What macro lenses do we use and why?

Articles | Macro photography tips

By Frank Pichardo , Alejandro Arteaga , and Lucas Bustamante . July 2020.

Choosing a lens for macro photography can be a frightening task. There are hundreds of choices in the market, none of them particularly cheap, and it can be confusing to figure out which model or brand provides the best price/quality ratio. To help you decide which macro lens might be the best for you, in this article we present some of our gear of choice and explain why we use it.

1. Canon 100mm f/2.8L

Image showing the Canon 100mm Macro Lens being used during the rain

Superior weather sealing: After almost six years of using the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens in the harsh tropical climate, it has never failed once. It has continued to function properly when other lenses have failed. It is the most reliable element in our gear. The L version is built to resist dust and moisture, which is critical when working in the tropics.

Stunning image quality: Out of all the lenses (not just macro) that we have used throughout the years, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro is perhaps the one that produces the best image quality. It consistently creates photos that are sharp, clear, and free of image artifacts such as diffraction, ghosting, and chromatic aberration. Plus, the quality of the lens remains the same after years of use.

This image of a Rainbow Stream-Lizard (Potamites strangulatus) was created using the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, one of the finest lenses in the Canon series. The improved L version has features (image stabilization, superior weather sealing, and impeccable image quality) without which this picture could not have been created. Photos by Frank Pichardo.

When examined up-close, there are no signs of image artifacts such as chromatic aberration or lens flare.

Image stabilization (IS): This feature is incredibly useful when shooting handheld. In the past, most lenses were not equipped with a stabilization system, so using a tripod or increasing the ISO (at the expense of image quality) was often the only way to achieve a sharp picture in low-light conditions. Nowadays, modern lenses include a technology that can correct the vibrations caused by shooting handheld. The Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro is one of such lenses and it makes it possible to create sharp images when other lenses simply can’t.

Photo of a Common Blunthead (Imantodes cenchoa) created during a windy situation using the image stabilization (IS) feature of the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens. Notice the difference in sharpness, especially in the eye, between this picture and the next. Photos by Frank Pichardo.

Same subject, situation, and lens as in the previous picture, but created with the image stabilization (IS) feature turned off.

Optimal background blur: The Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro has an ideal combination of focal length (100 mm) and minimum aperture (f/2.8) that makes it easy to create artistic images where the subject is sharp and in focus while the background is nicely blurred and out of focus. This effect is harder to create using lenses that are less luminous (higher aperture value) and have shorter focal lengths, such as the Canon 60mm Macro.

Image of a Green Forest-Rainfrog (Pristimantis omeviridis) hiding on a leaf

Green Forest-Rainfrog (Pristimantis omeviridis) photographed using the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens. The key to obtaining the blurred background in this image was using an aperture setting of f/3.5 and positioning the lens at the frog's eye-level. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Bokeh: The effect know as “bokeh” is produced by how certain lenses render bright out-of-focus areas that have a circular shape. This effect is considered visually compelling and adds a “dreamy” quality to the scene. The shape of the bokeh depends on characteristics such as the lens aperture, focal length, and the number of diaphragm blades it has. The Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro can be used to reliably produce images having this desirable bokeh effect.

Image of an Evergreen Toad (Incilius coniferus) vocalizing during heavy rain

This picture of an Evergreen Toad (Incilius coniferus) was created using the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens. By choosing an aperture setting of f/8 and positioning the lens perpendicular to the falling water, the out-of-focus drops were rendered in the form o a “bokeh.” Photo by Jose Vieira.

The benefits listed above for the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens are certainly not unique to this lens model, but may be present in other lenses of comparable (90–105 mm) focal length and quality. Below, we list some popular options:

Camera systemLens model
CanonCanon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens
CanonSigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
CanonTamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
CanonTokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
NikonNikon AF-S VR Micro 105mm f/2.8G Lens
NikonSigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
NikonTamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
NikonTokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
SonySony 90mm f/2.8 Macro Lens
SonyTokina 100mm f/2.8 Tele Macro Lens

2. Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 VR

Although the whole crew at Tropical Herping shoots using Canon-compatible lenses, we are also familiar with Nikon lenses and admire their quality and ruggedness. For the most part, it is impossible to tell the difference between a photo taken with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro and the Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 VR. The resulting images are similar in terms of clarity, sharpness, background blur, and bokeh. However, at least in our experience and that of our clients, focusing speed and weather sealing are superior in the Canon lens.

Image of a male Horned Flying Dragon (Draco cornutus) flashing its dewlap

This picture of a male Horned Flying Dragon (Draco cornutus) was created using the Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 VR. Notice the image clarity, sharpness, and detail. Photo by Chien Lee.

