Creative Field Techniques - Macro vs Telephoto Lens

You may also enjoy my YouTube video titled the same as this blog. And if you enjoyed the video, please give it a Like and hit the subscribe button.

Landscape photography is a wonderful pursuit because there are so many beautiful landscapes to capture on this planet. But there is an entirely different kind of landscape out there that does not require you to go to the ends of the earth. In fact, it can be found in your own backyard. I am talking about the little things that surround us daily. It is the macro world, the world of flowering plants, bugs and other tiny animals. Indeed, renowned macro nature photographer, Mike Moats refers to these as tiny landscapes. Check out his website, tinylandscapes.com.

There are two lenses out there that make wildlife and other things look close - macro and telephoto. However, a world of difference exists between these two lenses. Understanding the differences will help you decide if you need both lenses or not for your nature photography and it will give you a deeper appreciation for the macro lens.

To begin, what makes a macro lens a macro lens? When you read about macro lenses, you are almost certainly going to see “1:1 magnification” in the description. What exactly does this mean? Your DSLR camera has a sensor inside it that captures the entire image through the lens. If it is a full frame camera, the sensor’s width is 35mm (about 1 ½ in). If the camera is a cropped sensor like my Sony camera, the sensor’s width will be less than that. Mine is 24mm (about 7/8 in). With a macro lens, I can focus on a subject that is 7/8 inches wide and get close enough to it to fill the frame with that subject. This is 1:1 magnification. If you have a full frame sensor, you can do the same with a subject that is about 1 ½ inches.

The image below shows a yardstick in the camera’s LCD. Notice there is about 7/8 inches within the frame, 1:1 magnification.

You cannot do that with a telephoto lens. First, a telephoto lens is not designed to magnify subjects like a macro lens. But also, the minimum focusing distance for a telephoto lens is much longer than it is for a macro lens. What does this mean? Minimum focusing distance (MFD) is the shortest distance between your camera’s sensor and the subject that allows the lens to focus. In the photo above, I focused on a yardstick with my 180mm macro lens attached to my camera. While auto focusing, I kept moving the lens closer to my subject until it was unable to focus. The shortest distance achieved between the camera’s sensor and the yardstick while focusing on the subject is the lens’s MFD. As you can see in the image below, it is about 16 inches. The end of the lens is about 9 ¼ from the subject, this is the minimum working distance (MWD). That means I can get my macro lens about 9 inches away from the subject and stay in focus.

Now compare that to the 70-400mm telephoto lens. The MFD is about 4 ½ feet as you can see in the next photo.

And with the telephoto lens set at 180mm, 6 inches of the yardstick appears inside the camera’s LCD as you see below. Nowhere near the magnification of the macro lens!

But wait, can’t I zoom in to 400mm? Yes, I can. Look at the next image that shows 3 inches of the yardstick within the LCD frame when I zoomed in to 400mm.

Even at 400mm, the telephoto could not magnify my one inch subject to fill the frame. What a difference the greater magnification and short MFD of the macro lens can make!

Here’s another comparison example from the field.

Now let’s put that macro lens to good use. With the ability to magnify and get very close to a subject, you can make a tiny landscape look very large and detailed! To do this successfully, you must be mindful of some things.

Depth of field (DOF). The DOF of a macro lens is much less than the telephoto lens. This is great for keeping backgrounds out of focus, but it is more difficult to get your three-dimensional subject in total focus. Look at the image below. I spot focused right in the middle of the thistle bud.

Notice the front area is sharp but everything else looks out of focus. Of course, you can increase DOF by closing the aperture (increase the fstop number to 16 or 22), but remember, this sometimes comes at the cost of sharpness. Besides, the combined out-of-focus and in-focus portions of the subject can give it greater three-dimensional quality.

Background. Because of the short MFD and greater magnification, the appearance of the background will be a significant part of the scene. Look at the next shot where a single out-of-focus grass in the background creates a distraction. Usually, you can manage these things by simply removing the object from the frame. I recommend taking a shot, examining it and then adjusting the background to get rid of those distractions.

Your shadow. Because of the short MFD, your shadow can loom large over your subject if you are between it and the sun. Be mindful of the direction of light and shadows because your macro image is going to show every detail! Diffuse (cloud cover) light can serve well in these tiny landscapes as it minimizes contrasty brights and shadows.

Camera shake. All cameras and lenses are going to move when handheld, but the effect of movement or shake when holding a macro lens will be magnified. This is the reason for needing a tripod.

Before purchasing a macro lens, it is important to think about what you are going to use it for. Almost always, a macro lens is going to be a prime lens, meaning it has one focal length. Therefore, the macro lens you choose will likely be determined by the focal length you want. Keep in mind the shorter the focal length, the shorter the MFD. I purchased my macro lens with small wildlife (spiders, bees and other insects) in mind. I knew that I would not be able to get within an inch or two or my subject. To avoid scaring them off I needed a reasonable MWD, like 1-2 feet. For this reason, I purchased a 180mm lens, one of the longest focal lengths available in macro lenses. Therefore, if you are going for close-up shots of inanimate objects like flowers, you can get away with a shorter focal length, the most popular being 90mm to 105mm.

If you cannot purchase a macro lens but own a telephoto lens, you can increase magnification by attaching extension tubes that go between the lens and the camera. You can see what they look like in the photo below. Essentially, these serve to extend the lens from the sensor which in turn increases magnification. You can also stack 2 or 3 of them to further increase magnification. But there is a trade-off when using these extenders; you will compromise autofocus speed and sharpness.

The best thing about owning a macro lens is that it opens a new world of photography. I have learned so much about our natural world because of the photographs I have taken of tiny animals that I never noticed before. Here are a few images to peak your interest in macro photography.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about creative camera techniques, I do provide individualized workshops. You can learn more about my workshops from out my website and feel free to contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com.