Macro Lens Comparisons by Working Distance vs. Price
Choosing a Canon macro lens by working distance vs. price
Most macro lenses render images with satisfying contrast. And after all, contrast is sharpness. Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, Zeiss, etc. macro lenses are all sharp. Little is gained obsessively comparing macro lens brands and focal lengths. An alternative way to choose a lens is by comparing subject working distance when at close focus 1:1 magnification versus price. Macro lenses optimize sharpness across a flat image field at minimum focus distance, with low lens curvature distortion. Macro lens performance does vary at normal subject distances. The following are my impressions at close focus working distances.
What is working distance? Working Distance (WD) is the distance from the lens front objective to subject (without hood) when at closest focus, or 1:1 life size reproduction.
WD = published minimum focus distance specified for a lens - lens length - distance from lens mount flange to sensor/film plane (approx. 4.4 cm for Canon EOS system).
Lens manufacturers publish minimum focus distance (MFD): the closest focus distance from the sensor/film plane to the subject. MFD is less useful than knowing WD. Along with light loss (effective aperture), WD is a limiting factor using macro lenses . Get as much WD as you need and can afford.
1x life size WD compared with lens price. Macro lens price points align with WD more than other features. Major price deviations are for faster apertures, internal focusing floating elements, and image stabilization.
35mm Tokina f/2.8 macro est 3.5 cm WD @ $300
60mm EF-S f/2.8 macro USM = 9. cm WD @ $400
60mm Tamron f/2 Di II LD IF est 10. cm WD @ $500
70mm Sigma f/2.8 EX DG macro = 11.2 cm WD @ $500
100mm EF f/2.8 USM macro = 14.9 cm WD @ $520
100mm EF f/2.8L IS macro USM = 14.6 cm WD @ $945
150mm Sigma EX IF macro HSM = 19.4 cm WD @ $730
180mm EF f/3.5L USM = 25 cm WD @ $1,370
180mm Tamron macro = 26 cm WD @ $690
TS-E 24mm Canon f/3.5L II (+1.4x TC & ext. tube) @$1,990
50mm Canon f/2.5 1:2 Compact macro @265
50mm Zeiss Makro-Planar f/2 ZE 1:2 macro @ $1,290
65mm Canon MP–E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro @930
TS-E 90mm Canon f/2.8 (+1.4x TC & ext. tube) $1,210
100mm Zeiss Makro-Planar T* f/2 ZE 1:2 macro @ $1,850
300mm Canon f/4L IS (+2 Diopter 500D & 1.4x TC) @$1,275
Internal focus (IF). Determine if you can afford an internal focus floating element lens design. The 90-100-105mm ‘price-point’ macro lens offerings from Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina are satisfactorily sharp, but their lens barrels extend in length during focus. Decide for yourself if barrel extension affects your photography. A lens barrel that does not extend during close focus is a $100 convenience. Barrel extension doesn’t affect image quality, but impacts focusing on insects, which exhibit evasive behavior when detecting nearby shadows. Actual focal length at close focus is less than stated on the lens for IF floating element macro lenses.
APS-C sensor & macro lens focal length vs. field-of-view
Ignore the impact of APS-C sensor size field-of-view crop factor (FOVC) on lens effective focal length when selecting a macro lens for use at close focus distances. Sensor FOVC is relevant at normal photography distances, not close up. Choose a macro lens for its handling, features, and working distance. How focal length FOVC affects subject framing is more important at normal photography distances.
Manual and infinity focus. Most macro lenses focus continuously from close-up to infinity (not Canon MP-E 65mm). This enables alternative uses for macro lenses, but slows auto focus and leads to focus hunting on low contrast subjects or in lower light. This is normal and expected because optical elements must travel farther inside the lens barrel moving between close and infinity focus. Once they miss and defocus, they really defocus. Macro photographers manually focus extensively. Many Canon bodies have coarse focus screens. During manual focus the screens snap decisively in or out at the precise point of focus. FOVC cameras have smaller, darker, viewfinders compared to more advanced or full 35mm frame models. Viewfinder brightness and size have a greater impact on focusing and composition than whether the camera has 35mm or smaller sensor.
