The Wonderful World of Macro Lenses: Close-Up Photography Lesson #4

The Wonderful World of Macro Lenses: Close-Up Photography Lesson #4

This is the final in a series of four lessons on close-up and macro photography by Andrew S Gibson, author of Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography.


In the first three lessons of this series I looked at close-up lenses, extension tubes and reverse lens macro (click the links to recap the articles).

In my previous articles I looked at three techniques for getting closer to your subject –  you can catch up on them here:

All of these techniques have one thing in common – they help you use lenses that you already own to get close-up or macro photos. They are ideal if you are on a budget, or want to dabble without committing to the purchase of a macro lens.

There’s no doubt though that, when it comes to macro and close-up photography, you will get the best results from a macro lens. If you are serious about this genre of photography, especially if you have aspirations to sell your images, then you should consider buying a macro lens. Here are some of the reasons why:

Life-size reproduction

Life-size (also called 1:1) reproduction means that you can get close enough to the subject to photograph something that is the same size as your camera’s sensor.

Most macro lenses are designed to give you 1:1 (also called life-sized or 1x) reproduction at the minimum focusing distance. This means that, if your camera’s sensor measures, say 36x24mm (the size of a full-frame sensor), the camera will capture an area of your subject also measuring 36x24mm. This holds true whatever the size of the sensor in your camera.

Most (although not all) macro lenses let you do this.


Canon’s MP-E65 f2.8 1-5x macro lens (above) goes even better. It lets you take photos up to 5x life-size – that’s really close. It’s the only macro lens I know of that does that.


Image optimisation

Macro lenses are designed to give their best optical performance at their minimum focusing distance. This makes sense, as anybody buying a macro lens is likely to use it for that purpose.

Non-macro lenses are designed to give their best optical performance at the focusing distances where they are most likely to be used (around one metre from the camera to infinity). When you add a close-up lens, extension tube or reversed lens to enable your lens to focus more closely to the subject, you are pushing it beyond the limits of its design.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get great image quality from those techniques, it just means that you shouldn’t expect to get the same image quality that you can from a good macro lens. This is especially true at wide apertures.

Other features

Macro lenses may have other features that make taking macro and close-up photographs easier.

Some macro lenses have a tripod collar. The collar lets you switch a tripod-mounted camera between landscape and portrait formats while still keeping the lens focused on the subject. Without a tripod collar, you would have to reposition the camera each time that you did this.

You can buy macro lenses with an Image Stabiliser (that’s Canon’s term, Nikon call it Vibration Reduction). Some of you will have cameras with an Image Stabiliser built in to the body, so this is not an important factor.


Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8L Macro IS USM lens (above) has a Hybrid Image Stabiliser (HIS). This is a new type of stabiliser that counteracts the particular type of camera shake that you get when hand-holding a macro lens and focusing on something close to the camera. Again, it’s the only macro lens I’m aware of with this feature.


Macro lenses are not just for taking macro and close-up photos. You can use them for taking photos of other subjects as well. For example, many macro lenses also make great portrait lenses, especially on crop-sensor cameras.

Third-party macro lenses

One of the main objections to buying a macro lens is the price. But macro lenses aren’t always as expensive as you might think. One way to save money is to buy a third-party lens rather than the ones made by your camera’s manufacturer.

A visit to the B&H website shows that you can buy a Sigma 50mm f2.8 EX DG Macro autofocus lens for $369 (excluding taxes). This is a prime macro lens with 1:1 reproduction. The reviews on the website are good and it will double as a useful standard lens on a full-frame camera or a portrait lens on a crop-sensor camera. There are more macro lenses available from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.

Focal length

A final consideration when it comes to buying a macro lens is the focal length. If you are buying one to photograph insects or other wildlife, then a longer focal length (100mm plus) will mean you don’t have to get as physically close to your subject to take a photo. This helps avoid scaring the insect away (or getting stung!)


Ring flash

If you get really serious about your macro photography, most camera manufacturers make a ring flash or portable flash that attaches to the front of your macro lens to light the subject. This makes it easier to take photos in low light levels or to use low ISOs. The photo above was taken with a Canon MR-14EX Macrolite flash unit attached to a Canon EF 60mm macro lens.

A little inspiration

In my ebook Up Close I interviewed two photographers that use macro lenses to take wonderful photos of flowers, insects and food. I recommend that you visit the websites of Celine Steen and Mandy Disher to see just what can be achieved with a little imagination and a good macro lens.

You can learn more about close-up and macro photography in my new ebook Up Close: A Guide to Macro & Close Up Photography, available now from Craft & Vision for just $5.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • tamir September 29, 2012 02:49 pm

    hey guys i am 13 right now and i am very interested in photography, and just saved up and got my first camera. i have been walking around trying to find good photo opportunities. i have a question. what do you think of this? is it outstanding or just another photo or what? thanks

    [eimg link='' title='DSC_0212' url='']

  • Joel August 5, 2012 10:19 am

    I love my Nikkor 85mm Micro Afs\DX. It's a ton of fun but really the best shots come from a tripod.

