by Alex W.
With most of us being encouraged to stay at home right now, there is no better time to dive into the wonderful world of macro photography.
Maybe you've tried out our budget macro photography hacks and got a taste for the unseen world all around us, or maybe you're plunging down the inescapable rabbit hole of toy photography and need to upgrade your equipment.
Whatever your reasons, there are a ton of options out there for your first macro lens whether you're shooting Nikon or Canon. There are old legacy lenses that aren't particularly good, and there are top of the range third party lenses outperforming their brand-name counterparts for a lower cost.
That's why we've brought you a detailed breakdown of the best macro lenses for Nikon and Canon (a mirrorless article will come after). You can also find a more in depth look at what macro lenses actually are at the bottom of this page.
Balancing affordability, features, build quality and class-leading performance and image quality, the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro is yet another stunning offering from the rising stars of the third-party lens world.
It beats out competition from both Nikon and Canon all while costing less. It's, simply put, the best macro lens you can buy right now.
This is pretty much the go-to lens if you're looking for a standard Nikon macro lens. It's the best-rated Nikon macro lens on DXOMark (34) and the 105mm focal length is the most popular among macro photographers.
As you would expect when paying a premium pricetag, the Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF ED VR Micro is very well constructed and its metal frame feels very sturdy. Autofocus is very quiet thanks to Nikon's Silent Wave Motor and there's a manual focus override option which comes in very handy when depth of field is so shallow.
The internal focusing system means there is no change to the length of the barrel when adjusting focus, and the Vibration Reduction (VR) is rated to 3-stops.
It's also worth noting here that macro lenses aren't just for macro photography. The 80-110mm focal range is fantastic for portraits and the image quality from these high-end macro lenses is phenomenal.
Nikon have a couple of excellent macro lenses designed specifically for DX (or cropped sensor) cameras, and this is the best of them if you ask me.
It offers an equivalent focal length of around 120mm, providing a good working distance if you're trying to photograph insects or other moving subjects. The internal focusing system means the barrel length remains the same, as with the 105mm above, and the 85mm f/3.5G VR Micro also boasts Extra-low Dispersion glass on the front element and 3-stop Vibration Reduction.
Basically, it offers similar performance to the 105mm above, but at a smaller size and lower cost due to its DX design. If you're not planning an upgrade to full-frame anytime soon and don't mind an f/3.5 maximum aperture, this is a fantastic option.
A cheap and cheerful addition to the list of best macro lenses for Nikon, the DX 40mm f/2.8G offers a shorter working range, no internal focusing (meaning the lens barrel extends when at shorter focusing distance), no Vibration Reduction and a rather slow autofocus system.
However , the image quality is still very good, it weights a measly 235g and is just 65mm long and it's one of the cheapest ways into true macro photography. If you're willing to put up with it's pitfalls, it's a great starter lens and the 60mm effective focal length does offer a lesser-seen wider perspective.
If you're shooting on full-frame but want a similar, wider focal length as the DX 40mm above, this is just the ticket.
The AF-S 60mm f/2.8G ED Micro offers excellent image quality, a Silent Wave Motor autofocus system, manual focus override and that handy internal focusing mechanism that foregoes any barrel extension when focusing at close distance.
Unfortunately it doesn't have VR, but if you're planning on doing most of your macro photography tripod mounted then that's not an issue and it is a lot cheaper than the 105mm.
Read more… Ultimate Guide to Buying a Tripod
If you need that bit of extra working distance, such as when photographing flighty subjects like butterflies, it might be worth considering the Nikon AF 200mm f/4D IF-ED Micro.
It unsurprisingly comes with a pretty hefty price tag and does lack some of the creature comforts of other models. For example, it has no Vibration Reduction, a relatively narrow f/4 maximum aperture and no internal focusing motor, meaning autofocus is only available if your camera has a built-in AF motor.
That being said, it is second only to the 105mm f/2.8G when it comes to DXOMark scores and if you're desperate for that extra working distance it definitely becomes a worthy contender.
Once again, the popular focal range of most macro photography means the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM rules the roost when it comes to the best performing macro lenses for Canon.
It tops the DXOMark rankings for Canon macro lenses and comes with all the features you might expect from a pro-grade lens. Image Stabilisation, an almost silent autofocus motor (USM), sturdy construction and weather sealing comes packaged in with some of the best image quality you can get.
