Best Lens For Macro

Lenses That Get You Close • Stabilizing On Monopods And Tripods • Remote Camera Control • The Wildflower Photographer’s Toolbox

Classic Colorado Columbine. Lepp used a 180mm macro lens to emphasize the columbines in the foreground by throwing the background out of focus. The lens was stopped down to ƒ/11 to maximize the depth of field on the subject, keeping it sharp. 1⁄250 sec. at ISO 200

Lenses That Get You Close

Q I want a macro lens to capture close-ups of spring wildflowers. There are several choices, however, and I'm not sure which type of lens to purchase. What are the pros and cons of each available type?
K. Brian
Seattle, Washington

A When choosing a macro lens, it's not just about magnification. You need to consider also the type of sensor your camera has (full-frame or APS-C), the kind of working distance you need and the variety of uses you plan. Once you have a macro lens, you'll be photographing more than flowers with it, I guarantee.

Standard-focal-length macros in the 50-65mm range for full-frame and APS-C cameras have been around for a long time. They usually offer magnification to 1X, but with limited working distance—that is, the distance from the front of the lens to the subject. In other words, to use the lens effectively, you have to position it very close to the subject. This makes it difficult to get enough light onto it, whether it's ambient light or flash, and tends to scare away live subjects, such as insects.

There are special macro lenses in the 60mm range designed just for the APS-C-sensor formats. The angle of view of these macros is equivalent to approximately a 100mm macro, which means you can achieve 1X with them.

If you can only buy one macro lens, I think the best choice is in the 90-105mm focal lengths. These offer more working distance and still give 1X magnification; most have exceptional image stabilization for handholding.

The telephoto macros in the 180-200mm focal-length range offer the most working distance for a true macro lens. They also offer 1X magnification without any accessories, and because they're a longer focal length, they tend to throw the background out of focus when desired. Because of the working distance and the ability to isolate the subject from a busy background, this is the ideal butterfly lens.

Another macro lens, exclusive to Canon, is the MP-E 65mm 1-5X lens. It won't focus to infinity, but gives excellent sharpness from 1X to 5X on a Canon full-frame DSLR. The magnification is 1.6X to 8X with a camera having an APS-C sensor. I've used this lens with both the EF 1.4X and EF 2X tele-extenders to achieve magnifications up to 10X on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Note that either a tripod or an electronic flash is needed for sharp results in magnifications beyond 1X.


Stabilizing On Monopods And Tripods

Q I have a question about using image stabilization with a monopod. I'm aware that IS must be shut off when using a tripod, in that the lens will be hunting about if there's no camera movement, resulting in image blurring. I would assume there's always some movement/shake with a monopod-mounted camera and lens, but is it not enough so that one still gets image blurring when using IS, as is the case with a tripod? Should I always turn IS off when using a monopod just to be safe?
D. Pitts
Via email

A Image stabilization (known as IS, VR, OS, VC, etc., by various lens manufacturers) is very helpful in countering camera movement to render sharp images in handheld setups. The stabilization system continues to work just fine, and is beneficial, at faster shutter speeds of 1⁄4 second or less on a monopod or even a tripod. For longer exposures from a tripod, the stabilization system needs to be turned off on many consumer-level lenses because if it's functioning, the compensating rear element in the lens becomes active, and the element itself causes what looks like camera movement. Presumably, you wouldn't be taking a long exposure from a monopod, so leaving the stabilization system on constantly isn't a problem.

Some high-end telephotos have a stabilization system that senses that the camera and lens are on a stable platform and the lens modifies its stabilization algorithms accordingly; for these lenses, the stabilization system can be kept on all the time. Check the specifications for your lens to determine if it has a modified stabilization system for tripods.

Remote Camera Control

Q I would like to place a camera on a long pole to get a different perspective. How do I monitor what the camera sees so that I can be sure that the image is what I want?
B. Logan
Via email

A We used to just imagine the possibility of getting a camera into places a photographer couldn't go, but now there are lots of ways to do this. Your example of elevation on a pole is one example; other scenarios include placing a remote camera into a nest or den to observe without disturbing the occupants; controlling the camera in an awkward position, such as close to the ground in macro; placing the camera in a dangerous location where you don't want to be, such as outside at night in an African reserve; or using a monitor and computer software to manage an extensive stack in high-magnification photography. These few examples should make it clear: You really, really need to do this!

