Macro Cameras:
best bodies for up-close shooting

When looking at what macro cameras are available, it's easy to get overwhelmed. There is a lot to choose from, and some of the terminology varies depending on manufacturer. I will try to add some clarity to the subject, by breaking down the differences between different styles of camera.

I'll also pass on some basic digital camera information that will help you be a better-informed consumer, and will surely improve your macro photography.

Sounds good? Let's roll!

But first, here are other topics we cover in this Macro Photography Equipment section:

  1. Macro cameras
  2. Macro lenses
  3. Camera supports and tripods
  4. Light modifiers
  5. Lens hoods
  6. Close-up photography accessories
  7. Photo filters

The good news is that today's digital cameras, from point-and-shoot compacts up through single-lens reflex cameras, are very good to excellent across the board.

When we're talking about new cameras, we're talking digital only. Digital cameras own the market. Film photographers can find used 35mm cameras, cheap, with just a little digging.

Heavy competition and a drive to innovate have spurred manufacturers to develop digital cameras that are ever lighter, faster, less expensive, and that deliver outstanding photo quality. In recent years, cell-phone cameras and smartphones have gotten better and better, and accessories are available that can turn them into impressive macro cameras. As versatile and ubiquitous as phone cameras are, I believe compact or point-and-shoot camera will eventually disappear from the market.

What's resulted is a marketplace in which inexpensive compact cameras and phone cameras make really nice images, and where top-of-the-line DSLR cameras make photos that are truly spectacular. It's hard to go totally wrong under those circumstances.

When looking at macro cameras, it's likely you want the camera you choose to handle general-purpose photography as well. Fortunately, every camera that works in macro mode will be just fine for other types of photography.

What's out there?

In a nutshell, camera styles can be organized according to:

  • Size of the body, and
  • Size of the digital sensor

Compact cameras have to cram a lot of technology into a very small case, so it's understandable that they are short on features, compared to a DSLR camera. On the other hand, it's hard to slip a single-lens reflex camera into your pocket or purse, and almost all cell phones come with cameras.

Any serious search for macro cameras will eventually lead you to the digital single-lens reflex, or DSLR camera. These cameras are defined as having interchangeable lenses, and a mirrored viewfinder that displays the actual taking image (as opposed to a rangefinder camera). They vary in the size of their sensors, also called chips.

The size of a single frame of 35 mm film is 24 x 36mm; this size is the standard to which DSLR chips are compared. Cameras with a full-sized chip, i.e., equal in size to 35 mm film, are expensive and are capable of producing awesome-to-behold images. The larger the chip, the less an image has to be enlarged to reach any given display size. If you have the budget for one of these babies, go for it, and happy hunting!

Fortunately, many excellent DSLR cameras sport chip sizes considerably smaller than full-size. In fact, a camera with full-sized chip is probably overkill for most macro photography. If we were to compare images made with small-chip vs. large chip cameras, I doubt any of us would notice a difference in overall quality until we approach poster-sized enlargements.

Most of us display our photographs on computer screens or as small prints. The true benefits of a full-sized chip won't be realized until we substantially enlarge our images. 

Not to confuse the issue, but larger sensor chips do have a big advantage over smaller chips: a greater dynamic range. In brief, this means the range of dark and light values that can be recorded in a single photograph without loss of detail. See the digital camera sensors section for more info on this topic.

Smaller-chip DSLR cameras use lenses with shorter focal lengths to achieve the same coverage. The advantage of this is that lenses need less glass and are therefore less expensive. On the down side, it means that lenses made for film cameras with compatible lens mounts no longer produce the same image you've grown to expect (smaller chips essentially crop out the center of a full-size image, so a given lens works as a longer focal length lens). No ultra-wide or fish-eye lenses, either, although that's of little concern for macro photographers.

There's a broader discussion of camera types on this page. Here, we're helping you decide which camera is best suited for your personal style of macro photography.

Help me choose!

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare to purchase a macro camera:

  • Do I want this camera for macro only, or will it be my camera of choice for all occasions?
  • Do I want a film or digital camera (follow the link for a discussion on the "digital vs film" topic, which includes some helpful digital camera information)?
  • How do I want to display my photographs? Large paper prints, web or email, or something in between?
  • What's my budget?
  • Do I want an all-in-one camera, or do I plan to add accessories over time?

and finally:

  • how much flexibility do I get for how much?

Macro camera variables

All macro cameras vary as follows:
  • Fixed vs. interchangeable lens
  • Close-focusing ability
  • Compatibility with close-up accessories
Put another way:

  Compact cameras, including phone cameras "Bridge" cameras SLR cameras
Lens mount style? Fixed Fixed Interchangeable
Chip size? Small Small-med. Small to full-size
System flexibility Low Medium High
System portability High Medium Low-to-medium
System cost Low Medium Medium-to-high
Optical quality? Good Excellent Excellent
Close focusing? Variable: fair to excellent Good to excellent Good to excellent, with macro lens or wide range of close-up accessories. 

What all macro cameras should have:

A tripod mount. That's the little female screw thread on the bottom of the camera. These are a standard size (1/4"-20), and allow any camera to be mounted to a tripod or similar camera support. Almost all cameras have them, but it's worth checking before you buy.

In conclusion...

Are there macro cameras that are indisputably "the best"? Probably not. But there is certainly a best macro camera out there for you and your style of photography!

If you want to pursue macro photography, and you have found a system, chosen from the hundreds of film or digital cameras out there, that focuses close and feels good in your hand, congratulations! You've won the battle.

Now get out and Start Photographing!

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Let's get Close-Up logo