The best macro lenses are not just one-trick-ponies for close-ups, but also are generally excellent primes in their own right, producing super-sharp images at all aperture settings. Still, it's best not to forget the main USP: all the lenses in this guide have a 1:1 reproduction ratio, making them "true" macro lenses.
What this means in real terms is that you can fill the entire image sensor of an APS-C format SLR or mirrorless camera with a subject that's the size of a postage stamp. Whether you're looking at a tiny flower, an insect or one of any number of other small objects, macro lenses enable an incredible an incredible level of enlargement when viewing images on screen or in print.
But which to choose? A focal length of around 90-105mm is often regarded as ideal for macro photography (and particularly so for full-frame cameras), as it allows you to get close but not too close to what you’re shooting. When using shorter focal lengths, the front end of the lens can end up being so close to what you’re shooting that it can cast a shadow over it, or even scare it away if it's something that can move of its own accord. However, shorter focal lengths are the only way to get that wide-angle perspective. We've provided a selection of longer and shorter lenses in our guide so you can decide what's best for you.
We've provided choices of lens in many of the commonly used lens mounts. Third-party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma produce macro lenses that fit a range of cameras, so we've included a couple of those, as well as specific options for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Micro Four Thirds and Pentax.
The latest generation of Tamron’s enviable 90mm macro lenses ditches the gold band around the middle in favour of a silver band at the rear, which should hopefully avoid any buying confusion with the older version. Upgraded optics include two XLD (eXtra Low Dispersion) elements and one LD element, plus dual nano-structure and conventional coatings. Good build quality includes weather-sealed and a keep-clean fluorine coating on the front element. There’s also a ‘hybrid’ optical stabiliser, which counteracts the effects of X-Y shift as well as vibration, enhancing performance in close-up shooting. Even so, it’s no real substitute for a tripod as you near the very shortest focus distance.
Along with sturdy L-series build quality, Canon’s latest 100mm macro features hybrid optical stabilization, which has since filtered down to the company’s relatively small 35mm macro lens. Typical up-market attractions include ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and a three-position autofocus limiter switch that can lock out the short or long end of the range. The lens also has weather-seals and a UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) element. Image quality remains impressive throughout the aperture range, right down to f/22, helping you to eke out a little extra depth of field. Autofocus is fast and accurate and quiet but, more importantly for most macro shooting, the manual focus ring is smooth and precise.
Despite its budget-friendly asking price (in the UK and Europe, at least) this Sigma lens boasts fast, quiet and accurate ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, a three-position range limiter switch and optical stabilization with dual static and panning modes. Quality glass includes two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) optical elements, and the lens is supplied complete with a soft case, a hood, and even a hood converter to optimise efficiency with APS-C format rather than full-frame cameras. Sharpness is highly impressive and the effectiveness of stabilisation is worth about four stops in general shooting, but of little use for extreme close-ups.
Designed exclusively for Canon’s APS-C format DSLRs, this lens features a stepping motor autofocus system which is very quiet and enables ‘fly-by-wire’ manual focusing. As with the larger Canon 100mm lens in the group, it has a hybrid image stabilizer that can correct x-y shift as well as vibration, making it more effective for close-up shooting. With its relatively short focal length, the front of the lens comes to just 3cm from the object you’re shooting, when using the minimum focus distance for maximum magnification. However, its built-in LED ‘Macro Lite’ helps to offset the blocking out of ambient light. Even so, it’s not particularly bright and you’ll need a slow shutter speed of about 1/15th of a second at f/8 (ISO 200). Image quality is good overall but barrel distortion is more noticeable than with most macro lenses.
We’ve always found this Tamron lens to give better close-up image quality and all-round performance than Nikon’s pricier AF-S VR Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. The Tamron is sharper and has a more effective ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer. This counteracts x-y shift as well as the more usual angular vibration, making it much more effective at very close range. Even so, for full 1.0x macro shots, it’s a poor substitute for using a tripod. The weather-sealed construction is of very good quality. Ring-type autofocus is quick and quiet, with the usual full-time manual override. All in all, it’s a great macro lens at a competitive selling price. However, a forthcoming firmware upgrade is required to make the lens compatible if it's to be used with Z-series cameras via an FTZ mount adapter. Unlike with the Canon-mount version of the lens, you should be able to apply this via Tamron’s optional TAP-in USB console, rather than having to send the lens to a Tamron service centre.
