How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

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A common question among those starting out in macro photography is, “What lens should I choose?” Given the number of options, this is difficult to answer and depends on a number of factors (physical requirements, budget, subject, style, etc.). There is no one ideal macro lens. However, this article will provide a guide to choosing the ideal macro lens for your needs, focusing on three main considerations: focal length, image quality, and price.

macro photography abstract hibiscus - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

A Note About Image Quality

When it comes to choosing lenses, photographers often focus on image quality, especially sharpness.

I am happy to tell you that, for macro photography, this is generally less of an issue. Why? Macro lenses are incredibly sharp. Even lenses on the lower end of the price spectrum offer professional-level sharpness, especially when stopped down slightly. I have used a half-dozen macro lenses over the course of my photography career, and I have never been dissatisfied with the level of sharpness.

However, this does not mean that low-end macro lenses are indistinguishable from the pricier options. Expensive macro lenses do often provide better sharpness and bokeh.

macro photography flower abstract - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

Furthermore, cheaper macro lenses do sometimes have problems with chromatic aberration (generally purple and yellow fringing that occurs in the high contrast parts of images). This can be corrected with post-processing, but I prefer to avoid chromatic aberration whenever I can. When I discuss different lenses below, I note any chromatic aberration problems that I’ve experienced.

Focal Length

I will center this discussion around focal length; this is an easy way of narrowing down potential macro lenses because focal length often determines and limits your macro photography options.

Macro lenses can be classified into three focal-length categories: short (35-60mm), mid-range (90-105mm), and long (150-200mm).

The Short Macro Lens

  • Pros: Lightweight and inexpensive.
  • Cons: Less impressive bokeh, short working distance (bad for insects).
dahlia abstract macro photography flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

I took this dahlia image using a short macro lens, the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.

Short macro lenses tend to be used for more casual macro outings, or as “all-purpose lenses” that you switch to macro when needed. They’re easy to store, easy to carry, and pretty inexpensive. They’re also easier to hand-hold because of their small size.

However, a big drawback with short macro lenses is the short working distance. Working distance refers to the distance from the end of the lens to the subject. In order to do high magnification photography with, say, a 60mm macro lens, the subject has to be extremely close to the lens. This can cause problems. First of all, insects generally require a bit of distance when photographed, so getting close often isn’t an option.

macro photography tulip abstract flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

This tulip photograph was taken with a Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.

Additionally, your head (or your camera) might cast an unwanted shadow onto the subject, depending on the lighting conditions. Shorter lenses also tend to have less pleasing bokeh.

However, if you are looking to do casual macro photography with more portable equipment and strong image quality, then a shorter macro lens might be just the thing for you.

If you’re a Canon shooter on a budget, you should look at the Canon 60mm f/2.8 (at $399)or the Canon 35mm f/2.8 IS (at $349). The latter offers image stabilization, which can often be quite useful for handheld macro photography. For Nikon photographers, look at the Nikon 40mm f/2.8G (only $225).

How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens - tulip macro photo

Another tulip photograph that was taken with the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.

If you’re a photographer with a bit more to spend, you should consider the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G (at $596) or the Tamron 60mm f/2.0 for Nikon ($524) and for Canon ($524).

Finally, you might consider the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D (at $517). This lens is near and dear to my heart because it was the first macro lens I ever purchased. I was always quite impressed by its sharpness. It is worth noting that the autofocus is quite slow, but I always use manual focus when shooting macro (and you probably should, too!), so this was not a problem.

60mm nikon macro photography tulip flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

A final photograph with the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.

Mid-Range Macro Lenses

  • Pros: Larger working distance, somewhat inexpensive, very good bokeh, lightweight.
  • Cons: Working distance still fairly short.
macro photography abstract purple flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

A flower image that was taken at 105mm.

Mid-range macro lenses are my personal favorite among the macro options. They are a great option for flower photography, especially more abstract level flower photography like I tend to do. Why?

First of all, these lenses are relatively lightweight, which means that I can hand-hold them without much trouble at all, even in low light. This allows for much greater flexibility.

Second, a mid-range macro lens offers a perfect working distance for flower photography. I like to get very close to the flowers that I am photographing. Not so close that I am nearly touching the flower, but not so far that other flowers, leaves, and branches get in the way.

macro photography Canon 100mm f/2.8L rose abstract - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

A rose image which was taken with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L.

Third, these lenses offer high-quality optics for what is often a very low price. For example, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8, (which is generally the least expensive of these mid-range macro lenses at $649), affords images with outstanding sharpness and bokeh.

If you desire to do insect photography, or if you often photograph with a tripod and want the increased image quality of a 150-200mm, I would recommend looking at a longer macro lens. However, if you are interested in doing handheld flower photography or if you’re on a budget but want a more dedicated macro lens, I recommend one of those mid-range lenses mentioned above.

First among the less expensive options is the aforementioned Tamron 90mm f/2.8 for Nikon and for Canon. At one point in time, this was my workhorse lens. While I had occasional issues with chromatic aberration, the sharpness, bokeh quality, and price more than made up for it. Another option around this price-point is the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 for Nikon and for Canon.

daisy abstract macro photography bokeh - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

This daisy image was taken with the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 (non-VC) lens. I love the bokeh this lens produces.

Looking toward medium-level prices: the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM gets great reviews, as does the upgrade of the previously mentioned Tamron 90mm f/2.8, which has been modified to offer vibration compensation technology. Sigma also offers the 105mm f/2.8 macro with optical stabilization.

Finally, on the pricier side, we have the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR ($896) and the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS ($749), both of which offer vibration reduction/image stabilization.

I must say, if I had to pick one lens to use foreverout of all the lenses that I’ve owned or even held in my handsit would be the Canon 100mm f/2.8L. It’s pin sharp, the image stabilization allows for shooting handheld in low light, and the bokeh is a dream come true.

Long macro lenses

  • Pros: Best working distance, generally excellent bokeh and image quality.
  • Cons: Heavy, often very expensive.
macro photography abstract dandelion Sigma 150mm - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

I took this high magnification image with the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (non-OS).

Longer macro lenses tend to have astonishingly good image qualityfor a (generally hefty) price. The bokeh and sharpness on the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 (for $1099), for instance, is excellent.

macro photography aster abstract bokeh Sigma 150mm macro - macro lens

I’m very impressed with the bokeh offered by the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens.

These lenses also offer the best working distance of the bunch, which is often essential for insect photography.

Another advantage of the longer working distance is the ability to use a creative macro technique: shooting through out of focus flowers.

sunflower abstract macro photography Sigma 150mm macro lens

A third image was taken with the Sigma 150mm macro. I shot through several other flowers to give this image a colorful wash.

Yet these lenses are quite heavy, which makes hand-holding for long periods difficult, and doing so in low light nearly impossible. You’ll want to consider these lenses if you wish to do high-level insect photography, or if you desire top-notch image quality and don’t mind the weight or price.

The long macro lenses include the less expensive Sigma 150mm (non-OS), which is a bit harder to find, but offers excellent image quality and is built like a tank. It’s my backup macro lens (after the Canon 100mm f/2.8L), and I turn to it when I want a bit more working distance.

Next, we have the Tamron 180mm f/3.5 and the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS.

And then, offering stunning image quality with a high price tag, are the Nikon 200mm f/4 ($1792), and the Canon 180mm f/3.5L ($1399). While I have not used either of these lenses, I have read rave reviews of their optics, especially the Canon 180mm f/3.5L.

macro photography abstract coneflower Sigma 150mm macro lens

This is another image taken with the Sigma 150mm macro. I shot through another coneflower to give this image a purple wash.

Conclusion

While most macro lenses allow for high-quality images, different ones will meet certain needs better than others.

