Macro Lenses: What Not To Use Them For

Wild vivacious redSony A37, 90mm, 1/125, ISO 100

I used to be really, really into macro photography. To be more precise, flora photography. I took pictures of the botanical world regularly. It had become my speciality. I was pretty happy with the results I produced. Macro lenses became a key part of my gear list. An E-mount Sony 30mm f/3.5. An A-mount Tamron 90mm f/2.8. Followed by an F-mount Tamron 90mm f/2.8 VC. Whenever I had a change of camera equipment, a macro lens was sure to follow me. I shot flora subjects diligently for nearly two years. These were my primary subjects in my photographic beginnings.

Explosion of youthSony A37, 90mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 200

Which might make the start of this article somewhat disappointing by saying that I have since stopped doing flora macros sometime in the middle of 2013. A change of perspective and a change of interests. I have not shot a macro since. It is quite interesting to think back now on how I used to pursue the subject with so much dedication, yet I feel little about it now. I pretty much reached the point of saying to myself, “now I’ll have to learn to use macro flash to get to the next level”. However I gave up my interest for the subject first – probably a very fortunate thing since this spared me some more money on equipment I’ll eventually have to sell off on the resale market. Ah the fickleness of sinful men. Yet all my efforts did not go to waste. Photography knowledge and experience in one genre is easily applicable to other genres. In addition you get to learn a lot about patience when working with outdoor macros, and build up this “never give up” attitude to trying to get that one image of a tiny flower outdoors when the light is right, the clouds are falling in the right position and the wind isn’t blowing.

Tiny vivid displaySony A37, 90mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO 100

Succulent blossomsNikon D610, 90mm, f/3.5, 1/30, ISO 110

Even though I stopped shooting macros since 2013, it was not until recently that I sold off my last macro lens. For a long while I was using a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro VC as a short telephoto lens. After all, that is a great advantage of these lenses. Useful for macro work, portraits and short telephoto work. Three-in-one functionality in a single lens. Sounds great. However there are caveats to this. Having shot with macro lenses for two years, and then using them as a short telephoto for more than a year, I came to realize the situation is not as ideal as I first though it would be.

Let me start with the obvious issue. A macro lens is specifically designed and optimized for macro work. They are beautiful for shooting close-ups and 2D test charts. Start shooting at longer distances and things get tricky. I really only started noticing this when I started using the Tamron as a short telephoto for other purposes such as street photography. The most obvious problem is that auto-focus accuracy is inconsistent at longer distances. Even with AF fine-tune, the results are apparently only effective for shorter distances. I have had to do a little more work in post-processing to make up for the shortfall in accuracy. Take the following image for example. The lens was actually slightly front-focused on the vegetation behind the man. Besides post-processing for aesthetics, I had to add more local clarity and contrast to ensure the subject is better visually separated from the background.

Troubled Man On Street Bench With Head In HandsNikon D610, f/3.0, 1/250, ISO 110

Of course the situation is not bad as it sounds, and it is rarely visible at typical web size and resolution. Serious enthusiasts will be disturbed by it though. I estimate that for every one image where AF accuracy was fine, I have another one where AF was off. A 50% miss rate is not really good performance. For a while I thought that this was just a case of third-party lenses’ AF system not working sufficiently well enough. However after more reading in various photography forums, I noticed that I am not alone. A few others have also noted the problem of AF accuracy with macro lenses at longer distances. Look at how much focal throw on the barrel is dedicated to close distances – nearly all of it. How do I expect optics optimized for close focusing to perform for longer distances? The results to me is a mixed bag. Sometimes I am satisfied with the results, sometimes not. It could be due to be the AF system. Or it could be due to the optics not behaving as good as it should be at longer distances. Mind you that does not mean it does not produce good images – results can be fabulous. However in general I feel that at longer distances, the results I am getting from the macro lens somewhat trails behind results I am getting from other prime lenses in consistency.

Man Sleeping Comfortably In PublicNikon D610, 90mm, f3.0, 1/500, ISO 100

As I part with my last macro lens to the resale market, I come to a simple recommendation after three years of using them. Get it for what it is specially built for: macro images. Do not purchase one under the assumption of convenience that you may need it some time, some day. You may find that you hardly use the feature, and does not function as well for those situations where you actually use it for.

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