To be honest from the start, I am not what you might call a specialist in macro photography but I have tried it several times using either friends’ or acquaintances’ lenses. I have to say that every time I really appreciated it even if it is a very particular field.
I will soon write a complete article dedicated to macro-photography, giving as much advice as possible to start off and progress in this field. Capturing close-ups is not as simple as you might think. Today, I will stick to the material aspect and try to answer the question to the best of my ability: which macro lens to choose and based on which criteria?
Even if I have already done a complete article explaining how to choose a camera lens, macro photography remains very particular on a lot of different aspects. I want to start by thanking Hervé, a friend, who lent me his macro equipment several times and helped me to write this article. Indeed, everything is presented here that you need to know about macro lenses, and I will guide you in choosing your camera in this field. At the end of the article, I will briefly talk about the different accessories that exist for macro photography.
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A small specification that is also important in my opinion, is that you are not obligated to use your macro lens for macro photography only. For instance, many use the superb Canon 100mm f/2.8 L as a very good portrait lens.
We’ll simply start with the basics without going into too much detail to avoid headaches. Also known as magnification ratio, the reproduction ratio represents the ratio between the size of a subject photographed and the size of its image on the sensor of your camera. What does that mean in practice? If your subject measures 1 cm in the real world and also measures 1 cm in the image, then this is a 1:1 reproduction ratio.
In the real world, we call this macro photography when the magnification ratio is from 1:1 (minimum) to 10:1. To do 10:1, the subject that measures 1cm in real life would have to measure 10cm on the image, which is huge. Beyond 10:1, we speak of microphotography, which corresponds to extreme macro photography. In this case for example, we would be able to see the hairs of a spider in detail. Below the 1:1 ratio, is what we call, proxy photography, which is the equivalent in common language to “close-up photography”!
You will understand why I am talking about the reproduction ratio in the paragraph below.
A few lines to, quickly, clarify a few points. Some brands had fun (so to speak) making you believe that some of their lenses can do macro photography. You will find more and more lenses with the mention “MACRO”. This is the case, for example, with my Canon 70-300 L IS telephoto lens. I can reassure you right away that these are not macro lenses.
The 1:1 magnification ratio mentioned above is never achieved in reality and you will therefore be able to get very close to your subject thanks to a reduced focusing distance for this type of lens. For example, my telephoto lens I mentioned above allows me to do what’s called proxy photography. This is enough for me, for example, to try to take a picture of a butterfly close enough. Be sure to check the reproduction ratio announced at the time of your purchase.
I deliberately wanted to group all of this together in the same paragraph because in the end they are all closely related. These are the four main parameters to consider when making your choice (and of course, very often, the budget). Each has its advantages and disadvantages due to the fact that you don’t choose a 180mm focal length to do the same thing as you would with a 35mm focal length. A longer focal length has an impact on price, weight, height and especially the shooting possibilities. To sum up, here is a list of the essentials:
- Short focal lengths : I would say are between 35mm and 60mm. They are already available in all brands. They have the advantage of having a very short focusing distance (about 10 to 13cm). The lenses are lightweight, small in size and relatively affordable. They are suitable for small objects, flowers and static subjects. However, they are not suitable for shy subjects such as butterflies or dragonflies.
- Standard lenses : 90mm and 100mm lenses are considered the most versatile for a macro lens. It’s a bit of an all-round focus in macro photography. However, the minimum focusing distance will be longer (about 15 cm) and the price, size and weight will increase. However, you will be able to start shooting insects from a little further away, which is nice for the subjects who are a little shy.
- Long focal lengths : the last category of focal length is over than 150mm. These are more imposing, more expensive and more difficult to handle lenses, especially when starting out in macro photography. Generally, no one starts with such a long focal length because it takes a certain time to adapt and be able to control it. This focal length specializes in large, shy insects and small (more delicate) insects or flowers. Working with a long focal length necessarily entails a much greater risk of motion blur. It will often be necessary to use a higher ISO to obtain a sufficient speed or to use a tripod.
As a general rule, we can summarize it like this: the shorter the focal length, the closer you will be able to get to the animals but evidently not to the shy ones, however the lens is easier to use. The long focal length allows you to increase your safety distance with the subject (basically you’ll scare them less), but the lenses will be harder to use, more expensive, heavier and may require the use of a tripod.
When you consider buying a standard camera lens, it’s often one of the first things you look at. However, in macro photography, I would say it’s less important. All the macro lenses I know open to f/2.8 or f/3.5 as a general rule. If you know a little bit about photography, you should know that the closer you get to a subject (which is the case here), the shallower the depth of field.