To summarize:

  • If you are looking for a more general purpose lens for casual macro shooting, choose one of the short-range lenses.
  • But if you are looking for a more serious macro photography lens and prefer to shoot handheld with greater flexibility, go with one of the mid-range lenses.
  • Finally, if you want to shoot insects or want perfect image quality, choose a long macro lens.

Still uncertain about which lens to purchase? Ask your questions in the comments section below, and I will do my best to help!

macro photography abstract flower - macro lens

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Jaymes Dempsey is a macro and bird photographer from southeast Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work, check out his website or his blog.

  • Ron van der Plas

    Hi Jaymes, maybe it’s worth mentioning that a ordinary telelens and tube can also get nice results with smooth background. E.g. I use a 70-300 mm (4/3) with a 20 mm tube and can get very close. This gives me a reasonable DOF, somewhat macro like and also a blurred background.

  • well, I would like to know the difference between a macro lens and a similar one with an extension tube.
    Thanks

  • That’s a fair point, thanks for the suggestion! This can definitely be a good way to get close-up images, and I plan on mentioning it in an article I’m doing on flower photography that should come out next month. What level of magnification do you get with the 70-300mm and the 20mm extension tube, do you know?

  • Extension tubes will get you an effect similar to a macro lens, with some caveats. Extension tubes reduce flexibility a bit, because your maximum focusing distance is significantly reduced. So you can’t take a photograph of a flower petal, then turn and photograph a landscape–you’ll have to take off the extension tube(s) first. They also reduce working distance, and this can be very problematic when using them on a short lens that has a short working distance to begin with. Additionally, depending on your lens’s length and magnification capabilities, it can take a lot of extension before you reach true macro magnification.

    While extension tubes don’t directly reduce image quality (they have no glass), there are some things to keep in mind regarding optics. First, they increase diffraction, because extending the lens in such a manner results in a smaller aperture. Also, lenses have different sweet-spots, which often has to do with their intended use. Some lenses are less sharp at the minimum focusing distance, and so using extension tubes can be difficult, whereas macro lenses are made to work well while focusing close. And at shallow apertures and significant extension, you might notice vignetting.

    All that said, extension tubes can be a good way to test out the macro waters without having to spend too much. Or if you’re just looking for some magnification (and not true macro capabilities), they can be a potential solution. I don’t use extension tubes, myself, but I do a lot of freelensing (I wrote an article about it a bit ago: https://digital-photography-school.com/freelensing-guide-creative-macro-photography/), which has some of the same limitations, and I love it, it’s a quick and cheap way of getting close. So there’s definitely a place for this sort of technology!

    Hope that response wasn’t too long, and let me know if you have any more questions!

  • thanks a lot

  • Rick Nuttall

    Will a 55-250, orca 18-55 lens work for macro stuff?

  • Juan Sol

    I also recommend Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro EX DG OS HSM Lens. It’s a bit expensive but excellent for not getting closer to insects. Besides it’s bokeh for portraits at f/2.8 is a good point for portraits at some distance.

  • Lee

    You could get a set of Macro rings for a cheap option that will work with either of those lenses. But the general magnification of the the two you listed won’t be on a par with a dedicated Macro lens.

  • TomC

    I recently (3 wks ago) purchased a Canon 35mm f2.8 Macro lens. I am thoroughly impressed with this little lens. It has the added feature of a built in ring light on the face of the lens. It has 2 levels of light available – medium brightness and lower brightness. It’s great if you’re shooting in your own shadow and need extra light. It renders outstanding close-up pics of just about everything. For $350 it’s a bargain compared to the longer ones in the 500 to 700+ price range. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a37f328f383791eb9276fa85c58dc099e9944bdfaf75c4fce3e2bce4dab86a19.jpg

  • walwit

    I’d like to see a comparison between pairs of lenses with the same focal length being one macro and the other not, question is I’ve never had a macro lens and I’m considering buying one for food photography.

    Meanwhile can you elaborate about the differences?

    I took this one with my Canon 70-300mm lens:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/768deb873f4bfa94e2daa4378b527b0f020e700424c3d587f3f4d2cac9e0848b.jpg

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