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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!

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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.

macro-lens-assortment

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. Yes, Minolta made great optics (and cameras!), however, having used Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, Panasonic M4/3, and currently, the Fujiflim X-System, I can state with certainty that the Fujinon 80mm f/2.8 Macro Lens is the sharpest lens I’ve ever used in 35 years of photography! I use it in product photogreaphy, and when combined with focus stacking, the resulting images rival medium format in terms of sheer detail rendition.

  1. im happy With my Zaiss 100mm f2 macroplanar on my d810 i had the sigma 150mm os but i found that the zaiss was slightly sharper on the d810 by margin but that small difference is what some photographers are after.

  2. Anitra Turner

    I enjoyed your video however I noticed u didn’t mention a,exact name on the cheap extention tubes to buy or consider on amazon for around 50 bucks would u share the exact

  3. Thanks for sharing these detailed results. I’ve been thinking about buying extension tubes so this review is really helpful,
    I am searching some options for getting into macro photography lens for Nikon D7000 the Tamron 90mm Macro lens With cheap extension tubes is posible for me

  4. Jim,

    So, I’m not sure if you really read these, but why hasn’t anybody mentioned the $7, or even better yet FREE options—coupling ring or handheld “coupling” respectively? I’ve been able to take some decent macro shots handheld (yes, I’m frugal, cheap, ghetto, etc.) using just two prime lenses of different focal lengths—one attached normally and the other in reverse at the front of the attached lens. I like to use a Nikkor 105mm f2.5 AI (attached) and a Nikkor 35mm f1.4 AI as the reverse and it works out great. Any thoughts?

  5. The reversal ring can be much better, but the choice of lens is crucial. A 24-70 zoom lens with many elements is probably the worst choice since those lenses are designed and coated to minimize transmission of light in the reverse direction (e.g., for flare reduction when used facing forward). The best regular lens choice for reversal (with or without extension tubes/bellows) would be an older sharp wide prime lens, such as the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 Ai-s (manual focus, but macro shooters rarely use AF)…dedicated micro-scope lenses are, of course, the very best options.

    One thing to note about extension tubes/bellows when used in manual focus mode is that it is easy to find cheapo adapters and put any kind of lens from any manufacturer on the business end. Lenses without an aperture ring can be an issue, but there so exist solutions to that problem as well (I personally avoid buying such lenses since they don’t work on older camera bodies anyways).

  6. Dear Jim,

    I m Francis and would like to check with you what is the best Macro lens or third party Macro lens ? I have seen your video and read what you wrote. But given today new lens technology are there any new macro lens which is very sharp, with Non Auto Focus (AF)? I prefer a Manual Focus (MF) with Vibration Reduction (VR) – I borrowed this term from Nikon lens. What is the best Nikon, or Tamron or Sigma lens? I tested the Nikon AF 200mm Micro f/4D IF- ED which does not have VR which i think is the biggest drawback but is a great lens. The Nikon AFS Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF – ED is good but priced too high. In your video, you gave a thumb up for Tamron AF 90mm Macro f/2.8.

    Questions:
    1. What about Tamron Macro 180mm f/3.5 AFDI?
    2. Can a Teleconvertor- TC goes well with both of these Tamron Macro 90mm and 180mm lens? If yes, what type of TC works well for these two lens?
    3. What about Sigma Macro 180mm f/3.5 HSM AF ? and the Sigma Macro 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO ?
    Overall which is an excellent lens?
    Can you suggest me one and sell me one macro at a budget for New or Used lens but must be in excellent condition ?

  7. Dear Jim,

    I have forgotten to tell you I am using a Nikon D750 camera. I tested the Nikon lens and would like to own a Macro lens either the Nikon Micro 105mm f/2.8 or Sigma Macro 180 f/2.8 EX DG OS or Tamron Macro 180 f/3.5 AFDI lens. Hope you would reply my questions above as I need to go for a Nikon group outing next month May for a Macro photography taking insects, butterfly and hornets and bees and flying insects, etc.

    Thanks so much,
    Francis

  8. Doesn’t sound like a macro photographer. “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.”

  9. Be careful with the cheap extension tubes. I had a set and they almost ruined a heavy-ish lens they were mounted on. Luckily, only the extension tube was damaged. Only Kenkos for me.

  10. Francis,
    I know this is way late but I hope you got the Sigma 180mm. The Nikon isn’t nearly long enough for your subjects and the Tamron isn’t nearly as good as the Sigma.

  11. It’s been well documented that the Nikkor 100mm fails miserably compared to the Tokina 100mm.

  12. For close macro, I like the Tokina 100mm best. I’m using a D800 and a 1.4 teleconverter and a Dine ring flash, and I’m getting some fantastic shots!

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