Most photographers would say there is only one lens you need to take decent photos of insects, and that is a macro lens. In most circumstances I would agree, however there are times when a macro lens is not the best choice of lens for taking insect photos, and that is when the subject is dragonflies and butterflies, which are insects.
In my experience butterflies and dragonflies are timid insects that seldom sit still for very long, and when they are resting on something they won’t let me get close enough to take a frame filling photo with a macro lens. I find the working distance of a macro lens too short to consistently get close up shots of dragonflies and butterflies. Sure, I get the odd one or two but not that many and a session with the macro lens photographing butterflies and dragonflies is very frustrating. My lens of choice for photographing dragonflies and butterflies is a long reach zoom lens, and I use the Canon 100 -400L for this.
When taking photographs of other insects, the majority of which are a lot smaller and also less timid, a macro lens is the best lens to capture frame filling shots of them. Macro lenses are typically available in focal lengths of 50mm, 60mm, 100mm, 105mm and 180mm.
The wider macro lenses, i.e. those with the smaller focal lengths, are the cheapest and even though they are well built and have good image quality they are not suitable for insect photography. The working distance of the wider macro lenses is simply too small and you will struggle to get close enough to the subject to get a good shot. Even if you do get close enough to the insect you will have problems with light, which is restricted when the lens is so close to the subject.
The longest focal length macro lenses have larger working distances so you can be further away from the subject and still get a frame filling shot. The problem with the longer length macro lenses is they are big, heavy and camera shake can be an issue. If you shoot insects in captivity and can set the camera and lens on a tripod 180mm macro lens is a good buy. If you are out in the field taking handheld shots the 180mm macro lens is not a good buy.
The 100mm and 105mm macro lenses are, in my opinion, the best macro lenses. These macro lenses are the best compromise between size/weight, working distance and also cost. There will be times when you can’t get close enough to the subject without scaring it off (this is all part and parcel of insect photography) but you will find the hit rate with a 100mm macro lens is pretty good.
There are a few 100mm and 105mm macro lenses to choose from, and there are a few manufacturers who make them. None of the macro lenses are bad, but some are (obviously) better than others. Choosing what macro lens is easy – The 100mm or 105mm macro lens. Choosing what 100mm or 105mm macro lens to get is a little trickier.
THE MACRO LENS I USE FOR INSECT PHOTOGRAPHY
"My lens fo choice - the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS macro lens"
The macro lens I use for all my insect photography is the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS lens, and it does everything I need it to and more. Prior to the L series macro lens I used the Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens, which was very good but when the L series model (with image stabilization) was released I had to have one, and boy am I glad I did.
The 100mm f2.8L IS macro lens is simply brilliant. Like all L series lenses it is made from the best quality materials which means it is tough, durable and also weather sealed which makes it perfect for outdoor use. The image quality of the L series macro lens is stunning and the photos are crisp, super sharp, bright and vibrant but not overly saturated. Fringing and distortion is never a problem. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed with the image quality of this lens.
The reason I traded up to the Canon L series macro lens was for the image stabilisation, and I have to say it is brilliant. When scrabbling around on my hands and knees in the dirt looking for insects to take photos of a tripod is next to useless and I have to rely on the steadiness of my hands. The image stabilisation means I can shoot at slower shutter speeds (i.e. I don’t have to push the ISO and deal with noise) and still get sharp shots.
If you want a macro lens for insect photography and use a Canon camera, this lens should be top of your list. Okay, it is expensive and there are cheaper macro lenses out there but this lens is worth every penny. This macro lens is an investment and will provide years of trouble free service, providing you look after it of course.
Buy the Canon 100mm f2.8 L IS macro lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
"The Canon 100mm f2.8 lens still gives excellent image quality"
If the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS macro lens is out of your budget may I suggest the Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens (i.e. the model before that does not have the red ring or image stabilisation)? I owned this lens a few years ago and I have to say it is an exceptionally good lens and one I managed to capture some (what I thought were) very good macro photos. This lens produces images that are sharp, bright and vivid. You will not be disappointed with the image quality of this lens.
Since the release of the L series macro lens the price of this lens has fallen through the floor and there are loads of deals and bargains to be had in the used and second hand market. If you don’t mind buying second hand you could get a killer macro lens for little money. The best place to get a used macro lens is eBay, and if you want to see the current selection of used and second hand Canon 100mm macro lenses available use the eBay search box below.
What are you waiting for? Go and get yourself a bargain.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.