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How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens

How to choose the perfect macro lens

When I first became interested in macro photography, I knew that my main lens at the time – a telephoto zoom – wasn’t going to get me close enough to capture the level of detail I was after. I also knew that camera manufacturers offered specialized macro lenses, which would allow me to magnify my subject and highlight all those beautiful details.

In other words, I knew that I needed a macro lens.

But when it came to choosing the best macro lens for the job, I was lost. I ultimately decided on an old 60mm f/2.8 lens that I purchased on eBay, not because I thought it was perfect for my purposes, but because I didn’t have much money to spend and the price was palatable.

It’s been a long time since I bought that first lens. I’ve since upgraded, upgraded again, and upgraded some more. In fact, over the years, I’ve used countless macro lenses from several different camera brands. I now have a much better perspective on what makes a “perfect” macro lens, and in this article, I break it down for you.

What is the best macro lens?

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

This seems like a simple question, but the answer is pretty complex. It depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Physical requirements (i.e., do you want a smaller, more handholdable lens, or are you willing to use a huge lens that requires a tripod?)
  • Your budget
  • Your preferred subject matter (the macro genre spans a number of subjects, each with its own challenges; for instance, photographing insects is very different from photographing flowers!)
  • Your preferred style (if you want to capture impressionistic, near-abstract macro photos, you’ll want to choose a different lens than if you want to capture photos that are sharp throughout)

In other words, there is no one ideal macro lens. However, there are a few basic guidelines you can use to choose the ideal macro lens for your needs, and today, I concentrate on three main considerations: image quality, focal length, and price.

Macro lenses and image quality

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

But I’m 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 plenty of macro lenses over the course of my photography career, and I have never been dissatisfied with the level of sharpness. One of my macro lenses even had fungus on one of the glass elements, and it was still extremely sharp.

However, this does not mean that low-end macro lenses are indistinguishable from the pricier options. Expensive macro lenses do often provide better sharpness; it’s just that the starting point is a lot better. More expensive lenses also tend to produce better bokeh, which matters a great deal for certain types of macro photography (such as the shallow depth-of-field macro shots that I love and that are displayed throughout this article).

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

Furthermore, low-end macro lenses sometimes have problems with chromatic aberration (generally purple and yellow fringing that occurs in the high-contrast parts of images). One of the cheapest macro lenses that I purchased suffered from chromatic aberration, though the problem was less frustrating than it sounds; I was able to reduce the CA by stopping down slightly, and I was also able to remove it in post-processing.

That said, I do prefer to avoid chromatic aberration whenever I can. So when I discuss different lenses below, I note any chromatic aberration problems that I’ve experienced.

Macro lens focal lengths

I will center this discussion around focal length; it’s 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), midrange (80-105mm), and long (150-200mm).

The short macro lens (35-60mm)

dahlia abstract macro photography flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
I captured this dahlia image using a short macro lens, the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.
  • Pros: Lightweight and inexpensive
  • Cons: Less impressive bokeh, shorter working distance (bad for insects)

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 reduced 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.

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.

macro photography tulip abstract flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
I used a short macro lens, the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D, to photograph this tulip center.

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. My first macro lens had a 60mm focal length, and while I did need to get in close to capture high-magnification images, it did the job well. These days, a short macro lens wouldn’t be my top choice for flower or insect macro photography, but it’s a great inexpensive option for a beginner. Plus, as I noted above, you can use a shorter macro lens for more than just macro photography; these lenses also tend to be great for portrait photography, street photography, travel photography, still-life photography, and more.

So which short macro lens is best? The current phase-out of DSLR systems and expansion of mirrorless systems makes quick recommendations more complicated, but here are my thoughts:

If you’re a Canon DSLR shooter, you should look at the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM, which is a great all-around lens that also offers excellent macro capabilities. (Note, however, that it is designed for APS-C cameras, not full-frame models!) You’ll likely need to buy it on the used market, and prices can fluctuate pretty substantially, but if you’re patient, you can get a good deal.

Canon mirrorless users should consider the Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS, which offers good optics for a decent price, plus the image stabilization can be useful for handheld macro photography. The biggest drawback to this lens is the lack of true macro magnifications, but the 1:2 magnification ratio will still get you close enough to capture lots of hidden details.

Nikon DSLR photographers might look at the Nikon 40mm f/2.8G, which is compatible with both full-frame and APS-C cameras, boasts true macro magnifications, and is available for a fantastically low price.

How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens - tulip macro photo
Another tulip photograph that I captured with the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D.

If you’re a Nikon DSLR photographer with a bit more to spend, you should consider the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G, which gives you a bit more reach; it’s also available on the used market for a significant price reduction. Nikon mirrorless users can work with Nikon F-mount (i.e., DSLR) lenses via the FTZ adapter, but I’d encourage you to also look at the Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 lens, which offers great optics, a sleek build, and 1:1 focusing, even if it’s a bit pricier than the lenses mentioned above.

I also want to briefly mention the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D, which is near and dear to my heart because it was the first macro lens I ever purchased. At this point, the lens is only available on the used market, but that can work in your favor, as you can purchase it for ultra-low prices. 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.

If you’re a Sony shooter, your macro options are perhaps a bit more limited, but you still have some good short macro lenses to consider. There’s the Sony 30mm f/3.5; it’s quite short for most macro work, and you’ll have a hard time using it to photograph subjects such as insects, but as an all-purpose budget lens that also close-focuses, it’s a good buy. For more dedicated Sony macro photography, the Sony 50mm f/2.8 lens is my recommendation thanks to its greater working distance, wider maximum aperture, and solid build.

