The Ups and Downs of Using Macro Lenses For Portraiture

The Ups and Downs of Using Macro Lenses For Portraiture

Some photographers love using macro lenses for portraiture. Others hate it. The choice of using a macro lens when shooting portraits thus becomes an individual one which has a myriad of upsides and downsides which we will cover in this article.

For me, a macro lens begun my career as a portrait photographer. Before I ever pointed my camera at a human, I was an obsessive, hobbyist, nature photographer who mostly shot landscapes. At the time I had borrowed my dad's old Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 macro to experiment with shooting nature much closer than I was used to. Despite that lens making for a terrible macro lens, I quite enjoyed the new experience of shooting tiny nature instead of massive nature. Thus, I purchased the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, which I used for shooting itty bitty things briefly until I started experimenting with portraits, which quickly led me to leaving nature photography in my rearview mirror.

Why Macro Lenses Make Great Portrait Lenses

A true 1:1 macro lens makes for a phenomenal portrait lens in many ways. Especially for photographers who primarily are aiming to shoot relatively close portraits such as headshots. 

Macro Lenses Have Outstanding Detail

As a lens that is designed to capture the tiniest of details, macro lenses are notorious for rendering some of the sharpest detail. When focus is on point, a good macro lens will resolve a crispness that few lenses can match. This helps create extremely clean, razor sharp images, that make for wonderful prints. 

Macro Lenses Often are Available in Wonderful Portrait Focal Lengths

While there are some macro lenses which break this mold, the majority of macro lenses on the market represent focal lengths that are characterized as having a perfect balance of telephoto properties to create flattering portraits. The most common macro focal length is in the 100mm neighborhood which many headshot photographers characterize as being the perfect headshot focal length.

Macro Lenses Focus Close

Have you ever been in a situation when shooting with one of your normal lenses where your camera is hunting for focus with no success only for you to realize you are a few inches too close? I've run into this problem frequently, the composition that I'm aiming for is just a hint closer than what my lens allows. The problem vanishes with a macro lens. You will never be even remotely close to pushing the limits of how near a macro lens can focus when shooting portraits.

Why Macro Lenses Make Poor Portrait Lenses

Unfortunately, macro lenses also include a few rather steep downsides which cannot be ignored when evaluating whether they will be your next portrait lens.

Macro Lenses are Darker

In general, macro lenses tend to be an f-stop or so darker than a non-macro equivalent at the same focal length. The fastest macro primes on the market are f/2.8 wide open. This problem is further compounded by 1:1 macro lenses as they lose maximum aperture as they focus closer than infinity. This is just part of the physics of how a macro lens achieves its close focusing, there is really nothing the manufacturers can do to prevent it. Nikon reports this in camera to let you know what is happening (which might make a new macro user think their lens is not working properly), Canon does not share this information in camera. For example, my Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro at headshot range is more of a f/3.0-f/3.5 lens when wide open. If you are looking for a lens that is going to offer the creamiest, most buttery, shallow depth of field, a 1:1 macro lens is probably not going to get the job done for you. 

Macro Lenses are Slower

Many macro lenses offer a switch to limit focus range to help reduce this problem but one reality of having a much greater range of focus is that the lens has a lot more range to scan in order for autofocus to lock in. This means if you are shooting in situations where fast, accurate, autofocus is priority a macro lens likely is going to let you down. Personally, I've also found, at least in the macro lenses that I own, the autofocus tends to be a bit less accurate than similarly priced non macro primes. 

Macro Lenses are Expensive

A macro lens is a specialized, lower volume product for manufacturers, which means it costs more to make, and fewer sell. This means that they generally come with a larger price tag (though there are exceptions, such as the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, which is very reasonably priced).

Macro Lenses Can be "Too" Sharp

Remember that amazing sharpness I mentioned as a benefit? To some it can also be a detriment as that extreme sharpness resolves blemishes and flaws with amazing clarity thus increasing the post production workload. To some photographers that perfect sharpness is critical, to others it is a flaw. If you are in the latter camp, a macro lens is not going to be the lens for you.

Macro Lenses Tend to Suffer from Focus Breathing

Focus breathing is when a lens's focal length seems to slightly change between max focus and minimum focus which effectively changes your frame without moving the camera. Almost all lenses suffer from this to a degree. Of all my lenses, my macro lenses suffer from this the most, presumably because of the extremely long focus distance. For example, my 150mm macro has a frame that is closer to a 135mm lens when focused at headshot range. Which I don't mind at all, personally, as I feel 135mm is the perfect portrait focal length for headshots but it is certainly a flaw worth noting

Conclusion

Macro lenses can make for fantastic portrait lenses, they can also make for poor portrait lenses depending on your needs or priorities for a given shoot. When deciding which portrait lens to buy keep in mind which factors above matter most to you and you will be able to easily determine if a macro lens is right for you.