This Sigma lens exactly matches Nikon’s own 105mm Micro for focal length, as well as featuring similarly fast and whisper-quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and 4-stop optical stabilization. Unlike in the competing Tamron 90mm, the stabilizer is a conventional rather than ‘hybrid’ unit. As such, stabilization is very effective in general shooting, and comes complete with switchable static and panning modes. Indeed, the Sigma works very well as a fast, short telephoto lens for portraiture and sport photography. However, stabilization is less effective when shooting extreme close-ups. An autofocus range limiter enables you to lock out either the short or long end of the range, either side of 0.45m. Image quality is impressively sharp and, although the lens doesn’t feature weather-seals, it feels very solid and well-built. Ideal for any Nikon DSLR, it’s also a great macro lens for Z-series mirrorless cameras, via an FTZ mount adapter.
This is Nikon’s top-flight FX format macro lens, although it’s equally attractive for shooting close-ups on DX cameras. Like the 85mm DX lens in the group, it includes a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system with fully internal focusing, 3-stop VR II stabilization and Nano Crystal coating. Both lenses also feature 14 elements in their optical paths with a single ED element. As FX format lenses need to produce a larger image circle, to cover the bigger image sensor, the 105mm is rather wider in diameter. The working distance from the front of the lens to the subject at the minimum focus setting is very similar, at 15cm compared with the DX lens’s 14.5cm. The VR system is effective for general shooting, similar to that of the Sigma lens, but lags behind the performance of Canon’s and Tamron’s hybrid stabilizer for close-ups. Image quality is good overall with impressive sharpness across the whole frame.
Nikon makes a cut-price 40mm DX format macro lens but this is a far superior optic for close-up shooting. Its minimum focus distance is more generous and the inner barrel doesn’t extend at shorter focus distances. The net results is that the working distance from the front of the lens to the target in full 1.0x macro shooting is 14.5cm compared with the 40mm lens’s paltry 3.5cm. Further advantages include VR (Vibration Reduction) and an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element, both of which are lacking in the 40mm lens. Sharpness is uninspiring at f/3.5 but much better at medium to narrow apertures, more commonly used in macro photography. Ultimately, the Tamron 90mm and Sigma 105mm lenses still have the edge for shooting with DX as well as FX format cameras.
Micro Four Thirds
The Micro Four Thirds system is a good fit for telephoto and macro photography, the 2x crop factor delivering double the ‘effective’ magnification from a lens that’s compact and lightweight yet beautifully built and comes complete with weather-seals. Stepping motor autofocus systems are renowned for their virtually silent operation but rarely feature a focus distance scale. This lens’s smart focus distance/magnification indicator is a bonus. Due to its relatively short focal length, the minimum focus distance is just 20cm, compared with around 30cm for many macro lenses. At maximum magnification, however, the working distance between the front of the lens and the subject is reasonably usable, at about 10cm. Image quality and handling are very good in every respect, making this our favourite MFT format macro lens, and not just the best option for Olympus mirrorless cameras, but for Panasonic G-range cameras too..
Sharpness, lightweight build, tremendous ease of use, effective stabilisation and snappy autofocus. The Panasonic 30mm f2.8 Macro LUMIX G ASPH MEGA OIS, which provides an effective focal length of 60mm, does all of this in a tidy, affordable package, and is a very good choice indeed for MFT users, functioning well as an everyday lens with solid 1:1 macro capabilities. The lack of weather seals is a little disappointing, but really is the only black mark on this excellent lens's ledger. We'd definitely recommend this lens to any Micro Four Thirds user looking to shoot beautiful close-ups, especially given the extremely close minimum focusing distance of just 0.105m.
Relatively compact considering its generous 100mm focal length, the Pentax 100mm f2.8 SMC D-FA WR Macro Lens is an eminently solid and reliable macro lens, producing a reliably sharp image and providing a weatherproof outer casing. It'll work with Pentax's full-frame and APS-C DSLRs (providing an equivalent focal length of 153mm on the latter), and its eight-bladed aperture allows it to produce images with attractive bokeh in shallow depth of field. A useful Quick-Shift focus system allows you to quickly toggle between auto and manual focusing, though be aware that the autofocusing is not internal and does cause movement of the lens and the control ring.
Typical of Sony’s recent G-series and G Master lenses, there’s no shortage of quality in this 90mm macro prime. It’s fully compatible with full-frame and APS-C format E-mount cameras, and packs plenty of high-tech features, including a Dual DDSSM (Direct Drive Super Sonic wave Motor) autofocus system for rapid, accurate and near-silent performance, plus ‘Optical SteadyShot’ stabilization. The optical path includes aspherical, ED and Super ED elements, built into a precision-engineered, weather-sealed metal casing. Handling benefits from a super-smooth and precise focus ring, with an electronic fly-by-wire coupling. There’s also a three-position autofocus range limiter switch and a focus hold button. Image quality is outstanding but it’s a pricey lens to buy.
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