All you need to know about macro lenses
What is a really good but affordable macro lens for my camera to help me take clean, crisp macro pictures of flowers?
This is one of the questions I got back from a survey of your biggest digital photography questions.
There are three types of lenses you can use for close up photography:
- fixed focal length macro lens $$$
- macro zoom lens $$$
- close up filters $
You’ve probably noticed I’ve put price points on each of the options. With macro photography, you definitely get what you pay for.
Fixed focal length = Sharpest
A fixed focal length macro lens (Nikon calls them micro) is your sharpest option, but can be the most pricey. I’ve used the Nikon 105mm Micro lens quite a bit and I must say when you have a good piece of glass, it’s hard to go back to the macro zoom variety, but I’ve also used a macro zoom and I’m really happy with the results I get for flowers and garden things, but I can tolerate a bit of softness in those. Maybe you can’t.
If you’re mainly shooting flowers then having a longer lens is more practical than a wide angle (such as 35mm) macro. Reason: You can get a little farther away from the plants and you won’t block the light. However, when you use a longer focal length you get less depth of field than with a shorter lens, so you need to be mindful of that.
These macro lenses can be used for regular photography too, not just close up work. In fact, they make great portrait lenses, especially the 100mm.
Depending on your sensor size, these fixed focal length lenses could set you back from ~$400 to $1,300. There are a few others focal lengths and brand names than what’s listed here, so be sure to do your research.
- Review of Canon 60mm EFS macro lens great for smaller size sensors (Canon Rebels, 50D, 60D)
- Review of Canon 100mm EF macro lens great for full frame sensors
- Review of Nikon 60mm Micro lens great for smaller size sensors (Nikon D7000, D90)
- Review of Nikon 105mm Micro lens great for full frame sensors
Macro zoom = Most convenient
Many zoom lenses have the macro option built in. This makes for one less lens in your camera bag. The convenience of having a zoom lens, and the price, may outweigh your need for the more expensive fixed focal length macro lens.
However in my experience, the focus falls off rather quickly using macro zoom lenses. If you like the look of soft edged, shallow depth of field flower photos, then you probably don’t mind. But as the question states: what’s the best lens for crisp images, then this might not be satisfactory. On the other hand if you’re moving from a consumer grade standard dSLR kit lens, then the macro zoom might look fantastic to you.
Close up filters = Cheap and soft at the edges
Thirty plus years ago, I bought a set of three close up screw on filters for about $40. Just like reading glasses, they come in +1, +2 and +4 strengths. They can also be stacked so you get a 1+2 = +3 magnification. On my babysitting earnings budget, they were all I could afford. I was using them to make copies of old family photos at the time. They are definitely not sharp to the edges, they are really hard to focus, and they almost take on a Holga-ish effect! If you like that sort of thing, then this will work for you. Anyhow, I ditched them soon after.
If you can afford it, get the fixed focal length macro lens. You won’t be disappointed. Do the research first though. I always recommend testing out any lens that I’m considering buying. Here’s how:
- Look up a few lenses you are considering
- Read reviews on them in camera magazine or websites
- Take your camera to your favourite photography retailer and take some photos in the store, or outside (you may have to take the salesperson with you)
- Better yet, rent a lens for the weekend and really test it thoroughly
- Compare it to the usual lens you use
- Look at the photos on your computer at 100%, or use a good loupe and light table if you’re shooting film
- Weigh quality, with your budget and your needs
While camera bodies continually drop in price and rise in features, having a good lens collection will keep it’s value. It’s worth the investment!