Insect photography is fascinating when done right. Insects have so many incredibly delicate details that can be brought out with the right equipment. The question is, exactly what kind of lens do I need to properly capture those details?
What Makes Macro Lenses Special?
While I can use any lens to take pictures of insects, different lenses have different strengths. The perfect lens to own for lovers of insect photography is what’s called a macro lens. Macro lenses look similar to other types of camera lenses but have a few key differences.
What makes macro lenses special is that they record subjects true to size. When I take a picture of a ladybug a centimeter long, it takes up a centimeter of the camera sensor’s area. Because they create an image with a 1:1 ratio, your camera can capture all of the tiny details that a different lens can’t create.
Also, macro lenses are optimized for maximum sharpness at their closest focal setting. Most other lenses are designed for maximum sharpness with far away subjects. They are also designed to have even sharpness across the image field.
When shopping for macro lenses, I want to consider image stabilization as well. I should be working with a tripod anyway, as the smallest amount of shakiness will blur the fine details I’m trying to photograph. But sometimes it’s difficult to place the tripod properly. Or perhaps I’m trying to capture a fleeting moment of a fast moving insect.
Image stabilization is also built into many camera bodies nowadays. But it’s more common in mirrorless cameras than DSLRs. If my camera has no built-in image stabilization, then a lens with IS will give me a little more confidence that fine details will remain sharp while shooting handheld.
What If I Don’t Have a Macro Lens?
Macro lenses can be fairly expensive and add additional weight to the camera bag. Fortunately for the budget or minimalist-minded, there are a few ways to squeeze extra utility out of the lenses we already have.
Extension tubes are special rings of plastic and metal that sit between the lens and camera. The concept is quite simple. By moving the lens farther from the sensor, the magnification is increased, at the cost of reducing the amount of light entering the camera.
Reversal rings are even more interesting. If I attach a reversal ring to the front of the camera and then attach the lens backward, I get a magnification effect. Normally a lens focuses incoming light to create a tiny image on the sensor. Instead, by exposing the rear element, it magnifies tiny subjects to create a larger image.
A major drawback of using these tools is that I lose electronic control of the camera’s aperture setting. If the lens has manual aperture control, I can adjust it as needed to get the depth of field you want. Otherwise, I’m stuck with the maximum aperture of the lens.
Also, I lose the ability to focus on far subjects. The lens has been effectively converted to a macro lens until I undo the entire setup.
Our Ratings of the Best Lens for Insect Photography
When photographing insects, macro lenses are the best choice in nearly every situation. Fortunately, there’s a huge selection of macro lenses available for every brand on the market. But here are some of our favorites from the most common brands, Canon and Nikon, plus a third party addition.
#1. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
As an L-series (Luxury) lens, the EF 100mm f/2.8 uses extremely high-quality optical elements to prevent any sort of chromatic aberrations. All Luxury lenses come with nice wide open apertures to ensure the subject gets plenty of exposure. As a true macro lens, it has 1:1 magnification and creates life-size replications of the subject upon the sensor.
As an IS lens it’s also image stabilized, providing around 4 stops of stabilization when photographing subjects from a distance. Given it’s a short telephoto lens IS is all the more important as the handshake is greatly magnified as focal length increases.
Another excellent feature is the weatherization. The sealed and rubberized joints will ensure that and light splashes in the outdoors won’t interfere with your shooting plans. It is fairly heavy at 625 grams but it’s a small price to pay for L-series glass.
#2. Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro Lens
Venus Optics has a very unique lens in the Laowa 15mm. While it’s fairly inexpensive the downside is that it has significant barrel distortion. This property is found in most wide angle lenses to some degree. More expensive models can reduce this usually unwanted optical “flaw.” But if you’re looking at the Laowa you might consider embracing it. As a third party lens, Laowa has made this lens available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, and other common brands, ensuring nearly any photographer can find a place for this lens in their kit.
Barrel distortion makes straight lines curve slightly because the field of view is smaller than the sensor. Basically, the lens is “cramming” the image onto the image sensor. Photos taken with fish-eye lenses display extreme barrel distortion due to the extremely wide angle field of view. Macro photography with this slight “fish-eye” effect will allow you to highlight your subject in intriguing ways. It’s not the best wide angle lens for architecture but it’s still a very good choice for the budget macro photographer.
#3. Nikon AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f/4D
This is tied with the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro for the title of “longest focal length macro” for their respective brands. At first, f/4 may not seem all that nice if you’re a lover of a shallow depth of field. We all know that the wider the aperture the shallower the depth of field becomes. The nice thing about longer focal lengths is that the depth of field also becomes shallower. f/4 will give a surprisingly narrow slice comparable to the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens above. You do lose out on the added light exposure that comes with a wider aperture but the extra reach allows you to work with extremely shy targets like most fast-moving insects.
Macro lenses are the best tool for the insect world. Depending on how far I want to go with it, extra external flash units combined with light diffusers are also excellent for perfect lighting control. Some of the best times for macro photography are early in the morning when the weather is cold. Insects are sluggish as they have yet to warm up in the sun.
Extension tubes and reversal rings are great for casual macro photographers. But they can be time-consuming to set up and undo. If I plan on shooting a lot of macro photography, it’s a much better idea to simply purchase a dedicated macro lens. Otherwise simply make a day out of walking around with an extension tube or reversal ring attached and focus on the world of the very small. Happy shooting!
Macro Lens Guide:
Reversal Lens Macro: