67mm 
Canon EF 180/3.5L Macro USM   Full-Frame        APS-H APS-C 1:1  13°/10°/8°  1.6' (0.48m) No  72mm 
Sony 30/2.8 DT AF Macro APS-C 1:1  50° 5.1" (0.0129m) In camera  49mm 
Sony 50/2.8 Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  32° 7.9" (0.2m)  In camera  55mm
Sony 100mm/2.8 AF Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  24°/16°  13.8" (0.35m) In camera  55mm 
Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm/2.8 Macro Limited APS-C  1:1  44°  5.5" (0.14m) In camera  49mm 
Pentax smc P-D FA 50mm/2.8 Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  47°/31°  7.7" (0.195m) In camera 49mm 
Pentax smc Pentax-D FA 100mm/2.8 WR Macro   Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  24.5°/16°  11.93" (0.3m)  In camera  49mm 
Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45/2.8 ASPH Micro FourThirds 1:1 27°  0.5' (0.15m)  No  46mm 
Olympus Zuiko Digital 35mm/3.5 Macro ED FourThirds 1:1  34°  5.8" (0.147m) No  52mm 
Olympus Zuiko Digital 50mm/2.0 Macro ED FourThirds 1:2  24° 9.45" (0.24m) No 52mm 
Sigma 24mm/1.8 EX Aspherical DG DF Macro Full-Frame     APS-C   FourThirds          1:2.7   84.1° (FF) 7.1" ( 0.18m) No  77mm 
Sigma 28mm/1.8 EX Aspherical DG DF Macro APC-C  1:2.9  75.4°  7.9" (0.2m)  No   77mm
Sigma 50mm/2.8 EX DG Macro   Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  46°/30°  7.4" (0.19m)  No  55mm 
Sigma 70mm/2.8 EX DG Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  34° (FF) 10.1" (0.28m)  No  62mm 
Sigma 105mm/2.8 EX DG Macro Full-Frame     APS-C   FourThirds   1:1 16.4° (FF) 15" (0.38m) No  72mm 
Sigma 150mm/2.8 EX APO Macro EX DG HSM Full-Frame     APS-C   FourThirds    1:1  16.4° (FF)  15" (0.38m) No  72mm 
Tamron SP AF60mm f/2 DI II LD IF Macro APS-C  1:1  26°  9.1"  (0.23m) No  55mm 
Tamron SP AF 90mm/2.8 Di II LD IF Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1 27° (FF) 11.4" (0.29m)  No  55mm 
Tamron SP AF 180mm/3.5 Di LD IF Macro  Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  14°/8° 18.5" (0.47m)  No  72mm
Tokina AT-X 35/2.8 Pro DX Macro  APS-C 1:1  43° 5.5" (0.14m)  No  52mm 
Tokina AT-X 100/2.8 AF Pro D Macro Full-Frame / APS-C 1:1  24°/16°  11.8" (0.3m)  No  55mm 

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I lead a workshop in macro photography and of course, Alan is spot-on with his review.

Lighting is a real concern because we are so close to our subjects that we're blocking the light source.  Solutions include off-camera strobes and reflectors (I'm generally a fan of white over silver because the light from the reflector is much more even).

And if you're interested in getting *very* close, try out extension tubes.  The magnification is amazing. 

B&H sells them so do a quick search.  Your macro work will never be the same!

Charlie MacPherson
www.TheAmazingImage.com
www.TheWildInFocus.com

I agree with McPherson about extension tubes. They also help solve lighting problems.

Keep in mind that some advanced point-and-shoot cameras have "macro" settings than allow very close focusing. For example, Canon's SX20 IS can make photos at the front surface of the lens itself. Not true macro perhaps, but amazing anyway, provided the lighting problem is overcome.

It's a good idea to remember to disable image stabilization when the camera is mounted on a tripod.

John Trammell

I have the Kenko extension tubes that I use with my Canon EF 50mm/1.8 (the ******* fantastic).

Very good for a "cheap man's" macro lens.  Only drawback is that the tubes decrease the effective aperture, so you either need a tripod, a lot of light, or have to be happy with EXTREMELY shallow depth of field (which sometimes is just right!).

I understand that macros are also good for certain applications for photos taken at longer distances.  After all they focus to infinity... or at least my Nikon does.  Why would you use a macro for anything other than close-up?