Canon's 35mm macro lens is designed exclusively for their APS-C cameras, but it comes with a little twist. To combat the shadows sometimes caused by such a short working distance, the Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM comes with an built-in LED light!
Admittedly the light is fairly dim, but it's certainly better than nothing and for the cost this lens performs very well in the image quality department. It also comes with a quiet stepping motor autofocus system that allows for fly-by-wire manual focusing and Canon's famed hybrid IS feature.
Canon haven't really invested as much time in their dedicated macro lens offerings as Nikon, but this APS-C exclusive does offer a bit of an upgrade to the 35mm above.
It doesn't have Image Stabilization, but it makes up for that in its superior build quality and much more usable focal length of 60mm (96mm full-frame equivalent). Image quality is also better than the 35mm, and the focal length lends itself well to portraiture as well as macro photography.
Hands down, this is the best macro lens out there. It beats the equivalent offerings of both Nikon and Canon in terms of performance and actually comes in at a lower price tag.
Not only does it outperform its fancier-named rivals in the image quality department, but it doesn't scrimp on the feature list either. It bears a hybrid image stabilization system similar to Canon's, excellent ultrasonic autofocusing and full weather sealing.
There really is very little negative to say about this, and it's our standout winner.
If your budget doesn't quite stretch to the Tamron 90mm macro lens, Sigma's offering also offers astonishingly good value.
It's significantly cheaper than its competitors but still pushes them as far as performance goes. It beats the Canon 100mm f/2,.8L Macro in performance tests and comes close to the Nikon and Tamron offerings, as well as coming with a range of high end features.
The image stabilization system (OS) isn't quite as advanced as Canon or Tamron's but it still works very well and the ultrasonic autofocus is fantastic. The only feature it scrimps on is weather sealing and a bit of build quality, but something has to give for such a low price.
Samyang/Rokinon are known for their cheap, fully manual lenses, but they've recently upped their game a bit in terms of both build and image quality.
The 100mm f/2.8 ED UMC Macro has extra-low dispersion and high refractive glass to improve the optical side of things, making it a good performer throughout its entire aperture range.
That being said, they haven't strayed from their manual roots. It's still manual focus only, although manual focus is usually preferred in macro photography. Aperture must also be set manually on all cameras apart from the Nikon version, which comes complete with the electronics needed to adjust aperture via the camera.
Irix are relative newcomers to the mainstream camera lens world, but they've been pumping out some really good quality and unusual lenses.
The Irix 150mm f/2.8 Macro sits in a similar price bracket to many of the ~100mm offerings, but offers an extra 50mm of reach and a ridiculously low level of distortion. Image quality and build quality are both excellent, although not quite on a par with the Tamron 90mm. It's also another manual focus only affair, although aperture control is done via the camera.
That being said, with weather sealing, a tripod collar, focus locking, internal focusing and its competitive performance, it's certainly worth consideration.
Irix aren't the only third-party manufacturer offering a little boost in focal length. Sigma's 150mm f/2.8 [insert abbreviations here] Macro lens is a similar price but does come with Sigma's Hypersonic Motor autofocus system.
It's very competitive in terms of performance as well, clocking 29 on DXOMark and boasting up to four stops of image stabilization.
There is a compromise though - unlike the Irix, the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EZ DG OS HSM APO Macro doesn't have any weather sealing, which is a deal breaker for some.
As I'm sure you probably already know, a macro lens allows you to shoot close-up images. A 'true' macro image is shot at 1:1 magnification, which means that a photographed object will be reproduced on your camera's sensor at its real-life size.
Say you're photographing a coin that's 35mm in diameter - that would completely fill a full-frame camera's sensor (with a 35mm sensor). If you back off until you're at 1:2 magnification it would only take up half the frame, whereas if you had a specialist ultra-macro lens and moved in to 2:1 magnification, the coin would be reproduced at twice life size.
Macro lenses work by moving the rear lens element further from the sensor and allowing for closer focusing. Because of this, the overwhelming majority of them are prime lenses. In fact, I believe the only true zoom macro is the Nikon 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 AF Micro.
In any case, the point is this:
When these images are blown up on screen or in print, they're huge . The magnification allows for incredible detail that isn't visible to the naked eye, so macro photography really is like stepping into another world.
Note - You might have come across some inexpensive 70-300mm of 50-200mm lenses that have 'Macro' in the name. These aren't true macro lenses and usually offer a maximum of around 1:2 magnification. Additionally, they tend to be of a lower quality than a dedicated macro lens.
About Alex W.
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.