8 Best Macro Lenses: Head-to-Head Comparison

I have read countless reviews online of macro lenses, but the problem with all of them is that they only have one lens on hand.  That makes it pretty impossible for photographers to know which option is the best bang for the buck.

I purchased 8 different options for macro photography, so in this test we'll be reviewing extension tubes vs. dedicated macro lenses vs. close focus filters vs. bellows vs. a reverse ring.  Let's do this!

Ready for Pinterest!

Spoiler Alert!  Let's start with the best lens…

When it comes right down to it, I would definitely purchase a set of extension tubes as your first macro lens.  Why?  Because they give excellent quality results, and if you decide to purchase a dedicated macro lens down the road, you can use them in combination with your dedicated macro for even more magnification.

Cheap extension tubes – I tested two extension tubes in the test, and it turns out that the cheaper set performed better.  You can check the current price of the best extension tubes on Amazon.

Tamron 90mm macro lens – It's a tough call between the Tamron 90mm macro and the Nikon 105mm macro.  The Nikon has a TINY TINY bit more sharpness in some of the tests, and is built more solidly, but the Tamron is almost half the cost and in most of the tests was right on par in terms of sharpness and image quality.  Check the current price of the Tamron 90mm macro on Amazon.com.

There are two versions of this lens, one with image stabilization, and one without.  I'd definitely get the image stabilization.

As far as the focal length, it's a tough call.  I did prefer the 105mm focal length of the Nikon, but again, the difference was very minor.  Two areas where the Tamron performed better than the Nikon or the Sigma macros was (1) autofocus speed, and (2) weight.  The little Tammy focused really snappy and it weighs 14.3oz, which is about half the weight of the Nikon and less than half the weight of the Sigma.  For me, a macro lens is only rarely on the camera and only makes it in the camera bag if I happen to be going light on other lenses, so having the weight savings of the Tamron means I'm much more likely to take it with me.

The Tamron 90mm macro is available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax mount DSLRs.


What options for macro photography were tested?

I tested 8 different options for macro photography in this review and spent about 3 full days doing the testing and reviews.  Here are the options, and a little about each one…

Reverse Ring – A reverse ring simply allows you to mount a lens backwards on the camera (with the big end of the lens mounted on the camera, and shooting through the back of the lens).  It really doesn't do anything to improve the image quality over and above what you could do by simply holding the lens backwards in front of the camera, but it allows the lens to be held in a convenient way.

The reverse ring was unbelievably terrible.  In my testing, it showed odd optical flaring, the sharpness was poor, etc.  Basically, it was as bad as you can imagine.

Bellows – A bellows is an accordian-style device that mounts on the end of your camera and then allows you to extend the lens out in front of the camera.

The trouble with the bellows is that it is very inconvenient to use.  Unless you are shooting locked down on a tripod and shooting something stationary, it is too slow for most macro photography uses.

Cheapo Off-Brand Extension Tubes – Surprisingly, I found that the cheap extension tubes for $50 performed better than the Kenko extension tubes that sell for over $150.

These extension tubes focus quickly, produced sharp images, and had quality metal mounts so I have to think that the durability will be good.  Not to mention that the Amazon reviews for this extension tube set are fantastic!

Canon 500D Close Focus Filter – A close focus filter is simply a thick filter that screws onto the end of your lens and allows you to focus closer than you would normally be able.

I tested this filter on the Nikon 70-200mm lens.  Yes, that's right.  A Canon filter on a Nikon lens.  The Canon 500d will work on any brand of lens because filter threads are standardized between brands.

The trouble with the close focus filter is that it will not allow for focus at anything but one distance.  You have to move forward and backward until the focus is right, and then you can shoot the photo.  This can be time consuming because you are further away from the subject so it is more difficult to find focus than with extension tubes.  Another problem with the close focus filter is that it doesn't allow for as much magnification as the other options tested here.

Kenko Extension Tubes – I have heard great things about the extension tubes from Kenko.  Several professional photographers I know have them and like them.  On a hunch, I purchased another set of extension tubes that were far less expensive to test head-to-head.

In my testing, the Kenko extension tubes produced sharp photos and were well built.  The problem is that they did not always lock focus even when focus was found.  I tried scooting forward and back, and comparing this with the cheaper extension tubes dozens of times, and the results were the same.  The Kenko extension tubes did not perform well with focus.

Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro Lens – The Tamron 90mm macro is lightweight and inexpensive.  In testing, the image quality was nearly on par with the Nikon 105mm macro with very very little difference between the two.  One important point about macro lens testing is that it is extremely hard to determine sharpness.  Whereas with most lenses the sharpness differences are easily tested, with macro photography the detail in tiny objects is often so fine already that it's difficult to see a difference between lenses.

