Holiday 2012: Using Macro Lenses

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There’s something rather thrilling about being able to examine something up close, and it can be anything, a common object or otherwise. If it’s in print form, so much the better, because when viewing prints—especially larger prints—you don’t have to squint through a viewfinder to see it. Regardless of whether you’re trying to photograph miniature subjects or simply garner the most sharpness out of life-size objects in a print, your best results will undoubtedly be realized if you use a macro lens. Unlike “close-focusing” optics or optics advertised as having macro focusing capabilities, true macro lenses are a class unto themselves by design.

Unlike their close-focusing, macro-capable, curved-field cousins, true macro lenses are designed to deliver optimal results with edge to edge, flat-field coverage of your subject. You might be able to get in real close with a close-focusing zoom or other lens with a macro feature, but the resolving power at close range is seldom—if ever—on a par with the resolving power of a true macro lens when racked out to its closest focusing distance. Depending on the manufacturer, macro lenses are also known as makro or micro lenses. By definition, true macro lenses focus down to life size (1:1), although a few macros only focus down to about half life size (1:2).

Ideally designed to capture edge-to-edge detail of flat artwork and documents, macro lenses are equally adept at capturing the finest details of three-dimensional objects, they’re available for all brands and formats of cameras and they come in a choice of focal ranges. Though most people think in terms of “normal” lenses (50-55mm) or short telephotos (100-105mm) when discussing macro lenses, these days macros are available in wide-angle and longer telephoto formats. Aside from the differences of fields of view between wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses, when using macro lenses there are other factors that determine whether you’re better off with one focal length over another.

If your goal is to illustrate a close-up of your subject in relation to its environment, a wider-angle lens is the obvious choice. But if photographing your subject from a distance of an inch or two away will spook your subject or cause it to flee (as in the case of butterflies and other skittish subjects) or cast unwanted shadows, a normal or longer telephoto macro lens is, by far, a better choice.

Case in point: when photographing subjects at 1:1 magnification ratios with a 60mm macro lens, the front of your lens is going to be approximately two inches from your subject. By comparison, photographing the same subject at 1:1 with a 105mm or 200mm macro lens allows for about six inches and ten inches of distance, respectively, between your camera and your subject. This greatly reduces the fright factor while simultaneously diminishing the chance of casting shadows on your subject when photographing with the sun over your shoulder.

Like all longer focal length lenses, telephoto macro lenses inherently make it easier to isolate your subject from the foreground and background visually, especially when shooting at wider apertures.

Something to keep in mind when choosing macros (or any type of lens, for that matter) is that a macro lens with a 1:1 reproduction ratio, designed for use on a full-frame 35mm camera, will still only focus down to 1:1 when used on an APS-C format DSLR. The image you see in your viewfinder will appear to be cropped tighter by about 50%, but the magnification ratio will always be the same 1:1 magnification ratio. So while your subject seemingly looks larger in your viewfinder, all you’re really viewing is a tighter crop of the image area as captured by your lens on the smaller sensor.

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Regarding the Olympus Zuiko 50mm F2.0 macro lens; all Olympus DSLR cameras currently available have in-camera stabilization. And this lens has received the highest accolades from every site that has reviewed it, beginning with DP Review.

Just a note, image stabilization & auto focus features become of limited to no useful purpose the closer you get to life size (OEM literature evens mentions this).. A point to keep in mind when purchasing a macro lens. If it isn't going to see any other use other than macro shooting, why spend the extra $ on features that are not needed? Save that $ for other purchases like lighting, which is a big factor when shooting skittish subjects as it allows you to stop down further for added DOF & the flash duration will stop any subject or photographers movement.

Thank you B&H for your "data dense" concise and easily understandable lecture on macro lenses, what the numbers mean (1:1 and 1:2) and how the focal length affects how one will use the lens.  I never understood any of this before, but thanks to you, now I do.

Many thanks are due to Allan Weitz for this useful article.

It can improved by providing the working distance data at 1:1 magnification. This is the distance from the front of the lens to the object. Another minor point is 'AOV' which is used as a column header in table is not defined.

