Choosing a lens for macro and close-up photography

EOS 40D, EF 3.5/180L Macro

This article is about choosing the right lens for close-up and macro photography in nature. There is no simple advice, as there are many choices out there. The most obvious one would be to buy a dedicated macro lens like a Canon EF 2.8/100 Macro or a Nikon 2.8/105 Micro VR. But a Macro lens is not the only solution. If you are only starting to get into macro photography, you may not want to buy a macro lens immediately, but use your existing lens. If you have a zoom lens like a 28-105mm or a 17-85mm (or similar), the chances are good that those lenses allow you to do some close-up photography. Many of those lenses give you a magnification ratio of up to 1:4. This is enough for a lot of subjects like many flowers, mushrooms, leaves and even big insects like dragonflies. If the 1:4 ratio is not enough, you can get even closer with extension tubes. Other options are diopter lenses or bellows.

In this article I focus on lenses and describe the various options you have. For serious macro photography I think a dedicated macro lens is your best choice. They normally give a a magnification ratio up to 1:1 and are designed to perform optically superb at close distance.

Close-up or macro lenses normally come in three different ranges. The first group has a focal length of about 50mm (some have 60mm). The second group has a focal lens of 100mm (some have 90mm, Nikon and Sigma offer lenses with 105mm). The third group usually has 180mm (Canon, Sigma, Tamron) or 200mm (for example Nikon).
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 lens

Canon 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 lens

Those 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

A 100mm lens (Nikon and Sigma offer 105mm, Tamron 90mm) is very popular among many nature photographers. Many books recommend this as your first lens. In comparison with a 50mm lens, it allows you to work at a greater working distance (especially important for insects) and also makes it easier to get a calmer background due to it's narrower angle of view.
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

As just explained under the last paragraph about the 100mm lens, the longer the lens, the easier it is to get a calm background. This is the reason why my favorite macro lens is my Canon EF 3.5/180L Macro. The exact focal lenght of those lenses may vary a little among manufacturers. For example, Nikon offers a 4/200mm Macro lens. Sigma and Tamron offer a 180mm macro lens. Check the lenses available for your camera brand.
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 Macro

This 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

Wide angle lenses can offer interesting possibilities for close-ups. For example, you can get pretty close to a flower and also show it's habitat. This is normally not possible with a telephoto lens like a 180mm macro lens. A wide angle lens is not very well suited for high magnification rate like 1:1 as you would have to get very close to the subject. Still, it is worth putting a wide angle lens in your camera bag when going out for close-ups. After you've taken a shot from a subject like a flower with a macro lens, also try to see if it also works well when shot with a wide-angle lens. Which wide-angle lens you choose depends on your camera. If you are using a full frame camera like Nikon's D3 or Canon's 5D and 1K Mark III, you will probably own a "normal" wide-angle zoom like a 16-35 or similar. If you are using a camera with a smaller sensor like Nikons D300s or Canon's EOS 7D you may want to get a wide-angle lens especially designed for those cameras. Nikon offers a 4/12-24, Canon a 3.5-4.5/10-22 to give you real wide-angle with such cameras.

70-200 lens

EOS 40D, EF 4/70-200L IS

Canon offers a wonderful 4/70-200 zoom lenses. It comes in two versions, one with IS, one without IS. I have the version with IS and absolutely love it. The lens is extremely sharp and IS works very well. Also, the lens is very light (much lighter than a 2.8/70-200). That lens also make an interesting close-up lens, as a zoom often is more flexible than a prime like a 180mm macro lens. The lens offers a magnification rate of about 1:4,8 according to Canon. I like using that lens for flowers and mushrooms when I don't have to get too close. I also like using it with a Canon EF 25mm II extension tube. It is not a replacement for a real macro lens, but when you already own that lens, try using it with an extension tube. Nikon does currently not offer a 4/70-200 lens, only a 2.8/70-200 (with VR). It does not offer a very small close focusing distance, but with extension tubes it should work fine. But as I already wrote, a 2.8/70-200 is much heavier than a 4/70-200. Hopefully Nikon will offer such a lens in the future and hopefully with a better close focusing distance.
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

Canon offers a 4.5-5.6/100-400 and Nikon and Sigma offer a similar lenses (all with image stabilization). The Canon has a magnification rate of about 1:5 at 400mm. This is interesting for flowers and also for many dragonflies. I prefer the 4/300L from Canon as it is lighter and also sharper. The 100-400mm is a great lens, though. And for a zoom it is very sharp. I made some very sharp close-ups with that lens. When photographing subjects that are moving but you can't change your position, the zoom can be a great advantage.
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.

300mm lens

EOS 40D, EF 4/300L IS

I own a Canon EF 4/300L IS. It is great for flowers, mushrooms and large insects. About the size of a my EF 3.5/180L Macro, it is not too heavy to carry over long distances and is also easy to hand hold (only when necessary, I prefer to use a tripod whenever possible). It gives a magnification rate of about 1:4 (the Nikon 4/300 gives you even 1:3.7) and when used with a 1.4x extender or an extension tube it allows you to get even closer. You can also combine the extender and the extension tube.
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

At first it may seem strange to use a super telephoto lens like a 4/500 for close-ups. The magnification ratio of my Canon EF 4/500L IS is only 1:8, which does not make this lens very suitable for close-ups. But when you do not want to get too close that lens can offer some interesting possibilities. Also keep in mind that you can add an extension tube and an extender to the lens which increases the magnification ratio. The 4/500L can be interesting for very shy insects like some dragonfly species. Also you cannot always get as close to a flower as you want to. There maybe be an obstacle between you and the flower (like a deep creek). Or imagine you are walking on a trail and see a flower several meters away from the trails. You don't want to leave the trail because you do not want to trample down other flowers to get the shot (The well being of other flowers should always be more important than a good photograph!!!). In some areas (like some national parks) it may also be forbidden to leave the trails. In those cases a 4/500 may save the day. Due to it's very narrow angle of view, a super telephoto lens also makes it very easy to isolate a subject against a calm background.
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.


So 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