Macro lenses buying guide

February 22, 2011

Macro lenses

Macro lenses provide the most convenient means of getting closer to your subject, allowing you to fill the frame with the small details that can sometimes pass you by, but which make fantastic photographs.

There are so many macro lenses available it can be difficult to decide which one to go for, but that’s where this round-up can help. In addition to the mount, perhaps the most important deciding factor for a macro lens is its focal length, so we have used this as a way of grouping the currently available crop. With one exception, we have only included true macro optics that enable the subject to be captured at life-size (1:1) magnification or greater.

Focal length and working distance

As focal length increases, the minimum focusing distance also increases, so the working distance – that is, the gap between the subject and the front element – becomes greater.

This means a telephoto macro lens, for example, has the advantage of allowing greater distance between the lens and the subject, which reduces the chance of the camera and lens shading the scene and so there is less need for supplementary lighting. But if extra illumination is required, then there’s more space with which to work, which means standard lights and flashguns can be used instead of a specialist macro lighting kit, such as a ringflash.

A longer lens is also useful when shooting insects and animals, as they are less likely to be disturbed or become anxious or aggressive when the photographer keeps a respectful distance.

However, one downside to using a telephoto lens can be the reduction in the available depth of field, although this can also be helpful when backgrounds need to be blurred.

Another potential issue is that the subject may be out of arm’s reach, so it can’t be adjusted or moved quite as quickly or easily as it can when a short focal-length optic is used.

As well as producing greater depth of field at any given aperture, wideangle macro lenses offer the opportunity to include more of the surroundings in the image, so it’s easier to show the subject in context. This makes them a good choice for creating interesting garden and landscape images with shallow depth of field, perhaps with one flower in sharp focus while the rest of the flowerbed and the surrounding lawn is rendered as a soft blur.

Round up of macro lenses

30-70mm lenses

Macro lenses. 30-70mm lenses

On 35mm cameras, a 50mm lens offers a similar field of view and perspective to our eyes, making it a popular choice for macro photography. These lenses have the advantage of being light and portable, and a minimum focusing distance of around 20cm is typical.

On full-frame cameras, a 60mm lens gives a little more distance between the subject and the front lens element than a 50mm optic, without the weight and bulk of longer lenses. On an APS-C-format camera, they effectively become 90/96mm optics, close to the popular 100mm focal length of full-frame photography.

Pentax SMC DFA 50mm f/2.8 Macro

Closest focusing: 19.5cm
Filter size: 49mm
Weight: 265g
Dimensions: 60×67.5mm
Designed for use with digital and film cameras, this lens (and other Pentax SMC optics) features Pentax’s SMC coatings to keep down reflections, reduce the impact of ultraviolet light and boost contrast. The smallest, lightest 50mm optic here.

Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG

Closest focusing: 18.9cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 320g
Dimensions: 71.4×66.5mm
A minimum aperture of f/45 (f/45 for Sigma, Canon and Sony Alpha or Konica
Minolta mounts) or f/32 (Nikon and Pentax mounts) provides greater depth of
field when necessary.

Sony DT 30mm f/2.8 SAM Macro

Closest focusing: 25cm (approx)
Filter size: 49mm
Weight: 150g
Dimensions: 70x45mm
At its closest focusing point, the front element of this APS-C-format lens is just 2cm from the subject. A great budget macro optic for Sony DSLR users. It’s plastic construction means it is also very lightweight.

Sony 50mm f/2.8

Closest focusing: 20cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 295g
Dimensions: 71.5x60mm
This lens is essentially unchanged from the Minolta era and is therefore compatible with full-frame and APS-C-format SLRs
with the Sony Alpha or Konica Minolta mount. A focus limiter speeds AF performance. A lightweight lens that is only 30g heavier than the Pentax 50mm f/2.8.

Nikon 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro NIKKOR

Closest focusing: 21.9cm
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: 440g
Dimensions: 70×74.5mm
The only 60mm macro lens compatible with full-frame and 35mm cameras, as well as APS-C-format DSLRs. It is also Nikon’s most compact macro lens.

Nikon 60mm f/2.8g AF-s ed micro

Closest focusing: 18.5cm
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: 425g
Dimensions: 73x89mm
The ED (extra-low dispersion) element brings superior optical performance. Suited for full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs.

