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 dimensions 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 double 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, because they might not get you as close to the 1:1 or 1:2 ratios as you want 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 is designed to allow 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.
Macro Lens Options with Magnifications Better Than 1:2
Canon’s latest macro offerings are focused on the EOS R mirrorless system, where there are the Canon RF 24mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM, RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM, and RF 85mm f/2 Macro IS STM lenses with 1:2 magnification, and the longest focal length native Canon macro for mirrorless is the RF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens with 1.4x reproduction.
Canon doesn’t offer many standard macro lenses for its DLSR lineup. Of those select few, the most notable is the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, which features a 1:1 ratio and image stabilization.
FUJIFILM now has a pair of macro lens offerings for the X-mount. One is the FUJIFILM 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro lens, with a 1:2 magnification ratio and the 1:1 magnification lens for the X-mount cameras is the 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR with which we got to go hands-on at a local New York jeweler.
For the FUJIFILM medium format G-mount, you can get to 1:2 ratio with the FUJIFILM GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR lens.
The Hasselblad H System has its 1:1 macro with the Hasselblad HC Macro 120mm f/4 II lens, featuring a minimum focus distance of 1.3'. The XCD 120mm f/3.5 Macro lens gives Hasselblad X System users a 1:2 macro option.
Better known for its ultra-wide-angle lenses, Irix gives Canon, Nikon, and Pentax shooters 1:1 reproduction with the Irix 150mm f/2.8 Macro 1:1 Lens.
Macro photography can really lend itself to the different focus and sharpness effects known to Lensbaby shooters. With a variety of DSLR and mirrorless mounts, the Lensbaby Velvet 28mm f/2.5, Velvet 56mm f/1.6, and Velvet 85mm f/1.8 focus down to 1:2 magnification. See our hands-on review of the Velvet 85mm lens here and the Velvet 28mm here.
The Mitakon Zhongyi 20mm f/2 Super Macro lens for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras magnifies subjects by 4.5 times. This not only fits the "Super Macro" designation, but puts it in a rare category of macro lenses that magnify well past the 1:1 reproduction.
Nikon has always featured an extensive lineup of macro lenses for all types of needs. Shifting its focus to the new Z-mount mirrorless cameras and dropping the storied “Micro-NIKKOR” branding, photographers have a choice of a Nikon NIKKOR Z MC 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens and, joining the ranks of the legendary Nikon 105mm macros, the NIKKOR Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S—both featuring 1:1 magnification ratios.
For Nikon F-mount photographers, you can still get your hands on another Nikon legend—the manual focus, old school, Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 with 1:2 reproduction. Nikon DX DSLR photographers can use 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 1:1 ratios.
Olympus makes a pair of macro lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm f/3.5. The 60mm lens features a 1:1 reproduction ratio and the 30mm lens has a better than 1:1 reproduction of 1.25x. They have 35mm focal-length equivalents of 120mm and 60mm, respectively.
For its full-frame L-mount cameras, both the Panasonic Lumix S 24-105mm f/4 Macro O.I.S. and the Lumix S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 MACRO O.I.S. lenses reach 1:2 magnification. For Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds system cameras, it offers the Lumix G MACRO 30mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. and the Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S., lenses that both allow 1:1 magnification. They have 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 60mm and 90mm, respectively.
Rokinon and Samyang
The 1:1 ratio, manual focus Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, and Pentax K. The Samyang 100mm f/2.8 ED UMC reproduces at 1:1 and is also available in mounts for Canon EF, Nikon F, and Pentax K.
For mirrorless shooters, the Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens does life-size reproductions and is available for Sony E, FUJIFILM X, and Micro Four Thirds mounts. The 1:1 Samyang 100mm f/2.8 ED UMC Macro lens can be fitted on Sony E, Samsung NX, FUJIFILM X, and Micro Four Thirds bodies.
Sigma has a few 1:1 macro offerings. The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG DN Macro Art lens is available for Sony E and Leica L mounts and the 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art lens is available in Canon EF and Sigma SA mounts. For SLR mounts, the 70mm lens is compatible with Sigma’s USB Dock for fine-tuning focusing characteristics.
Sony has a trio of macro lenses for E-mount mirrorless cameras offering 1:1 magnification. For full-frame E-mount users, there is the very popular telephoto Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS lens as well as the sleek normal-length FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro. For APS-C mirrorless shooters, there is also the especially compact E 30mm f/3.5 Macro lens.
Tamron currently offers the Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II 1:1 Macro Lens for Sony A-mount DSLR shooters.
Tokina’s latest 1:1 macro lens is the Tokina FiRIN 100mm f/2.8 FE Macro lens for Sony E-mount cameras. Tokina also offers its atx-i 100mm f/2.8 FF Macro lens for Nikon and Canon mounts. It features a 1:1 ratio.
Macro and ultra-wide specialist Venus Optics has several lenses for different mounts. The rare-in-the-world-of-macro wide-angle Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro lens features 1:1 magnification and is available for Canon, Nikon, etc.
Also from the company, the world's first 2:1 magnification lens with infinity focus is the manual focus Laowa 60mm f/2.8 Ultra-Macro lens. Meanwhile, for APS-C-format mirrorless, there's the Laowa 65mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO, which also offers 2:1 magnification along with infinity focus.
Finally, there's the incredibly odd-looking Venus Optics Laowa 24mm f/14 Probe Lens, which features a 2:1 magnification ratio (as well as a truly unique design). We were so intrigued by the Laowa Probe Lens, we decided to do a hands-on review.
Voigtländer has a pair of macro lenses for the Sony E mount cameras. The Voigtländer MACRO APO-LANTHAR 110mm f/2.5 lens has a 1:1 reproduction ratio while the MACRO APO-LANTHAR 65mm f/2 Aspherical lens gives a 1:2 ratio. Both lenses are manual focus and mechanical masterpieces.
ZEISS has a pair of macro lenses for your full-frame, close-up viewing pleasure. 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 both Canon and Nikon.
Have we missed any current macro lenses? Do you have a question about shopping for your own macro lens, or do you have experience with one or more of these lenses that you would like to share? Let us know in the Comments section, below!