Equipment Foibles — Long Macro Lenses

Note to Readers: The Tamron 180mm f3.5 is a great macro lens! This article is about the limitations that all long macro lenses have. (added 17 April, 2012)

At the beginning of the year I began using Canon equipment for photomacrography. This decision was centered on Canon’s renowned MP-E65 mm lens, which can provide magnification from 1 to 5x without adding any extra accessories. To this lens I added a 5D Mk.II, the MT-24EX flash, a Sigma EF 530 flash and my first ever long macro lens, a Tamron 180mm f3.5.

"Tamron 180mm on Canon T2i with diffused flash rig"

My Tamron 180mm macro rig with diffused Sigma flash

I thought I was equipped to conquer…

(Violins, lento sotto… )

Alas, I was wrong. My success ratio plummeted. Not because of any fault in the equipment, but rather due to differences in weight, camera handling, and the changes in technique required when using a long macro lens.

A Brief History…(fade violins)

My macro equipment evolved through three distinct stages. I began in the film era, long before the boom in bug photography that we see today. My first macro setup consisted of the little Olympus OM2 (the first SLR to provide TTL flash control), a Tamron 90mm macro lens and a single Olympus T20 flash, which I used on a bracket or sometimes just hand-held. Combined with Fuji Velvia film, this was a compact but potent equipment combination.

We entered the digital era in 2004 with the Nikon D70, which was best in its class at the time. I loved the quality of the images I obtained from my Tamron/Olympus combo. so I purchased the newest Tamron 90mm DI lens to go with the D70. I used a single small Nikon SR-200 flash, a wireless flash that was triggered by the on-camera flash of the D70. Later I bought the Nikon R1 Close-up Speedlight Remote Kit, a wireless macro flash system. It was a light system, easy to use with one hand, and a bit larger than my Olympus set-up, but still well-balanced and a pleasure to work with.

Not long after investing in the Nikon system, I discovered Alex Wild at Myrmecos, and the amazing images he was obtaining with help from the MP-E65. At that time, if I wanted to obtain magnifications higher than 1x, I would have to resort to a variety of adapters, extenders and reversing rings — and here was a single lens that could achieve 1x to 5x magnification with a mere twist of the barrel! I drooled, but put aside my yearnings. How could I possibly justify† switching over to a new system based on a single and expensive lens?

Enter the photographer’s holy tag team, Hyperion and Erebus.

The gods smiled upon me with an unexpected inheritance from the (mother-and) fatherland. Not a Hasselbladian sort of smile, but a good, solid Canon 5Dmk.II sort of smile…

…that smile turned out to be a smirk from on high.

(Clash of gongs and thunderous drums…)

Top to bottom: Olympus OM4 w/Tamron 90mm, Nikon D80 w/Tamron DI 90mm, Canon 5D MkII w/Tamron 180mm (flash diffusers and lens hoods removed)

I had entered the big league. And I mean LARGE! Compared to my original Olympus system, my Canon setup turned out to be more than a handful.

(Cut percussion, fade in violins, molto soto...)

For novices, let me explain. Macro lenses typically magnify to 1x: that is, an object will appear life-size on film or a full-sized sensor. Nikon produces five macro lenses of different focal lengths that reach life-size magnification: 40mm, 60mm, 85mm, 105mm and a 200mm. Other manufacturers include a 150 or 180mm macro lens. What gives? Why do manufacturers produce such a variety of macro lenses if they all magnify the same amount?

The benefits of a long lens lie mainly in two areas: they produce a narrower field of view allowing you to better isolate your subject from the background, and they allow a greater working (i.e. lens-to-subject) distance. The longer the macro lens, the greater the distance between the bug and the lens.

This is a good thing, right? What could possibly be the disadvantages? Run out now and buy that long macro lens! After all, wouldn’t it be easier to photograph flighty bug subjects from a distance?

(Cut violins…)

Yes, and no…

"meadow hawk, dragonfly, closeup"

A skimmer or meadowhawk, Sympetrum sp.

Mounted on a tripod and using natural light (perhaps with some fill light), the long zoom is perfect for those larger insects that need space, such as dragonflies and butterflies. But it creates a few problems…

◊ The first is weight. The 180mm macro is a substantial lens, and when combined with a flash unit, diffuser, flash-bracket, it becomes quite a beast. Impressive, but the combination becomes difficult to hold steady with one hand–a skill that macro photographers need so that the other hand can be used to hold a reflector, another flash or manipulate or steady the subject.

