Some macro lenses have a really nice focal length that would make them a nice prime-telephoto lens, but are there any downsides of using a macro lens when shooting distant subjects (besides the lack of zooming)?

  • 6
    This question has been recently addressed. Briefly, macro lenses tend to be sharp (good), but can be slow to achieve focus (bad). An extremely shallow depth of field can be achieved for creative work, but don't get in too close and just show pores! Jul 19 '11 at 19:58
  • 2
    I'm sorry for duplicating a question. Haven't found it through the search and it didn't popped up in the "propably similiar question listing". btw: my original question was "Is a macro lens a suitable telephoto lens?". I guess ElendilTheTall changed that, don't know why exactly. With "telephoto" I mean more wildlife and sports than portraiture. Jul 20 '11 at 18:34
  • 2
    Hard to say why ElendilTheTall changed the question like that. It's not common practice. I edited title to better match both original intent and answers already provided. Perhaps @dpollitt can even retract his downvote now :)
    – Imre
    Jul 21 '11 at 20:17
  • 1
    @Anisha Kaul: thats a macro-only special purpose lens. Sep 12 '11 at 8:12
  • 1
    Anuisha, the MP-E 65 is the lens equivalent of a Formula 1 racing car. It is so optimized for its one particular job that it is utterly unsuited to anything else. On the other hand, no other commercially available lens does what it does... it starts where other macros stop (at 1:1 magnification; it goes down to 5:1).
    – Staale S
    Sep 12 '11 at 9:21

Most prime macro lenses are suitable for distant subjects. However, there are some exceptions:

  • the king of macro photography, Canon MP-E 65, will not focus far enough to fit more than an eye or nose on a portrait;

  • some macro lenses, like Pentax DA 35 Limited Macro, have a short focal length -suitable for distant subjects only as environmental shots showing context rather than details of the subject; shorter than about 50mm on APS-C or 75mm on full frame are generally not considered suitable as portrait lens;

  • some zoom lenses are also sold as "macro" lenses; generally they have a variable aperture similar to consumer zooms. You can take portraits with them, but you have to use other tricks to get a good background separation (e.g. background far away, plain background, lighting subject to underexpose background).

Macro lenses are made to be comfortable for precise manual focusing (because that's how macro is mostly done), so their large focusing range is spread over almost a full turn of focusing ring. This implies that auto-focus can be a bit slow, especially if there's no focus range limit switch and the lens goes hunting through the whole range. Prefocusing to an approximate distance might help you here in many cases.

Another disadvantage in using macro lenses compared to a regular primes lens is their moderate maximum aperture for a prime of similar focal length (especially ones preferred for low-light, fast action or portraiture), usually in range of f/2.8 to f/4.5 - for macro, more would be overkill. Tamron 60mm f/2.0 is a surprising exception here; unfortunately 60mm has to be so close to subject it will scare away living critters, also lighting becomes challenging; so it has somewhat limited use in macro world.

The smaller aperture means less flexibility in getting thin depth of field. But small maximum aperture means the aperture for maximum sharpness is even slower (typically by a stop or two), meaning you have to take harder compromises between sharpness and background separation by DOF.

That said, an f/2.8 macro lens is still on par with professional zooms aperture-wise.

  • When you start talking about 100mm and up, f/2.8 is on the same level as a prime. Below 100mm you are correct.
    – dpollitt
    Jul 20 '11 at 17:42
  • @dpollitt macro lenses are still slower above 100mm - there's 135mm f/2 and (Nikkor) 200mm f/2 for portraiture, while macro lenses tend to be about f/4 at those focal lengths (with exception of Sigma 150/2.8)
    – Imre
    Jul 21 '11 at 6:49
  • I guess I was thinking about the 100mm f/2.8 Canon macros and the 70-200 f/2.8 Canon zooms, both of which are very common lenses to have in a bag. They have the same maximum aperture, and are likely to be selected for their own right, so they make a good comparison.
    – dpollitt
    Jul 21 '11 at 13:13
  • 70-200 f/2.8 is a professional zoom (addressed in my last sentence), not a prime
    – Imre
    Jul 21 '11 at 20:30

No disadvantage, macro lenses generally make good portrait lenses, especially if they're fast. A macro lens only differs from a standard lens in that they can focus at a closer distance.

  • 2
    Except for the MP-E 65, as noted by @Imre.
    – ysap
    Jul 19 '11 at 22:26
  • 1
    Actually this isn't quite true, a good macro lens has a longer throw barrel and has more barel rotation in the higher magnification range which tends to cause the lens to focus slower.
    – Shizam
    Jun 27 '12 at 21:26
  • I wasn't referring to the focus speed, I was referring to the maximum aperture; wide aperture = faster shutter speed, hence the term 'fast lens'. Jun 28 '12 at 10:03

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Macro just means that the lens has a very short minimum focusing distance and can reproduce an image with a 1:1 ratio at a certain focusing distance range. Outside of that, a macro lens can perform just fine as a regular lens that doesn't have macro capabilities. I love taking portrait pictures using my 85 mm f/3.5 macro Nikon lens.

  • Thanks, does it mean that if one owns a macro lens, he doesn't need a special one for other type of scenes? Sep 12 '11 at 6:06
  • @rabbid I completely agree: my Canon 60mm f/2.8 macro is a great all-round prime lens. Sep 12 '11 at 8:34
  • @Anisha You can't generalise it like that unfortunately: it depends on the lens, the types of scenes in mind, the photographer... Sep 12 '11 at 8:35
  • 2
    Macros tend to focus rather slowly, which can make them less than suitable for certain situations. And their maximum aperture is seldom better than f/2.8, which can be a limitation in low light. Optically, they are almost invariably superb.
    – Staale S
    Sep 12 '11 at 9:18
  • 1
    @Anisha Kaul. No that is certainly not true. For landscape, travel, indoor shots such as at a dinner, etc, you'd probably want a wider angle lens. I haven't seen any macro lenses that are wide, that wouldn't really make any sense... As Mark Whitaker said you can't generalize it like that, and it's hard for me or anyone to answer in words unfortunately. Really depends on the situation, the location, and the subject. If we wanna talk about what lenses you should keep in your arsenal that will require a whole new thread :)
    – rabbid
    Sep 13 '11 at 4:47

Nikkor's 105mm f2.8 is commonly used as a portrait lens.


As I searched more info about macro lenses - especially Tamron AF 90 mm f/2.8 SP Di Macro, I read a lot of reviews and the guys at Lenstip say "Lenses of the focal lengths ranged 85-105 mm are ideal portrait instruments often used in macro photography." - similar opinions were also in other reviews.

  • I use this very lens for portraits, and it works great. Jul 20 '11 at 19:28

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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.