In this Guide to Macro lenses David and Phillip give you all the relevant information you need to find the right macro lens for your Sony Alpha 7/9 series camera. No matter if you are just an occasional macro shooter or pretty serious about macro.
Macro lenses allow you to capture much smaller objects so you can reach outside of our normal human perception. They can be found in many camera bags because they do not only excel in capturing tiny insects but they also perform quite well in other roles like portrait and landscape photography. You couldn’t buy a more universal prime.
So which one is right for you? At first you should decide for yourself where you want to put your focus. Do you want to capture nothing but tiny insects? Or do you want to use the lens for other purposes most of the time and only capture occasional macro images?
- Things to consider when buying a macro lens
- All native FE Macro Lenses
- Tokina Firin 100mm F2.8 Macro
- Voigtlander MACRO 110mm F2.5 APO-Lanthar
- Cheaper legacy Macros
- Adapted AF lenses
- Other notable lenses
- High Magnification Macro lenses
- Wide-angle Macro Lenses
- Ultrawide Macro Lenses
- The Zeiss Classic Makro-Planar Lenses
- Closeup lenses and Tubes
Things to consider when buying a macro lens
1. Reproduction Ratio
The typical measure for how small the subects you can capture will be is the reproduction ratio. A macro-lens with a maximal reproduction ratio of 1:1 used on a Sony a7 series camera will allow you to fill the frame of an object which has the same size as the sensor which is about 36x24mm. This reproduction ratio is called life size. On a 1:2 lens your subject can be as small as 72x48mm (half life size). There are also lenses with a magnification ration greater than 1:1 which usually can’t focus to infinity.
Here is a series of images of a Hellebore flower to give you a sense of the magnifications. The series starts at 1:5 which is the kind of magnification you might get with a non-macro lens which nevertheless has closer than usual focus. You can see you get the whole flower. The series then goes to 1:2, the magnification which is the best some “macro” lenses can achieve. The jump to life-size, 1:1 is a dramatic change in the image, it no longer looks the way it is easy to visualise with the naked eye. The next two magnifications are twice life size (2:1) and five times life size (5:1). These are only achievable with specialists macro lenses that generally can only be used in the macro range.
2. Working Distance
The distance between the front of your lens and your subject is called working distance. If the front of your lens gets really close to your subject you might make it flee or cast a shadow onto it. So to capture subjects like insects this is a pretty important measure. In general lenses with a longer focal length have more a longer working distance. Since many lenses have a shorter focal length when focused very closely working distance can vary greatly between lenses of very similar focal length.
3. Focal Length – Perspective
As we have seen the longer macro lens gives you more working distance, and some say that the longer the general. But we should not ignore the fact that perspective plays a part in macro just as it does with normal photography. Longer lenses give you a flattened perspective (think of how a long portrait lens flattens faces, for better or worse). Shorter lenses make you feel you are an ant, right there in with the tiny items you are photographing. This is why one of us uses a 35mm and sometimes a 15mm macro along with the more usual lengths (50, 90, 150).
4. Auto Focus vs Manual Focus
Auto focus is not really a good idea in the macro range. Very often you will want to set the magnification and then move the lens to focus, and the danger with an AF lens is that focus may shift, even if you lock it. It’s also easier to magnify the image and get exactly the part you want in focus with manual focus than moving the AF point, using AF, locking it, and then checking to make sure it was correct.
Of course AF is useful for general and portrait work if you want your macro lens to be a general lens. But for specifically macro purposes, AF is no advantage, and generally speaking, MF lenses have better MF than AF ones. The Sony 90mm has somewhat better MF than most AF lenses: you can put it in a linear mode where you choose the magnification and moves the lens, just like with a manual lens
5. What will you use it for?
Before deciding what to buy, you need to think about what you want it for. Different types of lens are appropriate for different sorts of subject. You also need to decide just how technical you want your macro photography to be. Some lenses require that you work like you would in the lab, rather than free and easy shooting.
A common use for macro is for photographing insects and small animals in the field. This is a use for which working distance is a real issue, so longer lenses around 100mm (90-120) are indicated. Of course even longer, like about 150 or 180mm could be good, but you need to be aware that macro lenses of these focal lengths get very large and heavy indeed.
