Extreme Macro Lenses

Extreme macro image of a queen bumblebee, made using a reversed enlarger lens. Image details in gallery.

Extreme Macro Lenses

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated May 13, 2017


The first question that anyone asks about extreme macro photography is just about always "which lens should I buy?"

Pentax K series lens reversed

A reversed 28mm lens, a budget way to start macro photography without a macro lens. In terms of starting out though, macro closeup adapters are a much more rewarding way to learn.

This is difficult to answer in just a few sentences as extreme macro lenses are a different proposition to the standard 'off the shelf' consumer lenses.

Not only are there very different considerations with extreme macro lenses with respect to macro lenses, but there are also different makes and marketplaces involved. Many are old, or custom, and rather than buying one off the shelf, there's a bit of speculation involved.

Extreme Macro Lenses

The extreme macro photography lens landscape is one that is largely unmapped and undefined. In extreme macro there is in fact only one easily sourced lens from any camera make that has any value, the fabulous Canon Mp-e 65. If you want to specialise in just extreme macro, Canon is undoubtedly the brand to buy into.

The cheapest way to start extreme macro is to reverse an old manual lens

The Canon Mp-e 65 is a superb lens that will go from 1:1 to 5:1 but there is a cheaper alternative. Other than this lens, the specialist lenses we use in extreme macro range from reversed enlarger lenses through to microfilm lenses, with microscope objectives in use as well.

Although there are a few well know performers, beyond that extreme macro lenses are largely a matter of experience through trial and error, and likely good lenses based on their optical construction. The great lenses used in extreme macro include the easy to source enlarging lenses like the el-nikkor 50mm, the Componon 28, Componon 35 and Componon 80, and if you're after more high magnification, a Nikon 10x or Reichert 10x objective might fit the bill. Read more about extreme macro lenses. Microfilm lenses can give outstanding high magnification images as well. Lastly, there's the absolutely epic JML 21mm, but this really is now unbelievably difficult to find.

Reversing Lenses For Extreme Macro

There are also various ways to get into extreme macro photography without incurring the expense of specialised lenses such as those referred to above: for example reversed single lenses and reversed lenses on other lenses. The cheapest way to start extreme macro is to reverse an old manual lens. This can create spectacularly good photographs. Cheapest isn't necessarily best though, and for the smoothest learning curve, consider using learning with some Raynox adapters first. Learning how to use reversed lenses becomes much easier after using Raynoxes.

Macro Lenses

The lenses for macro photography are usually off the shelf branded lenses, and can vary in price from £25 (used, eBay) to a four or five figure sum for a top notch fast aperture specially-coated lens from a named manufacturer.

anybrand Mp-e 65mm extreme macro lens for Pentax

The anybrand Mp-e 65mm extreme macro lens - how to make your own Mp-e 65mm for any brand of camera.

There are various things you should look for when you purchase or consider a lens for conventional macro photography. You want the right focal length for your subject, a nice long and sensitive focus throw, better resolution in the macro areas of the scale, a fast lens for a beautiful blurry background bokeh, a focus limiter is always nice, a deeply recessed hood (to avoid flare), solid construction, and above all, great optics. Believe it or not autofocus is actually usually a waste of time for macro: read more about manual macro lenses of choice here.

Closeup Lenses

Closeup lenses (diopters that are added in front of lenses) provide a fantastic entry point into extreme macro photography. There are both advantages and disadvantages using these; but be warned, those cheap eBay closeup lenses are a thing of the devil and should be avoided for anything other than dipping a toe in the water. On the other hand, quality closeup lenses provide a superb way into extreme macro as you preserve in-camera metering and autofocus. There are some real bargains out there to consider - see here to read more about quality closeup diopters and what makes some better than others.

Extreme Macro Lens Buying

Extreme macro lenses are a subject of considerable lens 'fetish'. It is all to easy to buy a lens only to buy another shortly afterwards because it is supposed to be 'better'.

It is not the quality of the lens that limits most people's macros

Excessive lens purchasing should be avoided; once you have a certain level of lens it is much more sensible to improve on photography lighting and technique for image quality improvement rather than expensive new lens purchases. It is easy to buy unnecessary lenses. Buying a terrible macro lens is actually quite a tricky feat to achieve but terrible macro photography is not. It is not the quality of the lens that limits most people's macros; it is usually lack of knowledge of the whole package. The difference between a £50 Componon and a £500 Componon-S is, in truth, marginal, and barely noticeable in anything but the most minute examination of final images.

Comments (8)

Article: Lenses
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Rainer says...
Very limited suggested options making me wonder where the Author has been hiding? I think other lenses deserve a mention such as the great Tokina 100mm f/2.8. AT-X PRO 1:1 Macro for around $500.00 Australian dollers you can't beat it for quality and results. I often shoot as much as f20 and still get great shots.
27th April 2015 8:20am
Johan says...
Yes Rainer, I agree - but I only review what I have, and unfortunately this author does not have the resources to buy a million lenses to be able to review them :). I'm open to contributions though :)
27th April 2015 10:20am
Phil says...
I just acquired a backup copy of my MP-E lens, partly because I've used the old one for over 200,000 photos (without problems), but mostly because I don't want to be without this unique high-quality macro lens. My older MP-E lens, purchased in August 2007, has a date code of UV0700, which implies a manufacturing date of July, 2007. My backup copy, just acquired, has a date code of UB1103, which implies a manufacturing date of November, 2013. It seems clear that Canon is producing them shortly before the sales date, as one would expect for a large company with experience in inventory management and managing its manufacturing costs. I speculate that the UK Canon customer service representative saw the 2002 copyright date in the lens manual and perhaps they concluded that they haven't been made since that date (2014-2002 = 12 years). Don't all or most modern camera lenses have electronic diaphragm control?
15th March 2014 10:13pm
Johan says...
Thank you Phil, very useful, excellent sleuthing! This maybe one of those internet rumours without foundation - Katie Appleton doesn't seem to think there's a problem, and I do also have another source inside Canon that makes me personally rather disbelieve any imminent disappearance of MPE65. Better safe than sorry though...
15th March 2014 10:58pm
Johan says...
Diaphragm control is done differently by various brands. For example the brand I use, Pentax, has its aperture motor inside the camera. This motor controls a shaft which then mechanically sets the aperture on the lens according to what you set in the camera. But on some Pentax lenses there is a motor inside the lens, but it's the AF motor. Canon though, I think has these 2 motors both inside the lens, they call the aperture one a "Electromagnetic Diaphragm". This is for example why you can reverse a Canon lens and by using the Novofles EOS-Retro, still obtain aperture control, whereas there's no such unit for Pentax (because the mechanical linkage, which is necessary with a motor in the body, can't be made).
15th March 2014 10:59pm
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