  • Simon August 5, 2012 02:06 am

    Here's my contribution!

  • Matovu Messach August 2, 2012 08:30 pm

    I have really benefited from your lessons. Am doing my industrial training about photography at stutter speed studio, but have made an improvement to my knowledge and skills. thank you very much

  • Scott July 28, 2012 12:51 am

    some macro shots with extension tubes and a 50MM prime..!i=1988991623&k=HQzpxbQ

  • Michael Hughes July 27, 2012 06:56 pm


    I personally do not think Macro and extension tubes do the same job. I see extension tubes as super-macro and regularly use them to take picture of very small areas of insects - filling the whole frame with just a couple of mm real life size. I do not think you could do that with the majority of Macro lenses.

    Extension tubes will get you closer than a 1:1 macro lens.

    What you wil find is very narrow depth of field, but tha tis a facet of the extraordinary magnification and not the extension tubes.

    You will get fantastic results from extension tubes on a kit lens. I use a prime, but thats because I have them, I would not buy them specifically for the macro work.

    You can get manual extensin tubes or automatic ones. Manual come in at about £20 / $30, the automatic ones at £80 / $120. I would recommend the automatic ones which still control the lens apature and shutter duration. You will have to focus manually.

    I've grabbed a couple of my examples of hand held macro photographs using a 20mm extension tube for you - sorry cannot remember the lens:

  • Geraldine July 27, 2012 01:38 pm

    @kenp: Okay, I think I get it. A macro alone is able to magnify really really small items. An extention tube probably doesn't achieve such a powerful magnification. So unless I really wanna zoom into an insect, I probably will just need an extention tube.

    Thanks though!

  • KenP July 27, 2012 11:47 am

    @geraldine: Not sure about extension tubes but a macro lens is a special lens that can focus at close distance. Technically, it is a lens that can achieve 1:1 magnification.

    Here is more info on macro lenses:

    I have a bunch of macro converters, which screw on to the front of a lens like filters and provide 2x 4x magnification. I also have a prime 50mm macro lens and that is my main macro shooting option now.

  • Nazareth July 27, 2012 02:51 am

    nice work daniel- love the blueberry shot

  • marius2die4 July 24, 2012 05:53 am

    Some of my pics:

  • Geraldine July 23, 2012 03:56 am

    I have an Olympus EP1 with the normal zoom lens. If I bought the Extention tube, would I be able to capture macro photos of such closeness to the subject? I don't quite understand the difference between zoom lenses and macro lenses. Would they achieve the same effect?

  • Daniel*1977 July 21, 2012 02:27 pm

    Now I am happy owner of Samsung's 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, but the experience gathered on reverse mounted 20mm, close up lens or othera creative ways to achieve the desirable effect.
    I came to such images :)
    [eimg link='' title='Not the whole' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Photo wallpaper-2' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Stick' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Thousands of eyes' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Trees in the wind' url='']

  • Daniel*1977 July 21, 2012 02:27 pm

    Now I am happy owner of Samsung's 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, but the experience gathered on reverse mounted 20mm, close up lens or othera creative ways to achieve the desirable effect.
    I came to such images :)
    [eimg link='' title='Not the whole' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Over burn' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Photo wallpaper-2' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Stick' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Pearls' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Thousands of eyes' url='']
    [eimg link='' title='Trees in the wind' url='']

  • Elizabeth July 21, 2012 12:17 pm

    Wow, I can't wait to be able to get a macro lens. Great photos! Wonderful article of course. Thanks!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer July 21, 2012 04:53 am

    Dedicated ~100mm macro lenses are expensive, but I was able to get my Nikon AF-S 105mm VR macro f/2.8G lens for $650 second hand and in very good condition. The lens is very useful besides macro work, like portraits and detail shots. So it can pay for itself if you are a pro.

    The last macro shots I made with it were of some shells I found in my local dog park that I took home and ended up processing in black & white:

  • Kenneth Rivera July 21, 2012 04:52 am

    I'm in love of macro photography - I wish I could take more photos. Right now i'm trying to capture small pieces of plants and insects from Costa Rica... any feedback is welcome

  • Jean-Pierre July 21, 2012 04:05 am

    Thank you for this series. A macro lens is beyond people's (and my) budget, but they're cool nonetheless. That mpe 65 is a beast of a lens. :)

  • raghavendra July 21, 2012 03:11 am

    Loved the article

    @steve it is scary to see the snake

  • steve slater July 21, 2012 03:02 am

    My contribution is a snake's with its forked tongue out. Patience required to catch the moment and a bit of luck that he stayed still: