Photography / Buying Guide

Macro Lens Buying Guide

         

It is probably safe to say that many of us photographers have, either with our cameras or smartphones, tried to capture a close-up image of an insect, flower, toy, or other object. We have an idea of what we want this photograph to look like as we prepare to capture the image. We have seen and admired beautiful close-up images before but, when we nose the camera lens up to the object, the camera balks—it cannot focus close enough to create the image we want to capture. Fewer things in photography can be as frustrating as trying to get a close-up photograph of something inside the lens’s minimum focus distance.

There are several ways to do close-up, or “macro” photography, but the macro lens is the easiest path to creating and capturing compelling, detailed close-up images of the larger world.

Macro Lens

The macro lens is an optic that is designed to have a very short minimum focus distance to facilitate close-up photographs. The mission of the macro lens is to reproduce objects at, or slightly smaller than, life size. What does this mean? We have all seen large images of small things—a poster-sized image of a flower, for instance. The reproduced flower is obviously larger than life size. In fact, if you make a big enough print of anything, it can be larger than life size. The reproduction goal of the macro lens is the life-size reproduction of the object on the sensor or film. For example: If you photograph a small coin with a macro lens capable of life-size reproduction, the image framed on the digital sensor will be identical in size to the coin.

"Macro lenses have other tricks up their sleeve beyond the close-focusing capabilities."

The reproduction ratio of which a macro lens is capable is labeled with a ratio. A macro lens that can reproduce objects at life size is said to be a 1:1 macro lens. A 1:2 macro lens can reproduce objects at half-size. A lens that can reproduce objects at 2x life size will be a 2:1 macro lens. Many macro lenses feature the 1:1 or 1:2 ratios.

Beware! There are a lot of lenses on the market, especially some longer zooms that promote their macro capabilities. If your goal is close-up photography, keep an eye on the magnification ratio of these lenses, as they might not get you as close to the 1:1 or 1:2 ratios as you might like for your images.

Macro lenses have other tricks up their sleeves beyond the close-focusing capabilities. Many macro lenses are designed with a flat focus field instead of a curved field common in other lenses. The curved field means that the image is sharper in the center than at the edges. This is often not extremely noticeable due to the lens’s depth of field. With a dedicated macro lens, the flat-field focus allows the image to be in focus from edge to edge in the frame.

Focal Length

Focal length, the distance between the optical center of the lens and the image plane, is one important factor when considering a macro lens. You might think that the longer the focal length—the more telephoto the macro lens—the more magnification you can get from the lens. This is not necessarily true, since certain macro lenses of all different focal lengths obtain a 1:1 ratio.

The difference you experience when using a normal or wide-angle macro lens versus a telephoto macro lens is a different minimum focus distance. In the macro photo world, this is known as the “working distance.” A longer focal length lens will have a greater working distance than a shorter focal length lens. The advantage of the larger working distance is the ability to stay farther from your subject. That may not matter for shooting a still life, but if you are photographing a small animal, the extra distance might be just what you need to keep from startling the critter. A longer focal length lens will also have shallower depth of field. This may or may not be advantageous to the photograph you are trying to achieve. Lastly, the extra working distance may also help keep your gear from casting an unwanted shadow on your subject.

Two macro lenses that provide 1:1 reproduction produce the same image here. The longer focal length lens offers a greater working distance between lens and subject.

It sounds like a longer focal length is better for macro photography, right? Are there advantages to a shorter focal length macro lens? Yes. The shorter focal length macro lenses are generally smaller, lighter, and less expensive than their longer counterparts and they can achieve the same level of magnification. If you are a casual macro shooter, having a small and light macro lens in your bag might be a better option than carrying around a heavier, bulkier telephoto macro lens that might rival your largest optics for size and weight.

Macro Lens Buying Options with Magnifications Better than 1:2

Canon

Canon currently offers a half dozen macro lenses in its lineup. I will start with the exotic MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro lens that features a reproduction ratio of up to 5:1! Canon has the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM with a 1:1 ratio, and the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM at 1:1. Adding to the stable of legendary L lenses is the EF-S 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, with a 1:1 ratio and image stabilization and the company’s longest macro, the EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM that also features 1:1 reproduction.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Fujifilm

Fujifilm’s macro lens offering is the 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro lens, with a 1:2 magnification ratio.

Fujifilm 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro Lens

Leica

Leica has macro lenses for its S-bayonet and M-mount camera systems. For the S-system, there is the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 CS lenses, with 1:2 magnification. The M-mount lens is the Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4 lens, which also features 1:2 reproduction scale.

Leica APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 Lens

Nikon

Nikon features an extensive lineup of macro lenses for all types of needs. For the Nikon DX-format (APS-C), there is the AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G and the AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens, with vibration reduction. Both DX lenses feature a 1:1 reproduction ratio. The 105mm NIKKOR macro lenses have always been very well regarded, and the original Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 is a manual focus lens with a 1:2 ratio. The modern version is the AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED with a 1:1 ratio and vibration reduction. Clocking in around the normal focal length is the legendary manual focus Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens, with a 1:2 ratio, the 1:1 ratio AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D lens, and the newest version of the 60mm, the AF-S Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED. At the end of the macro telephoto range, and currently the longest focal length telephoto available, is the AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f/4D IF-ED, with a 1:1 ratio.