Canon MP-E65 f/2.8 1-5 x Macro

Closest focusing: 24.3cm
Filter size: 58mm
Weight: 710g
Dimensions: 81x98mm
It’s manual focus only with this lens, but it is possible to achieve up to 5x (5:1) magnification without additional accessories. Compatible with APS-C and full-frame cameras.

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG

Closest focusing: 25cm
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: 527g
Dimensions: 76x95mm
A comfortable working distance of 10-12cm (depending upon the camera) makes this lens a good choice for photographing small objects that need to be within easy reach for positioning, yet reduces the risk of shadows. Compatible with APS-C-format and full-frame cameras.

Tokina AT-X M35 Pro DX AF 35mm f/2.8 Macro

Closest focusing: 14cm
Filter size: 52mm
Weight: 340g
Dimensions: 60.4×73.2mm
Designed for use on Canon and Nikon APS-C-format DSLRs on which it has a focal length equivalence of 56mm and 52.5mm respectively. An excellent performer, with well-controlled barrel distortion.

Pentax SMC DA 35mm f/2.8 macro

Closest focusing: 13.9cm
Filter size: 49mm
Weight: 215g
Dimensions: 46.5x63mm
This lens’s aluminium construction and built-in retractable lens hood give it a high-quality feel in keeping with Pentax’s ‘Limited Edition’ line. Suitable for use on 35mm (full-frame) and APS-C-format cameras with the Pentax K mount.

Olympus Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 Macro

Closest focusing: 14.6cm
Filter size: 52mm
Weight: 165g
Dimensions: 71x53mm
As a Four Thirds lens this optic has an effective focal length of 70mm on any Four Thirds DSLR. It offers 1:1 magnification. The Four Thirds advantage comes to bear here as this lens is light for its effective focal length.

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 50mm f/2 Macro

Closest focusing: 24cm
Filter size: 52mm
Weight: 300g
Dimensions: 71×61.5mm
This lens has the Four Thirds mount, so it produces images comparable with a 100mm optic on 35mm format. It isn’t strictly a macro optic, as it offers a magnification of 1:2 (half life-size) on the Four Thirds sensor. Some argue (inacurrately) that the crop factor makes this equivalent
to 1:1 on 35mm.

Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Closest focusing: 20cm
Filter size: 52mm
Weight: 335g
Dimensions: 73×69.8mm
Canon’s first true macro lens with the EF-S mount lens and compatible with Canon APS-C-format DSLRs, on which it produces an effective focal length of 96mm. Super Spectra coatings suppress the flare and ghosting that can be encountered with digital cameras.

Tamron SP AF60mm f/2 Di II LD (IF) 1:1 Macro

Closest focusing: 23cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 400g
Dimensions: 73x80mm
Specifically designed for use on APS-C-format DSLRs, this lens is available with the Canon EF, Nikon F or Sony Alpha mount. It has the largest maximum aperture available at this focal length in this listing.

85-200mm lenses

Macro lenses. 85-200mm lenses

Not surprisingly given its short telephoto status, 100mm and 105mm is the most common focal length range for a macro lens, as it sits neatly between the shortest and longest macro optics available. They are also a popular choice of portrait lens.

With working distances of around 20cm or more, 150-200mm lenses allow more scope for manoeuvring flash and studio lighting around the subject. Despite the greater subject distance, depth of field is shallower than with a 50mm lens at its closest focusing point at any given aperture.

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

Closest focusing: 28.6cm
Filter size: 52mm
Weight: 355g
Dimensions: 73×98.5mm
Though Nikon’s excellent Vibration Reduction (VR) II system is useful for general photography, like Canon’s IS system, it can’t help with the forward and backwards movements that cause the focus point to shift with dramatic effect when there’s shallow depth of field. As a DX-format optic, this lens is designed for use on APS-C-format DSLRs on which it produces an effective focal length of 127.5mm.

Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1

Closest focusing: 29cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 405g
Dimensions: 71.5x97mm
The latest incarnation of Tamron’s highly respected 90mm macro lens has improved coatings and anti-reflection technology to reduce the ghosting and flare that can be an issue with digital cameras. Suited for full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs with the Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony Alpha (Konica Minolta) or Pentax K mount.

Tokina AT-X M100 AF Pro D AF 100mm f/2.8

Closest focusing: 30cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 540g
Dimensions: 73×95.1mm
A well-crafted lens with a solid feel and coatings that make it suitable for use on digital cameras, yet offering full-frame coverage. Available in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts. At its closest focusing point there is about 12cm working distance between lens and subject.