If it’s plants that you care about; say flowers or parts of flowers focal length is less crucial. If half life size is enough for your purposes an inexpensive 50mm macro is all you need. If you want life size, it would do as well, so long as you take into account the working distance issue.
If you are interested in extreme close ups; insect eyes, tiny parts of plants—the territory of greater than life size magnification—you need something more specialised, like the MP-E we discuss here, the new Laowa, or messing with microscope objectives on tube lenses, or enlarging lenses etc. But be warned. This work generally requires a kind of stage to display your subject, heavy tripods for camera and stage, a focussing rack (ideally electronic) to move your camera back and forth to focus, focus stacking software, and perhaps lighting. It can be and absorbing hobby, but it’s not a carefree activity like taking a 50-100mm macro into the garden or wilderness and shooting what takes your fancy
All native FE Macro Lenses
If you purchase the lens through one of the affiliate-links in this article we get a small compensation with no additional cost to you.
Sony 50mm f/2.8 Macro
Recommendation: This is one of the more affordable Sony FE lenses which results in a few operational compromises but no real optical compromises. For many macro applications the focal length and working distance of just 45mm from the front of the lens at 1:1 will be a limitation. Recommended to those who want a light and affordable hiking lens for closeups in nature.
Length: 71mm | Diameter: 72mm | Weight: 236g | Filter Thread: 55mm | close focusing distance (1:1): 4.5cm | Price (July 2018): $498
Our Review | BHPhotoVideo | Amazon.com | Amazon.de | Ebay (affiliate Links
Voigtlander Macro 65mm F2 APO-Lanthar
Recommendation: Optically this is one of the very best lenses you can buy today. It is a manual lens which some (like the authors of this blog) see as a bonus but many will see an issue in this. Since it only focuses down to 1:2 we would recommend it more as a general purpose lens which can also work well as a macro lens for some applications than as a dedicated macro lens.
Length: 91mm | Diameter: 78mm | Weight: 635g | Filter Thread: 67mm | close focusing distance (1:2): 15.5cm | Price (July 2018): 999€/$999
Our Review | BHPhotoVideo | Amazon.com | ebay.com | ebay.de (affiliate links)
Sigma Art 2.8/70 Macro
This is the only lens we haven’t used ourselves so the following assessment is based on reliable sources.
Recommendation: Recommended to those who want the performance of the Sony 2.8/90 for half the price and who can work with the slower focusing as well as the significantly shorter close focusing distance and focal length.
Sony FE 2.8/90 G OSS Macro
Recommendation: If you are more serious about macro work this is your best lens in the system but it also works well for landscape and portrait work.
Length: 130,5 mm | Diameter: 79mm | Weight: 602g | Filter Thread: 62mm | close focusing distance (1:1): 14 cm | Price (July 2018): $1098
Review | BHPhotoVideo | Amazon.com | Amazon.de | Ebay (affiliate Links)
Tokina Firin 100mm F2.8 Macro
Recommendation: While you can certainly get decent results with it we find it hard to recommend since the cheaper Sigma 2.8/70 doesn’t have the same CA issues and better sharpness while the Sony G 2.8/90 is a better lens in any regard.
Length: 123 mm | Diameter: 74mm | Weight: 570g | Filter Thread: 55mm | close focusing distance (1:1): 11.5 cm | Price (August 2019): $599
Review | Amazon.com | B&H Photo | Amazon.de (affiliate links).
Voigtlander MACRO 110mm F2.5 APO-Lanthar
An outstanding lens. The Sony 2.8/90 is a tad sharper with a little higher contrast at 1:1 but at longer distances the Voigtlander is superior. If you want a longer manual focus lens and also an excellent macro the Voigtlander is an excellent choice.
Length: 99.7 mm | Diameter: 78.4 mm | Weight: 771 g | Filter Thread: 58mm | close focusing distance (1:1): ? | Price (July 2018): $1098
Cheaper legacy Macros
Olympus OM Zuiko Macro 50mm 1:3.5
Recommendation: If you are on a tight budget the small Olympus can be an attractive solution. It comes with a few compromises but those won’t keep you from getting good results.