◊ The second is the lens-to-subject distance. Yes, it is of benefit for those flighty larger insects, but it affects two things when used at life-size magnification:

i – you now need to move your flash forward to avoid the consequences of light fall-off… thereby often losing some of the benefit of greater lens-to-subject distance.
ii –  you lose stability you gain by resting the camera lens on the palm/wrist of your free hand, while manipulating the subject (say a bug on a flower) with your fingers, in order to make the subtle changes in angle you require to make the most of your depth of field.

(fade in violins, mezzo maestoso…)

One season of working with a 180mm macro lens has let me see its strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately it came at the cost of decreasing my success rate, so I have less images to carry me forward through the winter. And now I am in the market for a 100mm macro lens so I can return to business next season.

(…diminuendo… cut! Cue Visa card!)


This entry was posted in Equipment, evolution, Film, History, Lenses, macro, MP-E65, photography, Technique and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. intrepidtraveller 8 November, 2011 at 12:16 PM #

    Wow the camera looks way too complicated for a novice like me, but the bug photograph is unreal. I can’t get over the clarity, fantastic shot! 🙂

    • Adrian D. Thysse 9 November, 2011 at 5:13 PM #

      Thanks Intrepid! It is not hard to learn, and it looks more complicated than it really is.

  2. Ted C. MacRae 11 November, 2011 at 9:32 PM #

    I even consider the working distance of the 100mm lens longer than I want and have purposely been adding extension tubes – not so much for increased mag but to decrease the working distance and improve lighting quality. Of course, bracket systems to get the flash forward can compensate, but then you’re back in the weight/stability quagmire… The super short working distance of the 65mm and resultant impact on light quality is one of its greatest assets.

    • Adrian D. Thysse 11 November, 2011 at 10:19 PM #

      The MP-E 65mm is great that way, but unfortunately with its 1x to 5x mag. It does not work well for the bigger bugs or when you want to work with a bit more space around the subject. I wish Canon had a good 65mm that went from life-size to infinity — it would be perfect for my full size and APS-C sensors.

  3. MedicineMan 13 September, 2012 at 4:10 AM #

    Getting ready to take the macro plunge with hopes of obtaining photos of ‘medium’ sized insects much like the skimmer you have pictured here. Please make the decision for me, 100mm or 180mm. I’m in the Sony world with an a77 and a nex 7 so all APS-C. I am quite the novice in photomacography and won’t hold the decision to you! I just keep going back and forth! Thanks.

    • Adrian 13 September, 2012 at 6:08 AM #

      I’ve been thinking about this, and I would advise those new to macro to go for a 100mm macro. To gain the benefits of a long macro, I would add a 1.4x teleconverter. This combination will give excellent quality and adaptability, at a moderate price.

  4. MedicineMan 13 September, 2012 at 8:08 PM #

    Great answer…just hoping 95mm will be close enough. Luckily I’ve already got a 1.4 TC that I’ve used successfully with a Sony SAL70400g for some ‘ok’ macro shots….just such a huge lens for that purpose. I say 95mm because right now I can get the Tamron 95mm macro for a song….well to me an expsensive song but what people pay for songs is relative I suppose.
    Thanks so much for making the decision for me.

    • Adrian 13 September, 2012 at 11:31 PM #

      The Tamron 90mm macro is an excellent lens. I have taken many great photos with that combination.

  5. Tadej 11 June, 2013 at 1:06 AM #

    Great photos!
    I am using Tamron 180mm for macros. It gives you a lot of working space and you can use it also as telephoto lens.
    Now I am looking for a flash. I can’t decide which would be better:
    a normal flash and diffusor like you have it on the first picture or a true macro ring flash (sigma)?

    What gives you better light and less shadow? I am afraid that macro ring will not give me enough power and that normal flash will produce a lot of hard shadows even with diffusor on.
    Thank you for your help!

    • Adrian 11 June, 2013 at 6:21 AM #

      Ring flash would be terrible with such a long lens. Light looks best when coming from above, so I would stick to the single flash with a big diffuser.

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