What’s the best macro lens for your kit? Read this first!
Macro photography can be a lot of fun to shoot. There is just something fascinating about seeing tiny details at life-size. There’s a whole teeny, tiny world out there waiting for an explorer like you! The problem? To uncover these bijou realms, you need a macro lens.
Choosing the best macro lens for you is hard. Heck, even deciding if you really need a macro lens is kind of challenging, let alone deciphering what all the 1:1 magnification gobbeldy-gook means. But don’t let these small details get in the way of nailing big results with a macro lens. Today, I’ll cover what makes a macro lens different from regular lenses and highlight a few great lenses on the market today. And I’ll wrap up with some low cost dedicated macro lens alternatives. So grab some coffee, a notebook and your bifocals (or is that just me???) and we’ll decipher the fine print of the macro lens!
What is a macro lens?
Have you ever tried to take a picture up close of something really small like a flower or bug? Except you failed. Miserably. Maybe your image was blurry. Or maybe the details were still too small. Either way, your current lens wasn’t up to the task. What you need in these instances is a macro lens!
A macro lens is a specialty lens in photography. It’s designed to take close-up photos of small subjects and magnify them to at least real-life size on your camera’s sensor.
Macro lenses also make excellent portrait lenses! They are sharp and offer great color and contrast. So don’t feel like the only thing a macro lens can do is shoot macro images!
Do I really need a macro lens?
It can be hard to decide if the best macro lens is something you NEED versus something you WANT. Only you can decide if it’s worth the investment and space in your bag. But here are some times when a macro lens really comes in handy!
- Macro photography: Photographing small objects, animals, insects, plants or textures.
- Pet photography: photographing small animals or insects. Use a macro lens to fill the frame with a hamster or guniea pig, for example!
- Wedding and event photography: detail shots like rings, other jewelry or party/reception details AND portraits.
- Newborn photography: detail shots like eyelashes, wrinkly skin, tiny fingers or toes AND portraits, if you have the room to shoot them.
- Product photography: photographing products of any kind! A macro lens is great for capturing small details AND wider shots!
- Families and seniors: you might not need many macro shots but a dedicated macro lens is awesome for regular portraits, too!
So if you are going to be shooting lots of detail shots, such as a wedding photographer with a heavy workload or a product photographer, a dedicated macro lens makes sense.
If you only occasionally need a macro shot but don’t have a telephoto length lens, investing in a lens like a 105 mm f/2.8 macro may be a great double-duty investment.
If you already own a telephoto length portrait lens you love and rarely shoot macro images, you might be better off saving yourself the money and investing in a non-lens alternative described below!
What to look for in the best macro lens
Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths, from 40 mm up to 200 mm. Most are prime lenses. The shorter the focal length, generally, the less expensive the lens, making them a more attractive investment if you’re looking to save on costs. But these shorter lenses also require you to get closer to the subject. That *could* scare away subjects or require you to get closer than you really want to (ever tried to shoot a bumble bee from mere inches away?). You can also get so close you block the ambient light from hitting your subject.
I recommend a focal length of at least 100 mm in most cases. This gives you more working room and lets you still grab detail shots without getting all up in the business of your subjects.
Most macro lenses are f/2.8 or f/4. If you’re traditionally a portrait shooter that loves shooting wide open, this might concern you. It shouldn’t. In macro photography, you’re working with very limited depth-of-field. You actually WANT to use narrower apertures like f/8, f/11 or f/16 to have a greater depth-of-field. So don’t be alarmed that the lens isn’t as fast as other prime lenses you may own.
If you’re buying a macro lens that you plan to use for portraits, too, the f/2.8 aperture might not be as big of a deal as you think. Longer lenses, like the 90 mm or 105 mm, can still render beautiful bokeh and creamy backgrounds because of the compression offered by longer focal lengths.
True macro lenses should offer a 1:1 magnification ratio (see below) or greater. Look for 1:1, 2:1 or the big gun, 5:1. If the number on the right side of the ratio is greater than the number on the left side, it’s not a true macro lens. True macro lenses are always at least 1:1.
Some macro lenses don’t offer autofocus capabilities. For dedicated macro shooters, this isn’t a big deal. They use manual focus all the time anyway. But if you’re considering a macro lens to pull double-duty as a portrait lens, you may want to ensure the lens has auto-focus.
Image stabilization is included on some of the best macro lenses and left off of others. If you’re shooting a lot of extreme close-ups, you’re going to want a tripod. Image stabilization (or vibration reduction, as Nikon calls it) should be turned off when using a tripod. But if you need IS or VR for field work or portrait work, check to see if the lenses you are considering offer it. You need to decide how big of a deal it is.
How are macro lenses different than regular lenses?
True macro lenses differ from regular lenses in a few important ways:
- Flat field design
- Focusing distance
For illustration purposes, I’m going to talk about two lenses I keep in my kit most of the time, my Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 lens and my Tokina 105mm f/2.8 macro lens for Nikon.
Magnification is usually noted as a ratio of 1 to 100, which we write as a ration like 1:100. A true macro lens will offer at least 1:1 magnification. That means the size of the image in real life is the same size at it’s captured on your camera’s sensor. Regular cameras usually offer much less, generally around 1:4 or 1:5.
