In the close-up, high-magnification world of macro photography, it is seldom that the tools vary from the so-called “standards.” The main reason for this is that there is something simple and elegant about that classic 100mm f/2.8; it is a proven design that simply works well. It offers a comfortable working distance, is easy to design to 1:1 magnification, and is versatile in that many photographers tend to work with these short telephoto macro lenses in many areas outside of just macro photography.
However, there are, of course, those times when the standard just won’t cut it. For instance, if you need to work at a higher magnification than 1:1; if you need to extend your depth of field without going through the process of focus stacking; or—the most basic reason—you just want a different look. Here’s a collection of 10 of the more esoteric and distinct lenses: the unique macro lenses.
1. Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM
Easily one of the most unique options available, the EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM strives to be an all-in-one macro solution with a built-in ring light at the front of the lens. Rather than resorting to auxiliary macro or ring lights, by incorporating an adjustable LED into the lens itself, Canon can reduce the overall footprint of the lens for working with smaller subjects and in tighter situations. The lens is designed for APS-C-format Canon DSLRs, provides a 1:1 life-size maximum magnification and a 5.1" minimum focusing distance, and features Hybrid IS image stabilization to benefit shooting handheld.
For something similar, also check out the EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM, for the EOS M-series of APS-C mirrorless cameras.
2. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo
No list would be complete without Canon’s super macro MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens, which is a highly specialized option for working with subjects at a 1x to 5x magnification range and a 9.4" minimum focusing distance. Since its sole purpose is for close-up shooting, this 65mm f/2.8 includes a tripod collar for mounting ease and a front attachment ring for mounting the MR-14EX II Macro Ring Lite.
3. Mitakon Zhongyi 20mm f/2 4.5x Super Macro
Another high-magnification macro lens, the 20mm f/2 4.5x Super Macro from Mitakon Zhongyi perhaps more closely resembles a microscope objective rather than your typical photographic lens, and thus is intended for very close-up shooting. Available for SLRs and mirrorless cameras, this lens allows you to work between 4.5x and 4x with a minimum working distance of 0.8" and, like the Canon lens above, does not focus to infinity.
4. Venus Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro
While most macro lenses tend to have focal lengths longer than normal, the Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro eschews conventions and combines a super-wide focal length along with a life-size 1:1 maximum magnification and a minimum working distance of just 0.2" to produce dynamic close-up imagery that still retains a broad sense of space. With such a close-up working distance, subjects can nearly touch the front element of the lens and remain in focus, and the depth of field of a traditional 15mm is also retained to simultaneously achieve sharpness on close-up and distant subjects. The lens also uses an internal focusing mechanism for easier handling and adjustment during composition, and +/-6mm of vertical shift can be used to correct for convergence when shooting at upward or downward angles. This lens is available for most SLR mounts, as well as Sony E mirrorless cameras.
5. Venus Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro
Another intriguing option from Venus, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a high-magnification lens specifically designed for working within a 2.5:1 to 5:1 range, with a 6.8" minimum focusing distance or 1.6" working distance. Similar to the 15mm f/4 above, this Ultra Macro lens is assisted by its ultra-wide focal length to achieve greater depth of field at close range. Additionally, this 25mm f/2.8 is also characterized by its especially slim barrel design, which affords easier handling and more room to incorporate artificial lighting, and it’s available in a variety of both mirrorless and SLR lens mounts.
6. Venus Laowa 24mm f/14 Probe
Hands-down one of the most unique lenses available—macro or otherwise—is Venus’s Laowa 24mm f/14 Probe lens. This peculiar-looking lens is clearly distinguished by its long and slim barrel (it is called the Probe, after all) along with its 2:1 maximum magnification, 1.5' minimum focusing distance, and impressively close 0.8" working distance. Like other Venus Optics macros, this, too, is a wide-angle lens to help increase depth of field at close range. Beyond its unique shape, the Probe gets even more interesting with the incorporation of an LED at the front of the lens for illuminating close-up subjects. Also, the front half of the lens is waterproof, so it can be used just beneath the surface of water. The 24mm f/4 Probe is available for SLR and mirrorless mounts, as well as a dedicated Cine-Mod version, for ARRI PL, Sony E, and Canon EF, which includes built-in focus and aperture gears.
7. Yasuhara Nanoha Macro Lens 5:1
A super-specialized lens that just so happens to be a super-macro optic, Yasuhara’s Nanoha lens is akin to working with a microscope. This lens is dedicated to working in a 4:1 to 5:1 magnification range and has a total working distance range of just 11-19mm. Keeping in line with the microscope theme, the lens has a removable front-mounted LED to illuminate the close-up subjects and four plastic holders are included, too, to suspend small subjects in front of the lens at the proper working distance. The Nanoha is available in Canon EF-M and Sony E mirrorless mounts, and covers APS-C-format sensors, and is also available for Micro Four Thirds cameras.
8. Nikon PC-E Micro-NIKKOR Tilt-Shift Lenses
Even though these two lenses sport less than life-size magnification, they certainly do differentiate themselves with their tilt-shift design for correcting perspective and achieving increased depth of field (a definite advantage for close-up shooting). On the wider end of the pair is the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED and, for a short telephoto option, Nikon also offers the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D lens. Both lenses offer a 1:2 half life-size magnification along with +/-8.5° of tilt, +/-11.5mm of shift, and 90° of rotation for control over how the movements are applied. The inclusion of tilt, notably, allows you to adjust your plane of focus to achieve greater depth of field, and the shift movement enables you to adjust your composition and correct for convergence. Additionally, both lenses feature Nikon’s Close-Range Correction system to maintain consistent image quality throughout the focusing range.
9. Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
While we’ve had impressive wide-angles on the list, along with a slew of fairly common and comfortable focal lengths, Canon’s EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM struts its uniqueness in that it is the longest currently available macro lens. The lens achieves a life-size 1:1 magnification ratio and has a 1.6' minimum focusing distance, which gives you a more comfortable working distance when compared to some of the shorter focal length options. This can prove to be especially beneficial if working with moving, living subjects that could be spooked by getting too close while shooting; the 180mm focal length lets you achieve the close-up quality while standing a bit farther away from the subject.
10. Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4
A lens to certainly raise some eyebrows, Leica’s Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f/4 is definitely the least macro-like lens to sport a macro designation; however, because it’s the only rangefinder lens to offer any sort of a magnification ratio you could maybe call “high,” it earns its title as a unique macro option. The main caveat with this lens is that it must be used with the optional Macro-Adapter-M to achieve 1:2 magnification and a 16.1" minimum focusing distance, otherwise, the 90mm lens on its own offers 1:6.7 magnification and a 2.6' minimum focusing distance. The other catch to using this lens with the adapter on a Leica is that you cannot use the optical viewfinder or rangefinder system, you must work with a digital M that offers live view for accurate composing and focusing. Even with these drawbacks, this lens simply stands out as a one-of-a-kind option for rangefinder shooters.
Do you know of any other truly unique options for macro photography? Tell us about some of your favorites in the Comments section, below, and check out some of our other close-up-focused articles by clicking Macro Photography.