Choosing a lens for macro and close-up photography
EOS 40D, EF 3.5/180L Macro
After describing the different macro lenses, I also describe how a wide angle, a telephoto zoom or even a super telephoto lens can make a good lens for close-up photography.
EOS 10D, EF 2.8/100 Macro
35mm macro lensCanon and Nikon do not offer 35mm macro lenses but other companies like Olympus, Tokina or Pentax do. This are normally designed for sensors with a 1.5, 1.6 or 2x crop factor. If you own such a camera, such a lens might make sense, but I think 35mm is often to short for shooting close-ups in nature. See the next section about 50mm to learn more about the limitations of a short focal length in macro lenses.
50mm/60mm macro lensThose lenses are the smallest of the macro lenses. That makes them very easy to carry in the field due to their low weight. But even despite this advantage I do not recommend a 50mm or 60mm macro lens. For insects, you often have to get very close for a frame filling picture. And even if you have a camera with a crop factor (for example using Nikons 60mm Micro with a Nikon D300s will give you a 90mm lens), you will have a hard time to get close to many insects without disturbing them and scaring them, and leaving you behind without a picture. The other huge disadvantage is, that a 50mm lens makes it much more difficult to get a calm background, due to its wider angle of view. A calm background is crucial in many macro photographs and it is much harder to achieve this with a 50mm lens than with a longer lens.
100mm/105mm macro lens
EOS 7D, EF 2.8/100 Macro
Imagine photographing a beautiful red flower against a green background with a 50mm lens. Behind the red flower are many white flowers. Including an unsharp white flower in the image would normally distract the viewer from the red flower. Sometimes, you can get rid of the white flower with changing the position of the camera. But this is not always possible and you might just add another white flower somewhere else in the picture.
If you now change your lens to a 100mm lens you have a much narrower angle of view than with the 50mm lens. That makes it a lot easier to get rid of the white flowers in the background.
A 100mm macro lens is also quite light and small (compared to a 180mm) and easily fits into your bag or backpack.
The Nikon 2.8/105 Micro VR has image stabilization (VR = vibration reduction). The new Canon EF 2.8/100L IS also offers image stabilisation. For macro-shots IS/VR can be helpful when shooting hand held images.
The 100/105mm macro lenses are also great lenses for shooting portraits of animals and people.
A 100mm macro lens also has an advantage over a 180mm or 200 mm lens when you are photographing top-down as I did in the picture of the pine needles and buds on the right. In situations like this, the focal length of a 180mm or 200mm lens might be too much.
180mm/200mm macro lens
EOS 10D, EF 3.5/180L Macro
With the 180mm lens mounted on a tripod head (I recommend the Manfrotto 410 head) it is pure joy to compose an image of a flower or any other subject. The very narrow angle of view allows you to set the subject apart from the background. The longer focal length is also great for insects. If 180mm is still not enough, you can add a 1.4x extender (or even a 2x) to get even more focal length. This disadvantage of the 180mm (or 200mm) lenses are the higher price and the bigger weight. They all come with a tripod collar as they are too heavy for mounting the camera on the tripod. But if you are doing a lot of close-ups, especially if want to photograph insects, you definitely should consider buying such a lens. If the Canon and Nikon lenses are too expensive for you, check out the Sigma and Tamron 180mm macro lenses. They are very popular, very sharp and they got great reviews.
Sigma also offers a 150mm macro lens with is smaller and lighter than the 180mm version and might be a good soluation if you can't decide whether to get a 100mm or 180mm lens.
The Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x MacroThis is a unique lens and I don't know anything similar from Nikon or other companies. This lens can only be used for macro shots and it only focuses within the limit of a 1x-5x magnification. This range is suitable for extreme close-ups like portraits of insects or details of flowers. The huge magnification rate will result in only limited depth of field.
You will also need flash in many (or most) situations with this lens.
The lens is extremely sharp and delivers great results. If you are doing a lot of macro photography with a magnification rate larger than 1:1, this lens might just be what you are looking for.
Hopefully, Nikon will introduce something similar in the future for Nikon photographers.
Wide Angle Lens
EOS 40D, EF 4/17-40L
EOS 40D, EF 4/70-200L IS
Getting a new 70-200 just for close-ups might be "overkill", but if you already have one, try using it. The 4/70-200L lenses from Canon are also wonderful for landscape photography.
Nikon also offered a 70-180 macro zoom, but as far a I know, that lens is no longer available. You may want to check if you can get a used one. This lens was designed for macro work and has a much smaller close focusing distance than Canon's 4/70-200L.
100-400mm lens / 200-400mm lens
EOS 10D, EF 4.5-5.6/100-400L IS
A really amazing lens is the 4/200-400 VR from Nikon. That lens is especially popular with bird and wildlife photographers as it offers a very interesting zoom range and superb image quality. The lens is as sharp as a prime. It also has a very interesting close focusing distance of 2 meters. This is much better than most 400mm prime lenses. The magnification rate is about 1:3.7. which is normally enough for many big insects and flowers. The Nikon 4/200-400 VR is unfortunately a very expensive and also quite heavy lens (much heavier than the 4.5-5.6/80-400 VR from Nikon). But if you can afford it, it might be a very interesting addition to your Nikon lens collection. If you are shooting Canon (like I do), you are out of luck. Currently Canon does not offer such a lens. I hope that this will change soon. I am sure many photographers would be very interested in a Canon EF 4/200-400L IS.
The Nikon 4/200-400VR also delivers great results with the Nikon 1.4x and 1.7x extender.
EOS 40D, EF 4/300L IS
The long focal length will allow you to get shots of shy insects like some butterfly or dragonfly species which are sometimes hard to approach with a shorter focal length.
The 4/300 has a much narrower angle of view than a 180mm lens and therefore will help you to get calmer backgrounds. I highly recommend a 4/300 for any photographer seriously interested in close-up photography of flowers, large insects or similar subjects.
A 2.8/300 can also be used, but due to it's much higher weight is not so well suited for close-ups. Also the 2.8/300 lenses often do not focus as closely as the 4/300 lenses and are much more expensive.
Super Telephoto Lenses
EOS 40D, EF 4/500L IS
I do not suggest you should spend thousands of Euros or Dollars for a big lens just to photograph flowers. That would be overkill, but if you already have such a lens (maybe because you are photographing birds and other wildlife), think about using it from time to time for flowers and insects.
SummarySo what to do ? It depends all on your needs (and on how much money you want to spend). I use many of the options above and this works very well for me.
If you get only one lens I suggest to invest in a 180mm (or 200mm) macro lens (Sigma also offers a 150mm lens which is quite interesting). If you want to buy more lenses an interesting combination would be a 100mm macro and a 4/300 telephoto lens (consider adding an extension tube and 1.4x extender).
In the end you must decide on your own what is best for you.
If you are new to photography and have not yet decided which camera brand you choose, I recommend getting camera for which many different lenses (like the ones mentioned above) are available. For example, even if you don't plan on getting a 180mm macro lens right now, make sure there is one available for your future camera. If you later decide to get a 180mm macro lens, you will feel very sorry if there is no such lens for your camera.
I always recommend getting Canon or Nikon cameras as they offer the largest selection of lenses and build the best cameras. I hope this article helps you to decide which lens to get for close-up and macro photography. See the amazon links on the left for some interesting close-up photography books.
All the lenses mentioned above can be bought at amazon.com: