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In the market for a macro lens but aren’t sure what to look for?
You’re in the right place…
In this quick guide, you’ll learn how to choose a macro lens based on its features and your specific needs.
Let’s get started!
Need a macro lens but are short on funds? Save money and buy a quality used macro lens.
Macro Lens Defined
Generally speaking, a true macro lens is one that has 1:1 magnification capabilities.
Though that might not sound all that impressive, when you think about the fact that an APS-C sensor is only about the size of a stamp, and you’re filling the entire frame with a very tiny object, that’s quite the feat.
Don’t be fooled by compact cameras that have a “macro” shooting mode. Just because macro is in the name doesn’t mean it actually achieves 1:1 magnification.
In fact, most macro modes only muster about 0.5x magnification, so they’re way off the mark of what a true macro lens can do.
What Makes a Good Macro Lens?
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For starters, the 1:1 magnification discussed above is the first thing that makes a good macro lens.
Secondly, when buying a macro lens, it’s best to avoid those that are specifically made for APS-C cameras.
The reason for this is simple - if you ever upgrade to a full frame camera, your macro lens won’t work with it. Conversely, a macro lens made for full frame cameras will work just fine on an APS-C camera.
By and large, full frame macro lenses aren’t terribly more expensive than those made for crop sensor cameras (that’s especially true if you buy used), so don’t worry too much about taking a big hit to your budget.
The focal length of the lens is an important factor as well.
Unlike normal lenses, shopping for a macro lens is much less about the reach of the lens or its ability to shoot wide. Instead, it’s much more about minimum focusing distance.
The longer the focal length of a macro lens, the longer the minimum focusing distance. That means more space between you and the subject with which to work. The more room you have to work, the easier time you’ll have composing photos.
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Think of it like this - if you’re trying to photograph an insect, and your lens has a minimum focusing distance of an inch or two, the insect is more likely to be scared off than if you have a lens with a minimum focusing distance of five or six inches.
So, when shopping for a macro lens, pay close attention to the minimum focusing distance and try to find a lens that maximizes that space.
Quick Tip: Macro lenses with longer minimum focusing distances are less likely to cast shadows in the shot.
All told, the most popular focal lengths for macro lenses are around 90mm to 105mm. That’s because these lenses are generally quite affordable, have good minimum focusing distances, and aren’t too big or bulky, either.
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Another feature to look out for is a smooth manual focusing ring. While autofocus is great for things like portraiture (for which a macro lens is great!), when photographing insects, flowers, and other macro subjects, manual focusing is much more effective.
As such, the focus ring needs to operate smoothly and precisely so you can nail the depth of field and get a beautifully sharp image.
Have too many lenses, none of which is satisfactory for macro work? Sell the lenses you no longer need.
How to Choose a Macro Lens: Image Stabilization
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In the past, macro lenses seldom, if ever, have image stabilization. That has now changed.
Image stabilization can help you take improved photos because they can dampen vibration or wobbling that occurs when you handhold the camera.
Likewise, image stabilization can correct horizontal and vertical movements in the camera to help you get sharper images.
The problem is that many image stabilization systems really don’t benefit you that much when taking macro photos.
That’s because in the vast majority of situations, you’ll shoot with your camera mounted to a tripod, and in that situation, image stabilization can actually make your photos blurrier.
The Best Macro Lens
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To recap, if you’re in the market for a macro lens, look for something with a focal length in the 90-105mm range.
Though autofocus will be nice for things like portraiture, the manual focusing abilities of the lens will be more important for macro work.
Image stabilization is something that could be beneficial when using a macro lens for non-close-up subjects, but if you’ll be working exclusively with close-up images, it’s not a feature that will prove all that beneficial.
Brand-wise, all the major players have macro lenses for their camera lineups. Do your due diligence and rent beforehand if possible so you can field test the lens. Doing so will help you find the best macro lens for you.