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Thread: When to switch to a macro lens?

  1. #1

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    I've been searching this forum and elsewhere, hoping to find a particular little nugget of info, but without any luck. So my question...

    At what distance or magnification one should switch from a "normal" lens to a lens designed for more close-up work? How close will most "normal" lenses focus and still render an acceptably sharp subject? (I know this will vary a bit from one lens design to another, but is there any general "rule of thumb?") As usual, thanks muchly!

    (And let's see if I've gotten my name back to normal after my high school students switched it...)

  2. #2
    Louie Powell's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Saratoga Springs, NY

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    Mark -

    In my experience, most normal lenses will focus down to perhaps a couple of feet. This distance is a variable and is one of the things that lens makers can change to increase the marketability of their product.

    Your question specifically addressed the issue of macro lenses. Macro lenses are designed for close focus.

    The close focusing limit of a lens is determined by the way the focusing helix is designed. If the helix is designed to allow the lens to move further away from the camera body, then the lens will focus on subjects closer to the film plane. A helpful rule to keep in mind is that to be able to focus on subjects with a 1:1 reproduction ratio (the film image is the same size as the actual subject), you must extend the lens by a distance equal to the focal length of the lens.

    But there are a number of tricks you can use to extend the close focusing capability of ordinary lenses in order to avoid the expense of purchasing special macro lenses. The simplest and least expensive trick is to use extension tubes. These are metal rings that fit between the camera body and the lens. They typically come in sets of three to allow you several steps of adjustment - and when combined with the inherent focusing capability of the lens, give quite a lot of flexibility.

    Another option is a macro bellows. These give infinite flexibility in adjustment, and are especially helpful if you want to focus on very small subjects.

    I have a teleconverter that has a removable cell element - to allow the metal shell to also serve as an extension tube.

    One of the considerations of close focus tricks is that the camera gets close to the subject. The problem with this is that the camera can actually start interfering with the subject (this is probably a corollary of the Heisenberg principle). Experienced macro photographers tend to use longer lenses so that they have more working space. I use a 100mm lens that was originally intended as a portrait lens for macro work. Of course, using a longer lens means that longer extensions are required to achieve the same degree of magnification.

    While ordinary lenses will focus on close subjects using these techniques, there will be optical issues. It's possible to improve on their performance by reversing the lens - literally attaching the front of lens to the camera (and extension device) and shooting through the back end of the lens. You can purchase reversing rings for this purpose.

    Finally, another trick that is sometimes helpful is to combine a couple of lenses - for example, use a reversed wide angle lens on front of a short telephoto lens. This requires double-male adaptors to screw the two lenses together.

    Whenever you reverse a lens, you need to be careful to protect the rear element from damage. You can make a lens shade for a reversed lens from a rear lens cap and a short length of cardboard tube.

    There are a couple of very helpful reference books that talk a lot about various macro tricks. One is Close Up Photography by Alfred Blaker. I suspect its now out of print but you may be able to find it in a library. The other is John Shaw's Closeups in Nature.

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Dec 2001

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    Mark, it depends on the lens and I'm not aware of any fixed rules.

    You asked about close focusing distances rather than magnification so you may be thinking of smaller formats. The rule of thumb for smaller formats is not to use a "non-macro" lens off its focusing mount. "Macro" lenses such as my MicroNikkors are designed to go to1:1 on their mounts or on their mounts plus an extension tube that's more or less specific to the lens. Close focusing distance depends on magnification and the lens' focal length, so it makes little sense to talk about it alone. Another rule of thumb is to use a macro lens for magnifications higher than 1:10.

    Since you're posting here, I take it that you're thinking LF. There are even fewer rules for LF, and relatively fewer lenses designated "macro" for 4x5 and larger than for smaller formats.

    Louise was on the right track in suggesting you read a book, wrong about the books she suggested.

    I don't think Al Blaker wrote a book called Close Up Photography. IMO, the best of his books for learning about photography is Field Photography. It has an extensive discussion of close-up work that is best on working no higher than 1:1.

    Lester Lefkowitz' book The Manual Of Closeup Photography isn't as good as Field Photography on photography in general -- that's not its subject -- but is stronger on working above 1:1. If it isn't clear, I have both, see them as complements.

    I have a beat-up copy of the John Shaw book Louise mentioned that I bought used. It is essentially Field Photography's section on working close up with prettier pictures, poorer explanations, errors, and a lot of padding. I wasted the $5 I spent on it. Shaw is too Nikon-centric for words.

