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What Is a Macro Lens? Photography Basics Explained

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macro lens

Having a camera with an interchangeable lens opens up a new world of photography and creativity. It’s essential to consider the type of shots you want to take to determine what lens you should get. For example, if you focus on landscape photography, you’ll find a wide-angle or even an extreme wide-angle lens helpful for capturing the detail you’re seeking. It’s another story if you want to flip the switch. 

Calling it a macro lens seems like a misnomer on the surface. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the term is “being large, thick, or exceptionally prominent.” That description doesn’t apply to the lens per se or the scenes it captures. Instead, a macro lens allows you to focus extremely close to your chosen subject so that it appears larger in the viewfinder.

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Factors Affected by Using a Macro Lens

A macro lens ramps up the magnification so that you can see all these details in the shots you take, most often at a 1:1 ratio. Using one makes it possible to see things you couldn’t see with your naked eyes. It’s essential to learn how it affects other factors that control your final product so that you can make the necessary adjustments to get the effects you want.

macro lens
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay

Depth of Field

One of the most noticeable consequences of using a macro lens is a narrower depth of field (DoF). This term describes the area in sharp focus. It’s something you can control with a normal or standard lens by adjusting the aperture or the size of the opening, allowing light into your camera to reach the sensor or film. An aperture with a large value, i.e., f/22, lets in less light than one with a small number, like f/1.4.

A macro lens is similar to using a large aperture. The result is that you have a small area in focus with the background blurred, not unlike the bokeh effect. It also plays a direct role in the next factor.

Minimum Focus Distance

While it’s true that a macro lens does the heavy lifting, another thing to consider is the minimum focus distance (MFD). It would seem logical that you’d get closer to take a picture of a small object. Some enthusiasts refer to the MFD as the working distance. It’s an apt descriptor since it affects how you’re going to get the shot based on the distance and the sharpness of the subject.

This spec shows one stark difference between a normal and macro lens. You’ve probably figured out that you can only get so close to a subject with the former before it goes out of focus. The MFD is shorter with a macro lens, which helps you capture the image. However, it can also interfere with your composition, as the next factor will explain.

Microphotography drips of water on a leaf
Image Credit: EvgeniT, Pixabay

Focal Length and Macro Lens

Focal length is another of those befuddling curiosities of photography. The term implies that it’s a measurement of the lens. It’s not. Bear in mind that the aperture is a circle of blades that converge to a set diameter based on the f-stop. It focuses the beam of light entering the lens to the sensor or film. The distance between the two is the focal length.

You’ll find macro lenses in a broad spectrum of focal lengths. The one you choose depends on your typical use for this accessory. That factor, in turn, depends on your subject matter. If you’re photographing a raindrop, you can get close enough to it to take your picture. A lightning bug, on the other hand, will probably take off if you get too close. That makes a longer MFD desirable to make the shot possible.

A direct relationship exists between the two.

If you want to get close to a subject to get the most detail, you should opt for a macro lens with a focal length of less than 65 millimeters (mm). If you want to take a pic of a bee while staying far enough away to avoid getting stung, look for a model with a focal length under 200 mm. Bear in mind that the larger the number, the farther you can take your picture. However, it’s worth noting that we’re talking inches and not yards.

There’s also the matter of cost and usability.

The greater focal lengths come at a price because of their versatility. You’ll also find that they’re heavier and larger than lenses with smaller focal lengths. That’s why we suggested considering your intended use. Yes, you can do more with a larger macro lens, but you’ll also pay the price for that convenience.

macro lens
Image Credit: PhotoMIX-Company, Pixabay

Uses for a Macro Lens

Nature photography is one of the best uses of a macro lens, especially with small things or organisms. The viewpoint is unique, which adds to its interest. These images often make viewers feel like they’re getting a glimpse of a secret world, making them even more intriguing. However, don’t feel as if you’re limited to insects and flowers.

A macro lens is a handy accessory if you are a food photographer. Who wouldn’t want to see a close-up shot of a plate of chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven? Textures also make for interesting pictures. It’s one thing to see snow falling. It’s another thing to see the snowflakes up close.

Tips for Great Shots

Our best advice is to think out of the box. A macro lens is an excellent tool for bringing the hidden details up close and personal. Run with it. Even the most mundane objects can be interesting with a new perspective. That’s where your creativity comes to the forefront. It also works well with portraits and any other subject for which you want to draw extra attention.

shutter camera divider 2 Final Thoughts

A macro lens opens up a new world of subject possibilities. You can put the spotlight on things that often get overlooked in their familiar places in the world. However, you don’t have to view many images using this tool to realize that it has enormous potential. Instead of looking at the big picture, it challenges you to look at the smaller stories that exist under the radar.

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Featured Image credit: Pixabay

About the Author Chris Dinesen Rogers

Chris has been writing since 2009 on a variety of topics. Her motto with all of her writing is “science-based writing nurtured by education and critical thinking.” Chris specializes in science topics and has a special love for health and environmental topics, and animals of all shapes and sizes.