The best macro lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs in 2017

Apr 21

If you want to shoot ultra-close-up images, you need a macro lens.  The ‘macro’ badge often seems to be bandied about willy-nilly. You’ll see it applied to zoom lenses that give as little as a 0.33x maximum magnification ratio, or thereabouts, and to prime lenses that only give 0.5x magnification. By comparison, all of the lenses we’ve selected here go the distance, at least when it comes to short focusing distances, enabling full 1.0x magnification at their closest focus setting. But what does that actually mean?

Magnification

A macro lens with a 1.0x or 1:1 magnification ratio can reproduce objects at full life size on the camera’s image sensor. For example, if you’re shooting with a APS-C format DSLR body like a Canon EOS 750D or Nikon D5600, a postage stamp will fill the whole of the image frame. When viewing photos on screen or in print, this therefore gives the possibility of massive enlargements of the tiny things in life. Shoot a spider or garden bug, for example, and it can take on the appearance of a giant alien invader, complete with astonishing fine detail that’s invisible to the naked eye.

While all of the lenses on test give the same maximum magnification, there’s a wide variation of focal lengths on offer, ranging from 40mm to 105mm. The main difference in practical terms is that lenses with shorter focal lengths have closer minimum focus distances, at which full 1.0x magnification becomes available. A focal length of between 90mm to 105mm is often preferred, as it gives a convenient working distance to the subject, of around 15cm. The minimum focus distance remains the same whether you use a lens on an full-frame or APS-C format camera. However, the 1.6x/1.5x crop factor of a APS-C DSLR gives the appearance of even greater magnification.

Shorter focal lengths can shrink the closest available focus distance. Bearing in mind that the distance is measured from the ‘focal plane’ near the rear of the camera body, rather than from the front of the lens, you can find that the forward end of the lens comes frustratingly close to the subject in macro shooting. Not only do you risk scaring away small bugs that you’re trying to photograph, you can also find that you’re blocking light from reaching the subject. The problem can be compounded in lenses that lack an internal focusing mechanism, because their physical length often stretches considerably as the focus distance is reduced.

Image quality

Unlike regular lenses, the performance of macro lenses in terms of sharpness and contrast at narrow apertures is an important factor. This is because depth of field can be as little as a millimetre or two at the shortest focus distance, so you often need to use a narrow aperture to enable sharpness at more than one specific point on a three-dimensional subject. 

Remember, macro lenses can focus at normal distances too, so they can be used as regular ‘prime’ lenses and make great portrait lenses.

Here are our top pick macro lenses for Canon DSLRs. All these recommended Canon macro lenses are designed for full-frame sensors, so you can use them on APS-C format Canon DSLRs too, and you’re free to base your choice on value, focal length, autofocus systems and whether or not they include image stabilization. It’s useful in a macro lens, though ultra-close-ups are usually shot on a tripod anyway.

Best macro lenses for Canon DSLRs…

Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro

Tamron has developed something of a history in manufacturing popular 90mm macro lenses. This new edition is the second to feature VC (Vibration Compensation) optical stabilisation and USD (Ultrasonic Drive) autofocus but, while it bears the same string of letters as its predecessor, it’s a completely new design. The new stabiliser is a hybrid system that compensates for axial shift as well as vibration, with the optics are engineered to enhance the quality of bokeh. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is optimised for macro shooting but is fast and accurate at any distance, complete with a three-position range limiter. Image quality is stunning, with superb contrast and sharpness.

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Often it takes something special to tempt photographers from their camera’s own-brand lenses, and this Sigma goes all out for the win. Its pro-spec design includes fast and near silent ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and there’s a highly effective four-stop optical stabiliser. Two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements help produce excellent sharpness, even at the widest aperture. Colour fringing is negligible, and distortion is essentially a non-issue. As well as being very quick, autofocusing is good at locking on to targets in all lighting conditions and there are three focus-limiting options. Sublime handling and Canon-rivalling build quality completes this terrific lens.

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

While several of the latest macro lenses feature an optical stabiliser, the one that was developed specifically for this lens is a hybrid system. It can counteract axial shift (up-down and side-to-side movement) as well as the usual angular vibration, or wobble. The pro-grade build includes weather-seals and the lens comes with a hood and soft pouch. A UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) element is included in the optical path to boost sharpness and contrast while reducing chromatic aberrations. Autofocus is fast and accurate and, arguably more importantly for macro shooting, the manual focus ring operates smoothly and enables precise adjustments. The hybrid stabiliser works well for regular and fairly close-up shooting, but is of little benefit at the closest focus distance for maximum macro magnification.