We will come back to this in another article, but we often try to increase our depth of field by using small apertures (f/11, even f/14). In my opinion, there is not much point in thinking about maximum aperture for choosing a macro lens. The only case where I see that it is interesting is if you want to use your lens for portrait photography. Indeed, having a larger aperture will allow you to have more beautiful background blurs (bokeh). Especially since (something I didn’t know yet), the closer you get to the minimum focusing distance (concretely the closer you are to the subject), the smaller the maximum aperture gets. Even a fixed lens at f/2.8 will no longer open at this aperture when you are closest to the subject. For portrait it’s not a worry (even though it’s not the purpose of your purchase), however it’s a detail to know that few tests actually specify (Thanks Alex).
This is a major debate in the world of macro since not everyone absolutely agrees on the usefulness of choosing a stabilized macro lens. I personally haven’t been able to test it to that point yet, but from what I know and have read, it can be useful. Especially in difficult lighting conditions, where you will have trouble getting enough speed to avoid motion blur. On the other hand, I have met several people who advise against activating the stabilization of your macro lens as soon as you have enough speed to ensure the sharpness of the image.
We have just seen all the technical aspects to take into account when buying your macro lens. Nevertheless, for many beginners who are starting macro photography, you don’t have an unlimited budget and the financial aspect will often be the prime criteria. Here are some general recommendations.
For beginners in photography who want to try macro photography, I recommend choosing one of the small focal lengths mentioned above, around 60 or 70mm. This is still an “acceptable” price range, from 300 to 450€, on lightweight lenses that are perfect for beginners. I particularly recommend the Tamron AF 60 mm f/2 that exists for different mounts (Canon, Nikon, Sony). You’re going to have trouble shooting shy insects with it, but for flowers and large insects, it’s a perfect start for around 350€. The only problem that occurs often, in my opinion, is that the 60mm focal length is too short for what you usually want to do and many people will turn very quickly to a 100mm. If you have the budget then start out with a 100mm straight up.
I don’t really think there would be any point in buying a lens between the focal length of a 60mm and of a 90/100mm. If you have a larger budget and want to invest in a beautiful macro lens, you have several possibilities with 100mm. At this focal length, you have a little more margin in relation to the distance from your subject and you can really start to be interested in the shyer insects. Here, you have the choice to stick to the main brands or to switch to a third-party brand. The main 100mm macro lenses are:
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS: I tried it, great optical quality and incredible sharpness. If you can, I recommend it 3000%. If I were in APS-C, I would have bought it already! Who knows ?
- Nikon AF-S VR 105mm f/2.8 -> Nikon’s best macro lens at the moment?
- The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (Canon or Nikon): A superb alternative for a third-party brand
- The Tamron 90mm SP F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.): today, according to many reliable sources, is the best macro lens to consider, even if you are with Canon or Nikon.
- Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2 (reproduction ratio 1: 2)
On a full-frame sensor like my 6D, I would probably advise to take a longer focal length. I’m eyeing the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (picture below), which has an excellent reputation in the macro world.
For your choice, I would say that it all depends on whether you think the price difference between third-party brands and major brands is justified. You can also watch tests and comparisons, especially on DXO.
|Canon||EF 100 mm f/2,8 Macro L IS USM||f/2.8||630g||860€||See on Amazon|
|Tamron||90mm SP F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD||f/2.8||610g||560€||See on Amazon|
|Nikon||AF-S VR 105 mm f/2.8G IF-ED MC||f/2.8||790g||840€||See on Amazon|
|Sigma||150 mm F2,8 EX DG APO OS HSM||f/2.8||1,18Kg||750€||See on Amazon|
|Tamron||60mm F/2,0 Di II LD Macro 1/1||f/2||400g||370€||See on Amazon|
Furthermore, I strongly advise for macro telephoto lenses to be reserved for people who already have perfect control of a shorter focal length. Macro telephoto lenses are not easy to use handheld. Among the best known and most highly rated in this range: the Sigma 150mm DG APO OS or the Canon 180mm f/3.5 L USM.
In the end, you will have to make a choice based on what you want to shoot, your budget and your level in macro photography. You should also pay attention to your DSLR sensor. We will see why further down.
I hadn’t originally decided to discuss it in this article, but in the end I think it’s relevant to say a few words about it, especially now that mirrorless cameras are becoming more and more popular on the market. In fact, I’ve written a very complete guide on how to choose lenses for mirrorless cameras! Here are the best macro lenses to consider for a hybrid camera.
