What is a Macro Lens? [The Only Guide You'll Ever Need]

Dejan Cvetnarevic
Dejan Cvetnarevic

Updated · Oct 13, 2022

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Photographers often spend hours experimenting with their cameras, compositions, lighting techniques, background settings, and subjects.

An exciting challenge all photography enthusiasts want to try is getting closer to the subject and capturing as much as possible of its detail. However, you'll need a macro lens to achieve high-quality close-ups.

But what is a macro lens? What does it do? And when should you use it?

Let's answer these and all other questions you may have.

What Is a Macro Lens?

Macro is a specialist lens that allows you to take extreme close-up photos. Macros' minimum focusing distance is very short; most often, it's less than 30 cm.

They also have a magnification ratio of 1:1 or higher. That's why the images projected onto the sensor appear the same size or larger than the real-life object.

Now that this is clear, let's see what a macro lens does.

What Is a Macro Lens Used For?

That is a type of lens ideal for detailed images of small things or small areas of larger objects.

Some of its most common uses include capturing insects, tiny animals, flowers, and water droplets. It can also uncover details in eyes, gemstones, plants, or anything with interesting textures.

Such lenses are a popular choice for product photography, close-ups for documentaries, and more abstract footage. While not designed for portraiture, they can still be utilized to capture amazing detail.

However, keep in mind that they're somewhat darker and slower than standard lenses. Here's more about that.

Macro Lens vs. Regular Lens

Macro and regular are two types of digital camera lenses.

In comparison to macro, regular lenses have a narrower depth of field. That lets you focus on a subject using only one part of the frame. They're ideal for portraits and photos in which you want to separate the object from the background.

Another big difference is that the macro focus range is larger, thus allowing you to capture smaller objects in great detail.

Furthermore, as macro lenses are a specialized, lower-volume product, they come with a higher price tag.

Can You Use a Macro Lens as a Regular Lens?

Taking close-up shots isn't the only macro lens purpose. It can also provide more clarity, sharpness, and working distance between you and the subject.

Let's say you're taking a photo of an insect, and you don't want to scare it off. With a macro lens, you can leave more space between you and the subject to avoid it running away.

The quality macro lenses deliver, together with the distance they provide, is why some photographers use them for shooting portraits and animals, among other things.

Benefits of a Macro Lens

Macro zoom lenses are all about taking incredible close-up shots. Their biggest advantage is the reproduction of smaller subjects at their actual or larger size with astonishing detail. The final results are immaculate and razor-sharp photographs.

This lens also does an amazing job of photographing people and landscapes. It gives you plenty of artistic freedom and has an effective image stabilization system.

Lastly, with this lens, you can capture things that are nearly impossible for the human eye to see. Such images have plenty of potential to draw people to your work.

However, we can't have the macro lens explained properly without mentioning its downsides as well.

Drawbacks of a Macro Lens

While macro can work as a lens for portraiture, it produces darker photos which may not be the result you're looking for.

Another possible problem is the handling of the lens, as it's often quite heavy. Beginners may require some practice before capturing any good shots.

As mentioned earlier, they're also quite expensive. Extension tubes can be a decent alternative at a significantly lower price if you're on a tighter budget.

Macro Lens Pricing and Options

Now that you know what a macro lens does, it's time to see how much money you should set aside if you decide to get one.

It's important to figure out your needs as there are expensive professional lenses and more affordable ones for amateurs.

Going with a lesser-known brand is always a good idea if you're not looking to spend lots of money. Raynox DCR-250 or a similar model are excellent options for about $70.

Mid-tier macro zoom lenses are generally available at around the $400 mark. For example, you can grab a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 for $378.

The most expensive offers also provide the best performance. Namely, Sony SEL FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS is currently listed for a bit over $1000.

But before you purchase, you should keep a few things in mind.

Choosing a Focal Length for a Macro Lens

How to choose a macro lens is not a simple question. One of the key things to consider is the focal point you need for your projects. That is the distance between the lens' optical center and the image plane.

Macro lenses with a longer focal length also have an increased minimum focusing distance. The advantage is that you can stay farther away from the subject.

That may not mean much when shooting still life, but with insects and animals, it can make all the difference. It allows you to get close enough without startling them or casting a shadow that'll ruin the shot.

A lens with a longer macro lens focal length usually has a shallower depth of field. Those with a shorter focal point, on the other hand, are generally smaller, lighter, and cheaper.

