BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: Best Photographic Equipment to Buy : Camera Lenses

Photography Question 
Angela M. Griffin

Do You Need a Special Macro Lens for Macro Work?

I am new to macro photography. I am wanting to buy a lens that I can photograph flowers and insects very close up. Does a lens have to be specified as "macro" for this type of work, or is a 200mm lens the same as a 200mm macro lens? Also which focal length would be best for the type of work I described above? I also want to photograph slightly larger objects, such as leaves and fruit, etc.

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9/2/2001 7:54:11 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
A 200mm prime lens is a telephoto lens, and will typically focus down to about 5-6 feet. This is different from a 200mm Macro lens which allows even closer focusing, about 2.5 feet and maybe even closer.

Field macros are usually done using a long lens between 80mm and 135mm, occasionally a little longer at 180mm or 200mm, or a little shorter at 50mm. I have done them using lenses as short as 24mm and 18mm, but that is very special work, and requires great care in setting it up very, very close using a very short extension tube. The reason for the longer lenses? They allow farther standoff from the subject for the same level of magnification.

For insects, fruit and leaves, I suggest starting with an 80mm to 90mm lens and a set of extension tubes of at least two lengths, about 12mm and 25mm, if you system has them available. You can stack extension tubes, but usually no more than two, sometimes three. How many depends on the tubes, who makes them and the size/weight of the lens that will be used also.

The Canon EOS system has two tubes (12mm and 25mm). The Nikon AF system has an extension tube also. Kenko makes tubes for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Minolta AF systems. Tubes were made for older, manual focus systems by the original OEM, and Vivitar still makes sets for them (the Vivitar is a sturdy one with three tubes: 12mm, 21mm and 36mm).

You will also need a sturdy tripod. At the high magnification levels of macro work, it becomes very difficult to hand hold without camera shake blurring the image and depth of field becomes very shallow making accurate focusing critical.

The next paragraphs describe how macros are measured and the several methods for doing them.

Magnification is the real measure of macro work. It is the ratio of the subject size _on_film_ (not on the print) to actual subject size. A 1:1 or life-size will be life-size on the film. A true macro lens (versus close-up or close focus) will let you get at least 1:4 (1/4 life-size) or larger.

There are three standard methods for doing macros:
a. Auxiliary "diopter" lenses that screw onto the front of a lens (sometimes called close-up "filters" but they are not really filters). Most of these are OK but not the best optically, especially the inexpensive ones with only a single lens element. The more expensive two-element ones are much better but as expensive as extension tubes, which are usually still better optically.
b. Extension tubes that go between a lens and the camera body. These move the entire lens focusing range closer. The length of the tube compared to the focal length of the lens determines how much closer you can get and the level of magnification you can achieve. They are better optically than auxiliary diopter lenses as there is no glass in them, especially if used with an excellent prime lens with little or no aberration or distortion. Extremely close work with very high magnification can be had with a bellows extension (even longer than tubes) but they are rarely used outdoors. This is part of the tradeoff with longer focal length to get greater standoff distance. A longer tube is needed to get the same magnification level. A 50mm lens at infinity focus needs a 25mm tube for 1:2 magnification. A 100mm lens will have 1:2 magnification at twice the subject distance, but requires 50mm of extension to achieve it.
c. A true macro lens which is specifically designed and optimized for much closer focusing than a normal one to get at least 1:4 magnification, sometimes 1:2. These are typically more expensive and slower, but they are also usually the best optically, especially the primes (non-zoom). For even higher magnification you can add extension tubes to them just as you would a normal lens.

How much magnification you need depends on subject size and how much you want to fill the film frame with it. For small insects, this could be between 1:2 to 1:1, or half life-size to life-size (a 35mm film frame is about 1" x 1.5"). For larger insects such as a preying mantis or grasshopper, 1:4 to 1:3 magnification would fill the film frame. For flowers and leaves, it depends on the size of the flower blossom and how much of it you want in the frame. A single African violet blossom could require 1:1 whereas a cluster of them requires less, perhaps 1:4. OTOH, an oak leaf or an orange may only need 1:6 magnification.

Think about the size of the objects you want to photograph and compare this to the size of a film frame (35mm: about 1" x 1.5"). This will tell you the magnification levels you need. You can then sort out how much magnification a "macro" lens must provide (by looking at various lens specs), or figure out how much extension tube you need with a normal lens of a particular focal length.

-- John

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9/3/2001 1:36:30 AM

Ken B   John,
I'm in the same situation as Angela. I have an interest in flowers, still-lifes, etc. I'm probably going to over-simplify things, but here goes. I have the Canon EOS Rebel 2000. My Canon 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 lens has a marking which shows the macro, or close-up, mode symbol and 0.38m/1.3ft. Does this mean that I can use this lens for macro photography and get as close as 1.3 feet? It is not technically a macro lens. I also have a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 lens with the same symbol and 1.5m/4.9ft distances.

I was going to buy Canon's 50mm f1.4 prime lens for this work, but in doing some research I find that most photographers use macro lenses for the specific things I'm interested in, usually 105mm, or similar. Canon makes a 100mm f2.8 macro (1:1) that sounds like what I need. I have also seen a Vivitar 100mm f3.5 macro (1:2) that does 1:1 with an included adapter for much less money.

Can the same results be obtained with either the 100mm macro or the 50mm prime, or even with what I have already? If I should buy, I would rather buy the 50mm as I think I'd get much more general use out of it, but I want my still-lifes and flowers to be of excellent quality, so I'm definitely open to buying both. Thanks.

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9/21/2001 2:30:56 AM

doug Nelson   Ken, for the kind of quality you're talking about here, I'd go with a 90 to 105 macro lens.

You could save some money here by locating a good manual focus 100-mm macro lens, and then buy a manual focus body and dedicate it to macro. You don't need autofocus with macro, anyway.

Look for a 90-mm Vivitar Series 1 macro. If you're lucky enough to find one, buy a body brand that fits. The thing has legendary sharpness. See for Steve's comments on Vivitar macros. Later, find a 50 macro on ebay.

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3/12/2002 8:02:24 AM

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