- Sony: A little reminder, all Sony lenses can be mounted on full-frame or APS-C bodies. Be careful however with the conversion factor between the types of bodies (x1.5) and the cropping if you place an APS-C lens on a full-frame body. Everybody says it, the best Sony macro lens is still the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS. Built for a full-frame body, it is however adapted to the APS-C format (Type Axxx). There is also the very good and cheaper FE 50mm f/2.8 as well as the 30mm f/3.5 (only for Sony APS-C). Concerning third party brands, Sigma offers a very good reference, the Sigma 70mm F/2.8 DG.
- For the 4/3 Micro formats: Here, we’re talking about Olympus and Panasonic brands which use the same mount. Not to mention macro lenses with manual focus which will certainly not be of for interest beginners, three lenses stand out in Micro 4/3 :
- At Fuji: everyone loves the same reference and I particularly recommend the Fuji 80mm f/2.8 for all owners of mirrorless APS-C cameras looking to start out in macro photography!
- At Canon: although they don’t offer a large quantity of lenses for mirrorless cameras (it will surely increase), you have two nice references with short focal lengths which is perfect for close subjects for instance. For Canon’s APS-C mirrorless cameras, there’s the EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM. For Canon’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, the RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM is the reference.
- At Nikon and Panasonic: Unless I’m wrong, both in APS-C and Full Frame format, there are no dedicated macro lenses for Nikon yet. At Panasonic (L-mount), thanks to the Panasonic-Leica-Sigma alliance, the 70mm f/2.8 Art Macro is now available in Panasonic L-mount.
I could also have asked the question the other way around, how to choose your macro lens in relation to your camera? Indeed, some macro lenses are only compatible for an APS-C sensor. Macro lenses for Full-Frame (Canon EF) will not be a problem, no matter what your camera sensor is. Choose carefully then. If you are a beginner and have a limited budget, you will be more likely to have an APS-C sensor. By the way, do you want to know how to choose your DSLR camera?
What you really need to understand is that there is, what we call a conversion factor between an APS-C and a Full-Frame body. In itself, it’s not complicated (I explain it in detail in the article in the link above), but it is important to understand the nuance. The focal length given on your macro lens refers to the focal length on a Full Frame sensor. So if you buy a 100mm lens and place it on an APS-C camera, you get the equivalent of a 150mm focal length (x1.5 conversion factor), which is a game changer…
In concrete terms, it is still something to think about. On an APS-C, a 100mm will already allow you to take pictures of butterflies or dragonflies for example. On a Canon 6D Full frame camera like mine, a 100mm remains a 100mm, so my focal length is “shorter” than on an APS-C. Indeed, if I had to buy a macro lens (which I expect to do), I would really hesitate whether or not to go straight to a 150mm.
I can’t re-explain all the information in the article on how to choose your DSLR.
However, here are some important points for choosing a DSLR body at the same time as a macro lens
- Try to choose a camera with the best possible ISO management: indeed, in order to keep the highest possible shutter speed, you will often have to choose a high ISO on your camera. Having a body that handles high ISO and manages it very well without making too much noise will therefore be a plus,
- A maximum of focusing points well-spaced out on the screen and of better quality: the more AF focus points you have on your screen, the more easily you will be able to focus on your subject according to the composition you want. With only 11 AF focusing points (which are quite centered) on my 6D, I pulled my hair out quite a bit. Having a large number of AF focusing points of great quality will therefore be very important in my opinion,
- Be careful with the lenses. If you are considering buying a 60mm Tamron to start in macro photography, do not use it on a Full Frame camera because it will not be compatible,
- The burst mode can be very useful in macro too. This should be taken into account if you are hesitating between 2 cameras.
Obviously, in the vast majority of cases (or even all the time), the Full-Frame will be better than the APS-C sensor, but the purchase cost and the associated lenses are not the same… Therefore, it is a matter of choice and especially of budget.
I will not go into detail on all the macro accessories mentioned below, knowing that I am not an expert in the field. If you are an expert in macro photography and would like to help me in writing a full article on one of the accessories bellow, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Everyone agrees that a macro lens is the best way to start in the field. However, it is often the budget that slows you down when starting off, even though starting with a 90mm Tamron doesn’t cost that much in the end…
Here, I present four essential accessories for all those who wish to have a good overview of macro photography for a low price.
In other words, it is the cheapest technique to start out in macro photography without having to buy a lens. You may not know this, but it is possible to screw your lens onto the body of your camera via a reversing ring. This is called reverse macro photography. It is said that a 50mm fixed focal length lens will be the ideal lens for this technique, approaching the 1:1 reproduction ratio I mentioned at the beginning of this article. You can use other focal lengths, but keep in mind that the shorter the focal length, the higher the reproduction ratio (and therefore it will be more difficult to start with). You can find reversing rings here.
