There are a lot of opinions out there as to what constitutes ‘the finest’ macro lens. The truth is, there is no such thing, as everyone’s needs, wants, and opinions differ. That said, this article will reflect my own. Before I proceed, I will outline the various macro lenses I have used over the last 15 years to illustrate my own experience with macro lenses:
- Canon 100mm f/2.8
- Canon 100mm f/2.8L
- Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Photo
- Canon 180mm f/3.8L
- Irix 150mm f/1.8 1:1 Dragonfly Macro
- Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5 to 5x Ultra Macro
- Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO
- Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AIS, Reversed
- Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AIS, Reversed
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AIS, Reversed
- Micro-Nikkor 100mm f/2.8G VR
- Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D ED IR
- 5 different Zoom-Nikkors, Reversed
- Sigma 180mm f/2.8 ‘APO’ Macro (EF-Mount)
- Sigma 180mm f/2.8 ‘APO’ Macro (F-Mount)
- Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro
- Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T*, Reversed
- Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T*, Reversed
- Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar T*
So, I have used a top-shelf macro lens or two 😎
That said, in this age of newer-is-better mindset, my own pick of “best macro lens” (up to 1:1 magnification) happens to go back some 20 years to the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar. IMO, this lens represents the epitome of what macro lenses should be about—finely-detailed resolution + creamy bokeh + subtle color graduations—all controlled with a tremendously-precise focus throw. These attributes are why the Voigtländer Apo-Lanthar macro is still highly-sought-after by connoisseurs who desire the very best in these sublime lens characteristics. With beautiful color transmission, minimal chromatic aberration, and its own “3D-effect” in images produced, this lens almost has a cult following behind it.
As a background to set this lens in your mind, the brand ‘Voigtländer’ is an iconic name in photography, first beginning production in Vienna in 1756, thereby making it in the oldest name in photographic history … and its SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro is arguably the brand’s most famous lens, ever. Unfortunately, despite its revered quality, the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro hasn’t been in production for nearly 20 years.
Where it gets interesting is in learning that the Japanese company, Cosina, leased the rights to the Voigtländer name (which it has been using since 1999). So the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro is actually a Japanese lens, not an Austrian lens. Despite its fine quality, the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro lens was only produced in very limited numbers by Cosina, from 2001-2002, after which the company stopped production before this lens became widely-known by photographers outside of Japan. Keep in mind that Cosina is also the manufacturer of every lens Zeiss makes today (including their venerated Otus series), so that ought to put a perspective on things as to the quality optics of which Cosina is capable 😉
In fact, legend has it the true reason that Cosina (operating as Voigtländer) ceased making the 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar macro lenses was because Cosina was simultaneously producing the similar Zeiss 100 mm Makro Planar lens—and the Zeiss macro lens fell short in just about every category of what Cosina’s Voigtländer 125mm Apo macro was able to do. The two lenses shared a similar (all metal) construction, shape, and feel. Yet, while the Zeiss is known for exceptional resolution and bokeh, its Makro-Planar T* 100mm lens (now, Milvus) only produces a 1:2 reproduction ratio, and its chromatic aberration/color-correction were substandard. By comparison, the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro lens produces a true 1:1 magnification, comparable resolution, with even creamier bokeh than the Zeiss, with the added bonus of superior chromatic aberration suppression, producing an almost 3D-effect to its images.
Because of the conflict of interest, and because the Zeiss Makro-Planar lens actually fell short of the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar, legend has it that industry giant Zeiss insisted that Cosina stop producing a lens that was better than what Zeiss was producing under their branding. Consequently, despite being a superior lens to the Zeiss macro, the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro lens was discontinued after only 2 years of production 🙁
Therefore, the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro lens has become a collector’s item for lens connoisseurs, both because of its exceptional quality as well as because it is a very rare lens with a rich history behind it. I write all this because I am very happy to have been able to pick up a mint-condition copy of this lens, from a Japanese photographer who had kept it virtually unused since it was first purchased nearly 20 years ago.
The Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro lens is totally different from every other “modern” macro lens to which I am used and have grown accustomed. For one thing, the lens is made completely of metal and glass (no cheap plastic on this fine specimen!). For another, it is also a 100% MF lens (no auto-focus); every lens adjustment has to be done by hand. But what smooth, exquisite quality of operation!
- The focus throw of this lens is 630° (compared to 150° to 270° of modern lenses with AF).
While this exaggerated focus-turning might not be optimal for some types for field use, for example if you have a moving subject, the flipside to this is, when you want to accomplish truly-precise focusing, especially a multi-image stack of a motionless subject in the field, there simply is no other macro lens that compares either in quality of output or in smoothness and precision of its focusing operation, by hand. Here are some sample photos:
The key here isn’t to look at the ‘sharpness’ alone (though it is a very sharp lens); the key to understanding the Voigtländer is to really study the subtle, ultra-realistic color-rendering, the micro-contrast, as well as the refined and buttery bokeh it offers compared to most of the plasticky ‘others.’ Even today, the Voigtländer remains peerless in the 1:1 macro class for its sublime, ultra-smooth, realistic results IMO 🙂
I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you are interested in acquiring one for yourself, take a moment to look around online. You will not be disappointed. In closing, I hope to be able to share more photographs that do justice to the quality of this lens. For the reader who’s interested in doing some further research, here are some other online reviews of the classic, vintage Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro:
If you are interested in obtaining a copy, they can be found on Ebay by vintage retailers and private persons. So get one if you can 😎
Note: Since writing this article, Voigtländer has come out with two brand-new APO-Lanthar macros! The two new focal lengths are the Voigtländer 65mm f/2 APO Macro, and the Voigtländer 110mm f/2.5 APO Macro. Once again, these Voigtländer APO-Lanthar macros have quickly risen to the top of the food chain with rave reviews. Unfortunately, they are only made in the Sony E mount. The good news is, with Nikon coming out with the new Z-Mount mirrorless line, and Canon coming out with its own RF mirrorless too, Cosina will likely expand the mount options for these macro lenses, so Nikon and Canon shooters should be able to enjoy these ACE macro gems shortly. If not, the Sony-E mount versions can be adapted to the Nikon Z cameras, by way of the recent TechArt TZE-01 Adapter.