What is the ultimate Canon macro lens?
As a generalization, the above list is sorted in preference, utility, performance, and price descending sequence.
Do you own a Canon mirrorless camera? Our Best Canon Mirrorless Camera Macro Lens recommendations page has your advice.
If your current lens will not focus close enough to make a subject larger in the frame, it is time to get a macro lens. Macro lenses are very fun to use, macro subjects are everywhere, and the unusually close look at these typically-small subjects can be beautiful and intriguing. The results of macro photography are very fun to share.
While many lenses have "macro" in their names, that word does not get my attention until the specifications reveal that it has a 1:1 or 1x maximum magnification ratio. This ratio means that the subject will render at life-size on the camera's sensor. A 20mm-wide subject will render across 20mm of the sensor, 20mm is a significant portion of the imaging sensor width, and the subject will be made HUGE on your large monitor.
There are always subjects available for macro photography. And bringing home flowers for your wife (and to photograph of course) can even strengthen your marriage. :)
Deciding which focal length will work best for your needs is, as usual, part of the lens selection process. Longer focal length macro lenses will give you more working distance at 1:1 - this reduces the tendency of live subjects to fly or crawl away. Longer focal length lenses also have narrower angles of view, which means that there is less background to incorporate into an attractive-looking image. And that background will be more-diffusely blurred, as shown below.
The subject in the images above are identically framed using the same camera, the same aperture setting (f/16), and they have identical subject to background distances. As a rule, the same framing and the same aperture results in the same Depth of Field (DOF) until focus distances approach the hyper-focal distance. But, perspective, compression, and angle of view are very different between these sample photos. The 180mm lens shows only a small physical area of the subject's background that is enlarged, magnifying the blur. Background elements in the 60mm picture appear to be more in focus. However, they just about as blurred though these elements are far less magnified. There are also more background elements showing because of the 60mm angle of view. The result is a less diffusely-blurred background.
If you are using a backdrop (such as rolled paper), the background blur aspect will not likely be important to you.
There are downsides to the longer focal length macro lenses, including larger size, heavier weight, and faster shutter speeds required for handholding. Longer focal length macro lenses typically cost more than the shorter counterparts.
I tend to prefer longer focal length macro lens result best, but find myself using the about-100mm focal length the most.
It is essential to understand that the depth of field at 1:1 macro focusing distances is very shallow. Here is an aperture comparison as illustrated by a 180mm lens:
Narrow apertures are called on frequently for macro photography, and narrow apertures mean longer shutter speeds. Long shutter speeds will often require image stabilization, a tripod, or flash to stop the camera motion blur. For macro use, the maximum aperture of a macro lens is not often essential to me as all lenses have my most-used f/8 through f/16 aperture openings. That said, a wide aperture makes creative blurs easier, as shown by the 100mm f/2.8 example below.
Unleash your creativity. Or, move farther from your subject, and a wide aperture can be extremely useful for keeping a distracting background in a blurred state. Most macro lenses have great general-use telephoto lens utility, including for portrait photography.
While autofocus is nice to have in a macro lens, I often use manual focus for critical focus accuracy at close focusing distances. But as with a wide aperture, a good-performing autofocus system can be beneficial in some macro photography uses and more often for other macro lens uses.
Light Weight, Impressive Image Quality, Fast/Accurate AF, Hybrid Image Stabilization
The EF 100 L Macro Lens may be Canon's most-fun-per-dollar lens. Plentiful subjects, along with the great overall performance, will reward the 100L IS owner for many years. Image stabilization not only improves handheld available light photography image quality significantly but also make framing at high magnification considerably easier. The 100mm focal length works very well for portraits. The wide f/2.8 aperture is there for stopping action in low light and for blurring the background - and it can create an impressively shallow depth of field at 1:1.
Extremely Sharp, Fast & Accurate AF, Great Value
If your budget does not afford the image stabilized 100 L, this may be the lens for you. The 100mm macro delivers exceptional image quality and good autofocus performance at a value price. Perhaps this is Canon's most-fun-per-dollar lens?
Great Working Distance, Solid Build Quality, Great Image Quality, Slow AF
I love the look of 180mm macro photos. This lens can create a beautifully-blurred background. The 180mm focal length will give you a long-for-a-macro-lens working distance, encouraging your live subjects to stay longer. The 180 L is a solidly built lens with excellent image quality. Do not be in any hurry while this lens autofocuses as this is one of the slowest focusing lenses I've used.
The 180L is compatible with extenders, making 1.4x and 2x magnifications possible.
Incredible 1-5x Magnification, Well Built, Manual Focus Only
If you want to go beyond 1x magnification, this is THE lens to get. Understand that depth of field becomes extremely shallow at higher magnifications. No other Canon lens can match the images this lens can deliver.
0.7x Magnification from a Zoom Lens, Very Good Image Quality, Fast/Accurate AF, Image Stabilization
The 24-70 f/4 IS is the only zoom lens on this recommendation page - and for a good reason. No other zoom lens comes close to the 0.70x maximum magnification spec this lens has. 0.7x is not 1.00x, but it is still an impressive magnification - and this great-performing lens makes a great general purpose lens choice. You might be able to leave the prime macro lens at home if this lens is in your kit.
Visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for more lens recommendations.