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens

Olympus

Olympus makes a trio of macro lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8, the ZUIKO Digital 50mm f/2.0 Macro ED, and the ZUIKO Digital 35mm f/3.5 Macro ED. The Olympus lenses feature a 1:1 reproduction ratio and have 35mm focal-length equivalents of 120mm, 100mm, and 70mm, respectively.

Panasonic

Panasonic offers another pair of macro lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system, with the LUMIX G MACRO 30mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGO O.I.S. and the Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGO O.I.S., lenses that both allow 1:1 magnification. They have 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 60mm and 90mm, respectively.

Panasonic LUMIX G MACRO 30mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. Lens

Pentax

Pentax has three macro lenses in its quiver. The HD Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited is available in black or silver and features a 1:1 ratio. The Normal smc P-D FA 50mm f/2.8 Macro and the smc Pentax-D FA 100mm f/2.8 WR Macro lenses both feature 1:1 magnification, as well. The 100mm lens is also weather resistant.

Pentax HD Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited Lens (Black)

Rokinon and Samyang

The 1:1 ratio, manual focus Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mounts. The Samyang 100mm f/2.8 ED UMC reproduces at 1:1 and is also available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mounts.

Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro Lens for Canon EF

Sigma

Sigma makes its 1:1 ratio 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro lens and the 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro EX DG OS HSM lenses exclusively for the Nikon F mount. The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro lens is available for Sigma, Nikon F, Canon EOS, and Sony cameras. For those looking for a longer reach, the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO lens can be mounted on Sigma, Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras, with a 1:1 ratio. In the zoom world, the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 comes in APO DG and DG versions and reaches 1:2 at the 300mm focal length. The DG version comes in the Sigma, Sony, Canon, Pentax, and Nikon mounts. The APO DG model is also available for Sigma, Sony, Canon, Pentax, and Nikon cameras.

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro Lens for Nikon AF Cameras

Sony

Sony has a set of macro lenses offering 1:1 magnification. The lineup starts with the 30mm f/3.5 Macro for Alpha NEX cameras, and the 30mm f/2.8 DT Macro, 50mm f/2.8 Macro, FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS, and 100mm f/2.8 Macro lenses work on Sony A-mount cameras.

Sony 50mm f/2.8 Macro Prime Lens

Tamron

The Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II Macro lens features a 1:1 ratio and is available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras. Tamron has two versions of its 90mm macro: the 90mm f/2.8 SP AF Di Macro gives a 1:1 ratio for Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Pentax cameras and the newer 90mm f/2.8 SP Di Macro VC USD is equipped with vibration compensation and a 1:1 magnification and is available for Nikon, Canon, and Sony mounts. The SP AF 180mm f/3.5 Di LD IF Macro also has 1:1 magnification and is available for Sony, Nikon, and Canon.

Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II 1:1 Macro Lens for Canon EF

Tokina

Tokina offers its 100mm f/2.8 AT-X M100 AF Pro D Macro lens for Nikon and Canon mounts. It features a 1:1 ratio.

Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II 1:1 Macro Lens for Canon EF

Venus Optics

Newcomer and macro specialist Venus Optics has a pair of lenses for different mounts. The rare-in-the-world-of-macro wide-angle Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro lens features 1:1 magnification and is available for Pentax, Sony, Nikon, and Canon cameras. Also from the company, the world’s first 2:1 magnification lens with infinity focus is the manual focus 60mm f/2.8 Ultra-Macro lens for Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax.

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro Lens for Canon EF

Yasuhara

The Yasuhara Nanoha Macro lens is available for Micro Four Thirds, Sony E-mount, and Canon EF-M-mount cameras and features a removable triple-LED light source. The lens allows incredible 4:1 or 5:1 reproduction!

Yasuhara Nanoha Macro Lens 5:1 for Sony E-Mount

Zeiss

The Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/2M lens features 1:2 magnification. The ZF.2 version is for Nikon and the ZE for Canon EF. For longer reach, the Milvus 100mm f/2 lens also has 1:2 magnification and is available for Canon and Nikon. The classic 50mm f/2.0 Makro-Planar lens goes to 1:2 and is also available in Canon and Nikon mounts.

The Touit 50mm f/2.8M lens allows 1:1 magnification for Fujifilm X and Sony E-mount cameras.

Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2M ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F

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Discussion 12

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Thanks for a helpful article on macro lenses, but the statement that the depth of field is less with longer focal lengths is not true. In the macro range, we are interested in magnification necessary to fill the frame with the subject. In this situation, depth of field is determined by the f/number and the magnification, and is independent of the focal length. 

