Introduction to Macro Lenses

Dan Knight

In the early days of 35mm SLR photogaphy, cameras often came with 55-58mm lenses having an f/2 or faster aperture. One of the great joys of SLR photography was being able to focus closer than the 3' (0.9m) or so most rangefinder cameras were limited to. The normal lens on most SLRs would focus to 2' (0.6m) and even as close as 18" (0.45m) in many cases.

At this range, shooting items in the 6"x9" to 8"x12" became feasible. Close-up lenses - which are like magnifying glasses that fit to the front of a lens - allowed getting even closer.

What Is Macro

Purists will say the "true macro" lenses provide life size and larger images on film, but in the real world the term is generally applied to lenses that can produce a half life size image (covering 48x72mm or roughly 2"x3") on film. When used with zoom lenses, the term macro may mean a lot less magnification than that - sometimes as little as 1/6 life size.

For the purposes of this page, we'll limit ourselves to lenses that provide at least half life size (0.5x or 1:2) magnification on the film.


When a lens is extended significantly from its infinity focus position, the amount of light reaching the film is reduced. The greater the extension, the greater the light loss. Except for lenses with internal focus, a macro lens will typically lose a full stop of light at half life size and two stops at life size (1:1) magnification.

This used to be a huge issue, but it's most obviated by cameras that measure available light and even flash exposure through the lens. Today's cameras will pretty much take care of light loss automatically, although you will need to deal with exposure factors if you're using a handheld light meter or a non-TTL flash.

Macro Lenses

Lenses listed below are autofocus except as noted. Close focus distances are measured from the film plane, not from the front of the lens.

Normal Macros

Macro lenses in the 50-60mm range provide a natural perspective for all around photography and can be fairly light and compact.

  • Canon 50/2.5 Compact Macro provides magnification to half life size on the film at 9.6" (0.23m). It is one of the fastest macro lenses made. Like many macros, it stops down to f/32 for increased depth of field. Canon's Life Size Converter EF permits recording life size images.
  • Minolta 50/2.8 and 50/3.5 Macro both reach half life size at a minimum focus of 8.4" (0.21m).
  • Sigma 50/2.8 Macro - need more data
  • Nikon 60/2.8 Micro Nikkor goes to life size at a distance of 8" (0.22m).
  • Pentax 50/2.8 goes to life size (1:1).

Tele Macros

The advantage of a longer macro lens is a greater working distance between the lens, camera, and photographer and your subject. This means you're far less likely to cast shadows on your subject. These can also do double duty as a portrait lens.

  • Tamron 90/2.8 SP Macro goes all the way to life size without adapters or close-up lenses. This lens will focus to 11.4" (0.29m) and is also available in a manual focus version. Tamron once made an f/2.5 version of this optic.
  • Canon 100/2.8 Macro reaches half life size at a distance of 1' (0.31m).
  • Minolta 100/2.8 Macro provides half life size magnification at 14.4" (0.37m).
  • Vivitar or Phoenix 100/3.5 Macro reaches half life size on its own at 16.9" (0.43m) and life size using an included close-up lens. Although not as impressively constructed as other macros, this lens is not only relatively inexpensive (under US$200) but has received rave reviews from users.
  • Nikon 105/2.8 Micro Nikkor goes to life size at 12" (0.31m).
  • Pentax 100/2.8 and 100/3.5 both go to life size (1:1).
  • Sigma 105/2.8 Macro goes all the way to life size (1:1).

Longer macros provide even more working distance.

  • Canon 180/3.5 Macro goes to half life size at 19" (0.48m).
  • Sigma 180/3.5 APO Macro reaches life size (1:1).
  • Minolta 200/4 Macro Apo is an apochromatic macro lens that reaches half life size at 19.7" (0.5m).
  • Nikon 200/4 Micro Nikkor does life size at 1.7' (0.5m).
  • Pentax 200/4 Macro goes to life size (1:1) at 21.6" (0.55m).

Wide Macros

Not nearly as practical as longer lenses, these focus close and provide that wide angle perspective that sometimes makes the picture.

  • Sigma 24/1.8 Aspherical Macro
  • Sigma 28/1.8 Aspherical Macro

Online Resources

Go to lens index.

Go to Digigraphica's 35mm home page.

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