Macro Lens Recommendations


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Jun 21, 2013
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Hi there, this is my first post. You guys have a great forum here.

I'm researching canon macro lenses for purchase. FWIW, my photography knowledge is limited; I've used a point and shoot for years at work and have only recently begun using a loaner digital SLR for macro photography. My photography vocabulary is limited, for that I apologize in advance.

The lens I'm currently using is an EF-S 55-220mm 1: 4-5.6 IS. It has it's place and I like it, however, my workspace dictates a second lens which will allow me to get closer to my subject.

Any recommendations for a lens that (in order of my priorities):

1. can get close to my subject; 1' or closer

2. keep the same aperture opening (or better) as my current lens (5.6?)

3. has auto focus

4. has image stabilization

5. take a larger image than my current lens (1:1?)

If it matters, I'm currently using a canon EOS rebel ds126181, which I think is 12.2 mega pixels and I am planning on moving to a new canon digital slr (I'm contemplating the EOS T3i 18 MP Camera). Ideally, the new lens would be compatible with the T3i. I am guessing that my criteria #3 may be negated by the new camera's increase in mega pixels.

Some background info. I fix guitars for a living and my repair work is what I'll be shooting with the new lens. Some of my subjects are quite small; the size of a pea but most photos are a little larger. My workspace is optimized for efficient workflow which means my tripod needs to be very close to my workbench and I have limited lighting. Most of my photos are for my website but some are for my regular column in a trade journal.
A few thoughts to consider:

1) Budget helps a lot in giving advice - even if its just a rough idea

2) What lighting equipment/setup do you have access to?

3) Any Canon EOS camera will mount any EF lens - whilst the crop sensor camera bodies will mount EFs lenses as well as the EF(there are around 9 own brand and a range of 3rd party EFs - its a smaller range). So basically both the camera you have now and the one you are considering moving to will take any modern lens on the market.

4) As for suggested lenses; based on your mentioned use and needs I'd suggest considering the following;

Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro
Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro
Canon EFs 60mm f2.8 macro

You can also consider:
Canon 100mm f2.8 macro (or its newer L version if you have the money to spend)
Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro

Note that image quality wise they are all going to be on the same level; there will be some differences, but they will be more minor (even the Canon 100mm L isn't much of a step up from the already great 100mm). You won't want a huge working distance for indoor product work and thus I'd not suggest going for anything longer than the 100mm range lenses.
I would not go for anything shorter than the EFS 60mm as the distance between lens and subject becomes very tiny and thus very tricky to work with and light (even on a static subject).

Of the set I'd probably favour the Sigma 70mm macro (its one of the several macro lenses I own and use). It's compatible with all Canon camera bodies (its EF mount and fullframe comaptible) and delivers a very good level of image quality. The short focal length will give it a good working distance for the close environment that you're aiming to work with; without being so close that its unworkable.

Note that the 1:1 magnification which is the maximum of all the above macro lenses will give you the same frame content no matter the focal length - for macro the focal length dictates the distance from the lens to the subject - where a longer focal length gives you more distance to work in and a shorter one less.
Wow, thanks for the reply. Lots of info to digest.

1) Budget helps a lot in giving advice - even if its just a rough idea"

I am hoping to find a lens that will work for my situation for $1k or less. Ultimately, my needs will dictate the budget so I'll spend more if I have to.

2) What lighting equipment/setup do you have access to?"

None. I will purchase lighting equipment as necessary. I primarily use indirect natural light with my subject set up on a work bench between two west-facing windows. I typically set up my tripod so it faces west. I often simply turn on the shop lights in order to get a little more light in the fore-ground or I rotate the subject 90 degrees and shoot from maximum tripod height in order to avoid the darker fore-ground altogether. My tripod reaches approximately 7.5' high. I sometimes use the slr's flash when there is no chance of glare.

At some point, I plan on buying/making a goose-neck mono-pod that will mount in small holes in the work bench or on the window sills. However, this set up will be dictated by the new lens. For now, I'm simply making the best out of my level of experience/knowledge, equipment and my physical space.
Well all of those lenses I suggested will easily fit into that $1K budget and leave room for some lighting gear. You will likely need lighting support since the depth of field (area of the photo in focus and sharp) with macro gets very very thin. As a result smaller apertures (up to f13/16*) will often be used to get a good depth of field. Of course this means you've a very small aperture letting light through the lens, so either the shutter speed has to be slow; the ISO raised or the lighting levels boosted.

Lighting can be a minefield itself and the best advice I can give you is to check out the book "Light Science and Magic - 4th edition". It's a very good textbook on lighting methods and setups with different material types. Whilst you might not go into extravagance with your light setup a good basic understanding will empower you a lot.

Flash wise I'd say that a 430EX2 would suit well - get that long with a means to take it off-camera (radio triggers or a cable) and you can get a lot of control over the lighting. A simple softbox (Lumiquest make a good series of smaller softboxes that might suit your more restricted working space) over the flash will work well; whilst if you've a bit more room you could setup a lightbox/tent.

* Typically sharpness on most lenses increases from wide open (smallest f number - biggest aperture) to around f8-f10. Thereafter that point the sharpness degrades again as the apertures get smaller and smaller - although remaining of usable image quality up to around f13-f16 before the sharpness drops off more seriously.

Of course each lens varies on these points and the numbers above are only very rough generalist guidelines. There is also variation in personal taste and demands as to where the point of acceptable sharpness ends.
Tamron 90mm AF-SP would be a good choice. Image stabilization becomes less and less effective as a lens is focused closer. Electronic flash, fitted with a diffusing material, and connected to the camera by means of a 1-meter pigtail "flash remote cord" is a pretty standard setup for macro photos of small subjects.

The biggest issue is achieving sufficient depth of field on 3-dimensional objects. At macro ranges, or even close-up ranges, depth oif field is VERY limited, and the modern approach is to use a tripod to keep the camera's viewpoint stationary, and then to use focus stacking--taking multiple images, with the focus shifted slightly for each shot, then having software "merge" multiple frames (3,4,5,6 frames) into one "Hey-I got-it-all-in-focus" shot.

So...image stabilization and hand-holding really is not a panacea. Not for macro and close-up work.

Again, I'd look into a 90- to 105mm macro lens, without stabilizer, and a good flash, and a flash remote cord, and a decent tripod. You will also want some type of flash bracket/clamp system that can get the flash positioned so it gives the desired lighting angle, so as to eliminate glare, and also to show shape/depth cues.

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