Macro Lens Guide

A proper macro lens is designed to eliminate aberrations, focus colors and attain maximum sharpness on close-up subjects
macro lens guide

Macro is one of the more challenging types of photography from a technical perspective, and choosing the right lens for macro work can be similarly perplexing. The word macro is often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably with “close-up.” The two are not synonymous. While a macro image may indeed be made at a close distance to the subject, it’s the magnification of the subject, and not its proximity to the lens, that defines macro photography.

Macro is the photo opportunity that’s always available. You can find good close-up subjects just about anywhere. All you need is a way to make your camera focus close enough. Dedicated macro lenses are the best option because they can focus from infinity down to close enough to produce a life-size (1:1) magnification at the image plane. Macro lenses also are optically optimized for close focusing distances, so they produce better results at such close range than non-macro lenses used with extension tubes (and lenses with extension tubes attached can no longer focus out to infinity).

Most macro lenses also are well corrected for flat fieldwork, such as photographing stamps and coins, which may or may not be useful for nature photography. The main drawbacks of macro lenses are that they’re generally bulkier and more costly than non-macro lenses of equal focal length, although the differences today aren’t nearly as great as they were some years ago.

Macro Lens Magnification

What makes a “true” macro lens? Many lenses are labeled “macro” by manufacturers because they are able to focus at very close distances, but that doesn’t make them true macro lenses.

When we talk about magnification regarding macro lenses, we’re talking about magnification at the image plane. You can blow up the image well beyond that on your computer monitor or in a print, and that can make the macro subject much bigger than in real life—even if you shot it with a non-macro lens. But the macro lens gives you the advantage of more pixels recording the subject instead of being thrown away. The image of the subject will be recorded bigger in the frame, with the potential to reveal more detail.

A true macro lens will have 1:1, or 1x magnification (or greater). What this means is that the size of the subject projected on the image plane by the lens is its actual physical size—a flower that’s 2 centimeters in diameter will be rendered 2 centimeters in diameter on the sensor.

It’s important to note that sensor size does not affect the magnification power of the lens itself. This is a common misconception. The “crop factor” of smaller sensors is just that: a crop. This makes an object appear magnified in relationship to the sensor’s frame because the image circle produced by the lens is larger than the sensor. So for practical purposes, you do get more magnification with the smaller sensor in that the subject fills up more of the image frame. The actual magnification produced by the lens at the image plane doesn’t change; rather, it’s the amount of that image that each sensor size sees that changes.

Macro Lens Focal Lengths

Focal length is an important consideration in macro photography because it determines your “working distance” from the subject. The longer the focal length, the greater the working distance to achieve 1:1 magnification. With a 100mm macro, you’ll be twice the distance from your subject than with a 50mm macro. This is beneficial when photographing live subjects that may be alarmed by your proximity. You’re also less likely to block ambient light on your subject—another inherent challenge of macro photography—when working from a greater distance.

A normal (50mm for a full-frame camera) macro lens produces its 1x magnification at a distance of around seven to eight inches, a short tele macro lens (100mm for a full-frame camera) at around 12 inches and a tele (200mm for a full-frame camera) at around 19 inches. Shooting closer to the subject expands perspective, while shooting from farther away compresses it.

Minimum Focusing Distance Of Macro Lenses

Unlike magnification, the minimum focusing distance of a lens is a relatively straightforward concept. This is the closest distance your lens can be positioned from the subject and still achieve sharp focus. You’ll observe that the minimum focusing distance increases along with focal length. That’s because for 1:1 magnification, as noted in our discussion of focal length, you’ll need to be closer to the subject with a wider lens than you will with a telephoto lens.

Macro Lens Depth Of Field

Most normal and short tele macro lenses have a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8, while most tele macros have a maximum aperture of ƒ/3.5 or ƒ/4. Due to the limited depth of field at macro shooting distances, these apertures let you produce dramatic selective-focus effects; focus on a particular part of a flower or the eye of an insect, and everything closer to the camera or farther away blurs nicely.

If you want an entire insect or flower to be sharp, you’ll have to stop the lens way down to increase depth of field. Even then you probably won’t get the entire subject sharp due to the very limited depth of field at very close shooting distances. Stopping the lens way down introduces the effects of diffraction—at very small apertures, light bends around the edges of the aperture, reducing overall sharpness, even as increased depth of field increases it.

Most professional macro photographers use electronic flash to illuminate their subjects. Electronic flash offers two major benefits; it’s bright at macro range, allowing you to stop all the way down to increase depth of field, and its very brief duration at short range (1⁄10,000 sec. and shorter) minimizes the effects of camera shake and subject movement. Special macro flash units mount on the lens and allow you to set them to provide even lighting or directional lighting.