    Field Photography and The Manual Of Closeup Photography are neither brand- nor format-specific, and Blaker and Lefkowitz are much better teachers than Shaw. I've given copies of both, also of Kodak Publications N-12A and N-12B (Closeup Photography and Photomacrography, respectively, both written by H. Lou Gibson), to friends.

    She's rarely mentioned on US BBSs, but Heather Angel wrote a nice book on closeup photography whose title I can't remember. I don't own a copy, probably should, but when I had the chance I read it. Head and shoulders above Shaw.

    All of these books are out of print, can be obtained used through, in alphabetical order,,,, and turn up from time to time on eBay.

    Good luck, have fun,

  4. #4
    Ted Harris's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2000
    New Hampshire

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    You should find several threads in the past year here on exactly this subject and,if you search the archives you will find an excellent lengthy article on the subject by Ernest Purdam on the main part of the site. The issue is what, exactly, you mean by “close-up work.” “Normal” lenses, those designed for optimal performance at ranges of infinity to 1:10 or 1:5 also work fine as the reproduction ratio gets larger, as it approaches 1:1. Where the performance of these lenses begins to fall off is at and after you hit the actual 1:1 point. Macro lenses OTOH, those designed to perform best at ratios of 1:4 to 4:1 and larger, begin to shine when you reach the actual 1:1 ratio. This is not to say that you cannot use your standard plasmat designs in the 120mm to 210mm range for actual macro photography. You can, but there will be obvious differences in performance between the results obtained with these lenses and those obtained with lenses designed specifically for macro work. Basically, the central portion of the image produced by the ‘normal’ lens and the macro lens will be the same at 1:1 and larger but you will immediately notice significant difference in as you move toward the outer edges of the frame Of course if your subject only occupies a small central portion of the frame this won’t matter but then what is sense of moving in close? You don’t need to get deeply into the technical aspects of lens design to see the differences. For example, both Schneider’s and Rodenstock’s lens specifications show that the macro offerings have a much larger image circle than the ‘normal’ offerings.

    Last year I did a real world test to see how these performance specifications translated into actual images. I tested 3 180mm lenses, the Apo Sironar N, Apo Macro Sironar and the Macro Symmar HM. My subject was a flat mesh sterling silver necklace about a 25mm across and 500+mm long. The necklace was made up of thousands of tiny silver links. I piled the necklace on the light table so that the lenses would be challenged by both layers of links and strands of necklace the covered the frame. I then racked out the bellows to close to 1:1 but not quite, and made an image with each of the lenses. I used Polaroid T55 exposing for the negative. Looking at the negatives side-by-side on the light table or scanned images across the 23” Cinema Display screen there just were no visible differences. I then moved the bellows further along the rail to just beyond 1:1 for all three lenses and again produced three images. The differences were immediately apparent. Again, in the center of the frames the images looked the same but as you moved out to the corners of the frame there were immediate differences in both the resolution and sharpness of the edges and centers of the tiny links. The two macro lenses clearly outperformed the ‘normal’ lens.

    If you do a lot of tabletop work that demands edge-to-edge sharpness of objects photographed at and beyond 1:1 then a macro lens is a reasonable investment. If you do not, then perhaps it is not. The modern macro lenses are heavier and larger than their ‘normal’ counterparts and they are considerably more expensive. Nikon, Rodenstock and Schneider all have offerings.

  5. #5

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    At 1:3 to 1:5 the macro starts to outperform the standard design optics.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    San Francisco

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    Or, get a G-Claron and use it for both.

  7. #7

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    There is a section in View Camera Technique by Leslie Stroebel that shows a pretty good comparison between macro and non-macro at a given magnification. I don't have the book here or I'd be more specific.

    At larger magnifications you can also get away with using an enlarger lens without worry of vignetting.

  8. #8
    Ted Harris's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2000
    New Hampshire

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    CXC is correct if you are photographing flat objects but a G Claron IMO, or any of the other process lenses, gives you no particular advantage on small three dimensional objects.

  9. #9

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    Good afternoon all (and others)

    Would I be correct in assuming that a process lens would have performance similar to a macro lens? Or are there differences which I am not aware of?

    Thanks Richard

  10. #10

    Join Date
    Aug 2004
    Middletown, Ohio

    When to switch to a macro lens?

    Macro lens are corrected to a higher degree than non macro lens for flatness of field that is why macro lens on 35mm, med format and repro are used for copy work. On 3d objects with both macro and non macro stopped down the same amount there is very little if any difference.

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