I use  a zeikos extention tube set for my 18-55 and 55-200mm nikon lenses, i can get larger than lifesize, and the a set of 3 tubes only costs about $80.00!

As the owner of the Panasonic micro four thirds 45 mm. Panasonic-Leica macro lens, I can tell you that it does have image stabilization  built into the lens, contrary to what the table above listing macro lenses says.  I don't think this is critical for macro shooting, though, since your best work is likely to be done on a tripod, where you should turn IS off (as John says)..But IS is of course helpful in general shooting, at which this lens excels (it is equivalent to a 90 mm. in 35).

John also mentions  some compact cameras' ability to focus really close.  The Ricoh GX-200 (and GX-100) can focus on something touchiing the front of the lens.

Charles Love

 Hi Louis, Have a squiz at this... Cheers, Ray

Very good article. There is also life for the older lenses with adapters (B&H carries many) for the digital cameras. I have had good success with the 50mm f1.4 FD (the old standard) .  Mount  a reversing adapter (Mine is still a FD series) on the front of the lens, match your filter size here, to the lens . (The adapter threads on like a filter and allows the lens to be mounted with the front end towards the camera!) This  setup allows the field curvature to flatten out so the entire frame is closer to the same focal plane..useful for a quick duplication of older photos,too. I then attach a 2nd adapter, FD to EOS, without the correction glass, (to minimize distortion of the image) to allow mounting this on my digital camera. (If the reversing adapter is selected correctly then this 2nd adapter isn't required, as the correct mount for the camera is already there) Very close focus is involved. Further more, a bellows or extention tube can be inserted between the camera body and the lens assembly for greater magification. Forget auto focus! Manual stopdown, metering and focusing give the best results here.Easy to learn and much more accurate. Be sure to check the picture results after each shot and take more shots then  normal and vary composition and exposure. Slight wind or any movements cause the subject to flow in and out of focus since the depth of field is shallow. Wind is real in the field! I usually shoot with the f stop at f4 - f8 range for best sharpness on sunny days.

Have fun .

Glen Rhinesmith

I enjoy & appreciate these "educational articles" -- I hope they will continue for awhile.  Perhaps you will do one on tripods & monopods.  Thanks.

You are out by a factor of 10 on the Sony 100mm macro MFD

Good article (as usual) -- I shoot macros all the way to full portraits with the (older) Nikkor 105mm macro lens.  Nikon's lenses at one time were the only true flat-field macro lenses for a while (there are more now, but it IS an important feature, so ask if the lens you want is one or not). The 105mm Nikkor (and its 55mm counterpart) is fantastic at either end of its scope, and for flower photography, the 105 enables me to shoot both the entire flower and close-up's of its details.

If you want to expand your possibilities, try diopters, too (the higher-end ones), as you won't lose any f-stops as you will with extension tubes (same with stacking lenses, such that the reverse-mounted stacked lens acts in effect as a diopter; just remember to set the reversed lens on infinity focus and set it wide open first). 

Canon's newer 100mm micro L-lens has a new IS system designed specifically for macro work, but it shoots great as a "regular" lens too.

Lastly, I have a blast with a PB-4 with a reverse-mounted 135mm enlarging lens on it -- 'never have a problem putting my own shadow on the subject that way, and it still reaches infinity if something else ***** to be shot when on-location !  (oh, and don't forget those super microfiche macro lenses, if you want to play with things, plus image-stacking software). Have fun!

I got my Canon 100 Macro IS L 2.8 about this time last year from B&H whilst on a visit to NY. I have enjoyed using it thro the summer here in England.

A couple of things, it is easier to photograph insects and plant detail with this than with my 50 macro as Alan suggests they are less likely to depart before you have them in focus.

The other point no-one here has mentioned yet is the ability of a suitable flash to suppress distracting backgrounds by underexposing them. Expose close up for the subject  at 200th and a small aperture and the subject really stands out against a darker background. In the old days I used to carry a black cloth to drape behind outdoor macro shots to get the same effect. It was very tricky to use in windy conditions.

I use Canon's EX MR-14 ringflash on both my macros.

You need a special adaptor to fit it to the 100 mm lens because it uses a 67 mm filter, I hope these adaptor rings are easier to get now, mine took 4 months to arrive but was worth the wait!