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How do macro lenses work

Everything you need to know about macro lenses

Having a macro lens in your food photography kit will allow you to look at your food in new, creative ways, creating some jaw-dropping, stop in your tracks images. Who doesn’t want that?

But what is a macro lens?

I asked you all on Instagram what your biggest challenge was when it came to macro food photography, and the most common answer was nailing focus – I hear ya!

In this post we’re going to look at what makes a macro lens different, and how to use it so you’ll be able to create those tack sharp, beautiful macro food shots you’re just dying to create.

What makes a macro lens different?

A macro lens is a special type of camera lens that has the ability to work with very short focusing distances, taking sharp images of very small subjects.

A true macro lens has a magnification ratio of 1:1 (or greater), and a minimum focussing distance of around 30cm.

So what does that mean?

A magnification ratio of 1:1 means that the ratio of the subject size on the sensor plane is the same, or greater than the actual real life size of your subject. That’s what makes macro lenses able to take those super sharp, close up images of things like insects.

If you see a lens with a magnification ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 or 3:1 etc… it’s a macro lens.

If the magnification ratio is 1:2, 1:3, 1:4 etc… it’s not a macro lens.

But macro lenses aren’t only good for shooting close up detailed images. Depending on the focal length you choose, your macro lens also makes an incredible portrait lens, which is ideal for food photography.

Related: How to choose your food photography lenses

Choosing the Focal Length of your macro lens

When choosing a macro lens, the first step is to know whether you’re shooting on a full frame or a crop sensor camera.

A lens on a crop sensor camera will act like the focal length it is, multiplied by the crop factor of the camera. For example, if your crop sensor camera has a crop factor of 1.6x then a 50mm lens will act like the following:

50 x 1.6 = 80
Therefore the equivalent focal length = 80mm

When I was working with a crop sensor camera, I used a 60mm macro. This acted like a 90mm on my crop sensor Canon, allowing me to get a shallow depth of field in my photos, as well as a tight crop.

However, on a full frame, if you were to use a 60mm macro, you wouldn’t get the same tight crop effect as well as the depth of field.

In these two photos, I’ve shot the same scene at the same angle with a 90mm lens, and a 55mm lens, so you can see the effect this has on the photo. Even though the front of the baking tray is in the same position in both photos, the field of view is much wider.

Neither of these focal lengths are “right” or “wrong”, but a tighter crop typically produces a more visually pleasing composition for these kinds of shots of small subjects.

It’s important to note that when you’re shooting the kind of photo above (ie. not the super close up range photos), you’re not actually using the macro capabilities of the lens – at this point it’s acting in the same way as any other 90mm lens.

So why would you bother buying a macro? Well… simply for versatility. By having the option to create beautiful, tightly cropped compositions and super sharp, detailed close ups, you can do a LOT more with just one lens.

Now I shoot with a full frame camera, I’ve changed my macro lens from a 60mm to a 90mm. This allows me to take those 45° angle shots with a really shallow depth of field, and a lot of focussed detail on the top of things.

Minimum Focus Distance

The Minimum focus distance of a lens determines how close you can be to your subject with it still in focus.

Generally speaking, the longer the focal length, the further you must be from your subject to be able to focus on it.

For example, the Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM (not a macro lens) has a minimum focus distance of 91cm, whereas the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM has a minimum focus distance of 31cm.

This means if you were shooting with the 100mm f/2 (not macro), you would need to be at least 91cm away from your subject to even be able to focus on your subject.

Whereas with the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, you could be anywhere from 31cm away and create a tack sharp photo.

This gives you an extra 60cm of space to play with in your compositions. So more than just those super close up shots, you can create completely different compositions with the macro lens and still have your subject in focus.

Photos like this of these cupcakes just aren’t possible without the macro lens.


A macro lens has a magnification factor of 1.0x or 1:1, which allows it to reproduce a life sized image of your subject on the camera’s sensor.

This means you can get really, really close to something and it will still be in focus.

Sometimes you will see lenses that have a magnification ratio of 1:2 labelled as “macro”, but a true macro lens has a magnification ratio of 1:1.

Depth of Field (DoF)

One important thing to keep in mind when doing macro photography is that the DoF is very limited when shooting at close range.

In order to create images where everything in your scene is in focus (ie. sitting within the DoF), you’re going to have to use a much narrower aperture (higher F-Stop number), to get the same effect of the depth of field you would at normal range.

