Best macro lens: close-up lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs

Modern macro lenses aren’t just one-trick ponies. The typical combination of a fairly wide aperture rating and short telephoto length also makes them good for portraiture and, in some cases, even for action sports and wildlife photography under dull lighting conditions, where a wide aperture enables you to maintain fairly fast shutter speeds. Concentrating on close-up shooting, however, here are our top six recommendations for Canon-fit macro lenses.

Best macro lenses for Canon DSLRs 2018

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1. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro

Top performance at a reasonable price

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: Yes
Weather seals: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 30cm
Filter size: 62mm
Dimensions: 79 x 117mm
Weight: 610g

Reasons to buy

+
Resolves incredibly fine detail
+
Hybrid image stabilizer

Reasons to avoid

-
Slightly pricier than the Sigma
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Tripod still essential in some cases

Tamron has launched some fabulous prime lenses and G2 (Generation 2) zooms. This lens doesn’t bear the G2 badge but is nevertheless a new generation of the 90mm VC USD lens. It’s easily distinguishable by having a silver band around the rear, instead of a gold ring around the middle. Compared with the previous edition, the new version has upgraded optics, improved coatings, better autofocus and a ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer, which counteracts the effects of X-Y shift as well as vibration. It works better for handheld close-up shooting but you’ll still need a tripod for full 1.0x macro shooting. Build quality and all aspects of image quality and performance are simply spectacular. It’s an incredible lens at a very reasonable price.

2. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

It’s the best that Canon has to offer

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: Yes
Weather seals: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 30cm
Filter size: 67mm
Dimensions: 78 x 123mm
Weight: 625g

Reasons to buy

+
High sharpness, low distortion
+
Hybrid image stabiliser

Reasons to avoid

-
Relatively expensive
-
Minor barrel distortion

The main claim to fame of this lens is that it was the world’s first to feature a ‘hybrid’ image stabilizer, although that’s now been inherited by the newer Canon 35mm macro lens, and Tamron has developed a competing system. Even so, the quality of this lens isn’t just about its stabilizer. As an L-series optic, it boasts pro-grade construction, complete with weather-seals. Sharpness and contrast are very good even when shooting wide-open at f/2.8. More importantly for a macro lens, image quality remains very impressive right down to f/22. Color fringing is minimal at all apertures but barrel distortion is a little more noticeable than from Canon’s older, non-stabilized 100mm lens.

3. Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

Feature-rich but fairly low in price

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: Yes
Weather seals: No
Minimum focus distance: 31cm
Filter size: 62mm
Dimensions: 78 x 126mm
Weight: 725g

Reasons to buy

+
Handling, image quality, value
+
Highly effective stabiliser

Reasons to avoid

-
No weather seals
-
Distance of focus ring from body

Astonishingly good value, this Sigma is a full-frame compatible macro lens that’s packed with high-end features. The list of attractions includes ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, four-stop image stabilization with switchable static and panning modes, a focus distance scale under a viewing panel, and a three-position autofocus limiter switch that can lock out both the short and long sections of the full range. The lens is supplied complete with a hood, a hood converter for improved efficiency with APS-C format cameras, and a smart padded soft case. Build quality and handling are excellent, although the Sigma doesn’t feature weather-seals. Corner-sharpness at f/2.8 could be a little better but that’s no real issue for macro shooting. Overall, performance and image quality are excellent, making the Sigma unbeatable value for money.

4. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

No stabilization? No worries...

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: No
Weather seals: No
Minimum focus distance: 31cm
Filter size: 58mm
Dimensions: 79 x 119mm
Weight: 600g

Reasons to buy

+
Offers a big cost-saving
+
Good image quality

Reasons to avoid

-
Lacks up-market features
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No weather-seals

Image stabilization is great for general handheld shooting but, for extreme close-ups, it’s of negligible benefit. The lack of stabilization in this older Canon 100mm macro lens therefore isn’t a deal-breaker for macro photography, especially as it’s so much less expensive to buy. Ideal as a combined macro/portrait lens, this one has a near-identical focal length on full-frame cameras to the EF-S 60mm on APS-C bodies. Both lenses look very similar, although the 100mm is bigger and has extra finery including a UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) element and a long-range autofocus limiter switch, but that’s unfortunately of no use when shooting close-ups. Sharpness is impressive, colour fringing is fairly minimal, and barrel distortion is lower than in Canon’s up-market L-series 100mm lens. 

5. Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM

It was the first EF-S macro lens but is no longer the only option

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: No
Weather seals: No
Minimum focus distance: 20cm
Filter size: 52mm
Dimensions: 73 x 73mm
Weight: 335g

Reasons to buy

+
Better working distance than 35mm
+
Solid build quality

Reasons to avoid

-
No stabilization
-
No weather-seals

Compared with Canon’s newer EF-S 35mm macro lens, this one is much more conventional, without image stabilization or a built-in Macro Lite. Build quality is more substantial and the autofocus system is ring-type ultrasonic, with the usual full-time manual override and a distance scale beneath a viewing panel. With an effective 96mm focal length in full-frame terms, the viewing angle is more telephoto than ‘standard’, and quite ideal for portraiture. The working distance between the front of the lens and the subject for full 1.0x macro shooting is 9cm, compared with the 35mm lens’s very tight 3cm, but it’s still a little close for comfort. It edges ahead of the 35mm for image quality, with better corner-sharpness, less color fringing and practically zero distortion.

6. Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM

This compact lens literally shines a light on macro photography

Specifications

Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Image stabilization: Yes
Weather seals: No
Minimum focus distance: 13cm
Filter size: 49mm
Dimensions: 69 x 56mm
Weight: 190g

Reasons to buy

+
Built in ‘macro lite’
+
Hybrid image stabilizer

Reasons to avoid

-
Short working distance
-
Build quality feels a bit flimsy

As an ‘EF-S’ lens, this one is designed exclusively for APS-C format cameras, and isn’t compatible with full-frame bodies. Like several recent Canon lenses, it features a stepping-motor autofocus system with an electronically coupled focus ring, and no focus distance scale on the barrel. Equivalent to a 56mm lens on a full-frame body, the viewing angle makes the lens ideal as a ‘standard prime’, even without taking its macro abilities into account. Hybrid image stabilization is inherited from Canon’s range-topping 100mm L-series lens. Uniquely, this lens has an LED ‘Macro Lite’ built into its front, with two brightness levels and the option to use both sides or just the left or right. It’s a good thing too, as the front of the lens comes to just 3cm from the subject at its closest focus setting, blocking most ambient light. However, even at full power and at the shortest focus distance, you’ll need a slow shutter speed of about 1/15th of a second at f/8 (ISO 200). You also lose the advantage of short-duration flash to freeze motion, counteracting camera-shake and subject movement. Centre-sharpness is pretty good, on a par with the Canon 60mm lens, although it drops off more in the corners at wide apertures. Autofocus is fast and the electronic coupling enables very smooth and precise manual adjustments for critical close-up focusing.

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