Some of the most common focal length options include:

  • 45 to 65 mm: Best for photographing products and small subjects that won't run away.
  • 90 to 105 mm: Best for shooting insects and other tiny moving subjects from a comfortable distance.
  • 150 to 200 mm: Best for capturing small moving subjects you have to stay away from.

Choosing Magnification Ratio

When you use a lens for close-up photography, you may see different markings, such as 1:1 (life-size) and 2:1 (twice life-size).

To decide between these options, you first have to figure out what you're going to shoot and how you want the image to look. Small objects and anything super tiny, like insects, may require lenses that magnify the photo.

Models, such as Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x, can deliver 5:1 magnification which translates to five times the actual size of the subject.

However, not all macros can focus infinitely, especially those that deliver ultra-high ratios. You usually need at least a 2x macro lens to get all the details in your photo.

Also, no matter how good a lens is, it can't zoom in infinitely. So, at some point, you won't be able to see any details when using a high macro lens magnification ratio.

Do You Need a Flat-Field Lens for Macro Photos?

Another characteristic of good macro lenses is the flat-field design.

Lenses with a different design can't have everything in the picture in sharp focus. With them, either the center or the edges appear sharper, but not both.

The front elements of flat-field macro lenses are flatter than those of traditional curved-field lenses. As a result, they deliver edge-to-edge sharpness, more even illumination, and very little distortion.

If you plan to primarily take photos of flowers, insects, or other tiny subjects, then this characteristic isn't something you should pay a lot of attention to. Such photos often look better with a bit of creative blur around the edges.

On the other hand, you may need a flat-field lens for capturing flat objects like paintings. If you need it for such occasions, investing in one that can keep everything in focus pays off.

How to Stabilize Your Camera for Macro Photography?

The closer you get to a subject, the more noticeable the camera shake is. That's something you want to avoid at all costs.

Therefore, it's essential to stabilize your camera when taking macro photos. Luckily, experimenting with your camera options, such as image and paradigm stabilization, may be enough.

However, if that doesn't work, getting a tripod might be necessary. These tools aren't expensive and can make a huge difference for most macro lens uses.

How to Get the Lighting Right for Macro Photography?

Proper lighting is a necessity for taking good photos. Therefore, an artificial alternative is needed when there's no natural light. Anything from the flash on your camera to reflectors can work.

Regardless of which you're using, it's important to diffuse bright lights. They create too much contrast and limit the amount of detail you get in your shot.

Diffusers can eliminate reflections and soften the light to help achieve beautiful colors and tones. That's why it's best to have such tools at your disposal to ease your work and get the best possible results.

Manual vs. Autofocus With a Macro Lens

With macro, you'll be testing the physical limits of depth of field, diffraction, and motion blur. That means focusing with this lens can be difficult, as you'll be working with subjects often smaller than a dragonfly. 

When using a close-up camera lens, most people recommend opting for manual focus as the automatic option can be confusing. That way, you control the focus, and it's easier to get the desired results.

Wrap Up

A macro lens is perfect for uncovering all sorts of miniature natural wonders. Additionally, its flexibility and versatility make it a must for every photography enthusiast's kit.

Now you know what a macro lens is, and you can start taking close-up shots whenever you find interesting tiny subjects. With some practice and the right photo editing software, you'll soon have the photos you've always wanted.

FAQ.


How does a macro lens work?

A macro lens allows you to reproduce life-sized or bigger images of objects on your camera's sensor. That means you can get extremely close to them and capture all their details.

What is the magnification on a true macro lens?

Every true macro lens has a magnification ratio of 1:1, meaning it can reproduce life-sized images. Additionally, some models have a magnification ratio of between 2:1 and 5:1 to make the object appear larger than it actually is.

What is a macro lens good for?

A macro lens is ideal for capturing small objects, such as flowers, insects, human eyes, etc. It also works well for portraits and landscape shots, but the photographs are darker than with regular lenses.

When to use a macro lens?

Macro lenses are best for capturing ultra-detailed close-up photos of a vast range of objects. You can start by experimenting with flowers, insects, textures, and water droplets. If you need some additional inspiration, check out our "What is a macro lens" guide above.

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Dejan Cvetnarevic

Dejan Cvetnarevic

Dejan is a techie at heart who always dreamed of turning his fascination with gaming into a career. He finds working for TechJury a perfect opportunity to express his views of all kinds of different software. Being an avid reader, particularly of fantasy and sci-fi, Dejan pursued a degree in English Language and Literature. When not at his computer, he’s watching sports or playing tabletop games.

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