In macro photography, we kind of need to throw out all our preconceived notions of what a “narrow” and “wide” aperture are. To achieve the same look we are used to getting at f/5.6, we might need to use f/16 when working with close range aperture.

In these examples of frozen raspberries taken at close range, you can see the difference in how much of the shot is in focus, even at narrow apertures like f/14. Particularly look at the raspberry on the top left to see the difference in the DoF, even at f/8 we’re seeing a lot of background blur.

At this type of magnification, it doesn’t take much for things to start to go soft. Getting the majority of your subject on the same plane of focus will help you keep as much of it as sharp as possible. Many macro shooters employ a technique called “focus stacking” to combat this softness, but that’s a topic for another post!

Want to know more about the Plane of Focus? Check out this post from my dear friend Rachel.


I consider a tripod a must in food photography the majority of the time. Not only does it allow you to nail down your compositions, but a good tripod will hold your camera steady so your shots are clear and sharp.

Having your camera on a stable base will also allow you to stop down your aperture and shoot with a slower shutter speed so that you can get more of your subject in focus, and compensate for your lighting situation.

Being able to use a longer shutter speed will also let more light in, which is useful when shooting in darker places (e.g. using natural light in the middle of winter.), and when shooting at very narrow apertures like f/18.

Want to learn more about using manual mode? Check out my FREE 5 day e-course “Manual Mode Essentials”


Due to the magnified nature of macro photography, nailing focus is incredibly important – plus this is the thing that most of you said you struggle with in macro food photography on Instagram.

When you’re capturing such a fine amount of detail on your food, the smallest adjustment in focus can make or break your photo.

Nailing the focus allowed me to capture every ripple of detail in this chocolate cake batter

While most macro lenses have built-in autofocus, I really recommend you shoot in manual focus mode. Manual focus allows you to manually define exactly where the plane of focus lies relative to your camera’s sensor.

If you do prefer to use autofocus, using single point (often labelled as AF-S) is the most accurate way to do this in food photography. This will allow you to select the specific point on your sensor that your focus point should be, allowing your camera to accurately focus at that distance.

Macro Lenses | Photography Mad

A macro lens is a camera lens designed for photographing small subjects at very close distances. They can focus much nearer than normal lenses, allowing you to fill the frame with your subject and capture more detail.

They are typically used when photographing insects, plants, and small products, but are versatile enough to be used in all sorts of situations. Virtually every subject has interesting details which can make for fascinating close-up photos.

Although macro lenses are optimised for close-up work, most can focus all the way to infinity and make excellent general-use lenses as well. Many professionals also use them as a portrait lens due to their ability to capture lots of detail in ultra-sharp focus.

Magnification Ratio

The most important property of a macro lens is its magnification ratio, also known as the reproduction ratio. This describes how much the subject will be enlarged in the final image.

The magnification ratio of your macro lens determines how large the subject will appear in the final shot. Image by Andrew Snyder.

A magnification ratio of 1:1 means that when the camera is positioned at the closest focusing distance, the image formed on the sensor will be the same size as the subject. For this reason, a 1:1 ratio is also called "life size" or "standard".

A lens isn't considered to be "true macro" unless it can achieve at least 1:1 magnification.

Most macro lenses with a medium to long focal length (100mm to 200mm) are capable of achieving a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1. Some go as high as 5:1, allowing for extreme close-ups of subjects like insect heads.

Macro lenses with a shorter focal length (around 35mm to 50mm) are often limited to a ratio of 1:2, which means that the subject will appear half "life size". However, you can use extension tubes to achieve 1:1 magnification.

Many zoom lenses are marked as "macro", but in reality they usually don't allow for magnification greater than about 1:3. They also tend to produce lower-quality photos than a proper macro lens.

Focal Length

Macro camera lenses normally have a fixed focal length (i.e. they are "prime" lenses). There are a few zoom macro lenses available but they tend to be of low quality and won't achieve such high magnification ratios as prime macro lenses.

Macro lenses are available in a range of focal lengths for different purposes.

The most common focal lengths are around 50mm, 100mm, and 180mm, although the exact values depend on the manufacturer.

Macro lenses with short focal lengths (50mm to 60mm) are cheaper, smaller, and lighter. However, you have to get much closer to the subject, which can be a problem when photographing things like butterflies, as they are easily scared away. You might also find that your shadow gets in the way of the shot.

