What is a Macro lens? When Should You Use One?

You’ve probably come across a few images that were taken with a macro lens. You’ll often recognize them by their highly magnified details and their extraordinary view of the surface of natural or everyday objects. But what exactly is a macro lens, how does it work and in which situations is it used? We want to clarify these questions together here.

What is a Macro lens

What is a macro lens?

macro lens is a camera lens that is specifically designed to capture small objects at close range. Because you can focus from a much closer distance with a macro lens, you have the ability to completely fill your image with even a tiny object and capture a great amount of detail.

An entire field of photography, macro photography, is dedicated to the use of macro lenses. It specializes in photographing at close range and thus opens the eye to a much greater amount of detail than the naked eye can perceive.

When should I use a macro lens?

When should I use a macro lens

So how do you determine which subjects are suitable for such a close-up? The good news is that almost any subject, animate or inanimate, offers unique new perspectives when viewed through a macro lens. However, insects, plants, and small products are trendy subjects in macro photography.

Areas of application

Although they are specifically designed for extreme close-ups, many macro lenses are also suitable for general use. This is mainly due to their great focusing capabilities. For example, macro lenses in portrait photography are wonderful for revealing details.

Also, in situations where the photographer wants to quickly and spontaneously switch between detail shots and portraits or even group shots, a macro lens can be the ideal companion. A good example of this is wedding photography – this lens can be used to produce detailed close-ups of a ring and then snapshots of the guests again within seconds.

However, in any application situation, you should always keep in mind that the images produced with a macro lens are often very contrasty. This is because these lenses specialize in keeping even very similar hues and brightness levels distinct. So you may have to post-process your images accordingly.

Important features of the macro lens

Important features of the macro lens

Scale of reproduction

The decisive characteristic of a macro lens is the magnification, i.e. the ratio of the size of the object on the camera sensor to its real size. A reproduction scale of 1:1 means that the lens faithfully reproduces reality at the minimum focusing distance. A scale of 1:1 is therefore also referred to as “life-size” or “standard”.

To recognize the scale is important to know: The first number indicates the size of the image on the sensor, while the second number indicates the real size. So a scale of 1:2 reduces the image by half, while a scale of 5:1 enlarges it fivefold. Only from a scale of 1:1 upwards does one speak of a “real” macro lens.

Typical imaging scales

Most macro lenses with a medium focal length (100 mm to 200 mm) achieve a reproduction scale of at least 1:1 up to 5:1 for extreme close-ups. With a shorter focal length (35 mm to 50 mm), a scale of only 1:2 is often possible. However, it can be extended to 1:1 by using an extension tube. Many zoom lenses are called “macro”, but usually do not achieve a larger magnification than 1:3. Furthermore, they result in much weaker image quality than actual macro lenses.

Focal length

Most macro lenses are fixed focal lengths, i.e. their focal length cannot be adjusted. In fact, there are also a few zoom macro lenses, which, however, fall sharply in quality and also only offer a much smaller image scale. The usual focal lengths for macro lenses are about 50 mm, 100 mm, and 180 mm. However, the exact values depend on the manufacturer.

#1 Macro lens with a short focal length

The short focal length lenses (50 mm to 60 mm) are usually cheaper, smaller, and lighter. However, their disadvantage is that you need to get relatively close to the subject, which can be difficult with some typical macro subjects ( butterflies, for example). Also, your own shadow may get in the way.

#2 Macro lenses with a long focal length

Long focal lengths (150 mm to 200 mm) are more expensive, larger, and heavier. However, they allow a greater “working distance” between you and the subject. They also allow for a shallower depth of field. This ensures that your subject appears particularly clear against a blurred background.

#3 Macro lenses with a medium focal length

Macro lenses with a medium focal length (90 mm to 100 mm) are a good compromise between the two extremes. They are flexible and work in different circumstances, which makes them popular “all-rounders”.

Typical focal lengths of macro lenses

So the focal length of your macro lens is critical to your distance from the subject. The longer the focal length, the greater the distance. With a 100 mm fixed focal length, for example, you have to keep twice the distance as with a 50 mm lens. The decision about the right focal length depends on your personal way of working and your needs.

 Approx. 50 mmApprox. 100mmApprox.180 mm
PriceCheapestMediumMost expensive
WeightLowestMediumHighest
SizeSmallestMediumLargest
Working distanceClosestMediumFurthest
MotifsProducts, small objects, stamps, coins, jewelrySmall insects, flowers, portraitsReptiles, dragonflies, spiders

Image quality and sharpness

Image quality and sharpness of micro lens
In macro photography, focus and sharpness of detail are important.

