Which Macro Lens?

Canon EF 100mm F2.8L USM Macro
Canon EF 100mm F2.8L USM Macro

After my last article – Macro Photography Tips, I received plenty of requests to write more about Macro Photography. I thought I will write few basic tutorials on that subject. So let us start with the most common question I am asked, about macro photography – Which Macro Lens?

Macro photography is close-up photography, usually of very small subjects. Present day it is usually used to denote to a finished photograph of a subject at greater than life size. Likewise, a macro lens is classically one lens capable of reproduction ratios greater than 1:1, although it now refers to any lens with a large reproduction ratio, despite rarely exceeding 1:1.

Red Palm Weevil
Red Palm Weevil

Macro lenses are dedicated lenses which can achieve 1:1 magnification. If you have a zoom lens that says it’s a Macro, don’t believe it. Sure it’ll get you close, likely to within 1:3 magnification (that’s 1/3 life-size on the film or sensor) but technically, true macro is considered 1:1 magnification—life-sized or higher. A macro lens is simply a lens that is designed to provide optimal performance at its closest focus. Macro lenses are designed to provide the maximum resolution and sharpness and least distortion the closer you focus. They are specialist lenses designed for a very specific function. Surely you can use them as portrait lenses but that is not their purpose of existence.

In the market there are plenty of macro lenses which have different focal lengths. They start from around 50mm going up to 200mm. Then comes the question which lens is ideal and what is the use of these different focal length, if all that they can produce is 1:1 magnification. Remember 1:1 magnification of these lenses occur when you focus these lenses at the closest focusing distance. This is the main reason of differentiation for the various focal lengths in the market.

Camponotus Ant Tending Aphids
Camponotus Ant Tending Aphids

Longer focal length macro lenses generally give you more distance-to-subject working space for the same subject framing. Let us take 3 lenses from canon stable which I am familiar with as example. Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens & Canon EF 180mm f/3.5 L USM lens. 1:1 working distance for the 60mm is 9cm, 100mm is 15cm & 180mm is 24cm. Shy insects and other animals may get scared away with the close proximity a 60mm macro requires. A 100mm or even longer are a good option for those. In contrast, if you use a 180mm on small stationary objects in a studio (eg. jewelry) the long working distance of the 180 may not be an advantage and a 60mm may be a better choice. Larger than 100mm lenses are too unwieldy and need either monopod or tripod to work. More working distance is usually better for my type of macro work but due to wait constraints I prefer 100mm which has best of both the worlds.

The focal length also affects other macro photography aspects. Longer focal lengths require more distance to acquire the same subject framing. The result is a change of perspective – the telephotos compress/flatten the subject features more than short focal lengths. The wider angle of view of the short focal length macro lenses mean that more of the background will be in the picture – and that the background will be less-diffusely blurred.

Potter Wasp Giving Finishing Touches
Potter Wasp Giving Finishing Touches

Here is a list of few popular macro lenses in the market arranged depending on their focal lengths.

35-50mm:

  • Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 E-ED Digital 1:1 Macro for Four Thirds DSLRs, 70mm equivalent
  • Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro: compact entry-level macro, focuses to 1:2; Needs a 2x multiplier brings you to lifesize
  • Olympus 50mm f/2 E-ED Digital Macro for E: 1:2 magnification, but with 2x crop factor of olympus it’s like a 1:1 lens.
  • Pentax 50mm f/2.8 Macro: compact, fits 35mm and APS DSLRs
  • Sony 50mm f/2.8a Macro ISO5028MD: 1:1 magnification, AF; circular aperture for good Bokeh.

60-90mm:

  • Nikon 60mm f/2.8 D AF Micro-Nikkor: 1:1, also good for portraits on an APS DSLR.
  • Canon EF-S Macro lens – 60 mm – F/2.8: 1:1 magnification designed for APS DSLRs only.
  • Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II: 1:1 magnification, internal focusing, designed for APS DSLRs only.
  • Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro: (manual focus); Only lens in the world which focuses to 5:1. I am proud owner of one. Let me tell you if you want super macro you need this hell of a lens.
  • Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG AF Macro: low-cost alternative fast Macro lens
  • Nikon 85mm f/3.5 G AF-S DX Micro ED (VR-II): Internal focus, 1:1, vibration reduction
  • Sony Planar 85mm T* f/1.4: 1:1 magnification, AF, circular aperture for smooth bokeh, doubles as a great portrait lens.
  • Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di: highly-rated mid-range macro
Male Giant Crab Spider Close up
Male Giant Crab Spider Close up

100-105mm:

  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro (AF): Inner-focusing to 1:1
  • Canon EF 100 f/2.8L IS USM (AF): 1:1 plus hybrid 3 axis image stabilization, This is my current macro lens. See my review of this lens here
  • Sony 100mm f/2.8a: 1:1 magnification, works with full-size and APS sensor DSLRs
  • Tokina AT-X 100mm f/2.8: macro also valued as a portrait lens
  • Pentax D-FA 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR: 1:1 magnification, water resistant! Compatible with 35mm film and digital APS models.
  • Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor: Latest generation of the 1:1 macro classic, with AF and vibration reduction added.

150-200mm:

  • Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG APO AF: 1:1, wide aperture for a long lens, compatible with 35mm, APS format cameras.
  • Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM: 1:1, internal floating system so front element doesn’t move
  • Tamron SP 180mm f/3.5 Di Macro LD-IF: 1:1, internal focusing
  • Nikon 200mm f/4 ED-IF AF Micro Telephoto Nikkor: Longest macro tele lens, 1:1 magnification

(Thanks for Adorama for this List)

I know this is just the tip of the iceberg about Macro lenses. If you like to know more please discuss below in the comment and I will be glad to respond.

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