Long focal lengths (150mm to 200mm) are more expensive, larger, and heavier, but they give you more "working distance" between you and the subject. They also give a narrower depth of field, allowing you to throw the background further out of focus, which can help to isolate the subject.

Macro lenses with intermediate focal lengths (90mm to 100mm) provide a good compromise between these factors. They tend to work well in a wide range of conditions, making them a popular all-round choice.

Focal Length Choice

Choosing a focal length depends on your needs, your budget, and the subjects you intend to shoot, as summarised in the following table. If in doubt, choose a lens with an intermediate focal length.

Macro lens focal length choices
  ~50mm ~100mm ~180mm
Price Cheapest Mid-range Most expensive
Weight Lightest Medium Heaviest
Size Smallest Medium Largest
Working Distance Closest Medium Furthest
Subjects Products, small objects Insects, plants, small objects Insects, small animals

Image Quality and Sharpness

Most normal camera lenses focus by moving an entire assembly of optical elements. While this is fine for medium- to long-distance focusing, it can result in a noticeable reduction in optical quality at very close distances.

To counteract this, macro lenses use a "floating" optical element which constantly adjusts the lens's internal geometry to give pin-sharp focusing, better contrast, and consistently high picture quality at all focus distances.

Some lenses also include a vibration reduction (VR) system. This can be particularly useful when shooting at slow shutter speeds or without a tripod, as even tiny movements can produce noticeable blurring in the final photograph.

Macro lenses normally have much wider apertures than normal lenses, giving excellent low-light performance. The flip-side to this is that depth of field is very narrow, particularly for lenses with a long focal length. A tripod is essential for holding the camera steady, and a macro focusing rail will help you easily fine-tune its position.

Focusing Mechanism

Most modern macro lenses use an autofocus system. This makes it much easier to get a sharp image, especially with longer lenses which have a narrower depth of field. There are two types of autofocus mechanism - the traditional, screw-driven type, and the more advanced "silent" type. Silent autofocus systems are more expensive but are less likely to scare a nervous subject.

Older macro lenses, and some specialist lenses such as Canon's 1-5X, use manual focusing. These can be more difficult to work with, and make it even more important to use a tripod to keep the camera absolutely still.

Some lenses use "internal focusing" which adjusts the focus by moving just the inner group of elements. The outside of the lens does not move at all, reducing the chances of accidentally touching the subject or scaring it with the lens's movement.


There are a number of alternatives to using a macro camera lens. The picture quality generally isn't as good, but they can work out significantly cheaper.

Left-to-right: Extension tubes, bellows, close-up lenses, and reversing rings can all be used instead of macro lenses, although the quality varies.

Extension Tubes

Extension tubes fit between the camera lens and body. They contain no optical elements and their sole purpose is to move the lens further away from the sensor or film, giving a closer focusing distance and greater magnification ratio. Extension tubes can be stacked to increase the effect.

Bellows and Focusing Rails

Essentially like infinitely-adjustable extension tubes, bellows and focusing rails allow large improvements in magnification but also greatly reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. For this reason they are usually only used in studios.

Close-Up Lenses

A close-up lens mounts onto the front of your lens using the filter thread. They act like a magnifying glass, simply enlarging the image before it hits the sensor. They tend to be of poor quality but offer a cheap, quick-fix alternative to macro lenses.

Reversing Rings

A camera lens works by shrinking an image onto your camera's sensor or film. By mounting the lens backwards it enlarges the image instead. Reversing rings are cheap and easy to use, but you lose the lens's automatic functionality, and the focusing point becomes fixed so that you have to physically move the camera to make the subject sharp.

Buying a Macro Lens

Because they are such specialist pieces of equipment, the majority of macro lenses on the market tend to be very high quality.

Canon and Nikon (Nikkor) are considered to be the best macro lens manufacturers, so if you use either of these brands of camera and can afford them, they are the way to go. For the more budget-conscious, Tokina, Sigma, and Tamron also produce some excellent lenses.

As with anything, once you've narrowed your selection down to a few models, be sure to check online reviews, and shop around for the best price. Two good places to start are Amazon and Adorama.

Cover image by The Preiser Project.

Macro Lens Selection Guide | Articles | Photo, video, optics

Source: adorama.com

Almost every photography lover at least once in his life tried to close up a beautiful bug, flower or other small object. Usually we already have an image in our head of how such a photo should look like. Many have seen and admired the great macro photography from the masters of the genre, but as soon as we bring the lens to the subject, the camera cannot properly focus to get the right image. Few things in photography can be as frustrating as trying to get a close-up shot at the minimum focusing distance of a regular lens.