While I would say that the Nikon is slightly better built, the Tamron is lighter and almost half the cost. I also found the image stabilization to work equally well on both cameras, and the autofocus actually seemed slightly snappier on the Tamron.  For me, even as a very picky lens tester, I pick the Tamron.

Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Macro Lens – The Nikkor 105mm macro is exactly what you'd expect from a lens manufacturer with such a reputation.  It's well built, the optics are beautiful, and I found the 105mm focal length to be the most convenient for all around macro photography.

It's a great lens and if money were not factored into the equation at all, I'd probably pick the Nikon–but only by the slimmest of margins.  But the truth is that money IS part of the equation, and the differences in terms of optical quality between the Nikon and the Tamron are microscopic (almost literally).

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro Lens – Last but not least is the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro.  I feel a bit bad for this lens.  I think I probably didn't give it a fair shake.  Most macro photographers prefer the longer focal length of 150-180mm.  But for me personally, I found it to be too telephoto which made the backgrounds too narrow.  That's a personal preference, which is why I say that this lens probably didn't get a fair shake. Then again, the point of a review is to give my opinion, right?

This lens is very solid and well constructed.  I did see several instances of front focusing in the tests, but most of the time the results were good.

37 thoughts on “8 Best Macro Lenses: Head-to-Head Comparison”

  1. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the review.

    Out of interest, what about the Tokina 100mm? I use a Nikon D160 so the AF motor is in the camera. The lens is $200 cheaper than the Tamron.

  2. FYI – the current price for the Tamron 90mm Macro with image stabilization (or vibration compensation as Tamron refers to it) is $625.90. The $499 Tamron 90mm Macro does not have VC. Your link to the Tamron takes you to the VC version – just a heads up since your chart in the video lists the lower price. Great video and great review though. I appreciate your “real world” reviews more than the more technical reviews that some sites give.

  3. Jim,
    Thanks for sharing these detailed results. I’ve been thinking about buying extension tubes so this review is really helpful,

  4. Great review, Jim! Thank you!
    Another thing to consider with a Macro lens, is that “Macro” is a feature, not the only function of the lens. When purchasing a prime lens, if it is also a macro lens, that is a great thing. I use my Nikkor 40mm f2.8 quite often–but much more as a nice prime lens than for closeup work.
    Thanks again!

  5. I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t try out the Nikkor 200mm ƒ4 Macro. It’s, IMHO, one of the finest macro’s available for Nikon shooters!

    Sure, it’s been around for quite some time, has no VR, the auto focus (useless on a true 1:1 macro) is slow but has a “limit switch” and it’s heavy but when setup properly on a focusing rail and tripod it produces stunning results of Full Frame and smaller Nikons.

    I’ve shot as many as 60 D800 images with mine, focus stacked them for increased DOF and the results are mind blowing.

    Thank you for your efforts, I just think you missed one. Alan Kearney

  6. Thank you so much for your reviews and tutorials. I am a complete newbie to photography and I have learned so much from your website. I really appreciate that you always consider cost as many other websites don’t take into consideration the photographer on a (very) limited budget like me.

  7. Great comparison. I am searching some options for getting into macro photography and thought of buying the kenkos, but now i am looking into your ‘cheap extension tubes’ (just looked them on the german Amazon site- they are 174 Euros there!).
    I will order them in the US and have a friend bring them over.
    Thank you, Alex

  8. Excellent information as I’ve always wondered about adding extension tubes even though I already have the Nikkor 105mm macro. One thing in addition to macro shots, the Nikkor 105mm is an excellent portrait lens when doing head or 3/4 body shots and I’m sure the Tamron 90mm is just as good. Just something to think about as the more uses for a lens the more valuable it is.

  9. There’s a ton of GREAT images with reversing rings, its a shame you tossed them to the side because you had a smudge on your lens. : /

  10. Thanks, really good information. Have wondered about macro lenses for a while and this helps.

  11. Hey Jim, the link to the cheap extension tubes on Amazon says that they are for Canon cameras. Do they also work with Nikon?

  12. Hi Jim…
    Loved the video review. I shoot with both extension tubes and the Nikon 105mm and am very happy with the results. Wonder if you’d consider a shootout between 24-70 and 24-105 zoom lens options. The Nikkor is expensive even used, so it would be nice to know if a sigma or tamron would be a good alternative. Thanks for all your work. We’re the beneficiaries of it.

  13. That is a very good point, Jim. The Canon EF 100 L macro lens is, according to Digital Review, one of the sharpest lenses they have ever tested.

  14. IMHO you failed to test the macro lens – Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro. This lens out performs the Nikon 105mm

  15. Now i read at the top of the page you’d tested 8 lenses. I must be missing something somewhere cos I can only see 3 different lenses listed. Do canon,sony or my beloved minolta not exist? if it is only for new lenses even the Sony deserves to be tried out soewhere.

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