Many camera manufacturers have created systems to accomplish this. Connected systems work via a cable linked between the camera and a laptop computer that has a camera utility, which controls and operates the camera. Obviously, with these systems the distance between photographer and subject is limited to the length of the cable. If you want to operate wirelessly, you'll need a camera with built-in WiFi or an accessory transmitter, along with an Internet connection. In some cases, you can make your own Internet local connection via an ad hoc signal. These accessories can be expensive.


Recently, some new wireless setups have hit the market; these employ camera transmitters that speak to phones or tablets. I'm using a great new system from CamRanger (www.camranger.com), where I connect the transmitter to the camera's mini-USB port and it sends a signal to my Apple iPad. I can see the "Live View" and control the camera and the lens focus. This connection is good up to 150 feet. Another system you might look into is onOne Software's DSLR Camera Remote (www.ononesoftware.com). From either a laptop connected directly to the camera or from the manufacturer's expensive WiFi transmitter, you can control the camera wirelessly from your tablet or smartphone.

The Wildflower Photographer's Toolbox
When you read this there will be flowers popping up all over the place. In the Southwest, they will be in full bloom, while in other parts of the country, the temperatures will just be getting warm enough to get the plants sprouting. April is prime time for wildflowers near the Central Coast of California where I spent nearly 30 years pursuing images. There seems to be more moisture this year in that area so I'll be back on my knees and belly capturing their color.

Aside from cameras and lenses, a number of tools are important to me when I'm photographing wildflowers. As I get older, knee pads are among the most important! I find these in the local hardware store, and if I forget to pack them, they're easily replaced near my destination. (I now have three sets.) Also useful is a 3x4-foot moisture-proof cloth; mine is black ripstop. I also use it to cover myself and my iPad when I'm looking at images in the field or as a black background when the area behind the subject is too busy or bright. A small knife with scissors is needed to trim out the occasional dead twig or finished flower to save time in postprocessing. No, I'm not a purist.

A right-angle viewfinder is a photographic tool especially useful for wildflower photography. It keeps me from having to dig a hole to get low enough to see through the camera when working at ground level. Most camera manufacturers offer this accessory, or check out the aftermarket finders from Hoodman (www.hoodmanusa.com). Actually, the CamRanger wireless camera I described can help you here, as well. I'll be putting mine to work this spring for low-angle flower shots. Don't forget a focusing slider or rail, available in simple form or as an adjustable two-axis rail from Really Right Stuff (reallyrightstuff.com). With higher magnification close-ups, it's easier to precisely slide the camera/lens than it is to move a tripod/camera/lens a few millimeters to achieve your focus and framing.

Speaking of getting low and keeping the background clean, I recommend the Wimberley Plamp (www.tripodhead.com) to either immobilize a subject or hold back something you don't want in the photograph. With an accessory from Thompson Photographic Accessories (www.fmsmacrosystems.com), you can add a spike or diffuser/reflector clamp to the end of the Plamp.

We'll finish this off with my choices for low tripods, the best of which is the Really Right Stuff Ground Level tripod. My other regular tripod is the Gitzo Explorer (www.gitzo.com), which comes in a number of versions. This tripod will steady a camera all the way down to ground level. It's the best all-around nature tripod available today, especially if macro is part of your agenda.

Follow George Lepp's exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/georgelepp. And Lepp is now a part of the OP Blog on our website, www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog/author/glepp.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

2 Comments

    As a wildflower photographer, my major challenge is using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, while having enough depth of field to keep the entire subject in focus. In other words, you need a lot of light!

    I solve this problem by using a short macro lens (Nikon 40mm) and a small flash (Nikon SB-400 with a Sto-Fen diffuser). At these short distances, you have plenty of light to shoot at your camera’s maximum flash sync speed (1/250 sec for a Nikon D7000) with a lot of depth of field (usually f22). The short lens and flash allows tripod-free shots of hand-held subjects in any conditions (including wind and low light) and the camera/lens/flash combo is easy to carry in the field. Plus, you can fill your frame with an entire plant from only a couple feet away. Great for flash work and hand-held subjects. If you love wildflower macros it’s a great and light-weight combination, but natural light macros can suffer from the short focal distance and narrow depth-of-field.

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