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The Macro Lens | Why It Should Be Your Second Lens Purchase

By Lauchlan Toal on January 20th 2016

Having bought their first DSLR, complete with a kit lens or two, photographers are offered two choices. A red pill, and a blue pill, if you will. Take the blue pill, and you’ll be forever satisfied by your equipment, happy with the freedom and versatility a camera and zoom lens offers. Opt for the red pill, and soon you start to see the limitations that the kit lens imposes. The slow aperture, the lack of sharpness, the overall blandness of it…Kit lenses are great, but you know that there’s better. The question is, what next? There are many choices that all suit different kinds of photographers, but in this article, I’m going to make a case for the surprisingly versatile macro lens.

Fly On A Stick

Macro is one of those genres which are very popular among photography enthusiasts, and for good reason. It presents the opportunity to show the beauty of a tiny world which we rarely see, a magical world where the smallest details become a surreal landscape. However, often I see photographers tire of this genre and sell their macro lens, thinking that they no longer have any use for it. In reality, they couldn’t be further from the truth! While macro lenses may have the word “macro” in them, they can be used for so much more.

Perhaps it would help to mentally rename these lenses as “fast telephoto primes.” These lenses tend to have moderately wide apertures, moderately long focal lengths and are spectacularly sharp. For this article, I will be discussing the macro lenses in the 90-105mm f2.8 range, such as the Canon 100mm f2.8 and the Sigma 105mm f2.8. These are the most common macro lenses, and also generally the most useful on both crop sensor and full frame cameras. Other macro lenses such as the 150mm, 180mm, and even 15mm versions are also quite handy but are typically usable in fewer situations. They also may cost more or have other limitations that make them unsuitable as a second lens after the kit.

Disclaimer: Personally, I own the Sigma 105mm f2.8 HSM OS lens which is roughly equivalent to both the Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR lens and the Canon 100mm f2.8 IS lens. The Tamron 90mm f2.8 lens is also a decent option in this range, as is the non-stabilized Canon 100mm f2.8. I’ve used the Sigma extensively on both the crop sensor 24MP Nikon D5200 and the full frame 24MP Nikon D610. This should give you an idea of where my experiences are coming from – if you use drastically different equipment, some of my judgments may differ from yours.Hand Playing Guitar

Why Choose a Macro Lens?

The number one reason would have to be tied between the sharpness of macro lenses and the wide aperture they afford (at long-range). Macro lenses, despite being priced lower than most other lenses, are pretty much the gold standard for sharpness. At f2.8, the image quality is quite good, at f4 it’s excellent, and f5.6 is pretty much unbeatable. Pretty much any macro lens is on par with the best primes when stopped down a bit, and presents a significant step up from any kit lens. The other big factor – the aperture – is what makes these lenses so useful. At minimum focusing distance (1:1 reproduction ratio) used for macro photography, the aperture is typically f5.6. However, when you focus out to 7 feet or so, the aperture can open all the way to f2.8. If it didn’t do that, it would still be fine for macro, but by going to f2.8 it opens up the option to use it for sports, wildlife, portraits, and more.

Before I get into the various uses, here’s a quick demonstration of the Sigma 105mm’s sharpness, used on the D610 at f9.

Close Up Of An EyeGross, I know – I don’t shoot portraits. Ignore that, though, here are a couple 100% crops (650px wide) from the above photo:

100% Crop Eye100% Crop SkinPhotos aren’t always that sharp since you can’t always use the ideal aperture/ISO/shutter speed combinations, but I can say that I’ve never been disappointed by the detail a macro lens provides.

But what can these lenses do that makes them so great? Sure, sharp close-ups are cool, but what else can a macro lens do?

Sports

Especially on crop-sensors, these lenses are great entry-level sports lenses. If you can’t afford a 70-200 f2.8 or similar, a 105mm f2.8 will be a great compliment to a 55-300 or 70-300 f5.6 for when the sun goes down or in smaller venues. For field sports, you’ll need to crop in quite often, but thanks to the f2.8 aperture, the lens will actually autofocus, and you can keep your ISO low enough to avoid having a magenta mess. Where this lens really shines is for hockey; it’s the perfect focal length on both full frame and crop bodies. Below is an example of its reach on a 1.5x crop body, I was in the penalty box directly across the rink from the players. (Blank space on the left was cropped out, but height is unaffected).
Hockey Players Enter Ice RinkOn a crop sensor body, you can easily get tight shots of the net from the penalty box or nearby areas, whereas on a full frame sensor, you can get better shots of open ice action while still getting good shots of the net.

However, the macro lens is a poor option for basketball, unless you’re in the bleachers. For basketball, I much prefer a 50mm or even 35mm lens, plus an ultra-wide angle zoom for under the net. For court sports where there are fewer players and the action happens further from the court edges, like tennis and badminton, the macro lens is still excellent.