Tokina 105mm f/2.8 macro lens: 1:1 magnification vs.
Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 lens: 1:6.7 magnification
Nikon 85 mm f/1.8 lens:
That means if I shoot an insect that is one inch long with my Tokina, the insect will be captured at the same size on my sensor. On my Nikon 50 mm, however, the insect is 6.7 times larger in real life than it is captured on my sensor. Put another way, the macro ratio tells you how much the subject will be enlarged in the final image.
Closer focusing distance
Macro lenses offer closer focusing distances than regular lenses. This is important because to offer 1:1 magnification, the minimum focusing distance must be short enough to allow for it. Let’s compare my macro lens to a few other lenses in my kit.
Tokina 105 mm macro lens: 11.8″ minimum focusing distance (first picture below)
Nikon 50 mm lens: 1.48′ or 17.76″ minimum focusing distance (second picture below)
Nikon 24-120 mm lens: 2.62′ or 31.44″ minimum focusing distance
As you can see from the numbers above, the Tokina macro lens lets me get closer to my subject with a shorter minimum focusing distance than other lenses. Check out the images below to see the difference. The first is with my macro lens, the second is with my 50 mm lens, getting as close to my subject as the lens would allow.
Flat field design
The front glass element of a regular lens is usually slightly curved. As a result, the center of an image is in sharpest focus. The image gets softer as we move toward the edges of the frame. Or the edges can be in sharper focus while the center is soft. You can’t achieve sharp focus across the entire image. That’s one reason why photographers are told to use their center focus point.
Many macro lenses are designed with a flat focus field to minimize this field curvature to improve sharpness across the image. To see just how much field curvature you’ll experience with a lens, you’ll need to see a MTF chart for the lens, which are usually available directly from the manufacturer. Before you get hung up on the nuances, though, understand that ALL lenses suffer from field curvature of some kind.
True Macro Lenses: Accept No Substitutes
I keep writing “true macro lens” for a reason. There are plenty of lenses out there billing themselves as marco lenses that simply aren’t. Usually these lenses simply have a closer minimum focusing distance than other lenses of the same focal length. A “true macro lens” offers at least 1:1 magnification. If you want to truly shoot macro images, look for the minimum 1:1 ratio.
What is the best macro lens for Canon?
Canon shooters have a number of great macro lens options. But the most impressive and best macro lens offerings is the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X lens. This lens allows for up to 5:1 magnification. That’s a HUGE advantage for macro shooting. It also offers a minimum focusing distance of 9.4 inches. The lens is manual focus only, though. And at around $1,000, it’s not exactly cheap. But if you plan to make your living shooting very small objects, it’s an investment worth considering.
Other top Canon choices for best macro lens
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM lens
- Canon EF 180mm f/2.5L Macro USM lens
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens
- Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EK DG OS HSM Macro lens
What is the best macro lens for Nikon?
Nikon shooters also have access to some of the best macro lenses. Nikon calls their macro lenses “micro.” Why? I have no idea, other than maybe they thought it made more sense to consumers who wanted to see small objects, as in a microscope. But micro=macro.
The choice of many high volume macro pro shooters I know is the Nikon 200mm f/4 AF-D micro lens. This lens is so sharp, it’s crazy. It also has an oversized focusing ring to help with fine-tuning focus. It’s heavy but earns its reputation as the best 200mm macro lens for good reason. It costs about $1,800 new, however. Some other, less expensive options might make the best macro lens for you!
Other great Nikon choices
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8 G AF-@ VR IF-ED
- Sigma 180 f/2.8 APO Macro EX DG OS HSM
- Tokina 100 mm f/2.8 D (see our full review of this lens!)
- Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8 G ED
Non-Lens Macro alternatives
If a dedicated macro lens isn’t in your budget right now, you have options. Here are a few other options to consider. If you’re interested in these, head on over to our Macro Photography tutorial for some more details!
- Macro extension tubes – these hollow tubes snap between your lens and camera body, effectively giving you a closer minimum focusing distance, which lets you capture smaller details closer up.
- Marco bellows – this accordion-like device that also snaps between your lens and camera body. It also creates a closer minimum focusing distance.
- Reversed lens – if you flip a standard lens around, you can actually use it for macro shots. This technique takes some time to perfect, but you’ll get a closer focusing distance and magnification abilities. All without spending a dime! Check out the video below to see how it works!
- Telephoto lenses – telephoto lenses can also be used to shoot close-up images. They aren’t true macro shots as nothing is magnified. But you can use a telephoto lens and get what I call near-macro results. If you only occasionally need a macro shot, this might work for you! Just keep in mind the minimum focusing distance and watch for camera shake!
Macro photography is a lot of fun and can add great variety to your existing portrait sessions, weddings or events. A true macro lens makes shooting macro images that much quicker and easier and most also make great portrait lenses. Only you can decide if a macro lens is worth adding to your lens collection. But if you haven’t done much macro work, I encourage you to give it a try! You might find success is closer than you think!