Do you ever wonder how photographers capture insects at such close distances? That makes the two of us. I used to think it was impossible to shoot small bugs and animals without scaring them away. However, I discovered that photographers use a special lens type for the task.
A macro lens can capture detailed, close-up photos of small subjects. These include tiny living creatures like insects and plants but also objects like food and jewelry.
A macro lens is also capable of focusing on a small area of an image due to its unique features. This article will cover macro lenses and their benefits. Below, you will also learn how to use a macro lens properly.
What Is a Macro Lens?
A macro lens, also known as a close-up lens, is a type of specialized lens in photography. It can take pictures of small objects and other tiny details at an extremely close distance.
A true macro lens offers a magnification ratio of 1:1 or 1x in lens specifications. It also has a minimum focus distance of around 30 cm.
If you have no idea what these terms mean, fret not. Below, we will teach you the macro lens definition.
Also called the reproduction ratio, it determines how large the subject appears in the image sensor.
A 1:1 magnification ratio means that the subject’s size on the sensor is the same as its actual real-life size. For instance, if it is 24mm in reality, the image projected on the sensor is also 24mm.
Meanwhile, higher ratios like 2:1 or 3:1 indicate that the subject looks slightly larger in the final photo.
True macro lenses have a magnification ratio of 1:1 or greater. These enable you to capture small objects at “life-size” or make them appear larger than life.
However, some macro lenses, especially budget ones, are limited to a ratio of 1:2. They can only reproduce the subject at half life-size on the sensor, despite being called “macro” lenses.
Minimum Focus Distance
The minimum focus distance is closely related to the magnification ratio. It dictates the closest distance the camera lens can focus on the subject while still delivering a sharp image. If you capture a photo closer than this distance, you cannot achieve proper focus.
A true macro lens has a minimum focus distance of 30 cm. It allows you to shoot an image 30 cm away from the subject, which is extremely up close.
To help you understand why the focusing distance is important, let us compare two types of lenses with the same focal length. These are the Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM.
The former is a regular telephoto lens with a minimum focus distance of around 90 cm. Meanwhile, the latter is a macro lens that has a minimum focus distance of 30 cm.
As you can see, the 60 cm difference between the two lenses is huge. You can get closer to the subject with a macro lens than a standard lens and ensure focus.
Macro lenses can either be prime (single focal length) or zoom lenses (multiple focal ranges).
However, prime macro lenses are more common than zooms. They also tend to better close-up images due to their optical glass elements. For instance, they can reduce the chances of chromatic aberrations and distortion.
Typical focal lengths in macro lenses include 50mm, 100mm, and 180mm. The longer the focal length, the heavier and larger the lens. On the upside, it offers more working distance between you and the subject.
What Is a Macro Lens Used For?
A macro lens is used in photography to take close-up shots of small objects. It can capture the intricate details of a subject. It also magnifies the image thanks to its high magnification ratio.
Macro lenses are common in nature and wildlife photography. They enable you to record insects, flowers, leaves, and other small subjects in stunning detail.
These specialized lenses are also useful in product photography. They can make the object stand out from the background and highlight its unique features.
Finally, macro lenses are popular for portraiture because they deliver an artistic effect in the background.
What Are the Benefits of a Macro Lens?
Below are the advantages of using a macro lens in photography.
High Magnification Ratio
A macro lens has a high magnification ratio. It enables you to capture the fine details of objects, which are otherwise impossible to see with the naked eye. It is especially useful for nature and product photography,
Greater Control Over Depth of Field
Most macro lenses have a wide maximum aperture. It gives you greater control over the depth of field.
So whether you want to blur the background or focus selectively on the subject, you can do these with a macro lens.
Sharp Image Quality
Dedicated macro lenses deliver sharp photos, owing to their advanced optical glass elements. They can isolate the subject from the background, which makes them stand out in the frame.
Macro lenses can also reduce the effect of distortion and chromatic aberration. Hence, they can produce higher-quality images.
In contrast, standard lenses cannot achieve the same level of sharpness, even with a macro filter or other special attachments.
What Are the Disadvantages of a Macro Lens?
Like any other lens, a macro lens has its share of disadvantages. Consider these downsides before you purchase one.
Macro lenses tend to be more expensive than other types of lenses. The reason is they usually have a specialized design and functionality. As such, macro lenses can be inaccessible to new photographers or those with a limited budget.
Fortunately, several cheaper alternatives to macro lenses are available (more on them later). Consider them if you want to try macro photography at a more affordable price.
Heavy and Bulky
Macro lenses can also have larger and heavier construction than their standard counterparts. These make them difficult to use for long periods or carry around while traveling.
Steep Learning Curve
While a macro lens has many benefits, it can be challenging to capture stunning close-up photos with this lens type.
