Guide to Buying a Macro Lens

Last week I mentioned how much I enjoy Macro - it's like therapy via photography - but it can get quite expensive if you want to get really serious about it.  However, if like me, you just want to be a casual macro shooter, all you really need is a dedicated macro lens.. A true macro lens are those that have a 1:1 ratio, which basically means they can capture your subject at life size magnification (some other macro lenses offer 2:1 magnification or some less than 1:! but for the sake of this article I've stuck with those that are "true" macro) When shopping for a macro lens, there are two main areas with are usually fraught with confusion, or at least they were for me, the focal length and whether to get IS / VR or not. 

Focal Length 

The focal lengths for a standard macro lens is somewhere around 50mm to 100mm. You will get the same magnification with these these focal lengths, but the difference is in the minimum focusing distance between the lens and the subject - essentially how close you need to be to your subject to get the same magnification.  For example, with a 60mm lens you would need to have your lens around 6" from your subject to get exactly the same magnification as a 105mm lens would at around 12".  Whilst that doesn't sound like such a bad thing in theory, in practice, you'll find that having that shorter "working distance" between your lens and your subject cuts out more light, and there is the added issue of having to be careful that your body is not casting a shadow over your subject.  Also, if you want to photograph bugs or other insects - well, you will probably find they don't particularly want you to get that close and may move off (or more likely, you won't want to get that close to them!)  Of course, with every downside there is also an upside, shorter focal lengths are less expensive, and are generally much smaller and lighter to carry than their longer length counterparts.   These focal lengths would probably be good for product photography or similar - where you can control the light and your position to it, and where you might not need to get in very close for detail. 

Personally, I would recommend spending the bit extra and going for a macro lens around the 100mm mark.  Getting enough light on your subject is a real challenge in macro photography (because you are photographing at higher apertures that normal) so it makes sense to have that extra space between your lens and your subject.  Macro lenses closer to the 100m mark will allow you that little bit of extra space whilst getting the same magnification.  There is a downside to these in that they are quite heavy and are therefore can be difficult to hand hold, but perfectly doable (I'm a total weakling and I manage fine!)  The other plus side is that these double up nicely as a portrait lens. 

Of course you do also get macro lenses which have longer focal lengths - around 180mm - these are best suited to insects or creatures where you need to stay a bit farther back from them.  They are also a lot heavier and bulkier.  

Vibration Reduction Mode (Nikon) and Image Stabilisation (Canon) 

These features are one and the same thing, and are designed to counter the movement you get just from hand holding the lens - in other words, they allow you to use a slower shutter speed than you would normally use hand holding a lens of that size.  As to whether this is useful, it depends a lot on what you are shooting and where you are doing it.  If you shoot mainly indoors and don't want to take out the tripod, then IS will be very useful as you will be able to drop your shutter speed without risking motion blur too much. However, if you prefer to use a tripod OR you are mainly going to be shooting outdoors where there is plenty of natural light, perhaps you won't get so much from this. (IS/VR should be turned off when using a tripod by the way!) Also, if you shoot moving bugs for example, your shutter speed is probably going to be high enough to cover THEIR movement, so that you don't need IS. Personally, I mainly shoot indoors, don't shoot bugs, and don't like to break out the tripod too often so I find IS very helpful.

Onto some of the macro lenses available.....

60mm Focal Length (around $500) 

100mm Focal Length (from $550)

Other (Cheaper) Options

I know very little about these since I purchased a dedicated macro lens, but if you would just like to dip your toe in the waters of macro, you can get cheaper options such as using Extension Tubes which allows you to get closer to your subject, and therefore increase your magnification for taking macro shots. Another option is close up macro filters, which fits over your lens like a filter and allows you to focus at closer distances. A totally free option is just to take your normal 50mm lens and turn it backwards so you are holding the lens over the sensor - you do also get reversing rings which hold the backward facing lens on the camera, which is a lot safer (you are danger of dropping the lens if you are just holding it over your camera!) None of these will give you the same quality as a dedicated macro lens, but they might be a good starting point if you are unsure as to whether macro is for you.

If you are interested in macro, I hope this has helped a little in knowing what to look for, and in narrowing down some of the choices out there!  As usual, if I can help with anything, just ask :)

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