The principle is simple: take your lens, turn it around and place it on your reversing ring, which is screwed between your lens and your DSLR. However, there are two disadvantages to be aware of:
- You lose your automatisms, so you can no longer focus automatically or change the aperture of your diaphragm (although there is a technique for letting the depth of field tester (button) be held while disassembling the lens and screwing it back on the reversal ring). You will therefore need to master manual focusing,
- All your lens’s other connections are exposed (since it is inverted) and the risk of dropping it or of causing dust to enter the sensor is high!
It’s clearly a good way to get started in macro without breaking the bank (less than 15€). If possible, try to use a metal reversal ring rather than a plastic one. There is no loss of quality in the images (or almost).
This is another very practical macro accessory for a low cost (although it is more expensive than the reversing ring). They are simply converging lenses that attach to the front of your lens. They work like a magnifying glass and reduce the minimum focusing distance, allowing the subject to be magnified. Note that you can stack the close-up lenses to increase the “zoom level”. It will be necessary to adapt the choice of your conversion lens to the diameter of your lens.
Also known as close-up filters, they are easy to use, lightweight and space saving. However. It is very often advised to invest in a good quality conversion lens. There are indeed many unknown brands that offer these accessories but the quality is likely to be very disappointing. One of the leading brands in the field: Raynox.
Extension tubes are simply hollow tubes (without lenses) that reduce the focusing distance to your subject (and thus increase the magnification factor). They are generally sold in packs of three. Prices and quality vary a lot, from 15€ to more than a hundred euros for good quality extension rings. It should be noted that the low-end models do not allow for the automatisms to be kept (autofocus and aperture adjustment), unlike the more expensive models.
The main advantage of this cheap solution is that the image quality does not change (since it is a hollow tube). On the other hand, the main disadvantage is the loss of light as you stack more and more tubes. The further away your lens is from the sensor in your camera, the less light that will be able to come in and you will often have to compensate with using a high ISO. For those looking for a good quality model of extension rings, the Kenko brand is a good reference.
Like the extension tubes mentioned above, the macro bellows have the same advantage, i. e. to reduce the focusing distance with your subject. The main difference being that the accessory is composed of a central accordion mounted on a rack, allowing you to get as close as you wish and still be able to focus very precisely.
There is still no loss of image quality since no optical elements are present in the bellows. However, the loss of light is more important and it is impossible to use a bellows without a tripod. To compensate for this lack of brightness, many photographers will use macro flashes. This is why I would often advise for extended rings or a conversion lenses to be used in the beginning rather than a bellows that should be reserved for indoor photos.
There is a big debate about whether or not it is worth using a flash. Some people love it, others don’t. The same applies for tripods (see paragraph below). There are specialized flashes for macro, especially ring flashes and multi-reflector flashes. As a general rule, macro photography flashes are found on the front of your lens and even on the sides. A classic cobra flash is not suitable for macro photography. Indeed, the working distance in macro photography is so short that part of your lens obscures the flash’s flash.
To sum it up simply, the round ring flash is attached to the front of your lens. The multi-reflector flashes are composed of two flash heads, surrounding the side of your lens and placed aside. I won’t say any more about this because it’s not the purpose of the article, and I hope to be able to write more precisely on the subject soon.
The last accessory dedicated to macro photography: tripods. As I said, some professional and even amateur photographers like them, others prefer to use just their hands all the time. However, depending on the light and shooting conditions, using a tripod can be very helpful.
I have already written a detailed article on tripods in photography, so I won’t repeat everything here. There are some points to look at more precisely when you are interested in buying a tripod, especially for macro (but not only):
- The minimum height of the tripod seems to be a determining factor in macro photography, knowing that you will often find yourself quite low or even on the ground. You will therefore need to look at the maximum leg opening angle,
- The central column of the tripod is the other point to look at closely. Some tripods have an invertible column, which can be very useful for placing your camera upside down, for example, flush with the ground.
If you are considering such a purchase, think twice about it anyway, considering some of the prices….
That’s it, I’ve reached the end of everything I wanted to say about choosing a macro lens and it’s associated accessories. You should be able to make your choice more easily now. Not all the accessories were reviewed in detail, but I briefly mentioned all the possibilities!
On your side, how did you start macro photography? With what accessories? Did you find this difficult? In my case, I am more and more interested in buying a macro lens because it opens up almost infinite possibilities in the world of the infinitely small, a world that we cannot see in everyday life. That’s why i have done lot of research and wrote this post. It opens up perspectives, don’t you think? So what macro lens do you think you should buy? Are you looking for information on wide-angle lenses for photography?
See you soon,