Canon Macro Lenses
At the time of writing this article Canon produce five macro lenses:
EF 50mm f2.5 macro
EF-S 60mm f2.8 macro (works only with APS-C sensor EF-S mount cameras)
MP-E 65mm f2.8 macro (specialist lens)
EF 100mm f2.8 macro
EF 180mm f3.5 L macro
On the basis that I will only write or provide views on products that I own and use, this only covers the latter two lenses. I have never used the 50mm, 60mm or 65mm lenses so I do not intend to provide any coverage of those lenses except to say that:
- the 50mm f2.5 lens is relatively inexpensive and could serve as an introduction to macro photography. The least expensive of these 5 lenses.
- the 60mm EF-S lens will only work with the EOS 300D, 350D, 400D, 450D, 20D, 30D and 40D cameras with a reduced frame sensor (note this does not include the 1D series cameras). This means it has a 96mm equivalent focal length, very close to the 100mm macro. However, a different piece of glass so it's characteristics are likely to be very different - but I don't know!
- the MP-E 65mm lens provides from 1x to 5x magnification. A specialist lens. This is used for photographing small subjects that require significant magification (e.g. small insects). Additional specialist or flash lighting will probably be required.
I own copies of each of the 100mm and 180mm lenses and whilst I have used both I have owned the 100mm lens for much longer than the 180mm lens. This article attempts to convey my own views of the qualities of each and where and when they could be used. As with my other articles this is not comprehensive and does not pretend to be full coverage. It is my own personal view of what works for me and what doesn't. That's all.
To set the scope of this article my macro photography is largely confined to flowers and fungi, or the non-moving side of natural history photography (unless there's a wind!) I enjoy taking close ups of flowers and parts of them. I like studying a flower and examining it from different aspects and in different lighting. I really enjoy finding different mushrooms growing on rotting trees in the autumn months. I am not a botanist or microbiologist, but I like to study the forms and texture - close up. I also enjoy seeing what I can closer than normal eye contact. I am amazed at how often flowers displayed at a show are covered in spiders and their webs, for instance, when just judged as gold medal winners!
So, to using the lenses and my views of them.
Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro
I have had this lens for about two years and used it extensively for macro work with a Canon 20D, 5D and now a 1Ds Mk3 (but that's another story altogether...!) It is a relatively light lens, well constructed and easy to handle with any of those cameras. It is a very sharp lens even wide open at f2.8 and I have never been disappointed with it. As with all my lenses I use a B+W UV filter as a protective element. I also bought the additional lens hood and I would thoroughly recommend it is always used to help prevent flare. But the hood has also proven its worth a few times as additional protection when I failed to tighten the tripod clamps properly and let the lens descend rather quickly!
(2006-3495) Snowdrops. Canon EOS 20D with 100mm f2.8 macro
In terms of reach the lens has been wonderful for close images of single flower heads and even closer images of parts of a flower. I often use extension tubes to get closer but tend to find that the lens hood often gets too close or makes contact with surrounding parts of the subject when using this approach. Clearly removing the hood helps, but then the lighting requires careful thought and positioning to reduce any chance of flare. With its 100mm focal length it is also great for images of groups of flowers - or isolating a single flower in a group by carefully controlling depth of field.
I almost always use a tripod for macro work and find it perfect mounting the camera on the tripod rather than using an optional tripod plate. Occasionally I have attempted hand-held shots when light allows, but I have also used a "pod" very successfully to photograph subjects at ground level such as mushrooms or some smaller flowers.
It also makes a very good lens for portraits on the full frame 5D and at f2.8 works well in lower lighting conditions than my everyday 24-105 f4.0 lens.
In all I have been very pleased indeed with this lens. It has never let me down and I am delighted with the image quality. There have been occasions when I wanted a bit more subject reach, however, which is why I also have the 180mm lens.
Canon 180mm f3.5 L Macro
The most obvious working difference between the 180mm and 100mm lenses is that the 180mm lens allows a longer working distance whilst maintaining the same magnification. This characteristic has allowed me to get images that I would not have otherwise been able to get - or at least without considerable fiddling about and more patience and time than I have! I have, for example, been able to get a lower view of mushrooms growing out of logs; the tripod has remained on the ground and the lens does not have to rest on the log itself.
(2007-6444) Geranium. Canon 5D with 180mm f3.5 L macro lens
This lens is bigger and heavier than the 100mm lens and feels of sturdier construction to the point it feels like you could use it to knock nails in without damage. I do not intend to try however. As with other L lenses it comes with a lens hood rather than a very expensive extra piece of plastic, a carrying pouch and a lens plate.
For macro work this lens simply cannot be used hand-held. Given the focal length any small vibration will cause movements to be easily seen and captured. It is also a good idea to use mirror lock-up and a remote release to avoid any potential movements as with any macro work.
The longer subject distance with this lens provides greater flexibility in arranging lighting of the subject. As mentioned above I do not use macro flash devices and prefer whenever possible to use natural light. This means I do use reflectors to guide light towards the subject wherever practical and the extra working distance helps this enormously. Another by-product of the extra distance is that when using extension tubes the lens hood is still a distance away and doesn't interfere as much!
The image quality of this lens is superb and I am particularly impressed in the way it renders out of focus areas. The bokeh is somewhat smoother (in my view) than the 100mm lens, but given the shallower depth of field from this lens it is also easy to overdo the "artistic" out of focus look, so requires careful control. It should be noted that autofocus on this lens is slow, but this does not bother me in the slightest as for macro work I always use manual focussing. Of course, it can be used as a telephoto lens, and a very good one at that, although the autofocus speed may then prove an issue. But then I would almost certainly be using my 70-200mm f2.8 lens for that work, so for me, it is not an issue but I thought I should comment.
Comparing the two lenses
If I could only keep one lens, which would it be? Probably the 180mm lens as I tend to use it more often at present. Having said that it is not a fair test as apart from the fact they can both provide the same magnification they are quite different lenses. I personally prefer the 100mm lens for more general macro work and the 180mm for more creative or work to pick out details. They are both very sharp even wide open although I'm sure scientific tests would show issues, but for my day to day use they are both great lenses.
Irrespective of which lens there are a couple of additional points worth noting. As mentioned I do use extension tubes to get closer - I use the Canon tubes but others are available from Kenco or Jessops. If you do use these be careful to check they fit properly as I once had a set of the Kenco tubes that were such a tight fit on the 20D and 100mm lens that I was worried they would cause damage. The advantage of these is of course they are much cheaper - so worth checking out. I would also thoroughly recommend using the Canon angle finder to make it easier working on subjects close to the ground - small flowers or mushrooms for instance. This prevents the need for lying on cold, wet ground or snow, but be sure to pack a plastic bag or small sheet to kneel on!
Both Sigma and Tamron make alternatives to the Canon (and Nikon and other...) macro lenses. I have not tried them so cannot comment on their use or resultant image quality. However, they do tend to be somewhat less expensive, reputedly have equivalent image quality but are not necessarily as robust as the Canons. Worth looking at.