Sometimes you want to get very close to your subject. Maybe you’ve found a flower that is attractive to you, or a bee taking pollen. Maybe you need to photograph some coins or stamps from your collection for insurance purposes. Any time you need to take a picture up close, you need a macro lens. A macro lens is especially designed for close-up pictures. Most genuine macro lenses are also prime lenses not zoom lenses. They don’t look much different from a regular prime lens except that the internal lens elements are designed in such a way that it is easy to make “life-size” images.
A true macro lens (like the Micro Nikkor in figure 1 below) has a 1:1 ratio, which means it can take a picture of an object and render it in its normal size. A bee on a flower is the same size in the picture as the real bee on a flower. That is hard to do with a zoom lens—or a regular prime lens—because they will not focus close enough.
Some zoom lenses are advertised as “macro” zoom lenses. Those lenses can focus closer than most zoom lenses but they are not true macro lenses. Most macro zooms are limited to about half-life size or a 1:2 ratio, which means that a bee on a flower would only be half its normal size in the picture. You just cannot get close enough with most zoom or regular prime lenses. For maximum close ups only a true macro lens with a 1:1 ratio (life-size) will do.
Figure 1 – AF 60mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor Lens
Figure 1 is a picture of a real Nikon macro lens, the AF 60mm Micro Nikkor. Nikon calls their macro lenses by the name Micro Nikkor. Most other lens brands use the word Macro.
In figure 2 is a macro image of a compact flash memory card with a couple of SD memory cards lying next to it. Notice how realistic the close up image looks. It is a true macro shot taken with the Nikkor macro lens above.
Figure 2 – A picture taken with the AF 60mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor lens
Real macro lenses are a bit more expensive than standard prime lenses because they are a specialty prime lens. They have special features to make the picture look its best, such as “flat-field” design, which keeps the edges of the picture from curving in a distracting way. Macro lenses are highly corrected lenses, which mean the lens elements are carefully designed to give maximum quality and lack of aberrations (color shifting or shape warping). They are optimized for up close work. That does not mean you shouldn’t use a macro lens to take a picture of a more distant object, they do fine there too. They are simply made to do their best work at 1:1 distances (extreme close ups).
For maximum image quality, it is a good idea to use a real macro lens. However, there are substitutes that cost a lot less money. Let’s consider one low cost way to get extreme close up images without the expense of a macro lens, screw-on close-up filters.