Tokina AT-X Macro 90mm 1:2.5
Recommendation: This is one of the finest legacy lenses you can buy and a joy to use. It comes with one significant drawback and that is weak flare resistance. Recommended if you are on a moderate budget and enjoy manual focus.
We haven’t used these lenses personally but have heard good things about them from usually reliable sources.
- Tamron SP 2.5/90 – A more affordable alternative to the Tokina 2.5/90.
- Nikon 2.8/55 Macro – Seems to perform a bit better than the slower but smaller and cheaper Olympus OM 3.5/50.
Adapted AF lenses
Canon EF 100mm f2.8 L
This classic Canon macro lens adapts well on the Sony system. Based on just one copy of each, it has marginally less microcontrast and resolution in the close macro range compared to the Sony 90, and perhaps a tiny bit more at infinity. It’s still a touch less good than the Sony at portrait type distances. Realistically though these are small differences which won’t affect your images. We would recommend the Sony 90 just because it’s native and handles a little better, but if the Canon comes up at a good price it is a very fine option. The older non-L EF 2.8/100 is almost as good, and can be had at a very low price if you look, and is perhaps the best budget short tele macro to be had if you don’t mind adapting. It’s worth adding that Nikon made short tele Micro-NIkkor lenses that were well thought of, and perhaps as good or better than the older Canon. None of us have any first hand experience of these, but if you find one at a good price it might be worth experimenting.
Sigma 150mm 2.8mm EX DG OSS Macro
This is a large and heavy lens, but it adapts well with the MC-11. Its longer perspective suits many images, and the extra length gives useful working distance. There are two versions, this one and the earlier non OSS version. Some reports claim that that the earlier one is slightly better, others that the later one is. We think probably this is all down to sample variation and it’s hard to say which is to be preferred, though the later one may have better coatings, and the OSS works well in combination with Sony IBIS using the adapter to give stabilisation which works well for non-Macro purposes. It’s a very good sharp lens, and both David and Bastian use it for long macro purposes. The Sigma 180mm macro lens is a little better still, but it’s much heavier even than this lens, so we think the 150 is probably the best overall trade-off for a long macro. The Canon and Nikon longer 180-200mm macro lenses are fine, but they are older designs, not quite as sharp, big and heavy and generally more expensive.
Other notable lenses
Affordable AF lenses
If you are on a budget also check out these three lenses which we haven’t used but they have tested well enough elsewhere:
- Sigma EX 2.8/105
- Tamron AF 90mm f/2.8 SP Di
- Minolta AF 2.8/100 – Needs the clunky LA-EA4 adapter to have AF
They are under $200 used. You will have to use them on an adapter and compromise on quite a bit on handling and a little on wide open performance. But for macro images they are excellent performers.
Semi-Affordable manual lenses
We haven’t tested these but they might fit your needs.
- Olympus OM 2/90 – Only 1:2 and some CA but sharp and nice bokeh while being not that large. Not good but still reasonable price/performance ratio.
- Mamiya 120/4 A – pretty big since it is a medium format lens but reputed to be a good performer.
Less affordable lenses
These lenses enjoy a somewhat legendary status. Whenever we have tested “legendary” lenses in the past though we were a bit disappointed and we are pretty sure that a Sony 2.8/90 will actually give you a better performance especially at macro distance. But that’s not all that counts for many. We haven’t tested any of these so take our short comment with a grain of salt.
- Voigtlander APO 2.5/125 – very good CA correction and bokeh but expensive and not that reliable.
- Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 – Good but not great CA correction and notable focus-shift.
- Coastal Optics 4/60 – Excellent CA correction even outside the visible spectrum. Bloody expensive.
