What is a Macro Lens? Everything You Need to Know as a Beginner

What is a Macro Lens? Everything You Need to Know as a Beginner

If you’ve ever seen a picture of the tiny details on a flower or the intricate pattern on an insect and wondered how that photo was taken the answer is relatively simple: with a macro lens. Macro photography is the art of taking photos of things very close up, allowing you to see details in the photo that your eyes would never be able to see. These types of shots can be challenging to take—but also incredibly addictive.

Macro vs. Regular Lenses

While macro lenses are often used to take photos of things close up, how they’re used isn’t actually what defines them. A macro lens has the ability to focus from infinity to 1:1 magnification, meaning that the size of the image in real life is the same size as it’s reproduced on the sensor. The magnification ratio tells you how the image projected on the camera’s sensor compares with the subject’s actual size, so a lens with a 1:2 ratio can project an image on its sensor up to half the size of the subject while a lens with a 5:1 ratio can project an image five times the size of the subject. Macro lenses also allow for closer focusing distances than normal lenses

As with all lenses, macro lenses are available at a wide variety of price points. The good news is that they’re not necessarily more expensive than a regular, non-macro lens. You can expect to spend anywhere from $300 to $1,500 or more for a macro lens. Keep in mind that to do macro photography properly you will also most likely want a tripod and some kind of lighting set up (more on that later).

One of the great things about macro lenses is that they’re not just useful for macro photography. Macro lenses are also very good at portrait photography. A wedding photographer can use a macro lens to take closeup shots of a ring and then just as quickly capture beautiful expressions of guests. A typical portrait lens can capture those candid moments but can’t take the closeup shots of tiny details like wedding rings. Be aware that a macro lens can sometimes produce images with more contrast (meaning the lenses can often better resolve similar tonal values and find boundaries between tiny areas with different luminance). So, depending on your portrait tastes, you might have to adjust your editing process accordingly.

Macro Lens Focal Length Options

Focal Length Approximate distance from subject at 1:1 magnification Suggested Uses
50mm 20 cm stamps, coins, jewelry
100mm 30 cm small insects, flowers, portraits
160mm 50 cm reptiles, dragonflies, spiders

As with all lens types, macro lenses come in a wide variety of focal lengths. Your focal length determines your working distance from the subject. The longer your focal length, the further you will be from what you are trying to shoot. A 100mm macro lens will be at twice the working distance of a 50mm macro lens, meaning you have to be twice as far from your subject. How you intend to use your macro lens has a large impact on what focal length is best for you.

40-60mm

Taken with a Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Macro.

This focal length is ideal for when you want to be as close as 6″ from your subject. Things like inanimate objects or subjects that can’t be scared away are perfect for a lens of this length.

90-105mm

This mid-range focal length is great for things that you want to shoot from around a foot (or more) away. These lenses work really well for photographing things like insects, flowers, and plants.

150-200mm

Taken with a Sigma 150mm Macro. You can find a similar lens, the Sigma 180mm Macro, in Canon and Nikon mounts.

This focal length is ideal for taking pictures of subjects from farther away. If you don’t want to get too close to your subjects or are afraid you may scare them away, lenses in this focal range are a great choice.

Usage Tips

Minimum Focus Distance

Minimum focus distance determines how close you can be to your subject. Generally speaking, the longer the focal length, the further you must be from your subject to be able to focus on it. Some subjects, especially when shooting insects and other animals, are more skittish than others and may be frightened away by you.

Depth of Field

One important thing to keep in mind when doing macro photography is that the depth of field is very limited at close range. To get more of your subject into focus, you’re going to have to stop down. If you’re used to shooting very wide, this will take some getting used to. In order to have as much of your subject as possible in focus, you’re going to want to stop all the way down to a very narrow aperture (e.g. f/18) and try to get your subject as flat as possible. At this type of magnification, it doesn’t take much for things to start to go soft. Getting the majority of your subject on the same plane of focus will help you keep as much of it as sharp as possible. Many macro shooters employ a technique called “focus stacking” to combat this (discussed a further below).