There are several ways to take a decent macro shot, but the easiest way to get good, detailed macro photography is with a macro lens.

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses are designed to give a very short minimum focusing distance for easy close-ups of small subjects. The objective of such a lens is to reproduce the subject at life size or slightly smaller. What does it mean? We've all seen large images of small objects - large-format calendars with photographs of flowers, for example. The flower here, of course, is depicted in a size larger than its actual size. If you make a large enough print of something, it can be larger than life size. The purpose of a macro lens is to reproduce an object in its natural size on a matrix or film. For example, if you photograph a small coin with a life-size macro lens, the image on the sensor will be identical in size to a coin in real life.

Source: saga.co.uk

The ability of a macro lens to reproduce the size of objects is indicated by the maximum magnification factor. A lens that can reproduce them in full size has a ratio of 1:1 (or 1x). A macro lens with a ratio of 1:2 (or 0.5x) can reproduce objects at half their actual size. Lenses that can reproduce an object twice its actual size - 2:1 (2x). Many macro lenses have ratios of 1:1 or 1:2.

Be careful when choosing. There are many lenses on the market, especially among zooms, that are advertised as being capable of macro photography. If your goal is to shoot close-ups of small objects, it is worth paying special attention to the zoom ratio of these lenses, as many of them do not even come close to the necessary 1:1 and even 1:2.

Macro lenses have a few other interesting features besides close-ups. Most conventional lenses have a sharper image in the center, and more blurry at the edges (however, this is usually not very noticeable due to the depth of field of the lens). Specialized macro lenses are designed so that the image is completely in focus from edge to edge of the frame.

Focal length

Focal length is the distance between the optical center of the lens and the focus point, one of the main characteristics that you should pay attention to when choosing a macro lens. You might think that the longer the focal length, i. e. the more "telephoto" a given macro lens is, the more magnification you can get from it. This is not necessarily the case, because macro lenses with a wide variety of focal lengths have a magnification ratio of 1:1.

Pictured: Laowa 24 mm f/14 Replay 2x Macro. Source: dentalphotomaster.com

The main difference when using a normal or wide-angle macro lens compared to a telephoto lens is the different minimum focusing distances. Macro photographers also refer to this as working distance or subject distance. A longer focal length lens will have a longer working distance than shorter focal length lenses. The advantage of increasing the object distance is the ability to shoot the object from a greater distance. This may not be too important if you are photographing plants or inanimate objects, but when photographing animals (yes, insects are animals too), the extra distance may simply be necessary so as not to spook your “model”. Longer lenses will also have a shallower depth of field. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the type of photo you want to take. Finally, the extra working distance can help keep shadows out of your subject.

So a longer focal length is better for macro photography? Not necessarily, because shorter lenses have their advantages.

Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM. Source: maya-ethnobotany.org

Shorter lenses are generally smaller, lighter and less expensive than their longer focal length counterparts, while achieving the same magnification factor. If you only take macro shots occasionally, carrying around a small, lightweight macro lens is far more worthwhile than messing around with a heavier, larger telephoto macro lens that can compete in size and weight with your largest optics.

Below is a list of macro lenses with magnification ratios greater than 1:2, from different brands and for different camera lines. Canon

Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens. Source: bhphotovideo.com

Canon currently has over fifty different macro lenses in its lineup. Here you can also find such exotic options as the MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro, whose magnification ratio reaches 5:1.

For APS-C users of Canon EF-S mount DSLRs, there are two options - EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM and EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM with 1:1 ratio. For full-frame DSLRs, the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM is recommended, which also provides life-size reproduction. The L-series includes the EF-S 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM optically stabilized macro lens with a reproduction ratio of 1:1. Also, don't forget the company's longest macro lens, the EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM with a 1:1 ratio.

The company's lineup also includes three tilt/shift lenses with 1:2 magnification. These are the TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro Tilt-Shift, the TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro Tilt-Shift and the telephoto TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro Tilt-Shift.

In terms of mirrorless cameras, the EOS R line includes the RF 35mm f/1. 8 IS Macro STM with a 1:2 magnification ratio, and for APS-C mirrorless cameras, the EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM with 1.2x magnification.


Fujifilm 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR

Fujifilm has two macro lenses for X-mount cameras: 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro (1:2) and 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR (1:1 ).

