Macro Lens Advice
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27-11-11, 06:42 AM
Join Date: Nov 2011
There are many macro lenses, thus many entrances into close-up and macro photography. A good principle might be â€œuse the macro lens you have rather than yearn after those you donâ€™t have.â€ Of course, that is not how I do things. I have almost all of the most well-known macro lenses, but end up only using a very few. I will tell you what those very few are along with my reasons for using them, but I warn that this may not work for you.
In any case, you will have to start somewhere and learning to use the lens you have is more important than switching lenses to find the â€œperfectâ€ one for your work. Almost any decent macro lens in the hands of an experienced close-up photographer will produce marvelous images, so that should make clear what I am pointing out here: lenses are important, but learning to use them is more important.
While any lens will do for starters, in my experience the actual process of doing close-up and macro photography quickly sorts itself out in favor of better and better lenses, and better cameras too. You have been warned.
How to Pick a Lens
There are a number of key factors that figure into what makes a good macro lens. Not all lenses have all the desired factors and some of it depends on the particular kind of photography you want to do. No lens (or very few anyway) seem to have everything. Some lenses will have better sharpness, some better color, and so on. As you read about the factors and qualities of various lenses, you will want to keep your eye on the qualities that are most important to your work.
Passion is what makes for experience. If we are not motivated to get out there and experiment with our gear, learning will be at best very slow.
Some folks have written me personally and asked about what IMO makes a good lens for macro work and also for focus stacking. I am sure most here know exactly what to look for but I thought I would write out my requirements and perhaps others could add their own thoughts. I am sure there are varying opinions on this. Here is mine:
My first attempts at macro photography were sometime around 1956 when armed with a Kodak Retina 2a and a close-up lens I took some macro shots. They were not too successful, but I was only fifteen years old. In recent years I have spent a lot of time doing close-up and macro nature photography. In my search for the right lenses I have tried a good number of them. Here is what I value most in a lens for near focus:
(1) Sharpness â€“ Of course I want it sharp, but the more I work the less I am concerned about absolute sharpness. There are a lot of very fine sharp lenses available in the Nikon mount or that can be converted to that mount. Most of the lens mentioned in the article are sharp or â€œsharp enoughâ€ for good macro work. Sharpness is not the only consideration. A lens can be very sharp but difficult to use for other reasons like it is too sensitive to light or the widest aperture does make give enough light in the viewfinder, etc.
(2) Fast Lens â€“ I value a fast lens not because I shoot wide open but because I need to have maximum light in my viewfinder for focusing well. Since I often am photographing around dawn or when the light is still fairly dim (but nice) I need to see what I am doing. The bright light of full sun is not what I am looking for. Also I do a lot of focus stacking and I need to see what to focus on at each step. I donâ€™t entirely agree with those who say that to focus stack you need to just get to the front of the subject and then automatically click on through and not focus on anything in particular but just make sure to have regular intervals.
Of course I understand what they are pointing at but in my experience this is not enough. For example round, spherical objects in the frame do not stack well. Your increments have to be much finer (shorter) than otherwise if your subject is round. In fact in many subjects there are key points that you donâ€™t want to just auto-increment past, but very carefully be sure to get them in extreme focus. In other words: if I am blindly incrementing along with a stack and reach a key point I do finer increments before, at, and after that point to make sure that that area is in prime focus.
There often are several such points and I need to be able to see to focus in the viewfinder to do that and I want a fast lens for visability. For example, someone commented recently about the Nikon 70-180 Zoom Macro. I spent a couple of years intensely using that lens but gradually abandoned it because its widest aperture is f/4.5. This morning I got that lens out in case I had made a misjudgment or might see it differently today. It was about 8:30 AM here and the sun had not really gotten strong.
Looking through the 70-180mm it was very dim indeed and not at all bright enough for my work. On a bright day the lens would be fine, but I tend to avoid too much sunlight and concentrate more in shadows or light haze. The 70-180mm is a wonderful lens, but not for me for the reasons mentioned.
