Macro photography: Which lens?

Shivan Parusnath Lens Recommendations, Macro, Shivan 10 Comments

This week I’m discussing lens choices for macro and close-up photography. Rather than a full rundown of the macro lens market, I will focus on the four macro lenses that I regularly use in my photography, and provide sample images so that you can see what sort of images each lens can produce.

A quick definition before we move on. Technically, a true macro lens is a lens that allows for at least a 1:1 (life-size) reproduction of your subject on a full-frame (35mm) sensor. So let’s say you are photographing a newborn gecko that is only 30mm long, at the closest focal distance of a 1:1 macro lens, this tiny animal will cover most of the sensor. With the image resolution that modern DSLRs produce, this means that this dwarf will appear as a giant when viewed at full size! A true macro lens will therefore allow you to capture an incredible level of detail of really minute subjects. Many zoom lenses are advertised to have a ‘macro’ range at the closest focus distance, however these will typically not allow you to produce true 1:1 macro images (more like 1:2-1:3, half to a one-third life-size). 1:1 macro lenses are available in many different focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto, and each focal length will be suitable for different styles of photographs and subjects.

[Note: I use Canon equipment, so the lenses I will be talking about are Canon lenses (or other brands on Canon mounts), although the brand you have committed to should in most cases stock the same/similar focal length lens, or else third-party alternatives are always available.]

 

Lets jump in.

 

 100mm – Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM is my go-to macro lens. When I am in the field and find an interesting arthropod or reptile to photograph, this is the lens that I attach to my DSLR first, because I know that the photos will be pin-sharp, I will have a decent working distance from the subject, and I can easily isolate the subject from the background. As a Canon L-series lens, the glass quality is second to none, and it is weather sealed. In this case, you also get a brilliant four-stop optical image stabiliser. This stabiliser, while not a necessity for macro photography, has allowed me to capture hand-held shots in low-light conditions with only natural light illuminating my subject, and for that reason alone makes it worth having over the also good, and less expensive Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 (non-IS) USM.

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A KATYDID PHOTOGRAPHED IN NATURAL LIGHT, IN LOW-LOWLIGHT CONDITIONS. ONLY POSSIBLE WITH THE HELP OF THE 4-STOP IMAGE STABILISER. CANON EF 100MM F/2.8L IS USM F/7.1, 1/160TH, ISO 1000.

Although this lens goes all the way to 1:1 at its closest focal point, I often use it at lower magnification ratios, for instance, when capturing a full body portrait of a lizard.

The 100mm macro lens

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM produces beautiful bokeh (background blur). Flap-necked Chameleon, shot with natural light.

This is also useful for instance when photographing a venomous snake and you need a safe working distance.

Puff Adder from safe working distance. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at f/10, 1/200th sec, ISO 50.

Puff Adder from safe working distance.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at f/10, 1/200th sec, ISO 50.

Bitis inornata portrait taken from a safe working distance. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at f/32, 1/100th sec, ISO 200.

Plain Mountain Adder portrait taken from a safe working distance.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at f/32, 1/100th sec, ISO 200.

Namaqua Dwarf Adder Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM f/11, 1/200th sec, ISO 100

Namaqua Dwarf Adder
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM f/11, 1/200th sec, ISO 100

The stabiliser and wide f/2.8 aperture also lend themselves to portraiture, and I have produced some pleasing portraits using this lens. As the most common focal length for macro lenses, many alternative options to this specific lens are available, but the L-glass does provide an edge with its stabiliser and uncompromising sharpness.

Summary: If you have to get one macro lens get this one.

Ease of use: 5/5. Point, shoot.

Alternatives: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 (non-IS) USM, Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro, Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD.

 

65mm – Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens

The MP-E 65mm is a specialist macro lens that ONLY creates 1-5x times size images. Unlike the Canon 100mm, this macro lens cannot be used for portraits, or full body shots of any animals larger than your sensor (cropped sensor: 22m, full-frame: 35mm). Furthermore, this lens is mostly manually operated, making it tricky to beginners. While aperture can be controlled from the camera, there is no autofocus, and as you change magnification ratio, you will have to move backwards and forwards to find the focal plane. While this can be tricky at first, you quickly learn how far the focal plane is from the front of the lens at different magnifications. I bought this lens when I realised that the 100mm, while brilliant within its range, did not get me as close to an animal as I would ideally like to be. Specifically, I was photographing a tiny (~2mm) jumping spider, and even at 1:1, I could not get as close to the animal as I would have liked.

A tiny jumping spider shot with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at 1:1.

A tiny jumping spider shot with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at 1:1.

By comparison, here is a shot I took of a similar sized jumping spider with the MP-E 65mm at close to 5:1!

A similarly sized jumping spider, but taken with the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens.

A similarly sized jumping spider, but taken with the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens.

Another comparison, a portrait of a Giant Ground Gecko at 1:1 with the 100mm, and a close-up of the eye with the MP-E 65mm at around 3.5:1.

Giant Ground Gecko. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at 1:1.

Giant Ground Gecko.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM at 1:1.