- Zeiss APO-Makro Planar 4/120
High Magnification Macro lenses
High magnification macro is the realm between life-size, and say 5x magnification where people start calling it Photomicrography. Of course the exact border is vague. Photomicrography is of course a highly specialised technical pursuit, but high magnification macro is already getting quite technical. Some people use, for example, the Canon MP-E handheld with flash, but generally this is a job for a tripod, and very likely for focus stacking, because depth of field is so thin at these magnifications that you usually need to stack a few or even many images
Canon MP-E 65mm f2.8
This may seem to many a cumbersome lens, but for the high magnification macro photographer it made things so much simpler. Before this, we typically used a bellows unit, and a set of specialised lenses optimised for different magnification ranges. The Canon MP-E is one lens, which can set to any magnification between life size and 5x. It’s not an easy lens to master. For one thing, it performs best wide open over most of it’s range, perhaps best at f4 for life size work. This is because at these magnifications diffraction sets in very early. This exacerbates the depth of field problem which is already there due to the high magnification, and makes focus stacking essential for anything except a deliberately arty ultra thin DOF look. But for anyone prepared to work slowly and deliberately, it’s the tool of choice at these magnifications. If you want to save money, and are handy, old enlarger lenses mounted on helicoids or bellows are an alternative, and we look forward to checking out the new Laowa.
Laowa is known for unconventional lenses and their first lens is no exception since it is the only macro we know of which allows both a magnification of 2:1 (twice life size, not half) and infinity focus. We haven’t used it ourselves but going by other people’s reviews it seems to good a decent performance at macro distances when it is stopped down but comes with severe vignetting and distortion at longer distances. Since it is rather affordable it could be an attractive option for some none the less.
Weight: 503g | Filter Thread: 62mm | Price (July 2018): $399
Laowa 2.8/25 2.5-5x Ultra Macro
Just released we have no experience with this lens but it allows you to take extreme closeups at 5:1 to 2.5:1 for a pretty low price.
Manufacturer Homepage | Weight: 400 | Filter Thread: N/A | Price (July 2018): $399
Wide-angle Macro Lenses
Some super high magnification macro lenses have short focal lengths like 20mm, but for reasons that need not detain us this doesn’t mean they are really wide angle in the ordinary sense. By wide angle macros here we mean ordinary macro lenses up to 1:1 which are wider angle than a ‘standard’ 50mm. Why would you want one? The usual orthodoxy is that working distance—the distance between the front of the lens and the subject—is critically important, and usually the longer the lens the greater the working distance. People often complain that 50mm macros have not enough working distance. A 35mm will have less. So, again, why would you want one? Well the working distance does make it a bit harder to handle, but being a bit closer to your subject gives you an “involved” perspective, and slightly more sense of the environment which can be very nice for some images. It wouldn’t be your first macro, but if you are already keen, or become keen, we recommend one.
But no-one makes one for full frame! You have two choices; play with a wide enlarging lens on bellows or tubes, or adapt an APSC lens.
The second is easier. Camera makers produce 35mm APSC lenses because they are 50mm equivalent on an APSC body. But at macro distances, these lenses often cover the a full frame sensor with good results.
Our prime recommendation here would be the Pentax HD 35mm f2.8 macro, which on a decent adapter gives good results. If you want to save some money, the same optical formula is used in a Tokina lens whose main drawback is terrible coatings resulting in bad flare, but in some light that may not matter.
Ultrawide Macro Lenses
Maybe there shouldn’t be a plural here. There’s only really one: The Laowa 15mm f4 macro. It lets you get really close (at 1:1 the subject will brush your front element) which can give you some really interesting perspectives that you can’t get with the usual focal lengths.
The Zeiss Classic Makro-Planar Lenses
We shouldn’t finish this roundup without saying something about the two Zeiss Classic (available rehoused in heavier but more sealed bodies as Zeiss Milvus) Makro-Planar lenses.
There is a 50mm f2 and an 100mm f2 version. Both only focus to 1:2, but are very sharp lenses and were legendary, state of the art, designs when they were first introduced many years ago.
They are still very sharp lenses with nice bokeh. But no longer head and shoulders above the competition, and the price is not low. The 50mm version is somewhat overshadowed by the CV 2/65 we review above: this lens is noticeably better than the classic Zeiss 50, which was in turn a better lens than the 50 macros of its day.
The Zeiss Makro-Planar 2/100 lens is super sharp, but suffers from a bit more longitudinal CA than we would ideally hope for nowadays. The Sony 90 is cheaper, a little sharper at macro distances, has less CA and focusses to 1:1. The new CV 110 will likely overshadow the Makro-Planar 100 for the lover of true manual focus, though obviously this remains to be seen.
All that being said, both are beautifully built and excellent optics, and are both good choices as general lenses in their focal lengths. If you can find one at a good price, lower than the competing lenses, and don’t mind adapting, they are still fine choices for someone not looking to focus closer than 1:2.
Closeup lenses and Tubes
If you only occasionally need to focus close, or if you are travelling and don’t have room for your macro lens, you can consider adapters that allow you to focus closer.
The two most well known kind are extension tubes, and close up lenses.
Extension tubes contain no glass. They are just tubes that go behind the lens, pushing it further out that it’s own helicoid can manage, thus making the lens focus closer.
Some people think that because they contain no glass, they must give better IQ that lens elements you add to the front of the lens (like so-called “close up filters”). This is not necessarily so. Extension tubes make the lens focus close. If the lens if already not performing at its best at its native close focus, pushing it out further to give close focus may not give good results at all. It’s not hard to tell. If your main lens is fantastic at its closest focus, you can probably add a short tube and it will still perform well. But if it’s already a bit ropey at minimum focussing distance, you may need a close up lens.
Close up lenses change the optics of the whole system, to allow focus at various distances governed by the focal length (usually expressed as a diopter rather than a distance) of the close up lens. Because they (for a fixed lens position) have the same focussing distance regardless of the lens focal length, they give more magnification with tele lenses than shorter ones (the distance is the same, so the longer the lens the more the magnification).
Why can they give better results than tubes, despite adding lens elements? Because they allow the main lens to be used at the setting it works best at. You can se the main lens to infinity, and the close up filter may make it focus much closer. Although the filter will introduce some aberrations, this is more than compensated for by the main lens working well, rather than at its own MFD setting, where it performs poorly.
All this, though, is assuming that you are you using a good quality two element achromatic filter. The cheap single element filters will produce colour errors, and poor sharpness outside the absolute centre.
Our basic recommendation: if your lens performs well at it’s current closest focus, try a tube. Otherwise use an achromatic two element close up lens. Also, for longer lenses the achromat may be a better idea for macro purposes, and for shorter ones a tube may give more magnification. You should also bear in mind that tubes reduce the amount of light at the sensor whereas front filters don’t, though the exposure tools on Sony cameras deal with this automatically.
One brief extra bit of information: if you divide 1 by the number of diopters of the achromat, you get the rough distance the combination will focus when the main lens is focussed at infinity. So a 1 diopter lens will focus at 1/1 = 1 metrs. A two diopter lens at 1/2 = .5 metre, .5 diopter lens at 2 metres and so on. If you focus the main lens closer, you’ll get a bit closer but not massively (you can find calculators online). This tell you why you get much more magnification with diopters on long lenses. A 200mm lens focussed at .5 metre gives a lot of magnification, whereas a 50mm lens usually has a native close focus that is a touch closer than that, and a wide-angle is grieving very little magnification focussed at .5 metre!
There is a lot more to be said about achromats, but that may have to wait for an article of its own.
The least bad tubes are ones you can get for Sony are the Kenko ones; they at least have good flocking so will not generate reflections like many others.
There are many good achromats around, but the Marumi 3 diopter and 5 diopter ones are affordable, decent, and come in useful sizes. Probably the best are the Raynox DCR-5320PRO, which comes as a 2 diopter 2 element lens, a 3 diopter 3 element lens, and can be stacked to give 5 diopters. But they are only available in 72mm, are large and heavy, and expensive.
Some affiliate links for tubes and achromats:
Kenko Extension Tubes: BHPhotoVideo
Marumi +3 Achromat: Amazon
Marumi +5 Achromat: Amazon
As usual there is no best solution for all needs. The Sony G 2.8/90 will probably cover the widest range of requirements but in the ends you should check what is actually important to you. Phillip for example sold his G 2.8/90 and went for the Voigtlander 2/65 instead because, while he appreciates to be able to focus a bit closer, his focus isn’t on macro but on other applications. David on the other hand has to explain why two shelves of a dry cabinet are devoted to macro gear.
We hope to have helped you with your decision. If any questions remain don’t hesitate to leave us a comment.
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