For G-mount medium format cameras, the company offers the GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR with a maximum magnification ratio of 1:2.


Nikon AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G

Nikon has macro lenses for every purpose and purpose. For Nikon APS-C (DX) cameras: AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G and AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR with optical stabilization system. Both models have a maximum magnification ratio of 1:1. There is also a 105mm NIKKOR macro lens in two versions: the original Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 with manual focus and 1:2 ratio, and the modern version AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2. 8G IF-ED with stabilization and reproduction of objects in life size (1:1).

Normal zoom macro includes the legendary 1:2 manual focus Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8, AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D (1:1) and its newer version AF-S Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED. At the far end of the focal lengths - AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f / 4D IF-ED (1: 1).

There are also two PC-E series tilt-shift lenses that provide 0.5x magnification: the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED and the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D.


Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm f/3.5

Olympus has two macro lenses for Micro 4:3 cameras. These are M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 (1:1) and M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm f/3.5 (1.25x). The equivalent focal length of these lenses is 120mm and 60mm, respectively.


Lumix G MACRO 30mm f/2.8

For L mount full frame cameras, Panasonic has the Lumix S 24-105mm f/4 Macro O. I.S. with 1:2 magnification. For Micro 4:3 format cameras - Lumix G MACRO 30mm f/2.8 and Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S., both of which have a maximum magnification ratio of 1:1. Their equivalent focal length is 60mm and 90mm, respectively.


Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro Art available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA, Sony E and Leica L mounts. Lens magnification is 1 :one.


Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS. Source: bhphotovideo.com

Sony macro lenses for E-mount mirrorless cameras offer a maximum zoom ratio of 1:1. For full-frame cameras there is a popular telephoto lens FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS, as well as the normal focal length FE 50mm f/2.8 Macro. For APS-C models, there is a very compact E 30mm f/3.5 Macro in the lineup. Sony also has two lenses for older A-mount SLRs: a telephoto 100mm f/2.8 Macro and a normal 50mm f/2. 8 Macro, also with a maximum zoom ratio of 1:1.


Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD

Tamron SP 60mm f/2 Di II Macro, available for Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras, provides 1:1 playback. Tamron also has three versions of 90mm macro lens. The latest is the SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD for Canon, Nikon and Sony A. The two older versions also reproduce the subject at life size.

* materials from bhphotovideo.com and onfoto.ru resources were used in preparing the article

What is macro photography | What is a Macro Lens


Maximum Zoom Ratio

The magnification effect of a lens is determined by its focal length. In macro photography, the distance from which we can take pictures also matters. These two factors, focal length and minimum focusing distance, determine the so-called lens magnification factor. The shorter the distance from which you can focus on the subject with a lens of a certain focal length, the higher the zoom ratio.

The classic definition of a macro lens is that it is a lens with a maximum magnification ratio of at least 1:1. You can also see the designation "1x" (i.e. 1x magnification). This means that an object can be reproduced on the sensor in full size: a 10 mm object can be displayed exactly as a 10 mm object on the sensor if you shoot at a close enough distance. A maximum magnification of 1:2 or "0.5x" would mean that the maximum size of a 10mm object in the image would be 5mm, i.e. will be half of its actual size.


1.0 x

Other Macro Lens Specifications to Know About

Macro lenses are specially designed for optimal results at close focus distances. Usually they give maximum sharpness at close range, but this does not mean that they can only be used for macro photography. Many macro lenses provide equally excellent results when shooting at familiar distances.

Another important characteristic of macro lenses used at short focus distances is that they have a very shallow depth of field. This allows you to focus very precisely and achieve amazing detail. In some situations, a tripod will help with precise focusing. For some scenes, you may need to "stop down" your aperture a bit to achieve sufficient depth of field. At the same time, a shallow depth of field can also be an advantage: thanks to it, for example, you can highlight the most important thing in the frame, and make a distracting background unsharp and blur.

[1] Minimum focus distance (approx. 13 cm / 5.1 inches at 1x magnification) [2] Shooting distance (approx. 2 cm / 0.8 inches at 1x magnification) [3] Minimum focus distance (approx. 35 cm / 13.8" at 1x magnification) [4] Shooting distance (approx. 16 cm / 6.3" at 1x magnification) [5] Focal plane (sensor plane)

Minimum focusing distance and shooting distance

Such the lens specification as "minimum focusing distance" can sometimes be confusing. The minimum focusing distance is the distance from the subject to the back focus point of the lens, which is located on the focal surface (i.

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