Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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How does a macro lens focus so closely and how is the system different to that of a non-macro lens?

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Every lens forms an image at a certain distance for a certain subject. In order for a lens to be "focussed" on the subject this image must land on the sensor. For an object at infinity, the lens forms an image at a distance of f, where f is the focal length. For an object close enough for 1:1 magnification the lens forms an image at a distance of 2*f, double the focal length. So making a macro lens is easy, just create the lens barrel to place the [principal plane of the] lens a distance of 2*f from the sensor.

Making this lens also focus to infinity is the tricky part. You could rack all the elements forward to bring them a distance of f from the sensor plane. But this would result in a lens that changed it's physical length significantly when focusing. There would also be problems with vignetting and light loss like you get with extension tubes (this method is in fact exactly the same as using tubes. The other option is to change the focal length when focusing.

Most macro lenses use the second approach. So a "100mm" macro lens will be 100mm when focussed to infinity, throwing an image 100mm behind the principal plane, but will then shrink to 50mm at macro distances, still throwing an image 100mm behind the principal plane, which is now 2*f.

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Interesting, I'm not sure I knew that last bit. Thanks for this answer! I'm curious, though: how does it change its focal length? Obviously they're not changing the shape of the lens elements (at least I hope not ;)), so... I guess they're just changing the configuration of relative distances?? Might be interesting to know more here. Some good info here already, though; thank you! –  lindes Aug 24 '12 at 9:58
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@lindes The lens changes focal length by moving [groups of] lens elements in exactly the same way as a zoom lens changes focal length! –  Matt Grum Aug 24 '12 at 10:06
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