Personally, even though I own multiple macro lenses, I'm still on the fence about them. In some situations I adore their results, in other situations I find myself frustrated with them. More than anything, however, I think it is about finding out if a macro lens fits nicely into your workflow or not.


 

 

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30 Comments

"macro lenses as they lose maximum aperture as they focus closer than infinity"

Actually, macro lenses are no different than other lenses in this way! The aperture itself doesn't change, but less light is transmitted. Normal lenses don't bother to report the number (technically t-stop) since they don't focus close enough for it to make a big difference. Since the aperture (f-stop) doesn't change, you do get the exact same bokeh you would expect of f2.8, but it's actually reporting the brightness/t-stop of the lens, so you should adjust your exposure to compensate for the new reading.

I was thrown off a little by the usage of the terms "darker" and "slower" in the context of lens designs. "darker" could also mean, the choice of glass and/or coating has an effect on the light's transmission - but the author was simply talking about the F-Stop. So the lens is simply "slower". But with slower he actually meant the focussing speed. Why stick to a terminology everyone knows and agrees on?

Tam Nguyen's picture

I've always hated it when people say "fast lens" when they mean "les with a wide aperture." Drives me crazy, especially when talking about focusing speed and other related things.

Stef C Photo's picture

What about the flattening of an image with a Macro lens? This is something I've read about before, and why I've steered away from using the 105mm 2.8 for portraits. Has anyone experienced this?

Ryan Cooper's picture

I've never experienced or noticed anything like this, personally with any macro lenses I've used.

A macro lens is PRECISELY the same in optical characteristics as any other lens. The designation of macro refers to its optimization for close focusing such as extended focus helicoid and optical correction for close focus.

"Flattening" is a perspective characteristic of any lens and is dependent on FL. Longer lenses flatten more and shorter lenses render the subject with more of WA effect.
You can get macros of 50MM or less (rare-ish) but they have exactly the same perspective characteristics of a conventional 50.

Stef C Photo's picture

Thank you! this helps a lot I appreciate it!

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Sorry, but this is completely WRONG. A macro lens (say the Nikkor 105mm 2.8) is a "flat field" lens, meaning the focus plane is a straight line. All other "standard" lenses have a curved or radiused field relative to the focal length.T%his is why many historians and documentarians use macro lenses. If they are copying flat papers or documents, a macro will be much sharper at the edges of the frame than a standard lens.

What you say is true, but for portrait work there is unlikely to be any perceivable difference since the depth of field (even if thin) should be enough at macro apertures (>=2.8) to account for this. The reason macro lenses incorporate a flat field element but (to my knowledge) even the most expensive portrait lenses don't is, I imagine, because it's only required at very close focusing distances, so for all intents and purposes Mark Davidson's answer was correct. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

That said, I sometimes find my 135mm f/2 hard to handhold in low natural light so prefer my 100mm f/2.8 macro as it has great images stabilisation, even if the images aren't 'quite' as nice.

True, flat field correction is necessary for close focus. At greater distances it is a feature with no benefit.

Flat field is not perspective.The "flattening" of an image as suggested by the OP is an ambiguous term as it seems to imply a perspectival issue.
As for flat field, ALL lenses aim to be flat field but macro lenses and some others that are not macro are optimized to be flatter of field.

ATOR Photo's picture

Please don’t perpetuate the ‘Macro lenses are too sharp for portraiture’ myth. Macro lenses are not magically sharper or have more detail than other lenses. I have plenty of lenses that are sharper than my Nikon AF-S 105 VR macro.

If you check lens sharpness charts you’re not gonna find all the macro lenses at the top, followed at a distance by the ‘normal’ less sharp lenses suited for portraiture. It’s a persistent myth.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its certainly less true than it once was but still relevant. Macro lenses aren't the absolute kings of sharpness but they still well outperform many other lenses in terms of sharpness. There is a reason lenses like Nikon 58mm f/1.4 or 135mm f/2.0 have markets. There are people who prefer their portrait lenses to be softer. You aren't going to find any modern macro lenses which exhibit this "softening" of the image.

Stef C Photo's picture

the 58 is my all time favorite lens. Yes the sigma 50 1.4 is sharper, but man I love the 58mm extra reach and bokeh.

ATOR Photo's picture

If you want the veiled softness of the Nikon 58mm then I agree, you’re not gonna find that in a macro lens. You’re also not gonna find that in any modern not macro lens.

Looking at the DXO list below I can’t find any facts that support your “macro lenses still well outperform many other lenses in terms of sharpness” claim.

http://www.dxomark.com/Lenses/Ratings

If the ‘macro lenses are too sharp for portrait’ argument would make sense then all lenses in this DXO list ranking above a macro lens would be too sharp. The Zeiss OTUS lenses would be absolute crap for portraits since they are waaay sharper than any macro lens on the market. Somehow I don’t hear a lot of complaints about that :o)

Ryan Cooper's picture

I never said I agree that a lens can be too sharp for portraits. Personally I feel portraits should be sharp but there are many modern lenses that are a bit soft, wide open, the 58mm isn't the only one. The new Nikon 24-70, from what I've heard, is notorious for it, thus some people love it, others hate it.

