What You Can Do with a Macro Lens

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The question: What can you do with a macro lens? The answer: Just about anything! If you want to get into close-up photography, the best tool for the job is almost always a dedicated macro lens—preferably one that does life-size (1:1) reproduction. An alternative 1:2 (half-size) macro lens is nothing to sneeze at and could easily fall into the “best tool” category as well. Having said that, a macro lens is also a supremely capable tool for capturing portraits, landscapes, and all other types of photographs. Most mainstream macro lenses are not “one-trick ponies” in the photo world.

Photographs captured with macro lenses © Todd Vorenkamp

Cars.
Cars

For those just wanting to dabble in the realm of the tiny universe, you don’t need a dedicated macro lens—there are other ways to get up close to your subject with a “standard” lens, using extension tubes, close-up lens filters, and more. Sometimes the cost of a macro lens cannot be justified by all photographers, but, if you look at how versatile the macro lens can be, it might make a lot of sense to add one to your camera bag.

12 Meters.
12 Meters

What Is a Macro Lens?

A macro lens is a lens that is designed to allow close-up photography. Macro lenses have very short minimum focus distances (MFDs) that allow you to get close to your subject.

Woodwork.
Woodwork

There is no reproduction ratio that defines the term “macro lens,” but lenses with 1:1 (life-size) and 1:2 (half-size) reproduction ratios are generally considered the true macro lenses. Lenses with 1:3 or larger magnifications are sometimes referred to as macro lenses as well, but, for serious macro photography, you’ll want a 1:1 or 1:2 lens. On the other side of the math, there are specialized ultra-macro lenses that have greater-than-life-size reproduction ratios like 2:1 or even 5:1.

Water

Generally speaking, if you are looking for a dedicated macro lens that has some all-round photo capabilities, the ultra-macro lenses will not fit that bill—stick with the 1:1 or 1:2 reproduction lenses if you want to do other types of photos with your macro lens.

Fire.
Fire

Flat Field

Many photographers look for “edge-to-edge” sharpness in their lenses, but the truth is that many non-macro lenses are not designed to be perfectly sharp from corner to corner and their manufacturer-generated MTF curves will show this “field curvature.”

Bling.
Bling

As much as photographers (and Internet forums) talk about craving edge-to-edge sharpness in their lenses, it’s difficult to argue that some blurriness of the edges of a frame with a sharp center area showing the subject is not a desirable aesthetic. There is a certain irony when photographers search for a lens with super-sharp corners and a dreamy out-of-focus background blur around the subject.

Dandelion.
Dandelion

Most macro lenses are designed to have that sought-after edge-to-edge sharpness—designed as a “flat field” lens. Physics and optical design limitations prevent perfect sharpness through the frame, but the intent, with a macro lens, is that if you are taking a close-up photo of a flat surface that the entire image is in sharp focus. Since macro lenses are sometimes used for capturing precise two-dimensional reproductions, this is a crucial design feature.

Watch.
Watch

Macro Lens Focal Length

Most true macro lenses are prime (not zoom) lenses at a fixed focal length. When shopping for a macro lens, there are a couple of focal-length considerations to make—one for macro work, the other for other types of photography.

Most lens focal lengths range (at press time) all the way from ultra-wide 15mm to 180mm. If the magnification ratio is the same (1:1 or 1:2), then what is the difference between a 15mm 1:1 macro lens and a 180mm 1:1 macro lens? There are a couple of considerations to make—one for macro work, the other for other types of photography.

Water bottle.
Water bottle

The short and sweet answer is: the minimum focus distance. With macro lenses, you achieve the maximum magnification at the MFD, and this is known as the lens’s “working distance.” The longer the focal length, the greater the working distance at maximum magnification. You can take nearly identical images with a 40mm 1:1 macro lens and a 180mm 1:1 macro lens, but the 40mm lens will have to be much closer to your subject than the 180mm lens to get that similar image. This can be a critical factor when photographing animals and insects—and other subjects that might startle or move—but not as important for other still-life subjects.

Tail light.
Tail light

Extending the discussion to using a macro lens for general photography, choosing your macro lens focal length takes on further importance. If you want to use the lens for everyday walkaround images, you could get something around the 50mm “Nifty Fifty” focal length. Portrait shooters might like their macro lens to measure around 85mm or 105mm; landscape shooters might be drawn to wider angle or more telephoto macro lenses.

Ring.
Ring

Macro Photos with a Macro Lens

Are you shocked to learn that macro lenses are good for macro photography? You shouldn’t be. The combination of close-focus capabilities, life-size or half life-size magnification, and flat field imagery makes them ideal for exploring the tiny universe around us.

Drop.
Drop

We have a lot of macro content on Explora, so grab your macro lens and hopefully get inspired! In summary, the best way to capture close-up images is almost always going to be with a macro lens.

Portraits with a Macro Lens

Normal and telephoto focal length macro lenses can and do make for amazing portrait prime lenses. While they might not have the bokeh-popping large f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/1.8 apertures (many macro lenses max out at f/2.8), what they lack in wide apertures they can more than make up for in sharpness.

Surfman.
Surfman

At f/2.8, a moderate telephoto macro lens is more than capable of producing smooth, blurry backgrounds. The close-focus capabilities of the macro lens means that you’ll have no trouble getting intimately close portraits (maybe too close?), whereas many portrait prime lenses sometimes hit their minimum focus distance before the subject’s face has filled the frame.

Piggyback.
Piggyback

Landscapes with a Macro Lens

As mentioned above, the general sharpness and flat field of a macro lens can be a boon for landscape photographers regardless of its focal length. Lens sharpness is a holy grail for landscape shooters, and a flat field can mean that edge-to-edge sharpness is enhanced over non-macro lenses—great for landscape images.

