How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
A common question among those starting out in macro photography is, “What lens should I choose?” Given the number of options, this is difficult to answer and depends on a number of factors (physical requirements, budget, subject, style, etc.). There is no one ideal macro lens. However, this article will provide a guide to choosing the ideal macro lens for your needs, focusing on three main considerations: focal length, image quality, and price.
A Note About Image Quality
When it comes to choosing lenses, photographers often focus on image quality, especially sharpness.
I am happy to tell you that, for macro photography, this is generally less of an issue. Why? Macro lenses are incredibly sharp. Even lenses on the lower end of the price spectrum offer professional-level sharpness, especially when stopped down slightly. I have used a half-dozen macro lenses over the course of my photography career, and I have never been dissatisfied with the level of sharpness.
However, this does not mean that low-end macro lenses are indistinguishable from the pricier options. Expensive macro lenses do often provide better sharpness and bokeh.
Furthermore, cheaper macro lenses do sometimes have problems with chromatic aberration (generally purple and yellow fringing that occurs in the high contrast parts of images). This can be corrected with post-processing, but I prefer to avoid chromatic aberration whenever I can. When I discuss different lenses below, I note any chromatic aberration problems that I’ve experienced.
I will center this discussion around focal length; this is an easy way of narrowing down potential macro lenses because focal length often determines and limits your macro photography options.
Macro lenses can be classified into three focal-length categories: short (35-60mm), mid-range (90-105mm), and long (150-200mm).
The Short Macro Lens
- Pros: Lightweight and inexpensive.
- Cons: Less impressive bokeh, short working distance (bad for insects).
Short macro lenses tend to be used for more casual macro outings, or as “all-purpose lenses” that you switch to macro when needed. They’re easy to store, easy to carry, and pretty inexpensive. They’re also easier to hand-hold because of their small size.
However, a big drawback with short macro lenses is the short working distance. Working distance refers to the distance from the end of the lens to the subject. In order to do high magnification photography with, say, a 60mm macro lens, the subject has to be extremely close to the lens. This can cause problems. First of all, insects generally require a bit of distance when photographed, so getting close often isn’t an option.
Additionally, your head (or your camera) might cast an unwanted shadow onto the subject, depending on the lighting conditions. Shorter lenses also tend to have less pleasing bokeh.
However, if you are looking to do casual macro photography with more portable equipment and strong image quality, then a shorter macro lens might be just the thing for you.
If you’re a Canon shooter on a budget, you should look at the Canon 60mm f/2.8 (at $399)or the Canon 35mm f/2.8 IS (at $349). The latter offers image stabilization, which can often be quite useful for handheld macro photography. For Nikon photographers, look at the Nikon 40mm f/2.8G (only $225).
Finally, you might consider the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D (at $517). This lens is near and dear to my heart because it was the first macro lens I ever purchased. I was always quite impressed by its sharpness. It is worth noting that the autofocus is quite slow, but I always use manual focus when shooting macro (and you probably should, too!), so this was not a problem.
Mid-Range Macro Lenses
- Pros: Larger working distance, somewhat inexpensive, very good bokeh, lightweight.
- Cons: Working distance still fairly short.
Mid-range macro lenses are my personal favorite among the macro options. They are a great option for flower photography, especially more abstract level flower photography like I tend to do. Why?
First of all, these lenses are relatively lightweight, which means that I can hand-hold them without much trouble at all, even in low light. This allows for much greater flexibility.
Second, a mid-range macro lens offers a perfect working distance for flower photography. I like to get very close to the flowers that I am photographing. Not so close that I am nearly touching the flower, but not so far that other flowers, leaves, and branches get in the way.
Third, these lenses offer high-quality optics for what is often a very low price. For example, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8, (which is generally the least expensive of these mid-range macro lenses at $649), affords images with outstanding sharpness and bokeh.
If you desire to do insect photography, or if you often photograph with a tripod and want the increased image quality of a 150-200mm, I would recommend looking at a longer macro lens. However, if you are interested in doing handheld flower photography or if you’re on a budget but want a more dedicated macro lens, I recommend one of those mid-range lenses mentioned above.
First among the less expensive options is the aforementioned Tamron 90mm f/2.8 for Nikon and for Canon. At one point in time, this was my workhorse lens. While I had occasional issues with chromatic aberration, the sharpness, bokeh quality, and price more than made up for it. Another option around this price-point is the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 for Nikon and for Canon.
Looking toward medium-level prices: the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM gets great reviews, as does the upgrade of the previously mentioned Tamron 90mm f/2.8, which has been modified to offer vibration compensation technology. Sigma also offers the 105mm f/2.8 macro with optical stabilization.
I must say, if I had to pick one lens to use forever—out of all the lenses that I’ve owned or even held in my hands—it would be the Canon 100mm f/2.8L. It’s pin sharp, the image stabilization allows for shooting handheld in low light, and the bokeh is a dream come true.
Long macro lenses
- Pros: Best working distance, generally excellent bokeh and image quality.
- Cons: Heavy, often very expensive.
Longer macro lenses tend to have astonishingly good image quality—for a (generally hefty) price. The bokeh and sharpness on the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (for $1099), for instance, is excellent.
These lenses also offer the best working distance of the bunch, which is often essential for insect photography.
Another advantage of the longer working distance is the ability to use a creative macro technique: shooting through out of focus flowers.
Yet these lenses are quite heavy, which makes hand-holding for long periods difficult, and doing so in low light nearly impossible. You’ll want to consider these lenses if you wish to do high-level insect photography, or if you desire top-notch image quality and don’t mind the weight or price.
The long macro lenses include the less expensive Sigma 150mm (non-OS), which is a bit harder to find, but offers excellent image quality and is built like a tank. It’s my backup macro lens (after the Canon 100mm f/2.8L), and I turn to it when I want a bit more working distance.
And then, offering stunning image quality with a high price tag, are the Nikon 200mm f/4 ($1792), and the Canon 180mm f/3.5L ($1399). While I have not used either of these lenses, I have read rave reviews of their optics, especially the Canon 180mm f/3.5L.
While most macro lenses allow for high-quality images, different ones will meet certain needs better than others.
- If you are looking for a more general purpose lens for casual macro shooting, choose one of the short-range lenses.
- But if you are looking for a more serious macro photography lens and prefer to shoot handheld with greater flexibility, go with one of the mid-range lenses.
- Finally, if you want to shoot insects or want perfect image quality, choose a long macro lens.
Still uncertain about which lens to purchase? Ask your questions in the comments section below, and I will do my best to help!