Focusing Macro Subjects

Most macro lenses in production today offer autofocusing, but it’s generally best to focus a macro subject manually. That’s the only way to be sure focus is exactly where you want it. If a particular magnification is desired, set that (most macro lenses have magnification or reproduction ratio reference markings on the barrel), then slowly move the camera in on the subject until it comes into focus in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor if you’re using Live View mode. Once you’ve achieved focus this way, you can activate the AF system to maintain focus if the subject is moving. If you just want the biggest image of the subject, set the lens to its minimum focusing distance, and move in until the subject appears sharp in the finder. Of course, you’re free to position the camera, then adjust focus using the focusing ring or even AF, which can work, too.

Macro Lenses & Image Stabilization

A tripod can hold the camera steadier than we can, and can lock in a composition of a nonmoving subject so you don’t accidentally change it as you squeeze off the shot. For the sharpest, most controlled macro compositions, a tripod is especially essential for macro work. At this level of magnification, even the smallest movements can degrade sharpness.

Working from a tripod also lets you experiment with depth-of-field by varying your aperture without changing your composition, and can be further used for focus stacking techniques. But it can sometimes be difficult to position the camera exactly where you want it for a macro shot using a tripod, so many macro shooters work handheld, using electronic flash’s brief duration to minimize blur due to camera shake. You may want to try it both ways to see which works best for your macro photography. A monopod is a good compromise, making it much easier to position the camera right where you want it, yet providing more support than pure handholding. Still, having the option of optical image stabilization is a nice alternative when using a tripod isn’t practical or possible.

Macro Lens Options For Your Camera System

Following are some of the latest options for macro photography for each of the most popular camera systems and sensor formats.

Canon

The current range of macro lenses from Canon includes five options in the EF lens line designed for full-frame cameras, one EF-S lens for APS-C DSLRs, and one EF-M optic for the EOS M mirrorless system. In addition to the MP-E 65mm shown here, the EF series also includes a 50mm, two 100mm options and a 180mm for greater working distance from your subject.

canon mp-e 65mm macro lens
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro. This dedicated macro lens is uniquely capable of magnifying subjects up to five times life-size.

Format: Full-frame
Magnification: 1x – 5x
Minimum focusing distance: 9.6 inches
Focusing method: Manual
Estimated street price: $1,049

Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM. Designed for use with Canon’s APS-C DSLRs, the lens has an equivalent focal length of 96mm.

canon 60mm macro lens
Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Format: APS-C
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 7.8 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $399

canon 28mm macro lens
Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM

Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM. This versatile optic for Canon’s mirrorless system has a built-in Macro Lite and can focus to infinity.

Format: EOS M
Magnification: 1.2x
Minimum focusing distance: 3.7 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $299

Fujifilm

The selection of macro lenses for Fujifilm’s system is limited at just two optics, one for the GFX system and one for the X Series, and neither is a true macro lens, with maximum magnifications of 0.5x.

fujinon 120mm macro lens
FUJINON GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro

FUJINON GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro. Among the first lenses for the medium-format GFX system, this has an equivalent focal length of 95mm.

Format: Medium format
Magnification: 0.5x
Minimum focusing distance: 17.7 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $2,699

fujinon 60mm macro lens
FUJINON XF60mmF2.4 R Macro

FUJINON XF60mmF2.4 R Macro. The 91mm-equivalent lens for Fujifilm’s X Series cameras offers a relatively fast maximum aperture.

Format: APS-C
Magnification: 0.5x
Minimum focusing distance: 10.5 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $649

Hasselblad

Hasselblad has not yet introduced a macro optic for the new X1D mirrorless camera and has only one option for the H system medium-format cameras.

hasselblad 120mm macro lens
Hasselblad HC MACRO 4/120mm II

Hasselblad HC MACRO 4/120mm II. The 1:1 macro lens for the medium-format H system has an equivalent focal length of 73.5mm.

Format: Medium format
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 15.4 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $5,760

Nikon

Nikon offers four 1:1 macro lenses (Micro-NIKKOR) for FX full-frame DSLRs and two options, a 40mm and an 85mm, for use with DX (APS-C) Nikon DSLRs. Nikon also has two PC-E (tilt/shift) lenses that are marketed with the Micro NIKKOR label but aren’t true macros at 0.5x magnification. There are currently no macro lenses for Nikon’s 1 mirrorless camera system.

nikkor 105mm macro lens
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED

Format: FX (Full-frame)
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 12 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $899

nikkor 85mm macro
Nikon AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR

Nikon AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR. For use with Nikon DX format DSLRs, this lens has an equivalent focal length of 127.5mm.

Format: DX (APS-C)
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 10.8 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $529

Olympus

For its OM-D and PEN series cameras, Olympus offers two macro options in the M.Zuiko lens line, a 30mm and a 60mm, with equivalent focal lengths of 60mm and 120mm, respectively.

olympus 60mm macro lens
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 60mm f2.8 Macro

Olympus M.Zuiko ED 60mm f2.8 Macro. This 120mm-equivalent macro lens features sealing to protect against dust and wet weather.

