What is a Macro Lens? Everything You Need to Know

This is a guide covering macro lenses.

In this glossary definition you’ll learn about:

Macro photography enables viewers to enjoy the incredible details of an object, which sometimes feels like entering a whole new world. Insects, plants, wood texture, and other everyday things look more entertaining to explore.

But how do photographers capture these tiny little details? The answer is a unique tool called a macro lens. This type of lens is the must-have item for those who want to step up their game.

You may already be interested in adding the macro lens to your collection. But there are things to consider before buying one as this photography kit has many types with different specifications.

Let’s dive in.

macro lens

What is a Macro Lens?

The macro lens is a particular type of lens that allows you to focus on a subject from an extremely close range. This lens makes your subject appear more prominently in the viewfinder and thus the final image.

‘True’ macro lenses can project subjects onto your camera’s sensor at a 1:1 reproduction ratio. This gives you a 1.0x maximum magnification at the lens Minimum Focus Distance/MFD (MFD is measured based on the subject’s distance to the sensor).

For example, the sensor will project a subject with 18mm length as it is. At first, it may sound trivial and does not hold any value.

But, keep in mind that a 36 x 24mm subject will fill the frame of your full-frame camera. So, when you project this onto your display, the teeny tiny details will become more apparent than before.

macro lens flower
Photo by Samantha Hare

What is Considered a Macro Lens?

The macro lens should have a magnification ratio of 1:1 (or even greater), with a minimum focusing distance of around 30 cm. That is why the subject size ratio on the sensor plane is precisely the same as the subject’s real size.

It also enables the photographer to take extremely sharp close-up images of the objects. These features distinguish the macro lens from other photography lenses.

Lenses that have magnification ratios of 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, or more are considered macro lenses. On the other hand, those with a magnification of 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, and above aren’t considered a macro lens. 

Depending on the chosen focal length, you can achieve unique portraits and stunning shots for food photography. (check out the best cameras for food photography

food photography macro
Photo by Aishwarya Gunde

What is a Macro Lens Good For?

Many people won’t bother buying something that isn’t multifunctional. The good news is the macro lens comes with some built-in versatile features.

Macro lenses are available with various focal lengths, starting from the ~50mm, ~100mm, to the ~150mm and above. The lenses with a tighter crop provide more pleasing images with a flattering composition. As a rule of thumb, the higher your focal length is, the larger your magnification ratio, lens price, and shooting distance.

There are also zoom lenses that label themselves as a macro lens, although the performance differences are significant. Zoom lenses will not quite cut it because they can’t produce images sharper than the macro lens.

On the other hand, some macro lenses have a focal length of around ~35mm, which has a magnification ratio of 1:2.

But if you want a multifunctional, all-rounder type of macro lens, then go for a medium focal length of ~100mm. They are right in the middle, allowing you to take detailed shots from a reasonable distance.

The focal length allows you to take images on your full-frame camera with shallow depth of field and add some apparent details into the mix for the cherry on top.

macro lens eyes
Photo by Mathias Celis

What is the Difference between a Macro Lens and a Regular Lens?

Even though it’s explicitly designed to take images at close range and magnify their little details, you can also use macro lenses for everyday photography.

When compared to a regular lens, the macro lens performs better for shooting artwork and documents realistically. Thanks to its “flat field” characteristic, which makes every shot look sharp and appealing.

Regular lenses can also mimic a macro lens to a certain degree. However, it cannot transcend the quality presented by the macro lens.

Can You Use a Macro Lens as a Normal Lens?

It may depend on how you define “normal lens.” If you refer to its versatility, I will give you a solid yes to answer that question.

The medium macro focal length that hovers around ~100mm will capture detailed images with high quality. It is also perfect to use at events that require you to get a closer look at your subject.

You can also use the macro lens to shoot a portrait. It will capture every beautiful detail of your perfect looking model. Remember to use it at a creative angle as it can expose even the smallest imperfections.

A macro lens does cost (and weighs) significantly more than regular lenses with all those qualities. It will be wise to use it to its full potential.

macro lens water drop
Photo by Pixabay

What are Some of the Most Popular Macro Lenses?

Macro lens photography is a highly specialized niche, guaranteeing each lens to have a high quality. To guide you in choosing the best macro lens, here are my top three recommended models:

1. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Lens

If you want to dive head-on into the world of diverse close-up images, this lens will be your perfect partner in crime. As it has a 5:1 magnification ratio, it allows you to fill your full-frame sensor camera with your subject of choice in extreme detail.

The only setback is this lens is strictly manual focus only. But it also comes with a tripod support foot that allows you to easily attach it onto your tripods or rail systems.

The lens is specially crafted for scientific imagery along with its many macro applications. It cannot focus more than a few centimeters from your subject/front element, making it less versatile than the standard macro lens. I don’t recommend using this lens to use a standard lens as you will waste its phenomenal potential.

Also, check out the full list of best Canon macro lenses.

2. Nikon 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED AF-S VR Micro Lens

Putting aside the fact that it is an extremely sharp portrait lens, it is equipped with a highly reliable yet crisp macro lens. It has a 12” minimum focusing distance that allows you to get up close and personal to plants and insects, a 1:1 reproduction with astonishing details.

The lens also packs Nikon’s built-in “Vibration Reduction” that helps photographers taking hand-held shots with longer shutter speeds much more comfortable. Despite the technology, I still recommend using a tripod for a better result.

3. Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art Lens for Sony E Mount

This more budget-friendly lens is ideal for many occasions, from portraits, close-ups, and even fine art photography. It delivers images at the magnification of 1:1 coupled with the new coreless motor that allows for a smooth AF.

Despite it being created specifically for the line-up of Sony full-frame, mirrorless cameras, you can also pair Sigma 70 mm on the APS-C sensor camera.

You can use its crop mode as well if you want to. With a minimum focus distance of 10-16”, it helps you capture various subjects starting from portrait photos to small objects.

If you want the highest quality lens, look no further than Canon and Nikon, as they are known to produce the best macros (at a high price too).

Final Remarks

Despite its specific design for close-up shots, the macro lens is also great for a regular photo shoot, food photography, portrait, and fine art photography.

Some people may mistake a macro lens and zoom lens as they serve the same purpose. But the actual macro lens comes with a magnification ratio of 1:1, 2:1, 5:1, and above.

Even though a macro lens can effortlessly shoot stunning detail, it can also expose the smallest imperfections on your object. That is why raising your skill should come together with buying this lens.

Last but not least, all macro lens comes with a high price. It will be wise if you calculate your budget carefully or turn this purchase into something profitable.

That’s pretty much it about the macro lens. There is the more technical side of it, but let’s keep that for another day. So, which one do you wish to buy?

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