While reading this week’s Amateur Photographer magazine (Sat 8th August edition) we were impressed with the ‘master macro’ feature and decided to roundup the best macro gear available, plus tips on selecting the right option!
It’s possible to take close-up photos using a standard lens with extension tubes, a reversing ring, or close-up filters – but the most effective starting point is a dedicated macro lens. A ‘true’ macro lens allows a magnification of 1:1 – this means your subject is projected at life-size on your camera’s sensor. Many zoom lenses have a ‘macro’ feature, which means they can focus closer than standard designs – but the maximum magnification is typically only 1:2 or 1:4.
Choosing a macro lens is quite easy; the primary consideration is which focal length to pick. A 50mm & 180mm macro lens can both achieve 1:1 magnification but the main difference is the minimum working distance (MWD).
The MWD is between the front element of the lens and your subject at maximum magnification. This is different to the minimum focus distance (MFD), which is between the image plane (i.e. the sensor) and the subject. If the lens barrel is long then the MFD can be misleading, the MWD is better when picking a macro lens. A larger working distance is important if you plan to photograph insects or subjects that you can’t get close too. Remember that advise if you’re interested in crocodile teeth, right?
Here are some examples of the working distance for different focal length lenses:
- Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens working distance = 4cm / 1.6 inches
- Sigma 70mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens working distance = 11.2cm / 4.4 inches
- Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens working distance = 12cm / 4.7 inches
- Sigma 150mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens working distance = 22.7cm / 9 inches
Shorter macro lenses tend to be less expensive, are lighter & smaller and can be handheld at slower shutter speeds than longer macro lenses. The advantages of long macro lenses (100mm +) include the greater working distance (ideal for insects) and the telephoto perspective which isolates subjects (more background blur). Disadvantages include the physical size & weight of the lens, plus you’ll need faster shutter speeds to hand hold the lens (or more time on a tripod).
Macro Lens Options
Here are the current macro lenses available for each mount:
Canon EF / EF-S Macro Lenses
- Canon EF 50mm f2.5 Macro Lens (only 1:2 magnification) – The Canon EF 50mm macro lens is quite old now; it was launched in 1987! Ageism aside it produces very sharp images. Technical review.
- Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM Macro Lens – The 60mm macro a great choice if you have an EOS digital SLR with a cropped APS-C sensor. The optical quality is very good and autofocus performance is snappy thanks to the Ultra Sonic Motor (USM). Technical review.
- Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens (1-5x) – The 65mm MP-E allows you to achieve up to 5x magnification! This very high magnification does require a slightly more methodical workflow, as a Wex Photographic customer mentions in their great 65mm MP-E review:
"An excellent close up lens without resorting to extension rings. A right angle viewfinder attachment is almost essential for accurate focussing in reasonable comfort, as is a solid tripod and remote shutter release. I certainly recommend this product to anyone interested in close up photography." - Autophoto
- Canon EF 100mm f2.8 USM Macro Lens – The 100mm macro is a great focal length for macro work (15cm minimum working distance) plus doubling up as a razor-sharp portrait lens.
"It's not just ‘sharp for a non-L lens’, it's sharp for ANY lens. If you're just macro beginner, this really is your best choice and it's also great as a portrait lens. Build quality feels real solid. I wish all lenses are as good as this one!" – Daj01
- Canon EF 180mm f3.5 L USM Macro Lens – The 180mm macro is the lens of choice for insect enthusiasts thanks to its 24cm minimum working distance. This L lens does have quite a high price tag, so if you’re on a budget take a look at the Sigma 150mm f2.8 below. Technical review.
Nikon Macro Lenses
- Nikon 60mm f2.8 G AF-S ED Micro Lens – The new Nikon 60mm micro lens is a refreshed version with ED glass, Nano crystal coating, and a Silent Wave Motor (SWM). The 9 aperture blades produce smooth bokeh in out of focus areas. Technical review.
- Nikon 105mm f2.8 G AF-S VR IF ED Micro Lens – The first macro lens to include Vibration Reduction (VR) to compensate for camera shake. Technical review.
"This is such a sweet lens, very fast & quiet autofocus, pin sharp - the VR makes a huge difference, good bokeh, and useful wide aperture of 2.8 for shallow DOF for portrait work." – LankyEd
- Nikon 200mm f4 AF Micro Lens – The 200mm f4 boasts a large 26cm minimum working distance which is superb for nature macro photography. The extremely broad manual focus ring makes manually focusing a treat! Technical review.
Sony Macro Lenses
- Sony 50mm f2.8 D Macro AF Lens – A solid performer but beware of the 4.8cm minimum working distance unless you are taking still life images.
- Sony 100mm f2.8 D Macro AF Lens – Features 9 aperture blades (vs. 7 in the Sony 50mm macro) for smoother backgrounds, plus working distance is a reasonable 15cm.
Olympus Macro Lenses
- Olympus 35mm f3.5 Macro ZUIKO Lens – Quite an unusual focal length for macro photography (which Pentax & Tokina have now followed) but it’s redeemed by the 2x crop factor with E-System digital SLRs.
- Olympus 50mm f2 Macro Zuiko Lens – The optical magnification is only 1:2 which may lead many Olympus users to consider the 35mm f3.5 ZUIKO lens or a Sigma alternative.
Sigma Macro Lenses (Various Fits)
- Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, & Sony.
- Sigma 70mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, & Sony.
- Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony & Four Thirds.
- Sigma 150mm f2.8 EX DG Macro Lens for Canon, Nikon, & Four Thirds.
- Sigma 180mm f3.5 EX DG Macro Lens for Canon & Nikon.
Tamron Macro Lenses (Various Fits)
Tokina Macro Lenses (Various Fits)
Extension tubes increase the distance between the lens and your camera’s sensor, allowing greater magnification. Extension tubes are completely hollow and can be used with macro and non-macro lenses. Extension tubes can be stacked for an even greater effect; however this increases the amount of light fall-off and can decrease image quality.
- Canon EF25 II Extension Tube and EF12 II Extension Tube.
- Nikon PN-11 Extension Tube (52.5mm) and PK-13 Extension Tube (27.5mm).
- Olympus EX-25 Extension Tube.
- Kenko DG Extension Tubes for Canon, Nikon and Sony.
We like the Kenko DG extension tube kit: It’s a bundle of three tubes (36mm, 20mm & 12mm) and they maintain AF & TTL coupling. Although you may prefer to manually focus during macro work, the TTL coupling for full camera metering is very useful! Please note the Canon set is not compatible with EF-S lenses. Here's a customer's review from Wex Photographic:
"A good investment for anyone with medium sized zoom lens who wants to take up macro photography or someone with a macro lens who wants to get closer. Although a steady hand is required or a tripod helps but you definitely get some super close up pics. I’ve used them with Sigma 105mm and my sigma 150-500mm on the 40D with great results." – Jon77lees
Close-up filters can be attached to macro or non-macro lenses to increase magnification. This is quite a popular method of enhancing your first 18-55mm kit lens if a dedicated macro lens isn’t an option. Hoya produces an excellent range of close-up filters available in +1, +2, +3, +4 and +10 strengths, plus a kit set.
Flash lighting can add depth to your macro images and keep shutter speeds high enough for handheld shooting. Individual macro flashguns positioned around the lens can produce more directional light, adding contrast to your images. Alternatively a ring flash provides softer diffuse light, however the effective range can be less than the mini flashgun approach.
- Canon MR-14EX Macrolite and MT-24 Macro Twin Lite.
- Nikon R1 Close-Up Speedlight Remote Kit and R1C1 Command Kit.
- Sigma EM-140 DG Macro Flash for Canon and Nikon.
- Metz Mecablitz 15 MS-1 Macro Flash.
An alternative to a dedicated macro flash is to take your existing hot-shoe flashgun off camera. Using a TTL cable or wireless trigger system allows you to position the flashgun to illuminate the subject. Remember to use a flash diffuser to reduce harsh outlines behind your subject!
- Canon OC-E3 Off-Camera Flash Cord
- Nikon SC-28 TTL Remote Cord
- Nissin SC-01 Universal TTL Off-Camera Shoe Cord
- Flash Diffusers
See our lighting guru post for more information about off-camera flash, wireless triggering and light modifiers.
After selecting your macro optics, a few key accessories will help you capture the very best macro images possible. Take a look at our top 5 macro accessories:
- Remote Control - A remote shutter release can reduce camera shake whilst using tripod at low shutter speeds. An alternative option is to use your camera’s self-timer; however this can be trickier to catch decisive moments (e.g. an insect crawling in to the composition sweet spot).
Popular Remote Controls:
Nikon ML-L3 Remote Control for Nikon D40/x, D60, D70/s, D80 and D90.
- Nikon MC-30 Remote Cord for all Nikon DSLRs with 10-pin socket (e.g. D100 plus).
- Tripod – A tripod combined with a remote control is a sure-fire way to take sharp macro photos. Look for a tripod with a horizontal centre column option and wide leg-angle settings (to get low to the ground) for the most flexible macro tripod.
The Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod is an ideal choice; the centre column can be swung quickly to the horizontal position and the minimum height is a mere 8.5cm!
- The Plamp – Is a clever flexible clamp designed to hold subjects in place or position reflectors and other accessories. The Plamp excels on windy days, allowing you to clamp a windswept flower into place.
- Angle Finder – Even if your digital SLR has live-view, an angle finder is still a great option for low-angle picture taking. The advantage of using an angle finder is it’s optical, so you’re still seeing the normal viewfinder view, and many models allow magnification on the centre of the frame for precise focusing.
- Canon Angle Finder C – Compatible with all EOS digital SLRs.
"The Canon angle finder gives an alternative view of the world you usually see through your cameras viewfinder. (It has dioptre correction built in too).
Though initially confusing the photographer’s perception of what is being viewed, once you get used to this great little tool - it will give your portfolio a new dimension.
I specialise in wildlife photography; putting the camera lower to the subjects eye height used to mean lying on the ground and getting either wet, dirty or cold." – k4capture
- Nikon DR-6 Angle Finder – for D300, D200, D100, D80, D70/s, D50, D40/x.
- Nikon DR-5 Angle Finder – for D3/x, D2X, D2H/s, D700.
- Hoodman H-RAW Right Angle Viewer – for Canon & Nikon digital SLR cameras.
- Canon Angle Finder C – Compatible with all EOS digital SLRs.
- Bean Bag – Sometimes it’s nice to leave the tripod at home and switch to a bean bag for macro photography. Bean bags provide a stable platform for low-level photography.
Time to get out there and take some macro photos!