The eye of the same gecko. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at around 3.5:1.

The eye of the same gecko.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at around 3.5:1.

Often, if my subject is smaller than 3cm in size, or I want a close-up of an insect’s head, or textures on the body of a lizard, I will reach for this lens first. If you are interested in going beyond life-size, this is a sharp, dedicated lens for exactly that purpose.

Long-horn Beetle. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 4:1.

Long-horn Beetle.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 4:1.

A Grasshopper portrait. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 4:1.

A Grasshopper portrait.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 4:1.

An ant harvesting honeydew from its aphids. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 5:1.

An ant harvesting honeydew from its aphids.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 5:1.

The foot of, showing the unique adaptations on its feet for living in desert conditions. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 5:1.

The foot of a Shovel-snouted Lizard, showing the unique adaptations on its feet for living in desert conditions.
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 5:1.

MP-E65 (5)

Another interesting hand adapted for desert conditions, this time a Giant Ground Gecko. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens at 5:1.

Summary: When 1:1 doesn’t cut it, this is the only option (without using extension tubes, but more on that next week).

Ease of use: 3/5. From 1:1 to 2.5:1, this lens is fairly simple to use. From 3:1 onwards, focusing can be tricky due to the loss of light as the lens extends. The focal plane at such a high magnification is also razor thin, so it takes some getting used to find the sweet spot. With some practise, this lens is a joy to use.

Alternatives: No real alternative, but the LAOWA 60mm f/2.8 2:1 Ultra-Macro Lens gets close (and can focus to infinity, so can be used for more than just macro).

 

15/20mm – Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Macro Lens/ Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG

Wide-angle macro is an exciting sub-genre of macro photography. Whereas the 100mm and 65mm lenses allow you to tightly frame your subject and isolate it from its background, wide-angle macro has a different aim. Instead, your background becomes part of the story, and your subject is framed within this context. You can capture your specimen within its natural habitat, allowing the viewer of the image to understand more about the biology and life history of the species. Until last year, there was no such thing as a dedicated ultra-wide-angle 1:1 macro lens, and so most photographers interested in this genre sought out lenses such as the Sigma 20mm f/1.8 that provide a magnification ratio of 1:2.5 (one-quarter life-size), while still being wide enough to encompass a lot of the habitat.

Mozambique Forest Tree Frog. Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG at closest focus (1:25, one-quarter life-size).

Mozambique Forest Tree Frog.
Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG at closest focus (1:25, one-quarter life-size).

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A Plain Mountain Adder in its environment. Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG

 

Then, last year, a new Hong Kong based lens manufacturing company called Venus Optics produced the world’s first ultra-wide-angle 1:1 macro lens, the Laowa 15mm. I picked up a copy of this last month and have had a lot of fun experimenting with it thus far. Also a bit of a tricky lens to use since aperture is controlled on the lens itself, and photos have to be composed with the aperture blades already closed down. I look forward to using this lens more and sharing more photos in upcoming posts.

A locust photographed in context of its natural habitat. Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Macro Lens at close to 1:1

A locust photographed in context of its natural habitat.
Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Macro Lens at close to 1:1

Summary: The lens you need when you want to portray your macro subject in its environment.

Ease of use: Laowa 15mm: 1/5, Sigma 20mm: 5/5.

Alternatives: There is no other true 1:1 wide-angle macro lens but several others will allow for great close-ups. Most wide-angle lenses 10-20mm have a fairly decent maximum magnification ratio. I tested many different wide-angle lenses before settling on the Sigma 20mm, and picking up the 15mm was a no-brainer once it was released.

 

50mm – Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

By saying that the 50mm macro lens sits between the tight 100mm focal length and the ultra-wide 15 mm focal length, it kind of sounds like this lens is neither here nor there. But there is a reason that the 50mm lens is one of the most popular focal length lenses in photography. The 50mm focal length provides a very “natural” field of view, and capture an environment in a similar way to how our own eyes might perceive it. I use the 50mm macro lens primarily when photographing reptiles in their environment, when I don’t want to blur out the background like a 100mm would, and don’t want the distorted perspective of a 15mm or 20mm.

A yawning Bitis Inornata. Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

A yawning Plain Mountain Adder.
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

A Puff Adder in its environment. Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

A Puff Adder in its environment.
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

An Armadillo Girdled Lizard in a rock crevice. Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

An Armadillo Girdled Lizard in a rock crevice.
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens

 

Interestingly, this ‘macro’ branded lens only has a maximum macro ratio of 1:2 (half life-size), and an adaptor is needed to go all the way to 1:1. Since I don’t frequently use this particular lens at its closest focal point the way I do with the others, I don’t really mind but it would be great to have the option. This is quite an old lens, and could really do with an update.

Summary: When 100mm is too tight, and 15mm is too wide, 50mm is just right.

Ease of use: 5/5

Alternatives: Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Lens. This is probably a better choice than the Canon 50mm since it goes to 1:1 natively. Canon urgently needs to update this lens.

