Which are the best lenses for macro photography? Besides the high magnification that enables you to capture tiny details and textures, what are the other essential features to look for when choosing a lens for close-ups?
Here, two Canon Ambassadors working in different environments, wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler and still life photographer Eberhard Schuy, share their favourite Canon lenses for macro, while Mike Burnhill, Canon Europe's Professional Imaging Product Specialist and an expert on lens design and technology, explains why each lens is particularly suited to close-up and macro work. Plus, another Canon Ambassador, news and documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien, reveals how she added a new dimension to her work with a compact, versatile RF prime lens designed for macro as well as portrait photography.
"When I started to shoot 25 years ago, my main focus was macro," says Christian. "I was a biologist working in the tropics, and the diversity of plants and small animals was so overwhelming and exciting. I spent many days exploring the hidden biodiversity of Panama's rainforests, looking for interesting insects, flowers and fungi. I still use macro lenses extensively."
Eberhard prefers the control of the studio, opting to do as much as possible in-camera and often utilising the tilt-and-shift movements of Canon's TS-E lenses to alter the plane of focus and match his creative vision. "In my still life photography, everything is staged. All of my pictures are precisely planned – the way I represent objects and how I envelop them in light is connected to the focal length and my proximity to them. The most important parts of my photograph are clear in advance and I always select the most appropriate lens for the work I intend to do," he says.
Whether you're looking for a versatile, hard-wearing macro lens or specialist glass capable of capturing 5x magnification close-ups, here are the best Canon lenses for macro photography.
Best all-round Canon macro lens
"I carry a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens with me every day when I'm in the field. It's a super sharp, hardy and reliable macro lens," says Christian.
"I still remember when the then-new macro lens with the Image Stabilizer (IS) function was released [in 2009]. I took it with me on assignment to the Congo. I was hoping to capture close-ups of chameleons and maybe orchids. I discovered that if I reduced the exposure to 1/25 sec it was still sharp, which allowed me to shoot in the low light of the rainforest without a flash. Sometimes I use it as a straightforward lens, with flashes to give depth and detail. And sometimes I use it on a tripod with a very long exposure. It's really flexible."
"Due to its versatility, this is possibly one of Canon's most popular lenses," says Mike. "Not only can it do 1:1 macro with image stabilisation, it can also be used as a portrait lens, thanks to its focal length and fast aperture. A surprising number of photographers who don't usually shoot macro have this lens in their kitbags. It's the Swiss Army knife of macro lenses."
As an L-series lens, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is robustly built with weather sealing, and also features some of the most advanced IS and autofocus technologies available. "Until recently, I only used manual focus mode," Christian admits. "But with the new Canon EOS-1D X Mark III – and its Dual Pixel CMOS AF – I use the autofocus more readily because I have more choice."
Best Canon macro lens for precision sharpness and blur
"The objects I photograph are rarely very big, so I work almost exclusively with macro lenses," says Eberhard. "Since the blurring in the image is almost more important to me than sharpness, it is the tilt-and-shift lenses that enable me to capture my pictures as I imagine them to be.
"With a Canon EOS 5DS R and a Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens, I can precisely define the areas that are sharp and blurred, and create the 'perfect' picture without extensive post-processing. The requirements for such product shots are then relatively simple – very good detail reproduction, high resolution and no distortion even with unusual perspectives – and the choice of equipment is relatively easy."
Mike adds: "The Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro's longer focal length allows a greater distance between the subject and the camera. This makes it ideal in a studio as the greater working distance enables more room for the use of complex lighting setups. The focal length also matches that of the standard lens of large-format cameras, giving similar compression and movements for those photographers familiar with this format."
Best Canon macro lens for shallow depth of field
"The focal length on the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro is not that much shorter than the Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens, but the difference in minimum focus and focal length is clearly visible in the pictures it produces," says Eberhard. "I mostly use it for food shots; distortion is non-existent and the shorter focal length results in a somewhat more dynamic perspective.
"The Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens allows me to display particularly fine structures with a shallow depth of field. Light and sharpness are directly related, they determine the harmony in the picture; colour and brightness define the general mood."
Mike says: "A major upgrade of the old TS-E 90mm brings L-series performance and 1:2 life-size macro. Having both tilt-and-shift and macro functionality in one lens makes studio and close-up work possible with a small-format camera."
Best high magnification Canon macro lens
"I first got this lens to document fig wasps in Panama," says Christian. "These are tiny wasps (less than 1mm in length), but they play a crucial role in tropical forests, pollinating fig trees which then feed the forest animals with sweet fig fruits.
"The 65mm super close-up lens starts at 1:1 and ends at 5:1. For example, the 1mm-long wasp is five times bigger in the image. It opens up a new dimension – up close the fig wasps are amazing jewel-like colours – metallic greens and blues. I love this lens because it allows me to enter a hidden kingdom of tiny treasures."
Mike adds: "A one of a kind for the true close-up enthusiast. With its furthest focusing distance being 1:1 and its closest being five times life size, this is not your everyday lens. It takes some time to understand how to use this lens but once you do it opens up a new world of photography. In this specialist macro world, manual focus is still a more suitable focus system."
Best Canon lens for close-ups with context
Christian says: "The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens [now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM] is one of my favourite lenses. It's a real workhorse and the optical quality is outstanding. I use it to photograph landscapes, while also drawing attention to a flower or animal in the foreground, often with a flash.
"The minimum focus distance is 28cm, but with a Canon Extension Tube EF 12 II it's even closer. When I use a tripod and a long exposure, it serves this purpose really well. I like using this wide-angle approach to show the subject of interest, such as an orchid or a chameleon, sitting within its broader habitat as context."
Mike agrees: "Extension tubes such as the EF 12 II are often the unsung heroes of macro photography, and for me this is the place to start. These low-cost solutions can make any lens a macro lens without affecting image quality or performance too much. Even as you progress, these tubes can be partnered with dedicated macro lenses to get even closer. These simple tubes can be used by everyone, from beginners to professionals, to achieve macro results with existing EF lenses."
Best Canon lens for low-light macro
Having a portrait lens with a half-life-size macro function gives you two lenses in one. It's a feature that documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien, the first pro to shoot with this RF lens, uses to add a new layer to her work.
"It just gives me more options," she says. "Many of my newspaper and magazine clients are always looking for digital storytelling projects, and when you're using photography online you need to have a big variety of images. With this lens I can always add macro to a set of pictures.
"I used it to photograph close-ups of nature during a portrait shoot on a farm, and the results are so vivid and bright – and of course very sharp. In one image of a bee's honeycomb you can see all the tiny structures. In a shot of sheep's wool you can make out each individual hair – it's almost like looking through a microscope.
"The honeycomb image was taken handheld at 1/60 second, and it's super-sharp thanks to the Hybrid Image Stabilization. At that shutter speed, the results would normally be quite shaky, but the Hybrid IS really works.
"The autofocus locked on quickly, even when shooting close-ups. The lens has a focus limiter switch, so you can prevent the camera trying to focus throughout the entire range."
Mike says: "Being a telephoto lens means that unlike with the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM you do not have to be so close to capture macro images, which can mean there is less likelihood you will block the light reaching the subject. Plus, as you don’t have to get so close, it’s more suited to shooting animals and insects without disturbing the subject. As well as being a macro lens, this lens is also an excellent portrait lens – so two possibilities in one!"