60mm Canon EF-S f/2.8 macro USM = 9cm+ WD. While longer macro lenses are better WD values, this is wonderful when you want 50-60mm focal length. This petite lens has world class resolving power way above its price, uses Canon’s best lens coatings, has a circular aperture which renders nice out-of-focus areas between f/2.8-5.6, and Canon’s best Ring USM focus motor. It is portable, discreet, and hand-holdable. The 60mm is limited to EF-S mount cameras, while the Sigma 70mm can be used on any camera. Sometimes 60mm has insufficient WD, or camera and photographer casts shadows on the subject. Users respecting the Nikon 60mm f/2.8 micro Nikkor waited years for Canon to make an equal. It happens to be EF-S. Carry the Canon EF-S 60mm macro: a) when using EF-S mount body; b) for pocket portability field or travel use without tripod; c) handholding in lower light at slower shutter speeds with less camera shake than longer lenses; d) in a limited three lens travel kit (e.g., 17-55mm and 70-300mm) - the EF-S 60mm becomes lower (if not quite low) light lens as well as close-up; e) using as studio portrait or product lens. The EF-S 60mm is Canon’s only USM macro where filter removal is not necessary when attaching Canon 14EX or 24EX macro flash. Hood purchase is extra. Canon 50mm Compact macro f/2.5 shares 52mm thread feature.
100mm Canon macro EF USM = 15cm WD. You pay over $100 to add 5cm WD from Canon 60mm to 100mm. 5cm is a 50% WD distance increase. 90-105mm is considered the most flexible focal length macro for wide variety of needs. With IF floating internal elements, the Canon EF 100mm USM has a shorter actual focal length at 1:1 reproduction, likely 80mm+/-, maintaining a good field of view at 15cm WD. This is an excellent flexible lens. Commonly used for medium telephoto or portraits, though sometimes almost too ‘clinical’ in rendering. It is honest; revealing skin blemishes. Hood must be purchased extra. Better Canon Ring USM focus motor. Everyone respects this lens.
Almost double your cost for the 100mm f/2.8L IS version, which offers outstanding hand hold-ability, a circular aperture, hood, weather resistance, snappy AF speed for a macro lens, and AI Servo II AF and distance feedback to 1D Mark IV and 7D bodies. Wonderful improvements if you hand hold, and if budget allows.
150mm Sigma macro HSM = 20cm WD. Pay $200 additional for another 5cm WD increase from the Canon 100mm. The Sigma 150mm comes with a hood, tripod collar, HSM auto focus with full-time manual override (I manually focus much of the time), making it an excellent lens, if focal length fits needs. It is a Sigma lens contributing to photography performance - not another a ‘me-too’ price-point product. There is nothing wrong with this lens. It has internal focus so lens barrel length does not change during focus, unlike the Sigma 105mm. The Sigma 150mm takes beautiful photos and promises to be popular. The color rendition tends to warmer yellow tones. The Sigma 150mm stops down to f/22. Most users never have enough light to stop down that far, and diffraction limits sharpness even if light permits stopping down to f/22+. Thus, for most users this is a non-issue. But some users of Canon 180mm macro do stop down beyond f/22, and the Sigma does not. A Canon 72mm Macro Lite thread adaptor is needed to connect the Canon 14 EX or 24 EX macro flash.