Focus

With most camera lenses, it is focusing works by moving several elements within the optical construction. This works well so far for medium to long-distance focusing but can result in significant degradation of image quality for close-up photography. To avoid this, macro lenses incorporate a “floating” element that constantly adjusts the ratios within the lens. This guarantees absolute sharpness, optimum contrast, and the highest image quality, regardless of the focusing distance.

Sharpness improvement

Some lenses also have a vibration reduction (VR) function. This is especially helpful when shooting at fast shutter speeds or without a tripod, as even the slightest blur can cause distracting blur.

Since macro lenses usually have a larger aperture than standard lenses, they are particularly well suited for shooting in low light. However, the disadvantage of this feature is a very shallow depth of field, especially with long focal length lenses. The use of a tripod is highly recommended to keep the camera steady. Additionally, a macro-focusing rail can help you with positioning.

Focusing mechanism

#1 Autofocus

Most of the newer macro lenses work with an autofocus system, which has a positive influence on sharpness, especially with longer fixed focal lengths. There are two different variants for autofocus:

  • Traditional with screw drive
  • Modern and noise reduced

The silent version is more expensive but may be worth it if you frequently work with jumpy objects.

#2 Manual focus

Older macro lenses use a manual focus, which is a bit more difficult to operate. Therefore, a tripod is essential here. Not only older models, but also some special lenses like the Canon 1-5X use manual focus.

#3 Internal focus

The third variation of focusing is the internal focus, where the exterior of the lens remains completely still while the internal elements adjust. This can be a great advantage for extreme close-ups, as insects or other small animals can easily be spooked by moving or even touching the lens.

Alternatives to the macro lens

Alternatives to the macro lens

By now you’ve seen the benefits of a macro lens in detail. However, there are also some alternatives that allow you to avoid such an investment. Unfortunately, the image quality does not come close to the real macro lens, but they are much cheaper.

Spacer rings

The so-called extension rings can be attached between the camera lens and the housing. They do not contain any optical elements and only serve to increase the distance between the lens and the sensor. This reduces the focusing distance and you get a larger magnification. Several extension rings can be combined with each other to intensify this effect.

Expansion vessels and focusing splints

Extension tubes and focus rails work similarly to extension rings, but their intensity can be adjusted. They also reduce the amount of light entering the camera, which is why they are especially popular in studios.

Close-up lenses

Close-up lenses are mounted in front of the camera lens using the filter thread. They work like magnifying glasses by enlarging the image before it reaches the sensor. Close-up lenses are often of inferior quality but can be a cheap and quick substitute for a macro lens.

Reverse Rings

A normal camera lens reduces the size of the image when it is transferred to the sensor. By turning the lens around, you can also reverse this effect, i.e. enlarge the image. To do this, you need a reversal ring. Reversing rings are cheap and easy to use, but they lead to difficulties in focusing.

Because when you turn the lens around, you lose its automatic mode of operation, the focus is no longer adjustable and the image can only be brought into focus by moving the camera.

Learn more about the different alternatives to the macro lens in this video:

Macro photography tips

Depth of field

As mentioned earlier, you should be aware that with a small distance to the subject comes a shallow depth of field. To counteract this, you need to work with the aperture setting. The more of your subject you want to focus on, the more you need to stop down. If you normally shoot with a very open aperture, this may take some getting used to.

You may have to go down in aperture to around f/18 and try to get your subject on a focal plane as much as possible. This will give you the best possible sharpness. In macro photography, a technique called “focus stacking” is often used for this problem. I’ll explain this trick in more detail later.

Flatfield

The front lens element of most lenses is slightly curved. The combination with the flat sensor of a digital camera ensures that the center of the image is in focus, while the outer areas are slightly blurred. Normally this is not a problem and is hardly noticeable at all. Macro photography, however, can be distracting because of the high magnification.

That is why most macro lenses have a so-called flatfield correction to compensate for this effect. Flatfield correction is especially useful for photographing small, flat objects such as coins or stamps. With 3D subjects such as insects or flowers, the curvature does not play such a big role.

Focus Stacking

what is Focus Stacking
Focus stacking can be used to sharpen large parts of the image

As mentioned earlier, the Focus Stacking technique helps to bring larger parts of the image into focus. This works by combining several images with different focus distances together to create a single, sharp image. In some cameras, such as the Olympus OM-DE-M1, this feature is already built in and just needs to be selected in the settings.