Flat Field

The front element on non-macro lenses is generally slightly curved, making it so that the center of the photo will be in focus but things will get a little bit softer as you move to the edges of the frame. This happens when a curved focus plane is used on the flat sensors of digital cameras. It isn’t usually noticeable or problematic in normal, non-macro photography but when you start photographing things that are close and tiny, it can become very noticeable. Most macro lenses have what is called “flat field” focus; they try to compensate for this curved focus plane so that the edges of the frame are all in the same focus as the center and detectable curvature is reduced. This is especially useful when photographing small, flat things like coins or postage stamps. It doesn’t matter as much when you’re shooting subjects in 3D, such as insects and flowers.

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is a technique that allows you to combine multiple photographs with different focus distances to produce a single image with more of a subject in focus. Some cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 have this feature built in, so all you have to do is set up your shot and focus options and the camera will shoot and combine the images all in-camera. But more often you’ll have to adjust the focus yourself and use Photoshop or other software to combine the images. Focus stacking can be a lot of work but it can also produce some amazing images. Learn more in Macro Photography Tricks for Beginners: Focus Stacking and More. If you’re curious about the OM-D system of auto-stacking, check out Improve Your Macro Photography with Micro Four Thirds Cameras.

Stabilization


Stability is huge in macro photography. While some cameras and lenses have stabilization built in, nothing can quite match the usefulness of a tripod for taking macro shots. Tripods can be big, heavy, and bulky to carry around but when it comes to macro photography they are a vital tool. The closer you are to your subject, the more noticeable camera shake becomes.

A good tripod can hold your camera steady so your shots are clear and sharp. Having your camera on a stable base will also allow you to stop down and shoot with a longer shutter speed so that you can get more of your subject in focus. Being able to use a longer shutter speed will also let more light in, which is useful when shooting in darker places (e.g. taking photos of mushrooms under a dark forest canopy). A rail system like the StackShot Extended Macro Rail and Novoflex Focusing Rack Mini can also be attached to a tripod to help get more of a subject in focus when used with the focus stacking technique.

Another thing that will help tremendously in avoiding camera shake is not physically touching the camera before taking the picture. There are several ways to do this. The most common way is with a cable shutter release. Cable releases are inexpensive, easy to use, and plug right into your camera body so that you can fire the shutter without touching the camera. Another option is to set a delay for a few seconds so that the shutter doesn’t actually open until after you’ve removed your hand from the camera. If you’re using a Canon macro lens this can be done in “drive” mode on your camera. If you’re using a Nikon macro lens this can be done using “self-timer” mode. If your camera can be controlled by your phone via WiFi, that is another option. Lastly, did you know you can use Pocket Wizard triggers as remote shutter releases? Here’s how:

• Get 2 Pocket Wizards and set them to the same channel.
• Attach a remote camera cable (we have them for Canon and Nikon) between your camera and 1 Pocket Wizard.
• Turn on your Pocket Wizards then the camera.
• Keep one Pocket Wizard in your hand and press the TEST button to fire the shutter!

Lighting in Macro Photography


Good lighting is one of the most important factors in taking good photos and macro photography is no exception. But achieving good light in macro photography can be a bit of a challenge. When conditions are good, natural light can produce beautifully lit images. At times when the sun is low on the horizon, backlighting can look amazing as it streams through the wings of an insect or the petals of a flower.

But for all of its benefits, working with natural light can be a challenge in macro photography. The narrow apertures you need to keep your subject in focus can make it tough to get enough light on your sensor and you are always at the mercy of changing light conditions and movement of your subject. Working with only natural light for macro photography can be frustrating and make things a little tough. Fortunately, there are some solutions!

Ring lights can be a simple and affordable solution to macro lighting woes. Ring lights fit on the end of your lens and can provide nice, even light over a subject. While they are not as powerful as a typical flash, they are effective and easy to use. Something to consider when using ring lights in macro photography is that the ring itself can often be reflected in the shiny shell or eyes of an insect. While this effect can add some interest to a subject it can also be distracting if it shows up where you don’t want it.

Another option for lighting in macro photography is to use a traditional flash, either on or off the camera. Flashes have the benefit of being extremely powerful, allowing you to very easily produce enough light to illuminate your subject. The downside? Sometimes they are too powerful. Diffusers can help cut down on some of that light and give you the effect you are looking for. Using off-camera flash in macro photography allows you to control the direction from which the light is hitting your subject so that you have complete control of the image.