The Samyang is a very manual affair. Not only does it lack any autofocus ability, but the aperture also has to be set manually, using the lens’s aperture ring. The lens is well engineered and handles beautifully. The focus ring has a long travel and is silky smooth in operation, enabling excellent precision for very fine adjustments. High-quality optical elements include both ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and HR (High Refractive) glass. Sharpness and contrast are good even at the widest available aperture of f/2.8, and remain very consistent throughout most of the aperture range. A problem when using narrow apertures is that the viewfinder image becomes very dark indeed.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Using a relatively old design, the Tokina lacks mod cons like optical stabilisation. The Canon-fit edition only has a basic electric autofocus motor, while the lens lacks internal focusing, so the inner barrel extends as you focus at closer distances. Even so, it’s physically quite small and the Tokina is well-engineered, with a high-quality feel to its handling. The push-pull focus ring enables easy switching between automatic and manual focusing. There’s plenty of travel and smoothness in the focus ring’s operation, giving great precision. Where available, autofocus is a bit slow and clearly audible. Image quality is very good, although the otherwise excellent sharpness levels drop at f/22, a desirable aperture for macro shooting.

Like Canon DSLRs, Nikon DSLRs come with sensors in two sizes – APS-C and full frame – and Nikon-fit lenses are designed for these two sensor sizes too. You can use full-frame lenses on APS-C cameras, but it doesn’t work so well the other way round because the camera will then only work in ‘crop’ mode, where you lose the advantage of the bigger sensor.

However, with the exception of one lens, all the lenses in our list are for full-frame (FX) Nikon DSLRs, so they’ll also work fine on the smaller (DX) format models. The only difference is that on a DX Nikon, the effective focal length is 1.5x longer. This is fine for macro lenses, though, because it’s often an advantage to be a little further from your subject anyway.

Best macro lenses for Nikon DSLRs…

Tamron has developed something of a history in manufacturing popular 90mm macro lenses. This new edition is the second to feature VC (Vibration Compensation) optical stabilisation and USD (Ultrasonic Drive) autofocus but, while it bears the same string of letters as its predecessor, it’s a completely new design. The new stabiliser is a hybrid system that compensates for axial shift as well as vibration, with the optics are engineered to enhance the quality of bokeh. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is optimised for macro shooting but is fast and accurate at any distance, complete with a three-position range limiter. Image quality is stunning, with superb contrast and sharpness.

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Often it takes something special to tempt photographers from their camera’s own-brand lenses, and this Sigma goes all out for the win. Its pro-spec design includes fast and near silent ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and there’s a highly effective four-stop optical stabiliser. Two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements help produce excellent sharpness, even at the widest aperture. Colour fringing is negligible, and distortion is essentially a non-issue. As well as being very quick, autofocusing is good at locking on to targets in all lighting conditions and there are three focus-limiting options. Sublime handling and Nikon-rivalling build quality completes this terrific lens.

Nikon 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro

Nikon currently markets several of what it calls ‘Micro’ lenses, including two DX models that are specifically designed for use on APS-C format cameras. This was the world’s first macro lens to include an optical stabiliser, although it’s not a hybrid system. The upmarket build includes a weather-sealed mount, an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) optical element, Nano Crystal coating to reduce ghosting and flare, and fast ring-type ultrasonic autofocus. Autofocus and VR (Vibration Reduction) work well for general shooting but are of no real benefit for extreme close-ups. Manual focusing is more precise than in other recent Nikon ‘G-type’ macro lenses and the image quality is very good overall, but the lens isn’t great value at this price.

Samyang is a very manual affair. Lacking any autofocus ability, the Nikon version at least includes the electronics and mechanics necessary for adjusting the aperture from the host camera. The lens is well engineered and handles beautifully. The focus ring has a long travel and is silky smooth in operation, enabling excellent precision for very fine adjustments. High-quality optical elements include both ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and HR (High Refractive) glass. Sharpness and contrast are good even at the widest available aperture of f/2.8, and remain very consistent throughout most of the aperture range. 

Tamrom SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro

Using a relatively old design, the Tokina lacks mod cons like optical stabilisation. There’s no AF motor at all in the Nikon-fit version, which means that autofocus is impossible with bodies like the D3300 and D5500, which lack in-camera AF drive motors. This lens lacks internal focusing, so the inner barrel extends as you focus at closer distances. Even so, it’s physically quite small and the Tokina is well-engineered, with a high-quality feel to its handling. Where available, autofocus is a bit slow and clearly audible. Image quality is very good, although the otherwise excellent sharpness levels drop at f/22, a desirable aperture for macro shooting.

Relatively tiny and a real lightweight, this lens measures a mere 69 x 65mm and, at 235g, is only about a third of the weight of some lenses here. This is due to it being a DX-format lens, having a short 40mm focal length, and lacking an internal focusing mechanism. This means the front of the lens is 3.5cm from the subject at the minimum setting for full 1.0x magnification, which often casts a shadow over the subject. Image quality is very good, but autofocus is pretty slow, and manual focusing is hampered by a lack of smoothness and precision in the focus ring.

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