With most models, however, you have to adjust the focus manually and combine the individual shots later using Photoshop or other software. Focus stacking can be very time-consuming, but it’s well worth it. This technique often produces great end results.

Stabilization

Adequate camera image stabilization is a big issue in macro photography. This is because the camera shake is more noticeable the closer you get to the subject. While some cameras and even lenses already have a built-in stabilization function, you’ll still usually achieve the best results with a tripod.

Of course, tripods are often large and difficult to transport, but the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages. Not only does a tripod keep your camera steady, ensuring your images are reliably sharp, it also gives you the freedom to shoot with a smaller aperture and slower shutter speed.

This helps you especially in low light conditions (for example, in a dark forest). If necessary, the tripod can be supplemented with a rail system to bring a larger area into focus. This works especially well in combination with focus stacking.

Camera shake

Of course, you can also avoid camera shake by simply avoiding touching the camera. There are several ways to do this:

  • The most common are remote triggers, which are simply connected to the camera by a cable. They are inexpensive and easy to use.
  • Another option is to delay the shot so that the aperture does not open until you have removed your hand from the camera. With a Canon macro lens, this works with the “Drive” function of your camera, with a Nikon lens with the “Self-timer” mode.
  • A third option is, of course, to use the shutter release on your mobile phone via WLAN, provided your camera supports this function.

Macro Lens Buying Recommendations

Macro lenses belong to the slightly more extravagant part of the photographic equipment. This also means that the majority of the available models are of very high quality. The two top brands Canon and Nikon are considered the market leaders in the field of macro lenses.

So if you are using an appropriate camera and your budget allows it, I recommend such a macro lens. Somewhat cheaper, but also recommendable alternatives are Tokina, Sigma, and Tamron.

My recommendations:

#1 Canon 100 mm f/2.8L Macro

This macro lens is one of the most versatile and highest quality lenses on the market today. It has a long focal length and captures both the smallest details and portraits razor sharp.

#2 Nikon 60 mm f/2.8G Macro

This macro lens is great for extreme close-ups because of its short focal length. As a precaution, you should not use it for objects that could sting or bite (for example, insects), as you will need to get very close to the subject. However, it is a good choice for plants, flowers, or other non-dangerous details.

#3 Sony 90 mm f/2.8G OSS Macro for E Mount

If you use a Sony E or FE mount, this lens is perfect for you. It’s one of the best on the market, and with a minimum focusing distance of around 28cm, it’s suitable for a wide range of subjects from insects to portraits.

#4 Sigma 105 mm f/2.8 EX Macro DG OS HSM lens

The Sigma is one of the most popular macro lenses – and has been for several years. It’s solidly built and delivers excellent sharpness. For this price, an absolute pearl. The Sigma is available for cameras such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Sigma. DG, OS, and HSM mean nothing to you? Click here for our Sigma glossary.

Prices

Like most other lenses, you will find macro lenses in different price ranges. Although they belong to the more specialized part of the equipment, they don’t necessarily have to be more expensive than other lenses. You can get a decent macro lens for under €300, but you can also spend well over €1000. You should also keep in mind that in macro photography you might need a tripod and lighting accessories.

If your budget doesn’t allow it or you’re just not sure which model to buy, you can often rent macro lenses. This way you can experiment with macro photography at your leisure and decide which lens is right for you.

macro photography of a bee
All the cost and effort of macro photography are worth it for stunning images like this!

Conclusion

Once again, the most important facts about macro lenses at a glance:

  1. Macro lenses are primarily used to produce close-up images of minute detail, giving a new perspective on a wide variety of subjects.
  2. However, many photographers also use macro lenses in other areas such as portrait photography. They are also well suited for situations where you want to quickly switch between details and larger image details.
  3. The most important characteristics of a macro lens are magnification and focal length. The various models also differ in the type of focus.
  4. For amateur photographers and those who want to save money, there are some cheaper alternatives to the classic macro lens, but they cannot deliver the same image quality.
  5. Important issues when using a macro lens are focusing and stabilizing the camera. These areas also contain the greatest difficulties of macro photography.
  6. Learn more about the 5 other main types of lenses here

Macro photography is an exciting field that can open up new perspectives even for experienced photographers. A macro lens is definitely a worthwhile purchase and a great addition to your equipment.

With a little practice and patience, your macro shots are sure to be absolutely stunning! Could I bring you a little closer to macro photography with this article and whet your appetite for it? Feel free to share your feedback and your own experiences on the subject in the comments.