What is a macro lens?
A true macro lens is one which is specially designed to focus up close and can do a 1:1, or life-size reproduction, of the subject.
Regular lenses have a minimum focusing distance which doesn't allow you to get close enough to a tiny subject to make it that big. For example my 85mm f/1.8 can only focus at three feet, no closer. The Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens (shown here) can focus at about one foot, allowing you to get much closer.
Which lens should you select?
There are many different focal length options available for macro lenses, so which one should you choose?
They range from about 35mm to up to 200mm focal lengths. Most macro specialists recommend something in the middle.
Go too short, like 35mm, and you have to get really close to your subject which can cause issues if you're trying to photograph insects, or even lighting problems can occur as the lens shadows your subject it's so close.
For example, the Nikon 40mm Micro (what they call macro) has a minimum focusing distance of 6.4″.
That's crazy close.
A good choice is one that gets you close enough for true macro, while still giving the subject some space. On full frame 90mm and higher is a good bet, for cropped sensors (APS-C) try a 60mm or longer.
There is one other special lens worth mentioning that stands in a class of its own, the Canon 65mm 1-5x Macro.
It can actually magnify your subject up to five times its actual size.
If you aren't a Canon shooter and this appeals to you, perhaps you can get an adaptor to mount to your camera.
See how a macro photographer uses this lens to photograph snowflakes and other tiny subjects in my interview with Don Komarechka here.
How do you use it?
Well you use a macro lens just like any other. In fact the 100mm macro also makes a great portrait lens. Keep in mind that if you decide to add one of these specialty lenses to your kit, it can do more for you than just macro. Get one that will do what you need for closeup work, and do double duty for another area of photography you like to do like portraits, or street photography even.
Pros and Cons
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a macro lens over some of the other options?
Simply put, you can get the best quality image possible for closeup photography by using a macro lens. You can use autofocus (although not recommended for macro photography) and the lens makes electric contact with the camera so you have full use of all aperture settings – this is not so with some of the other options. You lose no light – a macro lens doesn't not cut down the light, unlike extension tubes.
Macro lenses do come with a higher cost, so prepare to take a hit in your pocketbook. It also means carrying yet another lens, usually a prime or fixed focal length one. So you will also get some added weight in your bag. If you travel a lot and want to do macro then factor that in when you decide which macro option is best for your needs.
Here are a few example images:
Can't afford a macro lens?
The examples above where done with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. But what do you do if buying a dedicated macro lens is not in your budget right now?
Here are several lower cost options:
- Rent one: I do not own that lens so I rented it for a weekend, which cost me about $55. Check at your local camera store to see if that's an option. It will also give you a good idea if you want to buy one at some point in the future, or not. You may decide macro isn't for you – so spend the rental fee to find out before going all in and buying one.
- Borrow or share one: Join a camera club or make some other photography friends. See if anyone has a macro lens you can either borrow or rent from them, or go out and shoot with together for an afternoon. Or you could try a new service by Camera Lends where you rent a lens from someone else that owns one, or buy one and rent it out to help cover your costs. (Note: I do not endorse this service as I've not tried or tested it, use at your own risk)
- Get extension tubes: This is a slightly less expensive option but if you go for the ones that make connections with the camera you'll likely be paying $150 and up for a set of three tubes. I'll cover these in more detail in a future followup article.
- Try reverse lens macro: This is the least expensive option for doing macro photography but also has the most challenges. Read: How to turn your 50mm into a Macro lens for under $20. I will also cover this in another followup article.
- Closeup filters: Not my favourite option as you're putting less expensive glass in front of your good lenses so image quality will vary greatly depending on the filters you get. I recommend extension tubes over filters as a better choice because you can end up spending about the same to get good ones. They only fit on one lens (or you need lots of adapter rings), add more weight to your bag, and have a higher risk of being broken.
The Ultimate Guide to Macro Photography
The next article in this series:
So in the end, a macro lens is the best choice if you want to do serious macro work. Possibly even a macro lens and extension tubes if you want to get real close.
But I recommend trying one before you invest in purchasing.
Make sure you really love doing macro photography and it's something you're going to stick with for the duration, not just have fun for a few days and put it in the closet.