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The Best Macro Lens
See also How to Shoot Macro

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February 2014   Better Pictures   Nikon   Canon    Fuji    LEICA   All Reviews

See also How to Shoot Macro

 

Great Macro Lenses vs. Great Lenses for Macro

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These are all great macro lenses, but most of them aren't great for serious macro photography. What?

All of these macro lenses are super-sharp and free from distortion. Any half-decent macro lens is extraordinary for use as a normal or telephoto lens for general photography — but here I'm discussing which lenses are best for serious macro shooting.

For serious macro shooting, you need a much longer lens, at least 100mm and preferably 200mm, so that you can make close-up photos from at least a foot or two away. With any 40mm to 60mm macro lens, by the time you get close enough for serious macro work, you're so close that you block your own light, annoy the subject, and the picture looks funny because of the unnatural perspective from being too darn close.

For instance, the Nikon 55mm f/2.8 (both auto and manual focus versions) is arguably the sharpest lens in photography, but it's a poor choice serious macro use because it's too short and you have to get uncomfortably close.

Regardless of how ultra-sharp or merely super-sharp any of these may be for general photography, because depth-of-field is nonexistent at real macro distances, lens sharpness isn't important because you'll be stopped down to f/32 anyway. Therefore, these will all be indistinguishable from each other as far as sharpness for serious macro use is concerned. At f/32, diffraction makes them all the same. Shoot wider, like at f/8, and nothing will be in focus, so again, whatever miniscule differences there may be at infinity won't matter. These are so good technically that sharpness doesn't matter — but focal length does.

Hint: for great macro on a budget, use any 2x teleconverter with a 105mm or 100mm macro lens to give you a 200mm macro lens and let you stand farther away for the same magnification— but it will be much more difficult to compose and focus because you'll only be at about f/8 after adding the converter at most macro distances. For Nikon, a used manual-focus TC-200 for about $50 and any 105mm macro could be all you need.

Here are the best macro lenses for both general and macro photography. All of these are at least as sharp, and usually sharper than regular lenses, even at infinity. See also How to Shoot Macro.

Get the lens you really want, since unlike cameras, good lenses are always a great investment.

Click each for its complete review. See also the Comparison sections of many of these reviews for far more details.

 

Nikon Auto Focus     top

Explicit Nikon 60mm G vs. 60mm AF-D and 55mm AF comparison  

All these lenses focus to directly to 1:1, meaning that the image on the sensor is the same size as the subject.   

Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Micro DX Review

Nikon 40mm f/2.8 DX G (2011-today)

For DX cameras only. Won't work on 35mm or FX full-frame.

52mm filters, 8.0 oz./227g, about $280 new.

Too short for serious macro use.

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 AF Review

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 AF (1987-1988)

62mm filters, 13.9 oz./394g, about $175 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

60mm f/2.8 AF-D Review

Nikon 60mm f/2.8 AF-D (1989-today)

62mm filters, 15.3 oz./434g, about $430 new or $225 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

Nikon 60mm f/2.8 G Review

Nikon 60mm f/2.8 G (2008-today)

62mm filters, 15.1 oz./428g, about $550 new.

Too short for serious macro use.

Nikon 85mm f/3.5 DX Review

Nikon 85mm f/3.5 VR DX (2009-today)

For DX cameras only. Won't work on 35mm or FX full-frame.

52mm filters, 12.4 oz./352g, about $527 new.

OK for DX, but a 105mm would be even better.

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Macro Review

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF-D (1990-2007)

52mm filters, 19.8 oz./562g, about $350 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Good choice for macro, but still less working room than we'd like for the best perspective.

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Review

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 G VR (2006-today)

62mm filters, 26.6 oz./752g, about $800.

Good choice for macro, but twice the price of the 105mm AF-D to do the same thing. VR is nice hand-held when used as a tele, but is of no help when shooting serious macro, which we do with strobes.

Nikon 70-180mm Macro Review

Nikon 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 AF Micro (1997-2004)

62mm filters, 35 oz./990 g, 1.2'/0.37m close focus, about $1,400 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Great choice for macro.

This is the world's only zoom true macro lens, but more expensive used than the 105 VR new. It's that good. Use it when you need to reframe moving macro subjects rapidly; otherwise, get the 200mm f/4 AF-D instead.

Nikon 200mm AF Macro Review

Nikon 200mm f/4 AF-D (1993-today)

62mm filters, 41.6 oz./1,180g, about $1,650 new.

Best choice for macro on Nikon.

I use mine daily. It's ultra-sharp at every distance, has no distortion, it's super-tough, half the barrel is the manual focus ring I use constantly, and it has plenty of working distance between me and my subject.

 

Nikon Manual Focus     top

All these get to half-life-sized (1:2) at the image sensor. They all can be used with extension tubes to get to 1:1 life size or more.

Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Macro Review

Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Micro-NIKKOR (1969-1979)

52mm filters, 8.5 oz./241g, about $100 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 Review

55mm f/2.8 Micro-NIKKOR AI-s (1979-today)

52mm filters, 10 oz./290g, about $400 new or $150 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Great lens, but too short for serious macro use.

Nikon 105mm f/4 Micro Review

Nikon 105mm f/4 Micro-NIKKOR (1970-1983)

52mm filters, 17.6 oz./500g, about $175 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Good choice for macro, but still less working room than we'd like for the best perspective.

The f/4 aperture is fine for normal shooting, but since we lose light at very-close focus distances, an f/2.8 lens makes it much more pleasant to frame, focus and shoot for extended periods. Optically, this $175 classic lens is as good as any of the other 100mm and 105mm lenses so long as you don't mind a darker finder.

