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From my understanding, if you want to do some macro photography it is better to have a lens that can focus when it is really close to the subject. Sometimes people buy extension tubes to help them achieve this.

My question is: how do I tell before buying a lens how closely it can focus. This doesn't seem to be one of the standard properties listed in the lens name except for maybe when a lens says "macro".

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While it is true that focusing really closely to the subject is important for macro photography, keep in mind that a longer focal length allows you to focus further away while still getting a similarly sized object in frame. This is important for taking macro photos of live insects, for example. – rm999 Dec 25 '10 at 19:48
@rm999: yes - for the purpose of my question I was assuming a constant focal length. Do you have a recommendation for a focal length used for photographing insects and/or flowers? – Tom Dec 25 '10 at 20:05
For macro photography, it is often better to get further away from the subject rather than closer and still get a 1:1 magnification ratio. Sigma makes a nice 180mm 1:1 macro that gives you a better working distance than a 50mm macro. It's actually working distance that is of more use to you and greater working distance is quite handy with subjects like insects. Then, if you move on to water drops, not having your lens over the water pan is a bonus too! – John Cavan Dec 26 '10 at 2:41
up vote 14 down vote accepted

This is called Minimum Focusing Distance. It is measured from the film/sensor plane. Usually it's printed on the lens ( next to a flower icon ).

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Thanks! I realized I can find this number now if I look at the "tech specs" of lens. I've noticed some of the specialized lenses have a MFD of 1 ft. – Tom Dec 25 '10 at 20:06
@Tom - Don't pay attention to the word 'Macro' if it does not come from a first party manufacturer (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc). Third party manufacturers often put it when they do not get nearly as close as others in terms of magnification. – Itai Dec 25 '10 at 21:29
No flower icon on any of my lenses, but it is indeed listed in the tech specs as Minimum Focus Distance. – mattdm Dec 25 '10 at 21:46
Maximum magnification is equally, if not more important specification, as the focal length will play a large role. – Eruditass Dec 26 '10 at 3:39

Minimum focusing distance is useful to know, but it is only indirectly related to how much the lens will magnify an image. More to the point is the maximum magnification. This figure is often available (see here for an example) and is typically reported in two ways: in a form like "0.2x", which means an object can be reproduced at 0.2 times life size on the sensor, or "1:5", which means the same thing expressed in reciprocal form. A true macro lens has a maximum magnification of at least 1x (or 1:1). Many good general-purpose lenses have max magnifications around 0.15x to 0.5x.

Sometimes you have to hunt for this information. With Canon lenses, for instance, the max. magnification is usually found at the end of the user manual (available online in pdf format).

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Great info, thanks! I'm going to keep the other question as the answer because I was more interested in the minimum focusing distance than macro photography -- but this is still great :-)! I am going to read up more about this so maybe you will see another related question from me :-). You're absolutely right that the info is at the end of the manual -- a bit inconvenient but worth it to see what you're getting. – Tom Dec 26 '10 at 5:20

Any lens can be used for very close focus, using a close-up filter. If you already have a telephoto this might be your best option. For example, I took this photo using a 80–200 mm lens:

Swallowtail butterfly

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A dedicated macro lens will always be a prime lens, at least from Canon/Nikon, they will allow you to get really close. If you have a zoom lens that says Macro, it's only Macro to maybe a foot or two away, which isn't real macro. Most lenses have the minimum focal distance included somewhere on the lens, so keep an eye out for it.

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Some dedicated macros are also zooms (to at least some degree anyway). See, for example, the old Minolta 3x-1x macro zoom. OTOH, it's not exactly a conventional zoom either. – Jerry Coffin Dec 26 '10 at 10:34
Sure, I'll get my comment corrected then... – PearsonArtPhoto Dec 26 '10 at 13:40
Another dedicated macro "zoom" is the Canon MP-E 65mm 1x-5x macro zoom lens. – jrista Dec 26 '10 at 20:31
It's not a zoom lens, it has a single focal length, with a manual focus. It'd be sweet to play with one of those:-) – PearsonArtPhoto Dec 27 '10 at 2:58

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