Two lighting systems to explore are the Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Ringlite Flash and the Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Flash. Both have sets of adapters rings for almost any sized macro lens. For a continuous lighting option, the FotodioX C-318RLS Flapjack Bi-Color LED Ring Light Kit has a unique inward-pointed, outer-edged build for its nodes that results in natural diffusion – better than most direct-facing continuous lighting options of this same size.

Focus


Due to the magnified nature of macro photography, nailing focus is incredibly important. A macro lens will magnify not only the tiny details of your subject but also any mistakes you make! When your subjects are this tiny, sometimes the smallest adjustment in focus can be the difference between a photo that is ready to be printed and hung on your wall or one that automatically goes to the trash bin. You want to get the focus right.

While most macro lenses have built-in autofocus, most serious macro photographers prefer to shoot in manual focus mode. Often a lens will hunt around endlessly while it tries to lock focus. Manual focus allows you to select, with extreme precision, exactly where you want your focus point to be. This gives you more control when taking your photos.

Remember that the plane of focus in macro photography can often be very thin. Setting the focus point exactly where you want it will help you ensure that the elements you want to capture are nice and sharp. When relying on AF, make sure you know the difference between a Focus Area and a Focus Point – and how to set your point exactly where it needs to be. Learn more in All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners.

The Best Macro Lenses

With all that in mind, here are some of the best macro lenses around:

1. Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro


This lens is loved for its long focal length and ability to capture both tiny details and faces with sharpness and ease. This may be one of the most versatile macro lenses around and the images it produces are stunning.

2. Nikon 60mm f/2.8G Macro


This is a good general purpose macro lens that will let you get up close and personal with your subject. Due to its shorter focal length, you won’t want to use this around subjects that can bite or sting but for plants, flowers, and other tiny details, it works really well.

3. Sony 90mm f/2.8G OSS Macro


This is one of the best macro lenses around for Sony E and FE mount users. This lens has a minimum focus distance of 11″ and works well for everything from insects to portraits.

There are so many more lenses in more mounts to check out. See all of our macro lenses here.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for something to take your photography to a whole new level or explore other avenues, a macro lens is a great investment. While they can be a little tricky to learn to use, the images they produce are downright stunning. Macro lenses are also great for people who have been doing photography for a little while but are feeling uninspired. Maybe all you need to get the creative juices flowing is a little change in perspective!

If you’re having a hard time deciding whether to drop some cash on a macro lens or can’t decide which one is right for you, renting one may be a great option. Renting a macro lens will give you a chance to see if macro photography is something you want to pursue more seriously or help you figure out exactly what types of subjects you want to photograph.

Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Macro CC Image courtesy of m01229 on Flickr
Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro CC Image courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab on Flickr
Sigma 150mm Macro CC Image courtesy of _paVan_ on Flickr
Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro CC Image courtesy of Peter Paplanus on Flickr
Nikon 60mm f/2.8G Macro CC Image courtesy of Matthew Fang on Flickr
Sony 90mm f/2.8G OSS Macro CC Image courtesy of Paul Longinidis on Flickr

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1 Comment

  1. I started with a macro lens for my closeup photography but quickly realized the limitations of it. My biggest complaint is depth of field. I can never get even the smallest of insects to be fully in focus. While some people may like this I don’t and I certainly don’t want to get into stacking processes. To me your photo of the snake is unrealistic in terms of how humans visualize things in life.

    Most articles like this point out the 1:1 image size but don’t say why this is an advantage. Also when using a common 100mm f2.8 macro lens you have to get too close to the subject. With flowers this isn’t a problem but with live subjects it always is a problem (you scare them away) and forget getting close to larger animals/birds.

    So I did my own testing using a 24mm f1.8 standard lens where I could not stand four or five feet from my subject and take the photo. Then in post I zoom in to get the same size as I would from a macro shot. The results: first given the high resolution of my camera I lose no detail. Second, most of my subject is in focus and third the bokeh is as good as I get with a macro lens.

    My next experiment will be with my 80-400mm lens which produces very sharp images at large distances from the camera. Now I will set it to 100mm and take photos of insects, bugs, flowers and zoom/crop in post to see how they turn out as compared to the 100mm macro lens.

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