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro Review

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro-NIKKOR AI-s (1983-today)

52mm filters, 18.0 oz./510g, about $700 new or $300 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Good choice for macro, but still less working room than we'd like.

Nikon 200mm f/4 Micro Review

Nikon 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor AI-s (1979-2005)

52mm filters, 29.1 oz./824g with collar, about $325 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Excellent for general photography, but sadly the only lens here with lateral color fringes at macro magnifications. In its day, this was the exotic dream lens of professional bug and macro photographers, but today for product shots, it doesn't do it for me with its lateral color fringes at very close distances.

For serious macro use, use the optically superior 200mm f/4 AF-D and never look back.

 

Canon EOS     top

Canon 50mm Macro Review

Canon 50mm f/2.5 EF (1987-today)

1:2 close focus, 1:1 with dedicated optical adapter.

52mm filters, 9.5 oz./269g, about $270 new or $165 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

Canon 60mm Macro Review

Canon 60mm EF-S (2005-today)

For 1.6x sensor cameras only. Won't work on 35mm or full-frame cameras.

52mm filters, 11.7 oz./331g, 1:1 close-focus, about $420 new.

Too short for serious macro use.

Canon 50mm Macro Review

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 EF (1999-today)

1x to 5x magnification (won't work for normal photography).

58mm filters, 25.0 oz./710g, about $950 new.

This is a crazy lens that starts at a life-sized image at the sensor, and can zoom to up to five-times life size. This means a grain of rice can fill a full-frame!

This one is more for the microscope guys, not for shooting the sort of fist-sized things I call macro. With this lens, you can't shoot anything at any less than life-sized.

Canon 100mm USM Macro Review

Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM (2000-today)

58mm filters, 20.6 oz./584g, 1:1 close-focus, about $550 new or $375 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Good choice for macro, but still less working room than we'd like for the best perspective.

Canon 100mm IS L Macro Review

Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L (2009-today)

67mm filters, 22.0 oz./623g, 1:1 close-focus, about $900 new.

Good choice for macro, but twice as expensive as the 105mm f/2.8 USM to do exactly the same thing.

They are both ultra-sharp, and Image Stabilization is of no help for serious macro shooting where we use strobe lighting.

Canon 180mm Macro

Canon 180mm f/3.5 L (1996-today)

72mm filters, 38.4 oz./1,090g, 1:1 close-focus, about $1,500 new.

Best choice for serious macro on Canon. This is the only Canon lens for the EOS 35mm and DSLR systems with a long enough focal length to let us get the distance we need between us and the subject so we can light it well, not annoy our subjects, and show the subject from a natural perspective.

Like the Nikon 200mm f/4 AF-D, it seems expensive until you realize that it will last you an entire career of macro and product shooting.

 

Minolta and Sony     top

Minolta 50mm Macro

Minolta 50mm f/2.8 (1985-today)

55mm filters, 11.1 oz./315 g, 1:1 close focus, about $200 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

Minolta 100mm Macro

Minolta 100mm f/2.8 (1986-today)

55mm filter thread, 18.1 oz./513 g, 1:1 close focus, about $400 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Best choice for macro on Minolta and Sony. There is no 200mm macro for Minolta or Sony, so this is the best there is, with flawless optics.

click to see them

Minolta 200mm f/4 Macro (1999-2000)

72mm filter thread, 39.9 oz./1,130 g, 1:1 close focus, about $2,200 used (see How to Win at eBay).

This is the very best choice for macro on Minolta and Sony, except that these are less common and you can buy a used Canon 180mm f/3.5 L or Nikon 200mm f/4 AF-D and another body to go with it for the same price as this lens alone.

Also try the Minolta 100mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter to make a poor-man's 200mm f/5.6 macro.

 

Tokina for Nikon and Canon     top

Tokina 100mm Macro

Tokina 100mm f/2.8 (2006-today)

55mm filters, 18.1 oz./513g, 1:1 close focus, about $460.

Good choice for macro on Canon and on Nikon, but a 180mm or 200mm lens is much better for practical and perspective reasons.

If you won't spring for the Nikon 200mm f/4 AF-D or Canon 180mm f/3.5 L, this Tokina is as good optically as Nikon's or Canon's 100mm and 105mm lenses.

 

LEICA M     top

LEICA 50mm f/2 Dual Range

LEICA SUMMICRON 50mm f/2 with near-focusing range (1956-1968)

39mm filters, near-focusing range to 478mm, 12.0 oz./339g + 1.9 oz./52g finder attachment, SOMNI or 11 918, about $1,200 used (see How to Win at eBay).

Too short for serious macro use.

LEICA 90mm f/4 macro

LEICA MACRO-ELMAR-M 90mm f/4 (2003-today)

39mm filters, 7.8 oz./223g, about $4,000 with adapter, new.

Best choice for macro on LEICA M, but shooting macro on a rangefinder camera is for masochists unless you use a VISOFLEX system or the live-view of the newest LEICA M240.

 

Sigma and Tamron     top

I wouldn't buy either of these brands. Even if the optics can be as good as the others, the mechanical quality of the samples I've seen has not been up to my standards, and there is far more potential for the lenses you buy today not to work on the cameras you buy tomorrow with these brands than with camera-maker-brand lenses.

The main reason people bought Sigma and Tamron was for price. Today, you're much better off with a used manual-focus Micro-NIKKOR for even less money with far superior quality, but hey, if you prefer these off-brands, don't let me stop you.

 

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19 June 2013