Format: Micro Four Thirds
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 7.5 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $499

Panasonic

Panasonic offers only one macro lens, but since it shares the Micro Four Thirds format with Olympus, you can also choose an Olympus lens if you’d like a wider or longer focal length.

panasonic 45mm macro lens
Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm F2.8 ASPH MEGA O.I.S.

Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm F2.8 ASPH MEGA O.I.S. Optical Image Stabilization gives you the option to shoot handheld with this 90mm-equivalent lens.

Format: Micro Four Thirds
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 6 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $799

Sigma

Three 1:1 macro lenses are available from Sigma, with focal lengths of 105mm, 150mm and 180mm. These are DG models, meaning they’re designed for full-frame cameras but can also be used with APS-C cameras. All three are available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts; the 105mm and 180mm are also available for Sony A mount.

sigma 105mm macro lens
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Format: Full-frame
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 12.3 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $619 

Sony

There are six macro lenses in Sony’s range, three for A-mount cameras like the a99 II and three for E-mount cameras, including the a7 series and a6500. For E-mount, the 50mm and 90mm can be used with full-frame and ASP-C sensor cameras, while the 30mm is for APS-C only. In the A-mount line, the 50mm and 100mm are full-frame, and the 30mm is for older APS-C cameras like the a77 II.

sony 90mm macro lens
Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS. This lens features a nine-blade circular aperture for soft background bokeh when isolating macro subjects.

Format: Full-frame E-mount
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 11 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $999

sony 100mm macro lens
Sony 100mm F2.8 Macro

Sony 100 mm F2.8 Macro. A focus hold button on the lens barrel makes it easy to lock focus when working from a tripod at a fixed distance.

Format: Full-frame A-mount
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 13.8 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $749

Tamron

Tamron makes three macro lenses for full-frame cameras (Di series) and one for APS-C cameras (Di II). While the new SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro VC USD (Model F017) features upgraded ergonomics and performance, including Vibration Compensation, it is currently offered in Canon and Nikon mounts only; its predecessor, the popular SP 90MM F/2.8 Di Macro (Model 272), remains in the lineup and is available in Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony mounts.

tamron 90mm macro lens
Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro VC USD (Model F017)

Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro VC USD (Model F017). The lens’ Vibration Compensation (VC) system provides up to 3.5 Stops of correction when shooting handheld.

Format: Full-frame
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 11.8 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $649

tamron 60mm macro lens
Tamron SP 60MM F/2.0 Di II 1:1 Macro

Tamron SP 60MM F/2.0 Di II 1:1 Macro. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts, this lens is equivalent to approximately 90mm.

Format: APS-C
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 9.1 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $524

Tokina

For Canon and Nikon full-frame DSLRs, Tokina’s AT-X AF 100mm F/2.8 PRO FX Macro has an innovative One Touch Focus Clutch Mechanism that makes it easy to switch from auto to manual focus without taking your eye off the viewfinder, a nice feature when fine-tuning macro focus.

tokina 100mm macro lens
Tokina AT-X AF 100MM F/2.8 PRO FX Macro

Tokina AT-X AF 100MM F/2.8 PRO FX Macro. The Nikon version of this lens provides autofocus only with Nikon bodies that have built-in AF motors.

Format: Full-frame
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 11.8 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual*
Estimated street price: $409

Zeiss

Available for Canon and Nikon mounts, the Zeiss Milvus 2/50M and Milvus 2/100M share the distinction of being the fastest “macro” lenses available but are not technically true macro lenses, with magnification of 0.5x. Zeiss does offer a 1:1 macro for APS-C sensor Fujifilm X-mount and Sony E-mount cameras, the Touit 2.8/50M.

zeiss 100mm macro lens
Zeiss Milvus 2/100M

Zeiss Milvus 2/100M. Engraved distance and depth-of-field scales on the barrel of the lens assist in manual focusing.

Format: Full-frame
Magnification: 0.5x
Minimum focusing distance: 17.3 inches
Focusing method: Manual
Estimated street price: $1,850

zeiss 50mm macro lens
Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M

Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M. This lens features premium construction and provides an equivalent focal length of 75mm.

Format: APS-C
Magnification: 1x
Minimum focusing distance: 6 inches
Focusing method: Auto/manual
Estimated street price: $999


This article was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2017.

5 Comments

    You can also reverse mount a wide angle lens onto a reversing ring mount (probable 25-35 dollars). The reversing ring screws onto the filter threads and then you mount the reversing ring to the camera mount. Yes, the lens is now facing the camera. The images come out quite well and it is a whole let better than buying a $600 – $700 macro lens.

    An upstart Chinese company has designed and is now manufacturing 2 macro lenses like no other, the Laowa 60mm 2X macro and a 15mm 1X macro lens. I bought them in Sony A-mount because my A77II has both in-body stabilization and focus peaking. Otherwise, I’m a Nikon shooter but you can’t beat these lenses for macro work.

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