Friday, June 6, 2014

Which Is the Best Nikon Macro Lens?

Remember the article for the best portrait lens for Nikon? Well, my experience has shown me that after portraits, the second most desired form of photography (at least for amateur photographers) is macros and close-ups. Perhaps it's connected to the fact that most compact cameras (and mobile phones) have a "macro mode" that allows you to focus very close to a flower. Flowers are easily accessible, so people grow photographically with the desire to take photos of small things.

And that is a great thing! There is a second world, a second life, hidden in the small things. It's a very demanding kind of photography, as people soon discover. Particularly when you want to take photos of living creatures. (If you haven't done so yet, do take a look at my top-5 macro tips article).

Food photography can involve macro shots

And so, one of the first things these beginner or maybe intermediate photographers often ask is: Which is the best macro lens for Nikon? They probably think of a lens that is really sharp and contrasty. Some of them might have also read that certain focal lengths are better than others. Reproduction ratio is something that might also arise (the bigger the better, right?). Well, congratulate yourself because you have come to the right place! As always, my goal is to help you make the right decision; to help you get the best micro-Nikkor lens for you. You see, we are all different. We have different desires, different needs. By 'macro', you might mean bugs. Or, you might mean fruits. Or, you might mean photographing small jewels. There isn't just one, 'the one', macro lens for Nikon that fits everyone.

But first things first, let's clarify one thing right away: Any dedicated macro lens is super-sharp and contrasty. You really don't have to worry about that thing. From the old AIS micro-Nikkor to the modern AF-S VR versions, they are optically impeccable. So, let's move on to what kind of things we should be looking for on a macro lens:

a) reproduction ratio
b) max aperture
c) focal length

I begin from reproduction ratio because it is something many people worry about, while in actual fact it's the least important aspect. In any case, the reproduction ratio of a lens indicates "how much it magnifies"; how close you can get, in some sense. Older AIS lenses had reproduction ratios of 1:2 (so, half life-size). Modern ones have 1:1 (so, life size). You don't have to worry about this. It's "close enough" for any of your needs. If you want to get even closer, you can always attach extension rings.

Maximum aperture is almost always an f/2.8. In some older AIS lenses it could be f/3.5 or f/4 (it's f/3.5 on the modern 85mm VR). Again, don't worry about it at all. In macro photography, it's rare to shoot wide-open; more often than not, you should opt for smaller (much smaller, even) apertures, to increase the desperately short depth of field.

And we come to focal length, which is the most important aspect, but at the same time the most misunderstood. Focal length choice holds ramifications for the working distance. People are usually told to avoid 60mm lenses and opt for longer, 105mm or even 200mm lenses. The justification is that with a 60mm lens, in order to get big magnifications (1:1 reproduction ratio), you have to get so close to the subject that a) it might scare it away, if it's a living creature; b) you might have trouble lighting your subject. Both of these are true. If you are shooting bugs or you position yourself between the subject and a/the light source, this can be an issue. 105mm is much better already.

This is not 1:1, it's 1:2. Still, it's pretty darn close for most people
(in case you don't recognize this item, it's a caramel!)

So, is it true that a 105mm (or maybe even 200mm) macro lens is always better?

No! The reason is the same for which it is better in the scenario described above: longer working distance. In some situations, being able to get close can be an important asset. Imagine that you need a macro lens not for taking photos of tiny insects, but instead for, say, photographing documents, or artwork placed in a narrow corridor.

Bottom line, like with every other lens you plan to purchase, consider what you need the lens for. Is it for bugs and flowers? Is it for static objects that might be in small spaces? Both? And while we're at it, do you plan to use the lens also for other uses (say, portraiture), or exclusively for macro?

I will finish this article by giving you some concrete suggestions - but remember, these are only suggestions. You should pick the lens fitting your needs.

For DX users:
- The best all-around option would be the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD - which is a full-frame lens by the way! But I find 90mm a better focal length for DX, rather. Optically it's brilliant, and it can double as a portrait lens. Very good option.
- A solution that is equally good optically (and cheaper, too) is the micro-Nikkor AF-S 40mm f/2.8. It doubles as a normal lens (although the non-macro 35mm f/1.8 is over a stop faster).
- If you need an exclusive macro lens, particularly for living things, and you have an upper level body that can meter with AIS lenses, the no-brainer option would be the micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4.

For FX users:
- Again, the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD is a great choice - particularly if you want a compromise in focal lengths (between 60mm and 105mm). Doubles as a portrait lens.
- Bit cheaper all-around option: the Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8. It's a bit short for getting close to bugs, but it might be better for more narrow spaces.
- If you need an exclusive macro lens, again, the obvious option is an old AIS manual focus micro-Nikkor like the 105mm f/4. Breathtakingly brilliant optically and mechanically.

Other options? What about longer focal lengths?
You noticed that I haven't included anything longer than 105mm. The reason is that these lenses are both expensive and specialized; they are for specific people and specific assignments. If you plan to go on a macro photography expedition in South America, photographing frogs and spiders, then by all means, take a look at the Micro Nikkor AF 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 or the micro-Nikkor AF 200mm f/4.0. They are the closest to "the best Nikon macro lens". Would they be the best for you? That's up to you to decide!

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