Lenses and Optics

Imatest Macro Results (With Apologies to the Nikon 105 VR Micro)

Published July 27, 2012

A few months back we tested a number of Nikon lenses on the D800 cameras, hoping to determine which lenses could bring the absolute best resolution out of that camera’s 36-megapixel sensor.

The results were interesting, and in a few cases surprising. More than a few Fanboys went ballistic over minutia, which is always entertaining. But there was one result that truly puzzled me: The Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR Micro lens appeared average.



I have shot with the lens a lot. It was excellent on the D3x. I shot it on the D800 and it appeared to be an excellent Macro lens. The real world didn’t seem to agree with the Imatest results.

I thought at the time the reason for this oddity was that despite having a wide range of Imatest charts in various sizes, we were testing the 105 VR at a distance of 18 feet, which isn’t a great way to decide how good of a macro lens it might be. We know, for example, that some lenses are sharper at middle range than infinity, and vice-versa.

I emailed Norman and Henry Koren at Imatest and it turned out I wasn’t the only one with such concerns.

Imatest had produced a small chart just for Macro testing. In theory it would allow testing to 1:1 macro distances. We purchased one immediately and spent a couple of weeks developing a setup for it. The chart is printed on photographic film so it must be backlit, which took some trial and error. The resolution at which the chart is printed also becomes a factor when shooting macro with high resolution cameras and lenses.

Eventually we found a very reproducible and easy-to-use setup with the chart mounted to a Porta-Trace diffused LED light panel. This setup gives consistent and reproducible results. The chart resolution prevents accurate 1:1 macro testing, which I really had hoped to do (however, I am working on something involving laser-etched glass reticules from a lens-test projector that just might.)

But at 1:5 ratios the chart is definitely not a limiting factor. This gives us a working distance of a few inches, rather than 18 feet, which is hugely more appropriate for testing macro lenses.


Does It Make a Difference?

Yeah, it does. For an example, let’s compare the Canon 100 f/2.8L IS  Macro lens shot on a 5D Mk II.

When shot at a standard Imatest distance (18 feet our case) the average resolution of the lens at f/2.8 in Line Pairs / Image height is 875 in the center and 760 averaged over the entire lens. Shot at 1:5 Macro distances the resolution increased to 1070 / 965. It’s not shocking–a macro lens performs a bit better at a macro distance.

Of course, one of the first priorities was to take a look at the aforementioned Nikon 105mm  f/2.8 VR.

Wide open at our 18-foot testing distance it resolves at 900 in the center and 735 average. Tested at macro distances the resolution jumps to 1025 / 940.  (These numbers are slightly different than the ones listed in the D800 Lens Selection article because there we tested at narrower apertures, which give slightly higher results.)

Stopped down (as in the D800 article) it increases to a maximum of 1050 / 990 at f/5.6.  The 105 VR, which tested only slightly above average at longer shooting distances, is truly spectacular at macro distances.

We had a new lens, the Sigma 180mm OS Macro, arrive today so we used it for a third example. Tested at our usual distance (over 25 feet) it was a  good performer with numbers of 840 lp/ih in the center and 730 average. Tested at 1:5 macro distances it performed much better, resolving 960/835.

A Few Other Examples

Since we had the setup completed, and since Aaron and I already knew we were going to be in trouble for not doing the testing and repairs we were supposed to be doing, we went ahead and ran a few more lenses through at macro distances.

We tested on two systems, the Canon 5D MK II and the Nikon D800. I mention that to explain why the Zeiss 100 Macro has slightly different results: Imatest is evaluating a camera-lens combination so the higher resolution of the Nikon body will give the combination slightly higher resolution.

We had one surprise–a new Lensrentals resolution champion was crowned. One lens, eclipsed out, resolved anything else we have ever tested.

Canon is up first (all results at widest aperture):

Lens Center Res Avg Res.
100mm f/2.8 IS L 1070 965
Zeiss ZE 100mm f/2.8 1015 975
Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS 1015 885
Canon 180mm f/2.8 L 1045 905
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 OS 960 835

Nikon is next (all results wide open, which is f/4 for the Coastal Optics f/4 APO Macro):

Lens Center Res Avg Res.
Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR 1025 940
Zeiss ZF 100mm f/2.8 1100 945
Nikon 60mm f/2.8 920 795
Coastal Optics 60mm f/4 1300 975
Coastal Optics @ f/5.6 1280 1110



For those of you who don’t know, the Coastal Optics APO Macro is a $4500 lens with five calcium fluoride elements  and 12-layer coatings that is used for critical forensic imaging, like photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls in infrared or the stuff they pretend to do on NCIS.

It’s pretty much the reference standard for macro lenses (and definitely the standard for UV-IR-VIS macro lenses because it’s the only one of those.) We thought it would be pretty decent. 🙂

Now we’d better get back to doing our real jobs before someone comes back in the lab looking for us.


Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz


July 2012


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • NDCantHandleTheTruth

    200mm Micro ED rules them all. No macro sharper (except perhaps that $4500 unobtanium one referenced above)

  • Did you ever run this test on the Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D?
    It’s supposed to be sharper than any of them (maybe not the CO, but the rest).

  • a

    I’m curious what the maximum resolution is possible on the canon. I.e, is the 1050 mark the limit of the lens or the camera ?

