Of all of the macro lenses I have the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM is the lens I pull out of the bag more often than any other. There are many focal lengths on the market today and they each have their purpose. You can get anywhere from a 40mm to 200mm lens capable of producing a 1:1 macro images. A 100mm lens can be used for many different subjects from plants to insects to tabletop photography, while making for a quick transitions between them.
When I say 100mm, there is a range from 90mm-105mm macro lenses made by different companies. Canon makes a 100mm along with Tokina and Sony. Both Nikon and Sigma offer them in 105mm versions and Tamron makes one in 90mm. Most manufacturers make an outstanding optical quality macro lens in this range. All of the examples in this article were photographed using a 100mm macro lens.
This is one of the most versatile macro lenses to have. It is long enough to isolate the background of an image. With a 50mm macro lens you can end up with elements in the background you don’t want because of the wider angle of view. These additional items can be visually distracting and take away from the overall composition. Don’t allow elements in your images you do not intend. Always be intentional about what you include in your photographs.
Whenever you compose an image you want to get rid of as much noise as possible. In this case I am referring to noise in communications as opposed to noise or grain in the image itself. Noise in communication is anything that does not support the message you are trying to communicate. Anything that is not meant to be in the photo is noise and can detract from the story you are telling.
In the image above there are out of focus elements that help to break up the background of the image. They give separation between the foreground and background and add depth to the shot. When all of the parts of the image are combined it exhibits the rule of thirds. Do not be afraid to have elements in the background. Add them intentionally to create the image you want to produce.
There are many people who prefer to use the 180mm-200mm macro lenses for insects and such. They are great lenses and I love them too. They do however have a few limitations. They can be slower to focus than the 100mm because of the larger glass elements. I have found them to be a little less responsive than my 100mm lens as well. They are also heavier.
Don’t be afraid of what you photograph. There are many times I am within inches of the insects and spiders I am shooting. Most times they are feeding when on plants. Insects do not seem bothered by your presence while eating. In all of the years I have been photographing these subject I have never been bitten or stung while working.
That being said use your judgment and if it looks like there might be a problem give the subject space. Last summer I gave up on a great butterfly shot because it was on a branch of a bush with carpenter wasps. They were the size of half dollars and if there was a prize for administering pain and suffering they would be contenders.
When photographing insects with a 100mm lens you will have to be active and pursing your subject. One of the great strengths of this focal length is mobility. You have to be moving from flower to flower and from plant to plant to get great photos of insects. When photographing insects I am hand holding the camera and moving around as much as possible. Your subject will only stay in the same place for a moment. When you use a tripod you are stationary, limiting the number of photos you can try for significantly.
The 100mm lens gives you the ability to get a wider perspective with subjects like the flower in the beginning of the article or you can get in tighter like the one above with this rose. Have you ever wondered what the inside of a rose looks like? People are use to seeing them as a bouquet, while the flowers are still buds. Show them one in bloom for a different take on the subject. With a 50mm lens you cannot get as tight as you sometimes want. With the 180mm lens you will have the opposite constraint.
The 100mm macro lenses have outstanding optical performance. They are designed to flatten the depth of field. Many have 7 to 9 blade diaphragms giving an excellent blur for the out of focus parts of the image. All the things you want in your macro photos.
With practice and strength you can hand hold most lenses and camera rigs. I am a big guy so hand holding a bigger lenses is not something I have trouble with. I have also been a sports photographer for the last 15 years where hand holding big glass is part of the job. For some people handholding a pro body with a 180mm lens and accessories with minimal handshake is something they may not be able to do. With the 100mm lens the setup is much lighter. This makes it easier to maneuver regardless of your size or strength.
No one lens will ever do everything for you. Find a lens that will give you the most versatility without sacrificing image quality. The 100mm macro does this very well. As a pro when I go out on a job I have multiple bodies and multiple lenses. Many times I find this lens being my go to macro lens and if I could only have one this would be it.