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG

Closest focusing: 31.3cm
Filter size: 58mm
Weight: 460g
Dimensions: 74×97.5mm
A solid performer, this lens is used by AP whenever possible to assess DSLR resolution. Available in a wide range of mounts including Canon EF, Four Thirds, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sigma SA and Sony Alpha.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Closest focusing: 31cm
Filter size: 58mm
Weight: 600g
Dimensions: 79x119mm
Canon’s more affordable, but nevertheless high-quality and high-performance 100mm macro lens. It has a focus limiter for faster AF in three subject distance bands.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Closest focusing: 30cm
Filter size: 67mm
Weight: 625g
Dimensions: 77.7x123mm
One of Canon’s high-performance L-series lenses, it is dust and water resistant, has a three-position AF limiter for faster focusing and a new Hybrid Image Stabilisation (IS) system, designed for macro lenses. As well as compensating for tilting movement, it can deal with movement parallel to the subject – but not backwards and forwards.

Pentax 100mm f/2.8 SMC D FA Macro

Closest focusing: 30.3cm
Filter size : 49mm
Weight: 345g
Dimensions: 80.5×67.5mm
Suitable for use on digital and film SLR cameras, this lens has a focus clamp, which can come in handy with some subjects when it is easier to adjust the working distance than to shift the focus point. This and the WR version (see right) are the most compact macro lenses of this focal length.

Pentax 100 mm f/2.8 D FA Macro WR

Closest focusing: 30.3cm
Filter size: 49mm
Weight: 340g
Dimensions: 80.5×67.5mm
An updated version of the non-WR Pentax lens, without the focus clamp, which has been made fractionally lighter and is weather resistant (WR). It works with all Pentax K-mount SLRs, but especially complements the weatherproofing of Pentax’s K-7 and K20D.

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

Closest focusing: 31cm
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: 720g
Dimensions: 83x116mm
This was Nikon’s first macro lens to feature its Vibration Reduction (VR) system. The version included is the second-generation mechanism (VRII), claimed to extend the safe handholdable shutter speed range by up to 4EV. A full-frame (FX) optic.

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG IF HSM

Closest focusing: 38cm
Filter size: 72mm
Weight: 895g
Dimensions: 79.6x137mm
A good compromise between a relatively small and light 100mm optic and the
extra reach of a 180mm
or 200mm lens. The IF stands for Inner Focus and signifies that this lens remains the same length when focus is adjusted.

Canon EF 180 mm f/3.5L Macro USM

Closest focusing: 48cm
Filter size: 72mm
Weight: 1,090g
Dimensions: 82.5×186.6mm
The only other Canon L-series macro lens (in addition to the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM), it’s a comparative beast with a weight in excess of 1kg. A top-quality optic that commands a high price.

Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX DG HSM

Closest focusing: 46cm
Filter size: 72mm
Weight: 965g
Dimensions: 80x182mm
The Canon EF and Nikon F-mount versions of this lens have Sigma’s Hypersonic Motor (HSM), which ensures swift, quiet focusing. It is also available with the Pentax K and Sony Alpha mounts, but without the motor.

Tamron SP AF 180mm F3.5 Di LD (IF) Macro 1:1

Closest focusing: 47cm
Filter size : 72mm
Weight: 920g
Dimensions: 84.8×165.7mm
Available in Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony Alpha (Konica Minolta) mounts. When focused at its closest point there is a working distance of 24cm between the front element and the subject.

Sony 100mm f/2.8 macro

Closest focusing: 35cm
Filter size: 55mm
Weight: 505g
Dimensions: 75×98.5mm
A full-frame lens equally at home on a Konica Minolta film camera as on a Sony Alpha APS-C-format DSLR. A focus hold button on the barrel enables the autofocus to be locked, while the limiter (infinity to 59cm or 35-89cm) speeds AF performance.

Nikon 200mm f/4 AF Micro Nikkor

Closest focusing: 50cm
Filter size: 62mm
Weight: 1,190g
Dimensions: 76×104.5mm
A versatile lens of use to sport and wildlife photographers, as well as macro enthusiasts with 35mm film, full-frame or APS-C (DX)-format Nikon DSLRs.

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