    Like wise for the nikor is the 1300 mark a limit of the lens or the camera ?

  • Nalahm

    If your system is canon and need auto , the best is contax N 100/2.8 makro-sonnar converted to EF canon , nothing to deal if you need auto.

  • Nalahm

    Best of the best for 1:1 macro is contax carl zeiss 100/4 makro S-planar. It come with tilt&shift bellows that very useful for macro/products shot , nothing to compare if you can life with manual.
    If you want to go further more than 5:1 , carl zeiss S-orthoplanar 60/4 is the best of this range in term of sharpness and color rendering.

  • John Jovic

    As usual, nice work.

  • Alexander Bauer

    Thank you very much for this test. It would be very interesting to see how the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 OS performs on the Nikon D800(E). Besides: it is not clearly for me if this was the old Sigma 150 or the current one which is stabilzed (=”EX DG OS APO”).

    It would be great if there also would be results for these lenses stopped down. Especially because they are for macro photos….

    Of course it would be even more interesting to get the results at 1:1…

  • Have you guys got a chance to test some other longer macros like the Nikkor 200mm f/4 or the Tamron 180mm?

  • Dr Croubie

    I’m definitely interested in some ‘classic’ macros, like the Olympus OM 20mm and 38mm, that is if you can figure out testing at 4x-12x mag (a 5x-mag battle between them and the MP-E 65 would be something i’d pay to see).
    (Also, a lot of people rave on about the Hassy and/or Contax 645 Makro-Planar 120mm, if you can afford one.)

    Or even the older 100mm Canons, the USM-non-L and the non-USM are still widely available. And i’d be very interested to know how they and other ‘dedicated’ macro lenses go compared to ‘regular’ lenses on tubes and/or reversed (i’ve had good results with EF 100/2.0 on Kenko Tubes), and the old practice of ‘enlarger lens on a lot of bellows’ would be a nice test too…

  • Florian

    The performance of the coastal Optics Lens was expected. Can you test it at a longer focus Distance? According to Jenoptik/Coastaloptics the performance should be even higher there. Thats really getting close to medium format resolutions, this lens deserves more attention. Imagine a bigger glass element tilt-version, the Zeiss hype works, this lens could start a new one. Thank you for the test!

  • Edwin Herdman

    Canon 180mm f/2.8 L probably should be f/3.5. But yeah, interesting results on the 180mm lenses.

  • Ben

    Interesting that the new Sigma 180 can’t match the old Canon 180L.

  • Joakim Ahnfelt

    Kinda cheap looking at that price.

  • Chris K

    Wow, cool test, Roger! Very interesting to see the difference the extra megapixels on the D800 gets you. Well, roughly at least, since you’re using two different lenses for the common data point.

    I’d love to see the PL45 on the EM5 added to your test, perhaps with an adapted lens from this test to tie the results together. This is purely for selfish reasons; I downsized from a Canon 100/2.8 USM on my 5D2 to a PL45 on a EM5 recently and while I love the tiny package I haven’t seen quite the same resolution from the new combo. I don’t know what’s causing my problems yet, but a fancy chart and controlled test like you can perform would show pretty easily what the state of the art is on a smaller-than-FF sensor.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great test! Your articles are stop-what-I’m-doing reading, and with is one of my favorites so far, along with your examination of PDAF and CDAF.

  • Walter Freeman

    This whole “how much better are macro lenses close up” thing is pretty interesting. For a while I’d heard nothing but ebullient praise for the Sigma 150/2.8 macro — SLRGear tested it to be tack sharp wide open. Then someone tested it against the Zuiko 150/2, which is sharper at f/2 than the Sigma is at f/2.8 by a wide, wide margin at long range. But how much better does the Sigma get when it’s actually at macro distances?

    The Olympus 50/2 is a macro lens that’s known for being sharp at infinity as well; I’d be interested to see what the difference is with it, too.

  • CarVac

    You say “all results at widest aperture” but then say ZE or ZF 100 f/2.8, which is not the widest aperture of the Makro-Planar. Any reason for that?

  • Roger Cicala

    Good point Bob. I started with wide open just because our baseline data was wide open. I’ll run a set again at f/4 and f/5.6. I suspect with the bodies we’re using f/8 will be, if anything, a little softer. We’ve yet to see any improve.

    I would note, though, that we did run the 105VR down two stops. The outer areas improved a fair bit, but the center only slightly.


  • I’m curious how Leica’s 100/2.8 apo compares to these lenses. I know it’s not in production anymore but they are still available on ebay at a better price than the coastal optics also would love to see comparison with Carl Zeiss S-Planar 4/100 which has the best MTF among lenses I’ve seen for the type of test you were doing here.

  • Sensor

    I heard the tokina 100mm macro tested better than the Nikon 105mm vr. I would like to see the test numbers on this lens…

  • How does the PL45mm do on the OM-D?

  • Bob

    With macro lenses, testing them wide open is fine but not very helpful. I’d like to know what the measurements are stopped down, as that’s how most will be used. I’m always clamoring for more depth of field when shooting macro shots.

  • David

    From a macro fan, thanks for the info. I hope you can test the MPE 65 once you figure out 1:1 testing. I should be cursing you for introducing me to Coastal Optics, now I have more stuff to drool over 🙂

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