The midrange macro lens (80-105mm)

macro photography abstract purple flower - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
I captured this close-up flower image using a 90mm macro lens. I myself love the flexibility of midrange macro lenses, and while they’re not right for everyone, it’s the type of close-up lens I use the most frequently.
  • Pros: Larger working distance, somewhat inexpensive, very good bokeh, lightweight, lots of options
  • Cons: Working distance is still fairly short; higher-end midrange macro lenses can be quite expensive

Midrange 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 midrange macro lens offers a perfect working distance for flower photography. I like to get a midrange distance from the flowers that I am photographing – not so close that I am nearly touching the flower, but not so far away 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
I photographed this rose center with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L, one of my favorite midrange macro lenses. (To get this image, I had to lie flat on my front lawn, in full view of the neighborhood. I’m sure my neighbors thought I was crazy, but when you’re passionate about macro photography, that’s the kind of thing you do!)

Third, these lenses offer high-quality optics yet can often be found at reasonably low prices, especially if you’re willing to buy from a third-party manufacturer. For example, Tamron offers an array of excellent 90mm macro lenses, and you can generally find them for $400 or less.

If you want to do insect photography, or if you often photograph with a tripod and want plenty of working distance, 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 a midrange model.

First among the less expensive options are the aforementioned Tamron 90mm macro lenses. For a long time, I used this Tamron 90mm f/2.8 lens, which is available for both Nikon and Canon. 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 Canon and for Nikon.

daisy abstract macro photography bokeh - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
This daisy image was taken with the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 lens. I love the bokeh this lens produces.

Looking toward medium-level prices: Canon mirrorless users should consider the RF 85mm f/2, which offers very nice optics and an unusually wide maximum aperture (for a macro lens, anyway). I do wish it reached true macro 1:1 magnifications – instead of the slightly less impressive 1:2 – but the close-focusing performance is still very solid.

I also like the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM. You’ll likely need to buy it used, but you can find some very reasonably priced models, and the 1:1 magnification capabilities plus the 100mm reach are fantastic for nature close-ups.

Sigma also offers the 105mm f/2.8 Macro for Canon and for Nikon, which I’ve used extensively and loved. The build quality is phenomenal, and while the autofocusing isn’t especially fast, if you work with manual focus (which I recommend), it’ll do just fine.

Finally, on the pricier side, we have two DSLR lenses: the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR and the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS. The Nikon 105mm is tough to find new, but if you can find a good used copy, you may end up with a pro-level lens for a bargain price.

If you’re a Canon mirrorless user, you also have the option to purchase the Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L IS. It’s expensive, but it includes all the features of the original Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS as well as some fantastic new features, such as 1.4x magnification capabilities and a spherical aberration control ring for even greater control over the bokeh quality.

And Nikon mirrorless users should grab the Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S, which is an amazing midrange macro lens that’s ideal for macro professionals and serious enthusiasts.

macro photography abstract Canon 100mm f/2.8L - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
I took this image with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L.

Finally, no rundown of the best midrange macro lenses would be complete without mentioning the Sony 90mm f/2.8. Yes, it’s expensive, but the build quality is outstanding, and the sharpness and bokeh are great for pro-quality macro images.

The long macro lens (150-200mm)

macro photography abstract dandelion Sigma 150mm - How to Choose the Perfect Macro Lens
I took this high-magnification image with my Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens. Longer macro lenses have their drawbacks, but the working distance is phenomenal.
  • Pros: Amazing working distance, generally excellent bokeh and image quality.
  • Cons: Heavy, often very expensive, not much selection

Longer macro lenses tend to have astonishingly good image quality, though for a (generally) steep price. I’ve spent a lot of time shooting with the Sigma 150mm f/2.8, for instance, and I was always very impressed by both the bokeh quality and the sharpness.

macro photography aster abstract bokeh Sigma 150mm macro - macro lens
I love the bokeh created by the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens; it’s wonderfully dreamy!

These longer macro 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 ease with which you can use a popular 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.

My list of recommended long macro lenses includes the reasonably priced Sigma 150mm (available for both Canon and Nikon DSLRs). Like some of the other DSLR lenses on this list, it’s a bit harder to find, but it offers excellent image quality and is built like a tank. For a long time, I kept it as a backup macro lens for flower photography (my Canon 100mm f/2.8L is my main lens), and I turned to it when I wanted a bit more working distance. (Eventually, I realized I enjoyed the flexibility of midrange macro lenses a little too much, so I sold my Sigma 150mm, but I do sometimes miss it!)

Next, we have the newer Irix 150mm f/2.8 Macro, which is available for Nikon F-mount cameras, Canon EF-mount cameras, and Sony E-mount cameras. I personally like Irix lenses, and this one offers excellent reach for a great price, but it’s important to bear in mind that the Irix 150mm Macro includes no autofocusing capabilities whatsoever. Therefore, while it performs well as a manual-focus macro lens, you probably won’t find yourself using it for any other purposes.

And then, offering stunning image quality with a high price tag, are the Nikon 200mm f/4 and the Canon 180mm f/3.5L. Both of these models are designed for DSLR cameras, though mirrorless photographers shouldn’t have a problem using them via the corresponding DSLR-mount to mirrorless-mount adapters. These two lenses are fabulous for long-range macro photography, and if you’re serious about the macro genre and you desire a greater working distance than a midrange macro lens can provide, you may find them worth the price.

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.

Choosing the perfect macro lens: final words

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 midrange 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
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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