A macro lens is considered a highly specialized technique for a certain type of shooting. But to the question of what can be done with a macro lens, the correct answer is yes, almost anything!
Of course, if you want to do macro photography, then the best tool is a macro lens. But macro lenses have features that make them an interesting solution for other genres of photography.
We understand what a macro lens can do when shooting portraits, landscapes and the night sky.
What is a macro lens
As the name implies, a macro lens is a lens specially designed for macro photography. The task of such glass is to reproduce the object in full size on a matrix or on a film.
For example, if you are photographing a small coin, the image on the sensor will be identical in size to the coin in real life. The reproduction ratio, also known as the magnification ratio, is in this case 1:1.
A lens with a ratio of 1:2 reproduces the subject at half the size. Lenses 1:1 and 1:2 are called “true macro”. Models with a magnification of 1:3 or more are sometimes called macro lenses by marketers, but for serious macro photography, you need exactly 1:1 or 1:2.
There are also “ultramacro lenses”. They reproduce the object on the matrix more than life size — for example, 2:1 or even 5:1. They are used to print photos of interior dimensions.
If you are looking for a macro lens with universal characteristics for different photo genres, non-standard models will not suit you, it is better to choose options with a classic ratio of 1:1 or 1:2
Many photographers want their lens to be sharp all over the frame, edge to edge. However, for many non-macro glasses, the design cannot provide it, since their field of sharpness is curved.
Most macro lenses are designed to produce a sharp image across the frame — they have a flat field of focus.
Of course, physics and the limitations of optical design do not allow for perfect sharpness across the frame, but for macro lenses, the most important thing is that the entire surface that you want to shoot close-up is in focus. This is their most important design feature. Thanks to it, macroglasses can be used to create accurate two-dimensional reproductions.
Focal length for different tasks
Most true macro lenses have a fixed focal length (no zoom). When choosing the focal length of your lens, there are two main alternatives to consider — one for macro photography and one for other genres of photography.
For example, you have two lenses with the same magnification ratio (let’s say 1:1), but with different focal lengths — 40mm and 180mm. They will differ from each other in the minimum focusing distance.
With macro lenses, you achieve maximum magnification exactly at the minimum focusing distance — this is the so-called working distance. The longer the focal length, the greater the working distance at maximum magnification.
You can take almost identical shots with 40mm 1:1 and 180mm 1:1 macro lenses, but 40mm glass will be much closer to your subject compared to 180mm. This is a critical factor for shooting insects and other animals, and for any moving subject, but not so important for stationary subjects.
When using macro glasses for other genres of photography, there are other factors to consider. For everyday shooting, 50mm glass is quite suitable. Portrait photographers will like a macro lens around 85 or 105mm. And for landscapes, both wide-angle lenses and longer focal lengths, depending on the type of shooting, are suitable.
So, let’s take a closer look at what macroglasses are used for.
The combination of life-size reproduction ratio, close focus capability, and sharpness across the frame makes macro lenses great for capturing the smallest subjects, from miniature textures on everyday subjects to exotic insects.
Macro lenses with normal and telephoto focal lengths are great for portraits. They may not have a huge aperture — f / 1.2, f / 1.4 or f / 1.8. Most macro lenses have a maximum aperture of f / 2.8, although occasionally there are models with f / 2. What they lack in aperture ratio, they make up for in sharpness. At f/2.8, a moderately long (85mm) macro lens creates a beautifully smooth background blur.
Macro capabilities make them a good choice for headshots and close-ups. In contrast, most portrait primes reach their minimum focus distance long before the model’s face fills the entire frame and the lens is unable to focus on the model.
Excellent sharpness and a flat field of focus can also serve you well for landscape photography, regardless of focal length. Lens sharpness is a real holy grail for landscape painters. And now add here that this beautiful sharpness is maintained from edge to edge.
In addition, a macro lens allows you to capture a scenic view, and then, without changing the glass, point the camera at your feet to take a close-up photograph of a wild flower, insect or other small animal. With a conventional lens, such a focus will not work.
Do you know what other optical devices often have a “flat field”? Telescopes. Like lenses, some telescopes achieve maximum sharpness only in the center of the frame — where we look and where celestial objects are located. Therefore, sometimes for astrophotography, a special “field flattener” is added to the telescope to help achieve edge-to-edge sharpness. When the image in the telescope is aligned, the macro lens will help keep all that edge-to-edge sharpness.
At first glance, it may seem strange to use a macro lens to capture objects located at a distance of many light years. But it’s a very workable option. The main limitation for astrophotography is aperture, although the maximum aperture of f / 2.8 should be enough for bright objects.
Cons of macro lenses for general photography
Macro lenses have several weaknesses when used outside of their primary purpose. They are not typical for every model, so before buying, you need to study all the characteristics of the lens.
Focusing. First, due to their ability to focus from infinity to a few centimeters, some models, especially older manual focus lenses, require a long turn of the ring to achieve focus. Such a large focusing range from infinity to the minimum distance allows for very precise adjustment, which is important when working with miniature objects.
With the fast autofocus systems on the newer models, this isn’t much of a problem. But if you’re trying to shoot a fast-paced scene, a long refocus can be a hindrance. Some models allow you to select the active focus range manually to help keep the lens from doing too much work.
Aperture. We have already partially touched on the second drawback — this is aperture ratio. Although there are lenses with a maximum aperture of f / 2, you will not find faster apertures. This is not a problem for macro photography, as most professional macro shots are taken from a tripod. In addition, at macro zoom, the depth of field is very small, so a wide aperture of such glasses is useless.
But if you’re shooting in low light, and handheld, it’s better to have a lens with f/1.8 or lower, so macro lenses are not the best choice for street photography at night.
So, a macro lens is a universal tool, the possibilities of which are not limited to capturing the microcosm. You can take great close-up portraits, sharp landscape photos and capture celestial objects. A macro lens in a bag encourages creativity, and how you use it is only limited by your imagination.
In preparing the article, materials from the resource bhphotovideo.com (Todd Vorenkamp) were used