Also, the macro lens gives you the ability to photograph a scenic vista and then, without changing lenses, drop down to the ground to get a close-up photo of a wildflower, insect, animal, or other tiny details. A “regular” lens won’t allow you that versatility.

Eastern Sierras.
Eastern Sierras

Astrophotography with a Macro Lens

Do you know what other optical instruments are designed with flat fields? Astronomical telescopes. Sometimes, for astrophotography, you need to add a “field flattener” to a telescope to help with edge-to-edge sharpness because, like camera lenses, some telescopes usually are designed for super-sharp image centers—since that is where the eye is looking and astro subjects are usually centered in the frame—not for full field sharpness that you’d want in a photograph. The field flattener helps telescopes get edge-to-edge sharpness, something for which macro lenses are designed.

Fly Navy.
Fly Navy

While it seems odd to take a lens designed for photographing something right in front of the lens and point it at objects that are literally light years away, it can be done.

Unfortunately, when I have used macro lenses for astrophotography, I have not taken sufficient field notes and I am usually shooting the lenses adapted to a mirrorless camera, so I cannot determine, via metadata, which of my astro images were taken with a macro lens.

Nikon.
Nikon

Potential Drawbacks of Macro Lenses in General Photography

Now that I’ve touted the often-overlooked versatility of the macro lens, let’s talk about potential drawbacks for using macro lenses for general photography. Yes, there are a couple, but they don’t universally apply to each macro lens, so investigate as needed. The two main detractors are: 1) focus throw and 2) light gathering.

Ignition.
Ignition

Focus throw: Because of their ability to focus from infinity down to a fraction of an inch, some macro lenses, especially older manual focus lenses, require a lengthy turn of the focus ring to move the focus plane from outer space to right in front of the lens. The macro lens’s long focus throw from infinity to minimum focus distance allows for precision focus adjustments—important when dealing with tiny subjects.

Watch Study

With a snappy modern autofocus, this long throw might not be a huge issue, but if you are trying to capture dynamic scenes, it can be a hinderance if the focus has to travel far when trying to acquire a subject. Some macro lenses allow shooters to select the active focus range manually to help reduce AF times by keeping the lens from racking through a full range of focus distances when focusing on objects further away.

Vienna.
Vienna

Light gathering: Although some macro lenses make it to the respectably wide f/2 maximum aperture, you won’t find macro glass with apertures wider than that. Most true macro photography is done mounted on a tripod and, when you get to macro magnifications, your depth of field is incredibly short, even when the aperture is stepped down, so wide maximum apertures are not really needed for macro lenses. But, if you are doing low-light, handheld photography, a lens with an f/1.8 or greater maximum aperture might be more suitable for that line of work.

Nautical

Macro Plus

If you just acquired a macro lens, or are thinking about buying your first, know that the macro lens is not a “one-trick pony.” Don’t be afraid to make your macro lens a regular passenger in your camera bag. Use it not only to get amazing close-up images of the tiny universe; break it out for ultra-sharp portraits, landscapes, or whenever you need a high-performance prime lens to capture a great image.

Do you have questions about macro lenses and their potential? How do you like to shoot your macro glass? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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6 Comments

Excellent article.  I have a lot of macro experience and still learned a few things here -- very well done.  Though I do most of my macro work with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L, I've recently started using the Canon 8mm-15mm f/4L Fisheye for close-up work to photograph tiny bugs and plants, where items as close as 2" are in perfect focus!

Hi Robert,

Thanks for the kind words! I am glad a macro veteran still got some good nuggets in the article!

Ultra-wide-angle and fisheye close-up photography is definitely fun, challenging, and can produce some very unique looking images.

Thanks for reading and sharing your tips!

Best,

Todd

Excellent and very helpful article. I am new to macro and reading everything Ivan on it and experimenting. I am finding it especially challenging. I am using a sigma 105 f2.8 macro with my FF Nikon D750 and using it handheld for flowers and insects. The105 has stabilization which helps with handheld by almost impossible not to have some shake when just inches from an object but I don’t see how to set up a tripod close enough to these subjects for extreme closeups. Trying to get close enough to get enough magnification yet sharp enough is very challenging.

Hi Howard,

Thank you for the kind words on the article. I am glad you found it helpful!

As you are discovering, stabilization (hopefully of both the camera and subject!) is key when doing macro work. Here are a few thoughts that, I hope, can help:

1) I am not sure if that Sigma lens has a "tripod mode" where it disables the stabilization when mounted on a tripod, but, just in case, you should shut off the stabilization of the lens when using a tripod or the lens will fight against the tripod. (Using laypersons terms here.)

2) Depending on your subject, you might want to try a small tabletop tripod when working close to the ground with flowers and insects. They work great and are infinitely more portable than a larger tripod.

3) Speaking of larger tripods, some feature reversible center columns that can help with macro photography by allowing you to have your camera mounted inside the spread tripod legs. The camera will be inverted which makes things a little wonky with controls and menus and such, but you can flip your images over in post processing.

4) Another full-sized tripod hack might be the use of a lateral arm. Some tripods are designed for the center column to become a lateral arm. You can also buy and mount an arm to an existing tripod. A word of caution: pay attention to the center of gravity of your lateral arm rig as you can easily create an unstable setup.

Let me know if you have follow-up questions or if any of these ideas sound good to you!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Using an Olympus AF extension tube on a 30mm lens or a 50, will I get 2:1 or 1:1 using both the 10 and 16mm tubes?

Hi Al,

May I ask what camera you are using and the specific model of the two lenses? With that information, I can plug your question into an online calculator and get you an answer.

You can also use this formula: Extension tube magnification formula = Lens’s Native Magnification + (Extension Distance / Focal Length)

[https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/macro-on-a-budget-using-extension-tubes]

Thanks!

Best,

Todd

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