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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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Fujifilm’s macro lens offering is the 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro lens, with a 1:2 magnification ratio.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 three versions of its 90mm macro. The newest is the SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD lens for Canon, Nikon, and Sony A mounts. The 90mm f/2.8 SP AF Di Macro gives a 1:1 ratio for Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Pentax cameras and the middle brother, the 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.
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.
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!
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.