Image of an Elongate Leaf-Chameleon (Palleon nasus) sitting on the leaf-litter

This picture of an Elongate Leaf-Chameleon (Palleon nasus) was created using the Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 VR, a lens that makes it easy to creat an out-of-focus background and isolate the subject from its surroundings. Photo by Chien Lee.

3. Sigma 180mm f/2.8 EX

Image showing the Sigma 180mm Macro Lens

Superior working distance: We use 180 mm macro lenses to photograph small animals that are jittery (such as lizards) or dangerous (such as vipers). A macro lens that has 180 mm focal length or more can produce an image with the same magnification as one taken with a 60 or 100 mm, but it can do so from a greater working distance. The working distance is measured from the front of the lens to the subject and it can mean the difference between disturbing a shy animal or not. It can also mean the difference between being bitten by a venomous snake or not.

Stunning background blur: The greater the focal length, the greater the background blur. Using a 180 mm macro lens has a major advantage over using a 60 or 100 mm lens. When compared side by side, the lens with the longer focal length will tend to produce images in which the subject will stand out better from its surroundings because the background will be more blurred out and less distracting, especially when combined with a lower aperture value (such as f/2.8–5.6).

Photo of an Orcés' Anole (Anolis orcesi) created using the Sigma Macro 180mm f/2.8 Lens. Notice the difference in background blur between this picture and the next. Photos by Alejandro Arteaga.

Same subject and, believe it or not, same background as in the previous picture, but photographed using the Canon 60mm Macro Lens.

4. Sigma 15mm f/2.8

Image showing the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens

Ideal wide-angle CLOSE-UP lens: The Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye is the lens we use to create images in which the goal is to show both the animal and its environment. It is a true fisheye (an ultra wide-angle lens that produces wide panoramic images), but not a true macro lens, as it achieves less (1:3.8 instead of 1:1) than life-size magnification. Therefore, we prefer to use this lens to photograph animals larger than 36 mm. The Sigma 15mm f/2.8 lens makes small animals look huge in the picture while including elements of the environment. As other fisheye lenses, the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 lens produces images with a characteristic “barrel distortion” in which straight lines are rendered as curved inwards in a barrel shape, given the image a sense of extreme “big air” around the subject. However, this effect can be corrected in post-processing if desired.

Image of a Yellow-spotted Puffing-Snake (Phrynonax shropshirei) in its environment, created using the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens

Yellow-spotted Puffing-Snake (Phrynonax shropshirei) in its environment, photographed using the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

5. Laowa 15mm f/4

Ideal wide-angle MACRO lens: As with the Sigma 15mm, we use the Laowa 15 mm f/4 Macro to create images that show both the animal and its environment. However, we use it whenever the subject is smaller than 36 mm, as animals of this size are too small for the Sigma 15mm to render them in a way that makes them look striking or “impressive.” The Laowa 15 mm f/4 Macro can also be used to photograph bigger animals, but it has lesser depth of field (the distance between the nearest and farthest elements of the scene that are acceptably sharp in focus) than the Sigma 15mm.

Bridled Sun-Gecko (Gonatodes concinnatus) photographed using the Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro Lens. Notice the difference in the relative size of the gecko between this image and the next two. Photos by Alejandro Arteaga.

In this second example, the gecko was photographed using the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens.

In this third example, the gecko was photographed using the Canon 60mm f/2.8 Macro Lens.

6. Canon 60mm f/2.8

Image showing the Canon 60mm Macro Lens

Great for solo in-situ macro photography: The Canon 60mm Macro is a lens that we use rarely. We use it to photograph small animals at night in situations when we must hand-hold the camera and at the same time hold a flash for lighting. The comparatively shorter 60 mm focal length is ideal because holding the flash closer to the subject provides a softer more wraparound light to the scene. This simply is not possible when standing farther away such as when using a lens with a focal distance of 100 mm or greater. If, however, there is an assistant to hold the flash, there really is no reason to use this lens instead of the 100 mm or the 180 mm, which have higher-quality glass and provide a working distance that minimizes the possibility of disturbing jittery subjects.

Holding a camera with one hand while lighting a frog using a flash held on the other hand is easy when using the Canon 60mm Macro Lens. Photo by Frank Pichardo.

