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.
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.
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.
Gross, I know – I don’t shoot portraits. Ignore that, though, here are a couple 100% crops (650px wide) from the above photo:
Photos 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?
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).
On 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.
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.
Patience, perseverance, and some knowledge of animal behavior can yield excellent results in your photography.
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.
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.
Sports, 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.
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.