An Introduction to the Macro Lens: What It Is and Tips for Using It Right

Macro Lenses

Highlights

Macro lenses are used to shoot very detailed, close-up subjects
Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths and usually prime
Macro lenses are renowned for their shallow depth of field
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When you want to get close to a subject and record lots of its detail, you will need a macro lens. Macro lenses come in a wide range of focal lengths, so they can be used in many different circumstances. But they can be a little quirky until you are accustomed to working with them. So we’ve put together a macro lens explainer and a series of tips to help you get started.

What is a macro lens?

macro lens

By Helmut SchützCC BY-SA 2.5

Let’s start at the beginning: what is a macro lens? A macro lens is a specialist lens that allows you to get very close to your subject and record its details. Unlike other types of lenses, macro lenses tend to have short minimum focusing distances, usually less than 30cm, which means that you can get very close to your subject. And they have a magnification ratio of 1:1, which means the image projected onto the sensor will be the same size as the object in real life. When a full-frame camera’s sensor measures 36 by 24mm, it means you’re focusing on something quite small and picking up a lot of detail.

What’s the difference between a macro lens and a telephoto lens?

If you know that a telephoto lens makes distant subjects appear closer, you might be wondering what the difference between a telephoto lens and a macro lens is. Well, a telephoto lens has a focal length above 70mm. A macro lens can have a focal length that is normal, telephoto or wide-angle (read up on what is a wide-angle lens here). Of course, being able to capture intricate shots at a distance makes a telephoto macro lens a favorite: you can film insects without disturbing them too much.

Depth of field of a macro lens

Depth of field determines how much of an image is acceptably sharp and how much is left to blur. The magnification factor of macro lenses means that they have very shallow depths of field. When a macro lens is set to a fast aperture, the image area that is in sharp focus can be as small as a few millimeters. Even stopping down to a smaller aperture, giving you a deeper depth of field, is unlikely to bring a great deal of the scene into sharp focus. You need to be very precise with your composition to ensure that your focus is carefully accommodated.

5 Tips for using a macro lens

1. Use lighting

Getting very close to a small subject can often result in blocking out more light than you otherwise would with a less close image. The shallow depth of field of a macro lens also means that you might not be able to use as wide an aperture as you would like to nail your exposure. To help expose your scene effectively, you will need to introduce more light into it. You might find that using a ring light is an easy and effective way to light a macro scene.

2. Stabilization is crucial

The proximity of your camera to your subject means that camera shake is very obvious when you shoot macro video. To avoid it, use a tripod. If you want to introduce motion into a macro video, ensure that it is as smooth as it’s possible to be.

3. Know the color of your background

Shallow depth of field means that your background won’t be identifiable, but its color will. Make sure that your background color fits with the look and feel of your video.

4. Depth of field

Macro lenses typically produce a very shallow depth of field, which means that getting everything in focus can be tricky. You need to be very precise with your composition and focus (Choose manual focus instead of autofocus). Remember that a greater depth of field from a smaller camera aperture will let in less light.

5. Preparation is key

Give yourself plenty of time to set up your macro shoot and film it. You might find that it takes a bit more patience and adjustment than a “normal” shoot.

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Wrapping up

While a dedicated macro lens has a specific use case, it isn’t a one-trick pony. Macro lenses are highly versatile, and if you are going to be making macro videos, they are worth the money. Just give yourself the time you’ll need to get to know it and to set up your shoots.

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Frequently asked questions

Macro lenses are used for close-up shots when you need detailed images of small subjects or small areas of larger objects. Some of the most common macro subjects include insects and mini-beasts, flowers and water droplets. They can also uncover the detail in eyes, gemstones, plants or anything with interesting textures. Macro lenses are often good for product photography as well as close-ups for documentaries or more abstract footage.

A focal lengths has a magnification factor of at least 1:1, which means that it can reproduce a life-size version of the subject on the sensor. For example, if the subject measures 15mm, it’ll be 15mm on the sensor, too. Macro lenses can have focal lengths of 35mm and upwards and usually have a fixed focal length, otherwise known as prime lenses. A zoom lens has a variable focal length, for example, 16-35mm or 70-200mm. These are highly versatile lenses and occasionally come in macro form. However, macro zoom lenses are not usually “true macro lenses” because they tend to have a magnification ratio of 1:3 rather than 1:1.

If we take “regular lens” to be a non-macro lens, it will not have the magnification ratio or minimum focusing distance of a macro lens. A macro lens will allow you to get closer to your subject and reproduce it at a magnification of 1:1 on your camera’s sensor.

Yes! Macro lenses do not have to be used just for close-ups. They can be as versatile as normal lenses. While I mostly use my 100mm macro for photographing plants, flowers and insects, I love using it for portraits, both human and animal. They are great for product photography, too.

A true macro lens should have a magnification ratio of 1:1. This means that the lens projects a true-to-life-sized image of your subject onto your camera’s sensor. For example, for a 17mm subject, the image projected onto the sensor will also measure 17mm.

What you will probably think of as a “Nifty Fifty” isn’t a macro lens. However, Sony makes a 50mm macro lens for its full-frame cameras, and there’s a Zeiss 50mm macro for Fujifilm X mount cameras. The X series has an APS-C sensor. For more about how the sensor’s size affects focal length, check out this article about sensor sizes.

You can! You won’t have the same control or see the same results as you would with a dedicated macro lens, but you can try reversing your lens or using close-up filters for macro images.

If you would like to try macro photography with a smartphone (read about the best smartphone cameras here), you can buy macro lenses for iPhones and other smartphones that attach to your phone.

Daniela is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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