As an old 35mm film user making the transition to digital, I am still trying to understand the issues of using lenses designed for Full Frame bodies on APS-C bodies. I am looking for a quality Macro lense for my Nikon D7000. I am looking for ample working distance and to that end am considering the following lenses. Nikkor micro 85mm, Nikkor 105mm and the Sigma 105mm and 150mm. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using these focal lengths on the D7000? Is the issue one of working distance to the subject or magnification or something else that I am not aware of?

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Advanced Photo System type-C (APS-C) is a type of sensor used in Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras. This sensor has a size of 22 mm x 15 mm, instead of the 36mm x 24mm for the 35mm film format. This causes a 1.5 or 1.6x lens multiplier to focal point distance when comparing lenses made for conventional 35mm film.

So when using a 35mm film camera's lens on a Digital SLR, your resulting image as compared to a film image will have the top, bottom and both sides cut off.  Or a telephoto effect of 1.5 X for Nikon DSLR's and 1.6 X for Canon DSLR's. This excludes "full frame cameras".

 Image size (not file size) refers to the distance of the camera to the subject with a particular lens. So if you can fill the frame on a 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens at 10 feet away. Using that same lens on a digital camera, you would need to be 15 feet (10 x 1.5)  away or 16 feet (10 x 1.6) away.

Many lens manufacturers use the term “macro or micro” but a true macro lens can focus to what is called 1:1. This term refers to the image size projected onto the sensor or film.

Let’s say for example, you are photographing a postage stamp (23mm x 23mm) with a 35mm film or digital full frame (24x36mm’s in size) camera at 1:1. If you placed your processed film over the postage stamp, the image on film and the stamp would be the same size.  Another way to describe 1:1 is to double a lens focal length. A 50mm lens’s optical center moved 100mm’s away from the focal plane (film or sensor) would be able to achieve 1:1. This is how large format photographers calculate macro focusing.  1:2 would be half life size.

The reason for many focal lengths is working distance. I’ll use Sigma’s Macro lens as an example. They make several fixed focal length macro lenses, including a 50mm lens, a 105mm, and 150 mm.  At 1:1, the difference between the 3 lenses will be the Minimum Focus Distance. The 50mm lens will have a minimum focus distance of 7.4" (18.9 cm), 105mm will have a minimum focus distanceof 12.2" (31 cm) and the 150 would be 15" (38 cm).

The differences of which lens to choose when shooting would be the desired working distance in-between the photographer and the subject.  For example, if you were to photograph a flower in natural day light.  Using the 50mm lens, you would be at 1:1 7.4 inches away from the flower. You would more than likely block the natural day light, putting the subject in your shadow.  Using a longer focal length lens would move you and your camera back, creating a more conducive working distance, allowing the natural day light to illuminate the flower you were photographing.  

Likewise, if you were to photograph wild animals, you would want to be as far away as possible as to not frighten them. Nikon’s 200mm Micro lens is widely used by nature shooters.

Shorter lens would be ideal when using a ring flash such as for copy work.  Keeping the flash as close to your subject as possible, would ensure the greatest amount of light reaching your subject, enabling you to use a small f-stop for the greatest amount of depth of field and sharpness.

On a D7000 the 85mm DX lens would perform inbetween ( 127.5mm's) the 105's & 150mm lens.  The advantage of the 85mm is it's almost half the cost of the 105 and more than half the price of the 150. The 105's are faster at f 2.8, can be used in the future on a full frame camera.  The Nikon105's lineage is that of being one of the sharpest lens made for photography.  

Thanks, this is quite enlightening. How about the Tamron 90mm macro, have you had any in-depth evaluation on it?

I'm not going to try to expand on the excellent answer above. Just wanted to say I've had my Sigma 150 macro longer than I've had my D7000. I love the lens and they work beautifully together as I chase bugs and spiders and butterflies.

Wow, how did Canon pull of a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM that weighs only 1.4oz? Maybe they filled it with helium?

Alas, it's 1.4lbs.