2.2 Working Distance

An important feature of any macro lens is the distance it allows between its front element and the photographic subject. This distance at full magnification is called the working distance. If it is too short, it may not only scare away your subject, but also cast a shadow on the scene.

The working distance w of a lens is determined by its minimum focus distance (MFD) dmin between sensor and subject, the camera’s flange focal distance k between sensor and lens mount and the length of the lens barrel l between lens mount and front element as

w=dmin – k – l(W1)

Note that if your lens extends for macro photography, you will have to use its maximum length. If you are using a lens extension tube, you will have to subtract its length as well.

For example, consider the macro lenses of the Micro Four Thirds system (figures rounded to full mm):

lensMFDflange focal distancelengthworking distance
Olympus 30 mm f/3.595 mm19 mm60 mm16 mm
Lumix 30 mm f/2.8105 mm19 mm63 mm23 mm
Leica 45 mm f/2.8150 mm19 mm62 mm69 mm
Olympus 60 mm f/2.8190 mm19 mm82 mm89 mm
Micro Four Thirds macro lenses
Lumix 30 mm f/2.8 (left) and Olympus 60 mm f/2.8 (right) macro lenses.

Obviously, a longer focal length allows for a much longer working distance. So does a longer focal length make a better macro lens?

If you are after butterflies in the wild or want to take photos of jewelry with natural light, it is certainly a good idea to use a longer focal length. Note that a telephoto lens with an extension tube may also work well in these cases.

However, a shorter focal length is much more versatile. in some fields such as medical photography where you have subjects of vastly different sizes and not enough space to step back, a long focal length may just be too long for larger subjects. So it depends on what you want to do.