Sunday, October 19, 2008

Comparing Macro Lenses (a.k.a., why I suck at macro photography)

Like most people, when you see cool macro shots you think "wow", I want to do that. If you shoot with a Canon body then you know that the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM is one of the best lenses out there, so most of us end up borrowing or getting one. We are thrilled when we get shots like the ones at the beginning and end of this article, but we think - can we do better? What if I had the REALLY good macro lenses?

As luck (I think) would have it, I had two friends loan me their macro gear at the same time on Friday. As a result, I felt obligated to play around with the gear this weekend and do a simple comparison test.

So to cut to the chase, I set up a little piece of tile in my "studio" and took a few pictures from a tripod using mirror lockup and a remote release. I figured with a controlled environment I'd be able to test the three lenses better, but what I quickly learned is that I suck at this stuff - with all three lenses.

Here's the results, which also includes before post-processing results when you hover over them. I didn't do much post-processing on them, but I treated them as I would my normal photos to see what type of results I'd really get from these lenses. In addition, if you click on the images you can get a full-size version to inspect until your hearts content.

Here's my unscientific results:

Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM with Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Ringlite Flash

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

I was pretty disappointed with this lens as I had high hopes for it (after all, it was on my "dream" list - it wasn't even on my "wish" list). While it was definitely the easiest to use, I think I'd rather keep my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM. However, I did find the macro ring light to be quite nice when shooting outdoors, but I didn't prefer it in the studio environment. Of everything I tried, this is something I still would consider owning one day.

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro with flash through umbrella

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

According to, this is one of the sharpest lenses on the planet (excluding telescopes) for a Canon camera. While it was indeed very sharp, I found it very difficult to use and its lack of a USM style focus ring was sorely missed. If you want a super sharp macro lens, then this is worth considering, but this reminded me while I still prefer Canon lenses and why sharpness isn't everything (did I just say that?). In short, I hated it.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Manual Focus Lens with Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Ringlite Flash and umbrella

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

If you really want to explore the world of macro photography, this is your lens. However, be warned, this is the most difficult lens I've ever used and it needs a lot of light. If you plan to use this lens, you must have the twin ringlite otherwise forget about it. It is super sharp and does everything that you'd want from a macro lens, but you have to use your body or a macro rail to focus effectively. As a result, you'll have a tough time shooting anything that moves. Yeah, dead bugs are you friend with this puppy. The results are amazing if you have the patience to use it, but I don't, so this is another lens that is good to know about but I'll never own it.


This was a great learning experience and it taught me the following:

  1. My Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM is the best and most practical macro lens I've ever used. It easy to use and offers a decent working distance, and it makes a great portrait lens (which none of the others mentioned above can do).
  2. Macro photography requires a lot of specialized gear and even more patience. I don't have either, and don't plan to get either anytime soon. I enjoy macro photography, but my EF 100mm is exactly what I need to get shots.
  3. The shots at the beginning and end of this article taken with my 100mm macro are good enough for me now, and its ease of use is very much appreciated. Thank you, but I'll stick with that thank you very much!

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