If you want to shoot ultra-close-up images, you need a macro lens. There are various ways to shoot extreme close-ups, including the use of hollow extension tubes, reversing rings or close-up ‘filters’ that screw into to the accessory attachment thread of regular lenses. However, the main advantage of any ‘system’ camera is that you can fit the right lens for the shooting scenario at hand. And when it comes to getting in close, there’s no beating a proper macro lens.
You’ll often see zoom lenses with the word ‘macro’ somewhere in their title, but they typically give a maximum magnification factor of merely 0.3x to 0.5x. By comparison, most (but not all) macro prime lenses deliver a full 1.0x or 1:1 magnification ratio. But what does that actually mean?
Basically, at 1.0x magnification, an object will be reproduced on a camera’s image sensor at full life size. So, for example, something the size of a postage stamp will pretty much fill the whole image frame. This translates into enormous magnification when you view the resulting image on-screen or in print. Indeed, zoom into pixel level with the image on a computer screen and you can see levels of detail that are invisible to the naked eye.
Some macro lenses are designed exclusively for APS-C format DSLRs. Just like full-frame compatible lenses, they give a maximum of 1.0x magnification. However, due to the 1.5x crop factor of Nikon DX-format cameras such as the D5600 (1.6x for Canon APS-C like the EOS Rebel T7i / EOS 800D), these DSLRs give an even greater ‘effective’ magnification effect, regardless of whether you fit them with an APS-C format or full-frame compatible lens.
There are actually advantages in using a full-frame compatible macro lens on an APS-C class body. The typically longer focal length gives a longer minimum focus distance, at which maximum magnification is achieved. This gives you a more comfortable working distance, so the front end of the lens doesn’t come overly close to the subject. It’s therefore easier to photograph bugs and other tiny wildlife without scaring them away before you’ve got your shot. It also reduces the risk of your lens casting a shadow over what you’re shooting, if you’re relying on ambient lighting rather than using flash.
One problem in macro photography is that depth of field can be tiny. Indeed, at a macro lens’s minimum focus distance, to enable the greatest magnification, depth of field can shrink to just a couple of millimetres. An important factor in performance is therefore how well the lens retains good image quality at very narrow apertures of around f/16 or f/22, where you’ll gain precious extra millimetres in depth of field. Accurate autofocus can also be a big advantage but, in practical terms, it’s usually better to focus manually on the exact part of an object that you want to be rendered most sharply. The magnified Live View option in recent Canon and Nikon cameras is very helpful for this, enabling manual focusing with much greater precision than using the viewfinder.
1. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro
Top performance at a reasonable price
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: Yes | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 30cm | Filter size: 62mm | Dimensions: 79 x 117mm | Weight: 610g
Tamron has launched some fabulous prime lenses and G2 (Generation 2) zooms. This lens doesn’t bear the G2 badge but is nevertheless a new generation of the 90mm VC USD lens. It’s easily distinguishable by having a silver band around the rear, instead of a gold ring around the middle. Compared with the previous edition, the new version has upgraded optics, improved coatings, better autofocus and a ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer, which counteracts the effects of X-Y shift as well as vibration. It works better for handheld close-up shooting but you’ll still need a tripod for full 1.0x macro shooting. Build quality and all aspects of image quality and performance are simply spectacular. It’s an incredible lens at a very reasonable price.
2. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
It’s the best that Canon has to offer
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: Yes | Weather seals: Yes | Minimum focus distance: 30cm | Filter size: 67mm | Dimensions: 78 x 123mm | Weight: 625g
The main claim to fame of this lens is that it was the world’s first to feature a ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer, although that’s now been inherited by the newer Canon 35mm macro lens, and Tamron has developed a competing system. Even so, the quality of this lens isn’t just about its stabilizer. As an L-series optic, it boasts pro-grade construction, complete with weather-seals. Sharpness and contrast are very good even when shooting wide-open at f/2.8. More importantly for a macro lens, image quality remains very impressive right down to f/22. Color fringing is minimal at all apertures but barrel distortion is a little more noticeable than from Canon’s older, non-stabilized 100mm lens.
3. Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro
Feature-rich but fairly low in price
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: Yes | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 31cm | Filter size: 62mm | Dimensions: 78 x 126mm | Weight: 725g
Astonishingly good value, this Sigma is a full-frame compatible macro lens that’s packed with high-end features. The list of attractions includes ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, four-stop image stabilization with switchable static and panning modes, a focus distance scale under a viewing panel, and a three-position autofocus limiter switch that can lock out both the short and long sections of the full range. The lens is supplied complete with a hood, a hood converter for improved efficiency with APS-C format cameras, and a smart padded soft case. Build quality and handling are excellent, although the Sigma doesn’t feature weather-seals. Corner-sharpness at f/2.8 could be a little better but that’s no real issue for macro shooting. Overall, performance and image quality are excellent, making the Sigma unbeatable value for money.
4. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM
No stabilization? No worries…
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: No | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 31cm | Filter size: 58mm | Dimensions: 79 x 119mm | Weight: 600g
Image stabilization is great for general handheld shooting but, for extreme close-ups, it’s of negligible benefit. The lack of stabilization in this older Canon 100mm macro lens therefore isn’t a deal-breaker for macro photography, especially as it’s so much less expensive to buy. Ideal as a combined macro/portrait lens, this one has a near-identical focal length on full-frame cameras to the EF-S 60mm on APS-C bodies. Both lenses look very similar, although the 100mm is bigger and has extra finery including a UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) element and a long-range autofocus limiter switch, but that’s unfortunately of no use when shooting close-ups. Sharpness is impressive, colour fringing is fairly minimal, and barrel distortion is lower than in Canon’s up-market L-series 100mm lens.
5. Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM
It was the first EF-S macro lens but is no longer the only option
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: No | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 20cm | Filter size: 52mm | Dimensions: 73 x 73mm | Weight: 335g
Compared with Canon’s newer EF-S 35mm macro lens, this one is much more conventional, without image stabilization or a built-in Macro Lite. Build quality is more substantial and the autofocus system is ring-type ultrasonic, with the usual full-time manual override and a distance scale beneath a viewing panel. With an effective 96mm focal length in full-frame terms, the viewing angle is more telephoto than ‘standard’, and quite ideal for portraiture. The working distance between the front of the lens and the subject for full 1.0x macro shooting is 9cm, compared with the 35mm lens’s very tight 3cm, but it’s still a little close for comfort. It edges ahead of the 35mm for image quality, with better corner-sharpness, less color fringing and practically zero distortion.
6. Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM
This compact lens literally shines a light on macro photography
Maximum aperture: f/2.8 | Image stabilization: Yes | Weather seals: No | Minimum focus distance: 13cm | Filter size: 49mm | Dimensions: 69 x 56mm | Weight: 190g
As an ‘EF-S’ lens, this one is designed exclusively for APS-C format cameras, and isn’t compatible with full-frame bodies. Like several recent Canon lenses, it features a stepping-motor autofocus system with an electronically coupled focus ring, and no focus distance scale on the barrel. Equivalent to a 56mm lens on a full-frame body, the viewing angle makes the lens ideal as a ‘standard prime’, even without taking its macro abilities into account. Hybrid image stabilization is inherited from Canon’s range-topping 100mm L-series lens. Uniquely, this lens has an LED ‘Macro Lite’ built into its front, with two brightness levels and the option to use both sides or just the left or right. It’s a good thing too, as the front of the lens comes to just 3cm from the subject at its closest focus setting, blocking most ambient light. However, even at full power and at the shortest focus distance, you’ll need a slow shutter speed of about 1/15th of a second at f/8 (ISO 200). You also lose the advantage of short-duration flash to freeze motion, counteracting camera-shake and subject movement. Centre-sharpness is pretty good, on a par with the Canon 60mm lens, although it drops off more in the corners at wide apertures. Autofocus is fast and the electronic coupling enables very smooth and precise manual adjustments for critical close-up focusing.