Wildlife

Apart from the obvious bug and flower photos, macro lenses make very good wildlife lenses. While a 300mm f2.8 (or longer) may be great for some animals, often you can find animals which aren’t spooked so easily. Smaller mammals, reptiles, and low-flying birds make for fantastic subjects, even when using a full frame sensor. The photo below was taken with the 105mm macro on the D610, of a completely wild and untamed squirrel.

Squirrel Eating On A BranchPatience, perseverance, and some knowledge of animal behavior can yield excellent results in your photography.

Portraits

A hugely important use for macro lenses is for portraits. When it comes to headshots and studio portraits, it’s hard to beat the stunning sharpness of a macro lens. While I tend not to do much portraiture, you can see from the 100% crops posted several paragraphs back that macro lenses can be used to bring out facial details. When it comes to tack-sharp eyes and skin texture that gives plenty of latitude for retouching, you can trust a macro lens to deliver. With the f2.8 aperture, you can also create pleasing background separation and bokeh, though not as much as a specialized portrait lens like the 85mm f1.8 or f1.4. Background separation is better the closer you are to the subject, so for headshots, you’ll see the bokeh start to rival faster lenses that can’t focus as close or have a shorter focal length. However, for full body portraits, you may be better off with a 50mm lens.

Events

One of the places that the 105mm macro really thrives is as a general events lens. As you’re moving around, you can nab shots of speakers on the stage across the room then immediately turn and snap some detail shots of the food. For weddings, you can shoot the rings and other small items, then get right back to covering the action 30 feet away. While I wouldn’t advise shooting every event with only a macro lens, for events where you’re mobile and don’t need to take any highly specific shots, the macro lens could well be all you need. From small concerts to public ceremonies, it provides everything you need to cover the important details without losing time by swapping lenses.

SingerSports, wildlife, portraits, and events are the primary non-macro uses of macro lenses that I can think of, excluding some genres like food and product photography that may not be “macro” but are still in that wheelhouse. I’m sure there are plenty of other creative uses that I haven’t thought of – please share any others in the comments! Of course, despite having just made the case for why macro lenses are so great and why they make the perfect second lens after your kit lens (or third if you grab a 50mm f1.8 first), the macro lens isn’t for everyone.

[REWIND: Shooting With Unusual Gear and Working With What You Have]

If you have no problems stepping up to a 70-200 f2.8, you can do pretty much all the same things except for actual macro shots. It might be a bit less sharp, but the advantages of greater focal length, zoom, and faster AF make up for that. A 105mm or 100mm macro is kind of a budget 70-200, for people who can justify spending $500-$850 but not $2000. If you can afford the 70-200 and don’t need a dedicated macro lens, go for the 70-200. If you don’t shoot in the genres listed above either, like if you shoot mostly wide-angle landscapes or indoors environmental portraits, you’d probably be better suited by non-macro lenses as well, such as a wide-angle zoom lens or a fast 35mm prime.

With that all said, is the macro lens worth considering as your next lens? It absolutely is, as it’s useful for so much more than just macro photography. If you want to try your hand at macro while expanding your options with several other genres of photography, a macro lens might be just the right option for you.

Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Anthony Taylor

    First posting. I am new to photography, recently getting my first dslr (Nikon d3300). I am really into plants, flowers, insects etc., and am looking to buy my first macro lens. My budget allows for a NIKON AF-S Micro-NIKKOR 60 mm f/2.8G ED SWM Macro Lens. Any thoughts?   

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  2. Anne-Mark Rhind

    weekend result

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  3. Anne-Mark Rhind

    Adam thanks so much for your advise, I’ll put into practise this weekend. data from image 1/125sec f14 iso 500, I believe af was still hunting because i have AF-c continuous focusing set, will change to AF-s, turn off OS if speed over 1/100 when hand held, then consider manual focus to fine tune. Will use tripod method as well.
    Cheers Mark

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    • adam sanford

      You don’t *have* to turn off the AF, but it can help you tell between an AF problem or the others (wind, shutter speed, DOF, etc.) I listed.

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  4. Anne-Mark Rhind

    Hi Lauchlan
    I recently bought a Sigma 105, is there any info how to master the lens, images aren’t as sharp as I would have expected, I find the OS 1, consistantly adjusting while trying to focus and I’m not sure if this is affecting the sharpness of image —- taking shots while OS is working (hand held)
    Sigma Manual not care on how to use
    Any advise appreciated
    Mark

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    • adam sanford

      Hard to tell what’s going on from one shot, but here are some basics for macro sharpness:

      1) If your shutter speed is too low, OS may not be enough.  recommend you shoot with 1/100s shutter or faster to make sure that it’s not your hands moving that’s causing this.  Also, consider a tripod just to make sure it’s not something else (at least at first).