Many of the telephoto macro lenses are of an asymmetrical design and have a pupillary magnification of less than 1.0 and actually have more depth of field than a lens of shorter focal length. For an example and some background theory see this link in the macro depth of field section.

http://toothwalker.org/optics/dof.html

Hey Bill,

Interesting stuff. I used Paul Van Walree's website heavily when researching my DOF article. He has some great stuff there.

He makes an interesting caveat in his macro section when he says "lenses of similar optical design." To me, that might mean that all bets are off when it comes to comparing the DOF of different focal length macro lenses from different manufactures. I won't discount his findings, as that website seems to be spot-on with everything I have read, but it is worth noting that on every DOF calculator I have come across, there is no "macro mode" that magically removes the focal length of the lens from the DOF calculations.  

Pretty facinating...until it gives me a headache! Thanks for sharing the link and commenting!

The 60mm Olympus lens is µ 4/3 but the other two have 4/3 mounts designed for Olympus SLRs but usable with an adapter on the µ 4/3 mount cameras.  The 50mm, as the image shows, is a 1:2 lens, not a 1:1 lens as stated, but an extension (which works with all the 4/3 lenses) is available to take it out to 1:1.

As a point of interest, the 60mm supports in-camera focus stacking on the E-M1, the other two don't.

Hi John,

Thanks for clearing up the Olympus section for us! Yes, the lens has a 1:2 ratio (its even written on the lens itself), but the Olympus marketing folks like to claim a 1:1 ratio (on a 35mm frame). We bought their snake oil!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

The article doesn't talk about depth of field, though that is a major limiting factor.

An advantage to shorter focal length lenses is that they have better depth of field, which can simplify the process.

I've been very happy with the 30mm sony macro. Depth of field is much greater than with my old 100 mm macro.

Not included is a discussion of focus stacking, which could be required with a longer lens...

Hey stephen,

I did make brief mention of DOF, and I wrote a 3-part series on the subject that is fairly comprehensive. It starts with this article: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/depth-field-part-1

However, I guess I could have dived a bit deeper into the subject here in terms of macro lens buying. "Better depth of field" is a statement of opinion as some photographers prefer long depth of field over shallow and vice versa.

Thanks for reading and commenting! Let me know if you have any specific DOF questions.

Hi Todd....I see macro photos of insects that, for example, have the eye of a fly in so close that it seems as if it's under a microscope. What kind of macro lens is used in a situation like this? I can't do it with my 85mm macro lens. Thanks!

Hey Tom,

The photographers are likely using extension tubes or bellows...or both!

Check out the photos of my watch in this article: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/buying-guide/macro-photography-gear-bellows-reversal-rings-macro-couplers-and-focusing

They were taken using a 55mm macro lens and bellows. You can get really close! See the "Swiss Made" photo.

Ready to buy some macro gear?

In your section titled "Focal Length", you state "A longer focal length lens will also have shallower depth of field." This appears to contradict the following, which appears in an article by , the founder of luminous-landscape.com:

 "In fact, if the subject image size remains the same, then at any given aperture all lenses will give the same depth of field."

(from https://luminous-landscape.com/dof2/)

Can you comment on this apparent disagreement?

Hi Donald,

Thanks for your question. The late, great Mr. Reichmann is correct in his statement. But, he mentions subject image size staying the same. In order to do that with different focal length lenses, you need to change your subject-to-lens distance and that will change your DOF.

Here is part one of my 3-part dissertation on DOF: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/depth-field-part-1

Let me know if you have any more questions or confusion. Thanks for reading!

Hi, Todd.

Yes, as you say you do need to change your subject-to-focal plane distance to obtain the same subject image size with different focal length lenses. But after you do change that distance and have obtained the same subject image size, all lenses with the same aperture will produce the same depth of field. In other words, the same image produced at different focal lengths will have the same depth of field when the same aperture is used.

This is why the statement that "longer focal length produces less dof" is misleading. It's kind of irrelevant to compare the dof of images when their subject image sizes are different, as would be the case if you just stayed in one place and shot the same subject with lenses of different focal lengths. The whole composition changes in that case. (If you then crop to get the same subject image size, we're back to the same dof when the apertures are the same.)

It is helpful to state that dof depends only on magnification and aperture, not on focal length. (Aperture means the physical size of the opening, not f-stop.)

Hey Rich,

You are correct, but we are starting to dive down into the rabbit hole here with echoes of the argument/discussion over DOF on full frame versus smaller sensors. Beware of the rabbit hole!

Having said that, if you boil DOF down to the mathematical formulas, the statement that "longer focal length lenses produce a shallower depth of field" is correct as focal length is one of the factors in the formulation of hyperfocal distance which, in turn, is a factor in the calculation of DOF.

When you start factoring in consistent subject sizes, then the variables start to change.

Check out Part II and Part III of my DOF articles, if you are sleepy! In Part III I specifically cover this topic.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/depth-field-part-2

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/depth-field-part-3

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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