180mm Canon macro f/3.5L EF USM = 25cm WD. Pay $550 more for the next (last) 5cm WD gained from the Sigma 150mm. Good for bugs and snakes. The last macro lens you’ll ever buy (unless you need greater magnification from the Canon MP-E65mm 1-5x). It is a ‘L’uxury lens. Optimized for close focus, it is not in Canon’s top sharpness league at normal distances to infinity. It is not even Canon’s most resolving macro lens. Its mainfeature is working distance. Other features include: a) Canon’s best lens coatings of its time. b) Unlike most macro lenses losing two f/stops of exposure when close focused, the 180mm L loses 1 1/3 stops. Thus, the f/3.5 aperture is not a disadvantage compared to f/2.8 lenses. c) It’s big and long and prefers to be used tripod mounted, except when butterfly hunting. d) Maintains optical sharpness and low diffraction stopped down beyond f/22. e) Ultimate WD. The longer focal length makes it easier to compose shots. Isolate subjects, eliminate clutter, and get the lens plane position parallel to where you want the maximum depth of field on a subject. f) Works well with the Canon 1.4x teleconverter, for 140% life size at the lens’ close focus. Back away from 25cm close focus and still obtain life size reproduction. With the 1.4x TC, manual focus is required under 80cm. g) A Canon 72mm Macro Lite thread adaptor is needed to connect the Canon 14 EX or 24 EX macro flash.
180mm Tamron = 26cm WD. Tamron is the longest WD versus price value winner, but I did not use it because a non-standard lens front filter adjuster may prevent using the MT 24-EX Macro Flash.
Wide angle, extension tubes, and Tilt-shift lens close-ups. Using close focusing wide-angle lenses with extension tube enable ‘thing in its environment’ close-ups. These are useful, sometimes stunning, and popular for environmental documentary photography; pulling viewers into the frame. Lenses include Canon 17-40mm f/4L, 16-35 f/2.8L (native magnification about 0.22x), Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Sigma 17-70 f/2.8-4.5. You lose infinity focus. The Tokina fisheye 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 has very good native magnification for stunning thing in its environment close ups.
The Canon TS-E 90mm Tilt-Shift lens has native 0.29x magnification and the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II has native 0.34x. Combined with a 1.4x teleconverter and/or extension tubes, TS-E lenses make outstanding, versatile, costly, close-up lenses for flowers in the field to tabletop still life close-ups. These lenses overcome depth of field limitations, at moderate f/stops, posed by macro lenses. The Gaussian blur optical design of the TS-E 90mm renders pleasing out-of-focus areas rivaling Canon’s lenses most appreciated for their fine out-of-focus area qualities.
Manual stop-down and manual focus lenses. Some users buy Nikon-EOS, Olympus OM-EOS, Leica-EOS mount adaptors and use these lenses as manual focus & manual stop-down macro lenses on their Canon cameras. Others use normal lenses with reversing rings. These are esoteric fun, sharp, good in a studio, sometimes expensive, and not too convenient for fast-pace fieldwork. The Zeiss 50mm and 100mm Makro lenses only achieve 0.5x life size reproduction, and are expensive, but highly regarded for image quality among manual focus Canon macro lenses.
The Canon 50mm f/2.5 1:2 Compact macro has a fast maximum aperture. It is a rugged and easy to carry lens, highly resistant to flare due to recessed objective, moderately priced, and available used for $200. If you do not have an EF-S mount body, this is what’s available cheaply in EF mount in normal focal length. While only achieving ½ life size, it is regarded for uses such as distortion free product photography and copy work. This lens is easy to carry in a pocket walking about. The color rendition is not as good as the EF-S 60mm macro. The lens barrel extends during focusing.
The Canon MP–E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro is a specialized macro lens beginning at 1x life size reproduction and extending to 5x reproduction. It is designed, and succeeds, as an easier to use and operate alternative to bellows. Since it does not focus to infinity, it is not considered here, and can be evaluated at many other web information sites.
Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS (or telephoto zoom lenses) for dual use field close-ups.