      2) Wind is a menace for outdoor macro work with plants and flowers.  If I am running and gunning handheld on a hike and spot a flower, I bang off 4-5 shots in quick succession with the hope that one catches the subject without wind movement.

      3) With such fine details in and out of the depth of field, macro AF can
      ‘hunt’ or bounce between two parts of a plant very easily.   So use the autofocus to get you close (i.e. in the macro range) and then turn it off.   Most max 1:1 (really close) macro work is done manually focused.  If you must use AF, use One Shot instead of AI Focus so that once you have focus it won’t update or move on you after you hit focus.

      4) Unless you want to do focus-stacking, which is quite involved (multiple shots composited together in post), I recommend beginners stop down their macro lens dramatically for up-close macro work.  Let’s assume that shot has zero wind and the AF nailed what you wanted to hit — shooting at f/2.8 on a 105mm FF lens gives you a razor-thin working depth of field.  So the blurry stuff you are seeing — if your AF nailed it, your hands are stable, your shutter is fast enough (steps 1-3 above) — is simply out of the working depth of field.  So create more DOF by stopping down your aperture.   Stop down to f/11, f/14, etc. and pull more of your subject into the working depth of field and you should see more of your subject nailed in focus.

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  5. Dave Haynie

    I waited a bit on the Canon system — in the film days, I would get my Olympus OM-4 and the 50mm f/3.5 macro. Once in digital, I eventually gave up using the Olympus to Canon adapter for that lens and got the 100mm f/2.8 USM for my Canon. When I added the Olympus OM-D system, I bought the 60mm f/2.8 pretty early on.

    Not for everyone. But you get a very sharp modest, fast telephoto as well as the close focusing. And I love to shoot bugs, flowers, etc. The longer lens delivers closer shots and/or more dangerous critters.

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  6. Guy Ivie

    I have the Tamron 90 mm f/2.8, and I love it. Much lighter than the Canon 135mm that I had a few years ago! I like the stabilization and the sharpness. Believe it or not, though, I’m mainly using it on landscapes right now. :-)

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    • Kristopher Galuska

      That is awesome! I mainly shoot landscapes, so that is great to hear. I was hoping this would be a versatile lens, and it sounds like it is!

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  7. Kristopher Galuska

    I just bought the Tamron 90mm. This article came right as I was debating the decision. Great timing!

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  8. Stephen Jennings

    I use a 105 macro for portraits all the time, I like the bokeh better than the 70-200 in some instances. Or like this week it just happened to have a much deeper lens hood and kept the snow off the glass :) The 70-200 is versatile, but the 105macro is sharper, imo, and the 85mm’s often have better bokeh and image quality. And weigh a fraction.

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  9. Trey Mortensen

    Ironically a macro was my 2nd lens I bought and I regret it. It’s probably my least used lens (only use it around Christmas for decorations and the occasional eye shot). I got a Tokina 100 f/2.8 to save $500 from the Canon L. Although the optics are great on it, the autofocus is so slow!!!! I didn’t realize it at the time since I was so new to photography and had no idea how good USM lenses were. I struggle getting focus even in portrait situations. I should have either bought an 85mm f/1.8 (which I finally just bought and love), saved for the good lens, or gone a completely different direction and get the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (which I bought later). My style is portraiture and landscape, but even though I got the macro early on, I never fell in love with the images.

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    • Rafael Steffen

      I agree with you in many points. The use of MACRO lens are rare, but they have this unique looks that makes pictures really pop. I rented one and shot a whole bridal session with one and I loved it.

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  10. Daniel Lee

    I use my 100L for mostly still life and product photography. It does a great job for that and I have also used it for portraits too.
    The 100L/Macro lens may not be a lens that can do multiple genres better than any other lens, its just very versatile and is more than just a lens simply made for macro.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Absolutely Daniel. One might describe it as a jack of all trades, and master of one.

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  11. John Cavan

    I wouldn’t be without a macro lens, I have to admit. It was the second lens I bought on Pentax and even then I still acquired the legendary Lester Dine f/2.8, a beautiful all-metal manual beast, the first chance I got.

    When I switched to Nikon, for the D800, the I grabbed the Nikon 105mm as the second lens after my 24-120mm f/4. I really like having that lens around, though I don’t use it that often. The key is, when I want it, it’s there and closeup lenses and extension tubes are not a substitute for me. :)

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Thanks for sharing John, I agree that there’s something special about a dedicated macro versus add-ons. Which lens do you find yourself using most, the 24-120?

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    • John Cavan

      Yep, the 24-120 is just a really good “walk about” lens and so it’s generally the one on the camera. I also have the 85mm f/1.8 for portraits, along with the 105mm, as it’s such a nice lens to use.