In the article I never said macro lenses are sharper than non macro lenses, I only said that macro lenses are very sharp, and to photographers who feel extreme sharpness is a bad thing a macro lens is not going to make them happy.

Its a repeated complaint (not just about macro lenses) that I've heard from several photographers so it was worth mentioning. I know one photographer that purposefully looks for soft lenses because she feels that when an image is really sharp that it looks too fake and is unusable. I completely disagree with her but she would never put a sharp lens on her camera. To her, sharp, modern, glass ruins photography.

PS: I wouldn't put too much stock into DXO. Their results are questionable at best.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Many lenses, macro or not are too sharp for shooting "real" people. Before digital, a lot of people shooting the classic Hasselblad + 150mm Sonnar lens used a Softar filter as the lens was a little too sharp for some subjects. Today when I use Zeiss lenses on my A7Rii, I can do a bit of negative clarity if the sharpness is too surgical.

Joe Schmitt's picture

My Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro is freakin sharp as hell. Much sharper than my 24-70, 70-200, and 85mm lenses. To me it stands out how much sharper it is. It's that noticeable. I've used the lens for close up shots, portraits and even landscape photos (using what I had on me at the time) and I feel it excels at everything.

Thomas Starlit's picture

Actually, it is not very sharp. Read the DXOmark scores

Joe Schmitt's picture

No thanks...I'm not going to pixel peep.

Or look at the images rather than scores on dxo

Rob Watts's picture

Love my EF 100mm f/2.8L for portraits!

A 100mm macro lens is superb for portraiture. While the author notes correctly that one cannot match the minimal DOF of an 85mmm f1.4 or 1.2, shooting at f2.8 can yield acceptably soft backgrounds if the background is suitably separated from the subject.
One also would note that studio use with flash generally abandons the fashion/cliche of shallow DOF.

As for sharpness, there is no such thing as too sharp.I scarcely believe that any photographer will build a business on soft lenses with no way of making sharp images. One can always soften an image that is sharp but no amount of PS flogging will make a soft image actually sharp.

It is true that macro lenses are darker. My Canon 100 macro is black while my 70-200 is white. ;)

Anonymous's picture

Enjoyed the article and it mirrored my experience almost exactly. I'd used a Tamron 90mm macro for portraits for a long time and then recently tried the Nikon 85mm f/1.8. I thought I'd get nicer bokeh and a more blurred background as I normally shoot headshots in tight spaces. I got slightly more blur, which is easy to simulate in post, but the bokeh wasn't much different. In fact, if I had to choose, I'd say the Tamron's bokeh was better. The only advantage was the ability to shoot in lower light before having to use speedlights; not enough to justify the cost and having another lens to bother with so it went back.

Orwin SantaCruz's picture

I shot a self portrait with my Tamron 90mm (the newest one) and liked the look of it. I haven't used the lens too much though since I normally shoot with the 70-200. I don't see a big difference between the 2 other than the macro ability which is what I got it for. The focusing didn't feel slower either.

https://500px.com/photo/149419197/self-portrait-by-orwin-santacruz?ctx_p...

Ross Haley's picture

Apparently the author isn't familiar with the incredible Zeiss 100mm F2.0 Makro.. Certainly faster than 2.8, doesn't focus breathe, manual focus, yes, but one of the best lenses even for its age.

coincidence or not, yesterday I decided to order a Sony FE 90mm F2.8 macro while selling my Rokinon 85mm T1.5. This was also my main doubt, will the Sony 90mm macro be able to shoot also portraits? because only for macro shots it is a bit too expensive for me.

Daniel Lee's picture

I have the 100L which I love to bits, the IQ is amazing and it's so versatile. I seldom shoot portraits and when I do, I used to use the 100L which IMO is great for headshots and half body shots. For full body shots, I prefer the Sigma 85mm f1.4 since I can get a more shallow DOF, the working distance is better too imo.

Dave McDermott's picture

The downsides are hardly steep. Macro lenses are slightly slower but not by much. Also most decent lenses are expensive so that point is not really relevant.

Just ordered a factory refurb'd Tokina 100 2.8 for shooting film on my Nikon F100 (see some of Matt Osborne's work on Flickr, shooting film w F5 and same lens). Tried the Nikon 105 and, unlike most, was "meh" toward it. I primarily shoot Sony A7R2s with a list of heavy hitting lens but figured there's little to lose as I don't have a macro. Should be fun. I've done a variety of searches to see what happens w Sony A7R2s and the Tokina 100s but there's not much... a friend commented that most don't spend $3K for a camera to spend $200-$350 for a non-AF (on the Sony) portrait lens. That was me until an hour ago... should be interesting. Thanks for this post.
P.S. Figured the 100 2.8 couldn't be far off the 90 2.5 "Bokina" but I could be wrong...