Macro photography, or close up photography, is a form of photography where the subject is usually very small, and the photo is taken with a lens with a large reproduction ratio. The reproduction ratio is the ratio of the subject size on the film or sensor plane to the actual size of the subject. The classic macro lens has a reproduction ratio of 1:1, meaning that the subject is “life size”. Canon makes several macro lenses for nearly every budget, from the very versatile 100mm f.2,8 to the very specialized MP-E 65mm f/2.8.
Starting with the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, this is very versatile and useful all around macro photography. It’s arguably one of the best value lenses that Canon makes – it’s an excellent choice for someone starting out in macro photography. It offers a true 1:1 reproduction ratio, and focuses all the way to infinity, making it useful as a regular telephoto and portrait lens as well. Its USM focusing makes it very quick, silent, and accurate – although it does take a little while to go from its 12” minimum focus distance all the way to infinity. Also to note that the 12” MFD (minimum focus distance) results in an even closer MWD (minimum working distance), since the MFD doesn’t take the length of the lens itself into account (MFD is measured from the sensor, MWD is measured from the front lens element). The MWD is only 6”, allowing you to get very close to your subjects. One nice thing about the 100mm macro is that all the focusing is internal, and the front element does not rotate, which is helpful when photographing things at such short distances. This lens also has a focus distance limiter, which helps to limit the amount of hunting the lens will do it if cannot immediately lock focus on the subject. Build quality is good, but not on par with its L counterpart.
Where the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens does a good job, the 100mm f.2.8L IS macro lens does a great job. Like its non-L counterpart, image quality is very good, and it has the same 1:1 reproduction ratio, 12” MFD, and focus limiting. One major advantage of the 100L is the addition of a hybrid image stabilization system. This allows for slower shutter speeds, which make using available light only a more viable option over the 100mm non-L. The hybrid IS accounts for lens movement not only shifting along a flat plane, but also angular movements made by tilting the camera. The hybrid IS claims a 4-stop improvement over a non-IS lens, and shutter speeds can often be as low as 1/5th and still be sharp – very impressive. Other advantages over the 100 non-L are a better build quality, and marginally better image quality. Both 100mm macro lenses have excellent optics. The 100L comes with a hood and pouch, whereas the non-L does not.
For serious macro shooters, Canon offers two serious macro lenses. The first is the 180mm f/3.5L Macro. This lens is like the big brother of the 100L. Like the 100L, it’s very sharp, has excellent build quality and optical quality. It is a little slower at f/3.5 vs f/2.8, but for macro work, a deeper depth of focus is typically the desired result, so a smaller aperture is more often needed than a wide aperture. Its USM, while quiet and accurate, is very slow; one of Canon’s slowest focusing lenses. Not that it’s necessarily a huge drawback, because fast focus is not not generally an important part of macro photography. Fast autofocus is more desired for fast moving subjects rather than slow moving, tiny subjects. The 180L has a longer MFD and MWD than either 100mm macros – this allows a 1:1 ratio where you don’t need to be as close to your subject. This becomes helpful when you’re photographing a shy insect that you might scare away if you get too close. This lens does not have any image stabilization built in, making the use of a tripod or flash nearly essential for working with a lens of this focal length, and especially if you’re stopping the lens down to f/16 or slower. If you’re serious about macro photography, the 180L is an excellent choice. It’s not as versatile as the 100L, but as a dedicated macro lens, it’s tough to beat.
Another good choice for the dedicated macro shooter is Canon’s MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens. This is a highly specialized and very unique lens. Firstly, it’s a manual focus lens, which for macro photography, is not a big drawback since manual focus is often used due to the precision needed with such small subjects. It starts at a reproduction ratio of 1:1 and goes all the way up to 5:1, making a subject as small as a grain of rice completely fill the sensor. The use of a tripod (and motionless subject) or a strong flash is absolutely necessary when using this lens. It has what is called an “effective aperture” which equals (aperture setting) + (aperture setting x magnification). So f/2.8 even at 1x magnification, will be f/5.6 [2.8+(2.8x1)=5.6], and a setting of f/5.6 at 4x magnification will result in an effective aperture of f/28 [5.6+(5.6x4)=28]. So now that I’ve probably confused everyone, let me just say that this lens takes a bit of a learning curve to be able to use effectively. It is definitely not for the beginner macro photographer, but it can yield amazing results if you know how to use it. Again, it is very specialized and doesn’t have the versatility as the other macros, but can magnify subjects the most of any Canon macro lens.
Like the above two serious macro lenses, Canon makes two ‘lite’ versions of the macro lens as well. One being the 50mm f/2.5 compact macro, which is actually not a true 1:1 macro lens, but rather is 1:2. There is an optional accessory for this lens, the life size converter, which allows it to magnify to a true 1:1 reproduction ratio, but it nearly as expensive as the lens itself. This lens is an okay choice – it needs to be stopped down a little to be fully sharp, its build quality is mid-level, and it does not have a USM focusing mechanism. Its images are of good quality, and it can also double as a normal 50mm lens. If you can only get one lens, and need both a 50mm focal length and macro capability, then this lens is really your only option. Personally, I would recommend either the 100mm macro for closeup work, or the 50mm f/1.4 for this focal length.
There is also the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro lens specially designed for APS-C sensor sized SLRs, like the 7D, 60D, and Rebel series. Being an EF-S mount, this lens will not fit on a full frame SLR like the 1D and 5D series bodies, but it is a good choice for an inexpensive, good quality macro for the smaller 1.6x crop factor SLRs. Its USM is fast, quiet, and accurate, and its optics are also very good. It is as sharp as the 100mm macro, and handles flare and distortion well too. What is nice about this lens is that it is small and light compared to the 100mm macros (and definitely compared to the 180mm macro), and has a reproduction ratio of 1:1, just like the larger lenses. I recommend this lens if you’re looking to get into macro photography and have a camera with the APS-C sensor, although the 100mm is also an excellent choice if you need the extra reach.
Canon makes some accessories for macro shooting as well. There are extension tubes, which mount between the camera and lens; they have no optical elements, but they just extend the lens from the body, allowing the lens to focus closer than it could normally. These are compatible with all lenses – the drawback is the loss of infinity focus, as well as an enlargement of any distortion in the lens.
Canon also makes a closeup filter, which is helpful for longer lenses. It screws onto the filter threads just like any other filter. It results in a closer focus distance, with sharpness in the center, but falloff is apparent towards the edges. I would recommend this if you shoot macro casually, or have a lens in the 70-300mm range and don’t have the budget for a dedicated macro lens.
Two macro flashes round up Canon’s macro accessories; a twin lite MT-24EX, and the Ring Lite MR-14EX. Both are excellent choices if you’re serious into macro photography, and they can both mount directly to the end of several of Canon’s macro lenses.
My personal recommendations: either the 100mm macro or its L counterpart are excellent choices. They both have excellent image quality, are very versatile, and can double as a great telephoto portrait lens. If your budget allows it, take a look at the 100L; if you’re on a stricter budget, the non-L 100mm is an excellent choice. They fit nicely between the dedicated and serious 180L and MP-E 65, and the smaller 50mm compact and EF-S 60mm. One thing is for sure though, regardless of what macro lens you choose, when you’re up close and personal with very small subjects, it’s like a whole other world.