There are a number of reasons why a Canon 300mm f/4L IS (or Canon 100-400mm L IS, 70-300mm IS, 70-300mm L IS, or 70-200mm L IS) lenses with a 1.4x TC and/or 500D +2 diopter work are well suited for field close-ups. The Canon 180mm f/3.5L macro is a stunning lens. But it prefers a tripod. The IS lenses offer hand holding benefits. a) If you are ‘never close enough,’ prefer giving subjects space, like using a tele or tele zoom for sports or landscapes, this combination works because many times in the field 1x magnification is not needed. b) The 300mm f/4L has 0.25x native magnification, good for a telephoto. Other lenses like Canon 200 f/2.8L, the 135mm f/2L, etc, have 0.15 to 0.20x magnification. Native magnification affects gain when TC and dioptor are added. The longer the focal length and greater the lens magnification, the more the subject magnification increases when using a dioptor. c) There is no light loss using Canon 500D +2 Diopter close-up filter, unlike using extension tubes. Focusing is easier. The 1.4x TC can be used or not, varying the magnification. Though you lose 1/stop with the TC, most Canon bodies will still auto focus at f/5.6. d) The 300mm f/4L IS is a wonderful lens for sports and larger wildlife. With the 1.4x TC you have a f/5.6 ‘almost’ bird lens. The only downside is if 300mm is too long for your non-macro uses, like youth soccer on a small field.
Close-up < life size. Macro is life size, 1:1 reproduction, 1x magnification or greater. There is loads of fun close-up photography at less than life size, 0.25x to 0.70x (butterfly and dragonfly hunting) you can do with extension tubes, close-up filters (diopters), or close focusing zoom lenses. A modest Canon 100mm-300mm zoom with a Canon 500D ($140) +2 diopter makes a good butterfly hunter, providing about 0.4-0.7x life size reproduction, depending on lens focal length and maximum magnification specification.
Depth of field vs. background blur. It is a struggle to obtain sufficient DoF under macro conditions. Focal length is less important than framing angle on the subject. The common opinion is, given lenses of similar optical design, the shorter the focal length, the greater the DoF; the longer the focal length, the more distance is compressed behind the plane of focus (less DoF). But this is too simplistic, and does not hold up under close focus distances with floating element macro lenses. http://www.vanwalree.com/optics/dof.html is very good amateur read on the subject. Navigate to sections where macro DoF is considered. Author makes the case a telephoto macro lens for many applications offers three advantages over its more symmetrical competitors of shorter focal length: an increased working distance, an increased depth of field, and a narrower field of view that comes with a more (absolutely) blurred and less obtrusive background.
Light loss. Camera lens f/stops are designed for infinity focus. As magnification increases (focus distances get closer and lens elements move away from sensor or film plane) the actual aperture (effective f/stop) becomes darker. The classic formula was about 2 f/stops light loss at close focus 1x reproduction. There is less loss, 1 1/3 stops, with Canon 180mm internal floating element lens.
The camera TTL meter automatically measures this light loss. We experience a darker viewfinder and f/stop-shutter speed challenges at macro magnification. E.g., A scene set at f/8 that a camera meters for 1/200 as a normal exposure with a regular lens, is metered as 1/50 with a macro at close focus. We experience it as slower shutter speed or lower f/stop macro challenges, requiring tripod and flash use.
A few among almost unlimited web sources of macro information
Tom Hicks 3-part macro for beginners with dioptors and extension tubes:
Steve Hoffman on macro flash, using Canon’s MP-E65mm lens, and other topics:
Lester Wareham of the UK has a good technical site on using Canon macro lenses, including the MP-E65:
A section of Nikonian’s web on macro and close-up photography. Good explanation of reversing rings and bellows:
A sight that explains DoF alternatives under macro reproduction:
Bob Atkins has many pieces of information on general and Canon macro lens magnification calculations:
Phillip Greenspun macro introduction from “early days” of the web:
Explains diopter close-up filters, and also has other useful information:
Italian photographer has a good technical site on macro magnification, and a review of Nikon’s macro and non-macro lenses:
Original thread with further discussion here