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I recently asked a question on which prime lens to get after the kit lenses, and in my shortlist of lenses there was quite a lot of overlap of focal lengths along with macro & non-macro versions of a lens. From what I've read so far, macro lenses have a smaller maximum aperture than their non-macro counterparts (usually around a stop faster), and the AF performance may be poorer (some like the EF-S 60mm macro are said to have fast AF). However, in terms of optical performance, they seem to be just as good as any prime.

So, as per a comment to the earlier question, I'm asking this specifically - does it make sense to get a non-macro and macro lens of similar focal lengths? Ex. (Canon specific), the EF 50mm f/1.8 and 60mm f/2.8 macro have pretty similar focal lengths (vastly different prices though), or the 85mm f/1.8 and the 100mm f/2.8 macro.

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To add some of my own curiosity to the question: optical performance can be assessed in a number of ways. Macro lenses tend to excel in many of the easily measurable aspects of image quality, like sharpness. Are there more-intangible aspects of rendering which macro lenses tend to be worse at, since they're optimized for a special purpose? Or, is it impossible to generalize like that? –  mattdm Nov 23 '11 at 13:19
    
Colour & contrast might be an issue in some cases as evidenced in one of the user reviews for the 60mm (vs the 100mm macro) here - fredmiranda.com/reviews/showproduct.php?product=293. Then again, there are a couple of reviews that praise the colour\contrast. –  ab.aditya Nov 23 '11 at 13:46
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@mattdm: Optically, I can think of sharpness, color, contrast, transmission/cutoff, and aberrations (or lack thereof). Generally speaking, macro lenses seem to be great in all of those areas, some of them truly superb (the 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens from Canon is, for its price, a particularly stellar lens.) Mechanically, there may be some drawbacks to macro lenses...such as lacking AF performance or apertures that are narrower than their non-macro lens counterparts. Was there something other than those optical factors I've listed that you were thinking about? –  jrista Nov 23 '11 at 17:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Buy lenses based on your needs. If you do need a macro lens and a super-fast lens of the same focal length to get your photos, then yes, it makes sense to buy both lenses. If you can do with the maximum aperture of macro lens or with the minimum focusing distance of the non-macro prime, then you don't need the other.

Also, collecting lenses can be a hobby by itself. For example, there are people out there with vast collections of 50mm or 135mm lenses.

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If money was no object, then it could be argued that it would make sense to buy separate lenses, both because of the better AF performance of some non-macro lenses, and the fact that similar is not identical when it comes to focal lengths.

However, assuming that like most of the world's population, money is an issue for you, then no, it doesn't make good sense, and you are probably better off just getting a macro lens, assuming you want to take macro photos: a macro lens will take 'normal' photos and macro photos, whereas a standard lens is limited just to normal shots.

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...and in this instance, at least, the best strategy would probably be to get a normal prime at the shorter focal length (50mm) and a longer macro (90-100mm) since the loss of DoF due to the smaller aperture would be less detrimental at the longer focal length (you can still get sharp eyes and out-of-focus ears with a tight head shot at f/2.8 at 100mm; not so much at 50mm). –  user2719 Nov 24 '11 at 5:19

You examples are a perfect reason to get both. Even though the focal-lengths are the same or similar, Macro lenses are not very bright, so you can get one more stop of light and more shallow depth-of-field with a non-macro. Personally, I own both a 35mm F/2.8 Macro and a 31mm F/1.8 and find both quite useful.

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It is better to use a macro lens as a tele-prime than the other way around, if you don't need a larger aperture than the macro lens provides or super fast AF. The difference is in the optical and mechanical construction.

Optically, the macro lens should be made to give flat field focus plane, while the prime is curved (by equal distance from point to lens). The macro lens is also constructed with floating elements to correct for spherical aberration, distortion, and preserve sharpness as you focus closer and closer, whereas normal lenses might be made very simple moving the entire set glass elements back and forth (premium glass does have floating elements as well), and if you use them with extension tubes you are focusing by moving as all further away, and thus increasing the projection of the image on your sensor, leaving no control to fix any aberrations, distortion, or blur, i.e. magnifying these optical issues.

Mechanically, the drawback of the macro lens used as a prime is its strength when used for macro: It is more for precise manual focus, which means you change focus slightly with a big movement, instead of having the entire focus range on a short distance. Good for manual focus, bad for AF chasing distant and close subjects dynamically.

Is there a drawback in using the flat field sharp macro lens instead of a prime? Well, if your prime option is a F1.2-1.8 and your macro option is F2.8 and you won't get good background separation, then it is. F2.8 at 20cm distance is really narrow but not so much at 2m. Also for portraits if may not be flattering to see the skin too sharp, so a soft prime with a glow wide open might look better.

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