(3) Focus Throw â€“ Something not often mentioned is the focus throw of a lens, how many degrees does it have to turn to go from close-up to infinity. I was surprised at some of the fine lenses that have a short focus throw. For macro work and especially for focus stacking I need a longish focus throw or else put the camera on a focusing rail. I prefer the long focus throw on a lens to carrying a rail around. I was shocked to find that the very expensive Coastal Optics has a focus throw on only 210 degrees. For example the CV-125 APO has a focus throw of 630 degrees and the Leica 100mm Elmarit has one of 710 degrees. The old Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 D macro has a throw of only 120 degrees and that is not desirable.
The wider the angle macro lens (50mm, 60mm, etc.) the more important it is to have a long focus throw. Macro work is just the opposite of sports photography where you want a short focus throw. In macro and most of all in focus stacking a long focus throw is a big advantage.
(4) Reproduction Ratio â€“ Another feature to keep in mind is the reproduction ratio. How large is the image in the frame? Most macro aficionados prefer a lens that goes to 1:1. In fact there are whole businesses that help you get from smaller ratios to 1:1 image size. There are not all that many lenses that will give you the 1:1 ratio and my view of putting close-up diopters on the front of my lenses or extension tubes on the rear of my lenses (or both) is not flattering. I have all the key diopters, tubes, etc., but I use them only as a very last resort. Actually I hardly ever use them at all. I know that many love them but I feel a lens is a perfectly balanced thing and anything added to it can only lead to a degraded image.
Luckily for a lot of my work I donâ€™t always have to have 1:1. I shoot a lot of close-up work, what I call mini landscapes or dioramas and can use lenses that are not ultra close.
(5) APO (Apochromatic) â€“ Not absolutely required but very helpful are lenses that are APO enabled. Apochromatic lenses are corrected for chromatic and spherical aberration more than the common achromat lenses. There are not many good ones, the most well-known in the Nikon format being the CV-125, the Leica 100mm APO Elmarit, and the Coastal Optics 60mm APO. I prefer APO lenses in my work most of the time. IMO the differences in coloring can be dramatic.
(6) Minimum Focus Distance â€“ Most lenses used for macro work have a very short minimum focus distance, in fact many can appear too short if working with live crittersâ€¦ like 50-60mm lenses. However one technique I like is to use a telephoto like the Nikon 300m F/4 ED-IF lens which has a minimum focus distance of something like 4.9 feet on the Nikon D3x and crop out a photo. I can photograph a frog out in the middle of the pond, crop it out, and still have enough pixels for a fine photo.
Critters or Still-Life
You choice of a macro lens may also depend on what you want to photograph. If your main interest is photographing insects or critters that move and you want to be able to get in real close then you want to pay attention to the reproduction image.
Too Close or Too Far
If you are shooting insects or live whatever, some lenses require you to be so close to the subject that the end of the lens actually blocks the light or the close proximity of the lens scares off whatever you are photographing. The 60mm range of macro lenses are in this category. And while the 100mm to 105mm macro lenses are very popular, many photographers would rather work with lenses in the 200mm range because it gives them just enough extra distance to not disturb their subjects. If you are really into photographing critters then a lens in the 200mm range may be what you are looking for OR a lens that goes has a 1:1 reproduction ratio
Those are my main considerations when choosing a macro lens. I donâ€™t care how heavy or bulky a lens is. Carting these things around is second nature to me now. It is easy to see that if we insist on having all of the above points in a single lens we quickly are down to almost none. In fact the one lens I have that is sharp, fast, has a long focus throw, goes to 1:1, and has APO is the Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar. No other lens has all of these features without adding diopters or settling for a short focus throw, etc. It is no wonder that this lens is in great demand. Some stats are listed below. The Nikon 105mm VR macro is pretty good as wellâ€¦ in terms of having features. And for fun I include two un-retouched stacked photos using the CV-125 APO Lanthar. Nothing has been done to them.
I have some free e-books on macro and one on 43 macro lenses here:
Last edited by Michael Erlewine; 27-11-11 at
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