In this example, the comparatively short working distance of the Canon 60mm Macro Lens made it possible to position the flash from the side, giving the scene a more dramatic “feel.” Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Holding a camera with one hand while lighting a frog using a flash held on the other hand is not easy when using a lens with a comparatively long focal length like the Sigma Macro 180mm f/2.8 Lens. Photo by Frank Pichardo

In this example, the comparatively long working distance of the Sigma Macro 180mm f/2.8 Lens made it impossible to position the flash from the side of the frog. The flash could only be positioned from the front, giving the scene a more conventional “flat” look. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

7. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x

The quintessential lens for extreme macro photography: The Canon MP-E 65mm is the lens we use to go beyond life-size magnification (which means the image of the subject on the camera’s sensor is bigger than its real size). We use it to photograph details that are too small for a normal macro lens (which can only go as far as 1:1 magnification) to handle. The Canon MP-E 65mm is unique among macro lenses in that it can reach up to 5X life-size magnification! An impressive feat that makes it possible to fill the entire image frame with, for example, the 4 mm eye of a lizard. After 20 years in the market, we have seen no other lens that comes close to matching this level of magnification with acceptable image quality.

Extreme macro photo of the eye of a Banded Tree-Anole (Anolis transversalis), created using the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens

Extreme macro photo of the eye of a Banded Tree-Anole (Anolis transversalis), created using the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens. Photo by Jose Vieira.

Extreme macro photo of the scales of an Eyelash Palm-Pitviper (Bothriechis schlegelii), created using the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens

Extreme macro photo of the scales of an Eyelash Palm-Pitviper (Bothriechis schlegelii), created using the Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens. Photo by Jose Vieira.

8. Extension tubes

Non-optical magnification accessory: Extension tubes are rings without optical elements that fit between the camera body and the macro lens. They come in a variety of sizes and can be used alone or in combination to provide various levels of magnification power. They allow macro lenses to focus closer, which increases magnification without losing pixel density (as opposed to cropping an image). We like them because they do not affect image quality, they are cheaper than purchasing a Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens, and some models retain the autofocus capability of the lens they are attached to. We use the Kenko extension tube set, which includes three rings (12mm, 20mm, and 36mm), but almost any brand will do the job. The main disadvantage of extension tubes is that they diminish the amount of light reaching the sensor and they are incompatible with in-lens image stabilization.

Extreme macro photo of the head of a Miyata's Clownfrog (Dendropsophus miyatai), created using extension tubes on the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens

Extreme macro photo of the head of a Miyata's Clownfrog (Dendropsophus miyatai), created using extension tubes on the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Extreme macro photo of the scales of a Rusty Whipsnake (Chironius scurrulus), created using extension tubes on the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens

Scales of a Rusty Whipsnake (Chironius scurrulus). The image clarity and sharpness provided by the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro Lens is maintined in this picture taken with extension tubes because they have no optical elements. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

9. Conversion lenses

Optical magnification accessory: Conversion lenses are yet another alternative to purchasing a bulky macro lens. These accessories increase the magnification power of non-macro lenses. We like them because they are cheap, lightweight, and easy to use. Some can provide life-size (1:1) magnification. We use the Kenko extension tube set Their main disadvantage is the loss of image quality due to the added optical element. Therefore, we only use them in circumstance when a macro lens is not readily available.

Macro photo of a jumping spider created using a conversion lens on a non-macro lens

Macro photo of a jumping spider created using a conversion lens on a non-macro lens. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Final thoughts

It is important that you do your due diligence before choosing a lens for macro photography. It certainly does not have to be any of the ones we use. Just make sure to select one that is reliable, produces high-quality images, and has a focal length that is ideal for the type of subject you want to photograph. It is probably wiser to invest once in a good-quality piece of glass that will serve your macro photography needs for a long time to come instead of selecting a cheap model that will need to be replaced within a few months.

We encourage you to start practicing with what you have in the camera bag and upgrade as your photographic needs advance. At the end of the day, having the right macro lens just makes your path to obtaining the ideal image easier; all the rest is on you.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:

Is a 100 mm lens the best choice for macro photography?

In most situations, probably yes. A lens with a 100 mm focal length may be the ideal choice if you are starting out in macro photography and you have no other lens with close-up capabilities. A 100 mm lens can be used to photograph successfully subjects ranging in size from a fingernail to a entire landscape. If however, you want to photograph extremely small subjects such as ants or jumping spiders, we recommend a lens such as the Canon MP-E 65mm. If you want to photograph macro subjects that are jittery such as anole lizards, we recommend you choose a lens with a focal length (180–250 mm) that will allow you to obtain the same magnification while shooting from a greater distance.

Should I get the L version of the Canon 100 mm f/2.8 Macro?

In our opinion, yes. The extra price of the L version is totally worth it in terms of durability and fast-focusing accuracy. Plus, having image stabilization (IS) is a game-changer when photographing macro subjects in low-light conditions.

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