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In addition to focal length, you will want to consider some other features when selecting a macro lens. You may find that some of these features are actually more important to you than a particular focal length. So, choosing a lens is going to be a process of finding a balance of a number of different features and characteristics. First, as with any lens, you will want to consider image quality, contrast, and color quality, and of course, sharpness. Sharpness is especially important in a macro lens, because macro images have lots of very fine detail.
With macro, you want good sharpness across the entire image from edge to edge. It's not hard to find sample images from lenses online. You can download those, and evaluate them at home. If you have the chance to examine your candidate lenses in a camera store, consider taking your own memory card with you. You can shoot some images, and then take the shots home to check them out. Alternately, consider renting lenses to test them out, and evaluate quality and features. You will want to consider lens speed when selecting a lens, and of course, by speed, I mean maximum aperture. This 100 millimeter can open all the way to f/2.8, while this 180 can only open to 3.5.
This 50 can go to 2.5. Because of the close distances involved in macro shooting, you are often working with very low light, so that fast 2.5 or 2.8 can be a real shot-saver. However, with the 180, you can stand further back, let in a little more light, and maybe not suffer too much from its 3.5 aperture. Still, a faster lens is more flexible in more situations, so you may find those extra fractions of a stop worth it. If you're thinking, "Well, I want a faster lens, because I really like shallow depth of field," don't worry about that. In macro shooting, you are always going to have very shallow depth of field.
In fact, you are going to be working hard most of the time to not have such shallow depth of field. The 100 millimeter has a very important advantage over the 180, and that is that it has built-in image stabilization. An image stabilizer is a mechanical system inside the lens that reshapes the lens optics on the fly to try to counteract hand-held shake and vibration. Image stabilization can be a huge advantage when shooting macro. First of all, it can help prevent image softening that can result from hand-held shake, which means you can work with slower shutter speeds.
Because macro shooting is so often low- light shooting, having that extra shutter speed latitude can be a real boon. But, image stabilization can also help tremendously with framing. When you're in real type, even a teeny, tiny camera move will change your composition. Having a stabilized lens makes it much easier to get your shot framed precisely the way you wanted. Now, the image stabilization on this macro lens is maybe a little bit different than what you'll find on a regular lens, because it tries to stabilize across more axes. So, for hand-held macro shooting, makes a huge difference.
There are a couple of other macro lens features to take note of. Though your macro lens can focus very close, it can also focus at infinity. For example, this 100 millimeter can focus from a third of a meter to infinity. Now, when your lens's autofocus system is searching for focus, if it has to search across that entire distance, that can slow the focusing process down. If your subject is a distant object, it's a waste of time for the lens to be searching for focus in that one-foot range. Similarly, if I'm in here like this, it's silly for the lens to go and check all the way at infinity for focus, because plainly I don't need that.
So, most macro lenses have switches for defining the autofocus range. Here on the 100, you can see it's this switch right here. It has three positions; full, which means the full focal range of the lens; half-a-meter to infinity; or a third-of -a-meter to half-a-meter. So, if I am going to shoot a distant landscape with this lens, which I can do easily because it's a 100 millimeter lens, I would switch it over to here. Now, autofocus is open to the entire range of the lens. If I was working up close with these flowers though, I'd switch it back here to a third-of-a-meter to half-a-meter. That's going to eliminate a whole bunch of focus choices that I don't need, and speed up my focusing operation.
This middle one, half-a-meter to infinity, is just going to give me a little bit of flexibility as I am moving around the world. If I am not really sure -- maybe I want to do some close-up shooting and some landscape shooting, -- it's going to give me a good range of options. You may think well, really you're only chopping out a third-of-a-meter there, but there are a whole lot of focus steps within that third- of-a-meter, so this will speed things up. These other two switches, by the way, you might already be familiar with. This is just switching from autofocus to manual focus. Most lenses have something like that. And, this turns off my stabilizer. Any lens with stabilization is going to have a control for it on the lens somewhere.
Autofocus speed is a very important consideration if you intend to focus on moving subjects like insects. While you'll usually be focusing by simply moving the camera in and out, for moving subjects like flying bees, you might want to use your camera's focus-tracking feature. And, for it to be effective, you want a lens with a fast autofocus. The autofocus on this 100 millimeter is dramatically faster than the autofocus on the 180. Now, actually, while the 180 provides a longer reach that makes it easier to get access to a flying bug, I actually find 100 better suited to that kind of shooting, simply because the autofocus is faster.
As you get better with your insect shooting, you may find that you're eschewing autofocus altogether, because you've gotten very good at framing your shot quickly, and finding focus. It's a hard skill to master. It's nice having the autofocus option, and a fast autofocus is going to facilitate easier shooting. Finally, macro photography is often tripod- based photography, and a lens collar is often a better way to mount your camera to a tripod. With a lens collar, it's simple to rotate your camera into a different orientation without having to take it off the tripod, or move the tripod plate from your camera to another lens.
So here, I can loosen the lens collar, and then I can rotate my camera. But also, we're not giving up on the macro tools we looked at earlier. You will likely be attaching extension tubes to your macro lens at some point, or even reversing another lens onto the front of that. All of that's going to make for a really long, heavy lens array, and having that whole mess mount to the tripod closer to its center of gravity, rather than mounting it back here on the camera, will make for more stable, sharp shooting. The 180 comes with a collar, but if your lens of choice doesn't, there are third-party options, which you can add to your lens. Or you may find that your camera maker actually makes a collar for your lens; it just wasn't included in your package. The 100 Canon actually makes collar for the 100.
Buying any lens is a process of balancing image quality and features with size and weight, and of course, price. If you're really confused about what you need, then maybe you should spend some more time shooting with extension tubes and reverse lenses until you get a clear idea of what type of lens suits you. Alternately, again, consider renting some macro lenses is a very affordable way to do some experimentation. As we move forward in this course, the advantages of one lens over another for certain circumstances should become more apparent.
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