For instance, you must consider the narrow depth of field of the lens. If you move closer or further from the subject (even with a single step), you risk capturing a blurry shot. You must also understand exposure, focus, and lighting to achieve beautiful images.
How to Use a Macro Lens to Capture Beautiful Close-Up Photos?
Using a macro lens is relatively straightforward once you understand its full capabilities. Below are some tips on capturing close-up photos with a macro lens.
Use a Shallow Depth of Field
As previously mentioned, a macro lens offers a wide maximum aperture. It affects the depth of field of the image, which describes how much of the scene is in focus. The wider (or larger) the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.
It is important to use a shallow depth of field when capturing close-up photos. Doing so brings out the details of a subject and produces a unique bokeh effect.
To achieve a shallow DoF, set the aperture to f/2.8, f/1.8, or f/1.4. Remember that a smaller f-stop gives you a wide (large) aperture and a shallow DoF.
Shoot in Manual Focus
While most macro lenses have a built-in autofocus feature, use manual focus mode instead. It allows you to select the plane of focus within the frame instead of relying on the camera. The result is sharper and more detailed images.
If you prefer autofocus for shooting fast-moving subjects like insects, select the single-point AF mode. Often labeled as AF-S in most camera settings, it allows you to choose a specific focus point in the sensor. Then, the camera will automatically fixate on that area.
Set the Proper Lighting
Lighting is important in every genre of photography, including macro photography. Capturing the subject in natural lighting is best.
However, this is not always possible, especially with moving objects. You must also be careful when shooting at close distances because the camera can block the lighting source. Consider using a ring light around your lens if this is the case.
You can find many products online and in physical photography stores. But before buying a ring light, ensure it fits on the front part of your lens.
Consider a Tripod or Image Stabilization
It can be tricky to capture a subject up close. Any movement will lead to blurry or unfocused shots.
To minimize camera shake, use a sturdy tripod. Choose one made from durable materials to last for a long time.
You can also consider using the built-in image stabilization on your camera or lens. This feature can reduce camera movements, ultimately leading to sharp, focused images.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a macro and a regular lens?
A macro lens is different from a regular lens in two aspects.
First, a macro lens has a higher magnification ratio than a standard lens. It can make objects appear the same size or larger than real life on the image sensor.
Second, macro lenses offer a shorter minimum focusing distance compared to regular lenses. These enable you to take pictures of small subjects at close distances.
Overall, macro lenses are suitable for taking pictures of nature, flowers, food, and other small subjects. In contrast, standard lenses are great for everyday photography, like street and travel.
Can you use a macro lens for normal photography?
While a macro lens is designed for close-up photography, it is also capable of everyday shooting. It can capture subjects at normal distances while still delivering stunning image quality.
Some photographers prefer using a macro lens for portraits because of its ultra-sharp focus and beautiful bokeh effect. Others also like this type of lens due to its low-light shooting capability and shallow depth of field.
However, note that macro lenses are less suitable for certain types of photography. These include action and landscape photography, which require you to shoot at faster speeds and a deep DoF, respectively.
Are macro lenses worth it?
The answer depends on your needs and interests.
If you want to get closer to the subject or often shoot portraits, macro lenses are worthy investments. They help you take close-up images of insects, flowers, jewelry, and other small objects. At the same time, they often have advanced optical elements to produce sharp and clear images.
However, if you do not usually take close-up pictures, then a macro lens may not be worth it. Consider other types of lenses that suit your photography style instead.
What are alternatives to macro lenses?
Do you need a macro lens but haven’t saved up enough money yet? Consider using other alternatives to capture close-up shots. These include the following:
- Extension tubes – They are hollow tubes that fit between the camera body and lens. They increase the distance between the lens and the sensor. Hence, they can offer a higher magnification ratio comparable to genuine macro lenses.
- Bellows and focusing rails – These are extendable devices that attach between the camera body and lens. They can adjust the magnification of the subject. They also allow you to achieve precise focus and composition.
- Close-up lenses – These cheap lens mounts connect to the front part of your lens. They act like magnifying glass to enlarge the subject. However, the result is usually of poor quality.
- Reverse ring – This lens adapter allows you to mount a lens backward onto a camera body. It can increase magnification and gives you a closer focusing distance.
Note that these devices are not designed to replace a macro lens. They usually deliver poorer image quality than macros. But they can be enough if you don’t have the budget for a proper lens yet.
A macro lens is a specialized lens that can capture small subjects at an extremely close distance. It is suitable for nature, wildlife, food, and product photography.
However, it is important to understand how a macro lens work to enjoy its benefits. Refer to our tips above to take high-quality macro photos.
Do you have more questions about macro lenses? Drop a message on our contact page today.