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  12. Lenzy Ruffin

    I agree with Ben. I have the Sigma 105 and it’s a rare occasion when I use it. It’s great for what it was designed for, but macro photography didn’t turn out to be as interesting as I thought it would be. I ended up being drawn primarily to portraiture and that lens is just too slow to focus to be useful as a portrait lens, in my opinion. I couldn’t imagine trying to use it for sports. For a beginner, I’d say a set of close-up filters would be a better choice while they figure out what kind of photography interests them. If they end up being drawn to lots of macro, they can buy a good macro lens at that point. If they don’t, then a set of close-up filters that they rarely use will have been less money wasted. For a crop-sensor Canon user, I think the nifty fifty for portraits and the 24mm pancake are sound, economically feasible choices to follow the kit lens.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Which camera are you using? On both my Nikon’s I’ve found the AF to be adequate for sports, and more than fast enough for portraits. I totally agree that if you just want to try macro then filters or tubes are a better bet. However, I think that many new photographers wanting to step up their photographic options would find that a macro lens is more versatile than most other options in that price range. While I love the nifty fifty, it just doesn’t wow me like the 105 does – of course for ~$100 it’s worth throwing in the bag when you have some spare change.

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    • Lenzy Ruffin

      I shoot with a 5D3. On that body, not only is the Sigma noticeably (but not dramatically) slower to focus than other lenses, you also lose some autofocus points.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Interesting, thanks Lenzy. Do you only lose focus points when focusing close enough to reduce the effective aperture, or at all distances?

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    • Lenzy Ruffin

      I just put the lens on to check and I stand partially corrected. You don’t lose autofocus points, you lose cross-type autofocus points. The 5D3 has 41 cross-type points (21 in the middle and 10 on each side) plus 20 regular autofocus points. With the Sigma 105, those 20 cross-type AF points on the sides become regular AF points. This is at any distance. It states somewhere in the camera manual that this will be the case with some lenses.

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    • Kyle Stauffer

      I too have found the Nikon 105 macro to be adequately fast when the limiter switch is engaged. I have no experience with the Canon.

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  13. Ben Perrin

    Like Adam I also have a Canon 100L and whilst I think it’s a great lens it’s around the 6th most used lens of mine. Context is definitely important here. A landscape photographer really would benefit from a different lens choice. Whilst it can be used for portraits there are better options and usually the AF of a macro lens makes it less useful for sports. I think for me the Canon 135L would be one of the first lenses that I’d ever purchase. Either way you’re going to need to purchase more down the track or else you’ll be limiting the options available.

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    • adam sanford

      That’s the point — the 100L is 90% as good as the 135 f/2L at portraiture…

      *And* it’s got that macro.
      *And* it’s got IS for the occasional video need.
      *And* it’s weather sealed — the 135L is not.

      Again, I love it.

      (That said, the 135L is dreamy. Legendary for its time and still formidable today, some 20 years since release.)

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    • Ramon Acosta

      But if your main thing is portraits, the 135 is like you said better (I think about 30%). I do have the non L macro, (which I’m selling) and was about to upgrade to the L version, for all the reasons you give, but I saw a comparison with the 135 and I fell in love. Yes IS would be great, yes, weather sealing would be very useful (I do a lot of shoots in the snow), but that bokeh had me at first sight.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Absolutely, your field of photography makes all the difference in lens selection. I’ve not yet had the chance to try Canon’s 135mm, but perhaps someone could do an article about it’s advantages in the future.

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    • adam sanford

      Lauchlan, the 135L is ‘holy trinity of primes’ good. People debate all day whether they’d go 24 + 50 or 35 + 85, but most everyone agrees that the 135 is the long end of the trifecta.

      I just don’t use it when the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II is nearly as sharp, zooms, has IS, is sealed, and is only a stop slower. The 135L takes stellar portraits, but the 70-200 does so much more.

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    • Ben Perrin

      I’d always wondered whether or not it was worth going for the 70-200mm 2.8 IS. If I did more wedding work I really think I would but it’s not really worth it for me personally. That being said the photos I’ve seen from that lens have been amazing. The biggest strength of Canon in my opinion is the lens choice. P.S. I don’t think the weather sealing is a massive deal as I’ve used the 135L in the rain a few times without any issues.

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    • Ramon Acosta

      You are absolutely right! But I have the 70-200 f4 , and one stop may not have such a great advantage (f2.8 vs f2), but 2 stops really makes a difference in the look of your images. But, the difference between the 200 f2 and the 70-200 f2.8 is also 1 stop. 1 stop and 4k dollars. I do have to admit, that if I had the f2.8 I probably would not have been interested in the 135.

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  14. adam sanford

    I adore my Canon 100L. Great for dedicated macro, but also stellar as a 100mm prime when you don’t want to lug the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II around.

    Light, sealed, IS, well-built, and sharp as a katana. Highly recommended.

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