 

Wait, but which body do I need for macro photography?
I purposefully did not cover camera bodies in this post, and this is because selecting the best camera body for macro photography is nowhere near as important as picking the correct lenses and flashes. If you own a DSLR built somewhere in the last 15 years, it will probably be more than capable of all the tasks we want them to perform with macro photography. Typically, you will not be using a very fast shutter speed, nor will you be shooting at 10fps – so a professional-level body is not a necessity. I use a Canon 70D, a cropped-sensor body with a flip-out screen which is quite handy in certain situations. But I also use a full-frame 5D Mark II perfectly fine without a flip-out screen. As long as you can switch lenses and can attach a flash to it, you are good to go.

I hope that you have enjoyed this article on lens choices! Of course, there are several other macro lens focal lengths out there, but these are the focal lengths  that I found myself needing, and therefore sought out these specific options. Please feel free to ask any questions you have about the lenses I have discussed, or indeed anything else related to macro photography. Any feedback is welcomed and appreciated.

Next week I will discuss alternatives (and enhancements) to macro lenses.

In the mean time, see more on Instagram or 500px.

Cheers for now.

About the Author

Shivan Parusnath

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I am currently doing my PhD research on the conservation of the Sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a threatened South African lizard species, at Wits University in JHB. Working with reptiles over the past 6 years has fueled my obsession with macro photography. My aim with photography is always to portray a subject on its own level, whether a lion, a lizard or an ant. I am also excited by in-habitat shots, where the subject is shown in the context of its natural habitat. This is great specifically for rare or threatened species, so people who might not readily get an opportunity to see these animals can gain a greater appreciation for where the species fits into the bigger picture.

Comments 10

  1. Pingback: Macro photography: Which lens? - Africa Freak

  2. DaveT

    Another excellent article Shivan. I have tried using the 65MPE handheld and found it quite difficult to get used to, and it resulted in quite a few that found their way to the bin. But a few worked out and I could see the benefits of this lens for certain subjects – as you point out. I decided not to buy one at this point as I like doing photos on the hoof, and have found that if I set my 100LIS macro to the closest focusing distance possible and then focus by just swaying in and out, I can get images at a closer focusing distance than by using the autofocus.

    Obviously I can’t get the magnification of the MPE65 , and I expect you might be covering this in another article, but but I have recently been experimenting by using the 100LIS Macro with a 2x MKIII tele-convertor with a 25mm extension tube between the two. And that combo whilst a touch heavy and long means that I can get quite a reasonable magnification beyond 1:1 by using kit I already own.

    Thanks again for your article, and i look forward to more of them.
    Dave

    1. Post
      Author
      Shivan Parusnath

      Thanks Dave! Yes, the MP-E 65mm is tricky to use hand-held, but there is simply nothing else like it when you can get it right. It is also important to remember that macro photography tends to have a high throw-away rate. Simply because of how tricky it is to track a small subject and maintain the correct exposure as a subject flits in and out of different lighting conditions, many shots will be binned. I try and manage this by constantly deleting blurry, or otherwise poor shots while shooting.

      The combination of tele-converter plus extension tubes sounds like a good workaround. I’ve never used a teleconverter with a macro lens but I assume you will have a similar working distance to the Canon 180mm f/3.5 macro lens. It would be great to see some of the images that you produce with this combo. Feel free to post a link here for us to check out!

      Thanks again for the comment and feedback.

    1. Post
      Author
      Shivan Parusnath

      Definitely! In fact Nikon has a 105mm VR (image stabilised) lens that is pretty much exactly the same lens as the 100mm IS lens discussed here! Do you currently shoot with a Nikon 105mm, Richard?

      1. Richard Wentzel

        Yes shoot nikon 105 on a D7200. Biggest problem is very shallow depth of field. Often get a great photo but not happy with actual point of focus and amount of the image that is out of focus.Think I need to investigate a focus stacking software package. Not sure if this will help.

        1. Post
          Author
          Shivan Parusnath

          Shallow depth of field is one of the biggest challenges with macro photography, and this is why finding the right lighting solution is so important. In a future post I will discuss a few lighting options that will allow you to conquer this issue. Regarding focus – there is a chance you may need to micro-adjust the focus on your 105mm when used on your D7200. I’m not familiar how this is done on Nikon bodies, but with Canon bodies it is a simple menu that you can access that allows fine tuning of your lens’ focus system. Here is a link where you can learn more about this issue: http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Photography-Tips/af-microadjustment-tips.aspx.

          Regarding the amount of your subject that is in focus, focus stacking can definitely work to combat thin depth of field. While there is always the option to shoot at really small apertures such as f/32 to maximise depth of field, at these apertures we start to experience diffraction, resulting in a loss of sharpness. Most lenses have a “sweet-spot” of sharpness somewhere between f/8-f/16, and a few photos taken at around f/8 stacked together will produce a much sharper image than a single f/32 image. Focus stacking however, is also quite tricky to master and will require a lot of practise to nail, especially if done while hand-holding a camera. I will explore focus stacking in a future post as well, so stay tuned and keep experimenting!

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