Facebook Pixel Reverse Lens Macro Photography: A Beginner's Guide

Reverse Lens Macro Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

reverse lens macro photography: a guide

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Andrew S Gibson, Rick Ohnsman, Sharath Prakash, and Chas Elliott.

If you want to capture beautiful close-up images but don’t want to spend hundreds (or thousands) on a macro lens, then you’ve come to the right place.

Because in this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about reverse lens macro photography. It’s a simple technique that lets you turn a standard lens into a macro lens so you can capture photos like this:

droplet of water on a flower

In fact, if you already own a 50mm prime lens or a standard kit lens (in the 18-55mm focal length range), then the reverse lens macro technique is the least expensive way to capture magnified images.

So let’s dive right in, starting with the absolute basics:

What is reverse lens macro photography?

Reverse lens macro photography is a method of capturing highly magnified images using an interchangeable lens camera, a lens, and a cheap adapter. You turn your lens around so the rear element points outward, then use an adapter to attach the reversed lens to your camera body (or to another lens).

In other words: You take your lens. You flip it around. And you’ll be able to shoot at macro magnifications.

If you’ve never seen the reverse lens macro technique, it may seem a bit strange – after all, why does reversing a standard lens let you shoot at high magnifications?

But it really does work, and the diagram below shows why. In normal use, a 50mm lens focuses light from far away to create a much smaller image, one that fits onto film or a digital sensor (which is often around 35mm wide). Reverse the lens and the opposite occurs: the 50mm lens magnifies what it sees, giving near life-size reproduction:

diagram showing how reverse lens photography works

How to do reverse lens photography

There are two ways you can use the reverse lens macro technique:

1. Single lens reverse macro

This method involves reverse-mounting one lens to the front of your camera. First, purchase a reversing ring (also known as a reverse ring) like this one:

reversing ring for macro photography

You can buy these adapters for cheap on Amazon. One side screws onto the end of your lens like a filter, while the other attaches to your lens mount. Here’s a reversing ring in action:

reversed lens attached to a Canon 40D

Note that the reverse macro technique works best if you use a lens with a manual aperture ring. That way, you can stop down to increase the zone of sharpness (which is very helpful because depth of field decreases as you get closer to your subject).

Unfortunately, if your reversed lens doesn’t have a manual aperture ring, you won’t be able to make any f-stop adjustments and you’ll be forced to work at your lens’s maximum aperture. But while this can be inconvenient, don’t let it stop you – you can use a reversed lens at its widest aperture to take some beautiful photos. You just have to get creative!

2. Twin lens reverse macro

This reverse lens macro technique is less popular but will get the job done. Instead of reverse-mounting one lens to your camera, you mount one lens normally, then reverse mount a second lens on the front of the first, like this:

twin lens reverse macro in action
I’ve attached a reversed 50mm lens to my 85mm prime lens. In this setup, the 85mm lens is called the primary lens and the reversed lens is called the secondary lens.

The actual mechanics are nearly identical to the single lens technique discussed above; simply purchase a coupler ring (shown below). Then use it to mount the second lens to the first.

macro coupler ring for twin lens photography

Now, when using the twin lens reverse macro technique, the reversed lens acts like a powerful close-up filter, except that it’s much stronger than any filter I’ve encountered. In fact, the twin lens technique offers two major benefits over the single lens technique:

  1. It offers insanely close magnifications. Depending on the focal lengths you use, you can achieve up to 3x life-size reproduction. (That’s three times as close as most professional macro lenses!)
  2. It increases your depth of field flexibility. You can leave the reversed lens open at its widest aperture, while stopping down the primary lens to increase depth of field (even if you don’t have a manual aperture ring).

Note that you can do this technique with essentially any lenses, though the longer the focal length, the more magnification you’ll achieve. What’s most important is that the filter thread sizes on the two lenses match – that way, you can buy a coupler ring that will easily join them together.

(If your lenses have different filter threads, you do have the option of purchasing a step-up ring in addition to your coupler ring, but this can be inconvenient.)

Caring for the reversed lens

The reverse macro technique does leave the rear element of your reversed lens open to the elements, regardless of which method you use. So you should always work carefully to avoid scratching the exposed element as well as the connection pins.

lens with extension tube

If you have an extension tube, you can attach it to the back (now front) of the reversed lens, as I did in the photo above. This helps protect the rear element and also acts as a lens hood. Additionally, if you’re not yet ready to shoot, keep your lens covered with a rear lens cap.

Finally, because of the risks to the lens, I’d recommend using relatively cheap glass, like a 50mm f/1.8.

Image sharpness

The reversed lens technique gets you so close to your subject that it’s virtually impossible to handhold the camera. For the sharpest results, use a tripod to keep the camera steady and use a cable release to fire the shutter.

I find it best to use a reverse lens macro setup indoors, especially for delicate subjects like flowers. If you try it outside, the slightest breeze can move the flower and spoil the photo.

Of course, you can always embrace a blurry result and create some interesting abstract shots – but if your goal is to create magnified-yet-sharp photos, you’ll need to follow this advice closely.

If possible, stop down your primary lens to at least f/4. That way, you’ll get increased depth of field, and if you’re using the twin lens technique, it’ll help you avoid the softening that may happen when the first lens is at its widest aperture setting.

How to light reverse lens photography

close-up of bubbles

As long as you don’t mind using a tripod and long shutter speeds to obtain the required exposure, natural light will work just fine.

However, flash is also an option. And you don’t need a specialized macro flash – I use a Canon Speedlite with a small softbox (though you’ll probably want to make sure you’re using an off-camera flash to avoid shadows cast by the lens).

A flash and a softbox were all I needed to take the photo featured above. Here’s a diagram of the setup:

flash setup for reverse macro photography

In general, I’d recommend you start with natural light, unless you’re relatively familiar with artificial lighting. That way, you can experiment with different lighting qualities and directions and you don’t have to worry about complex lighting techniques.

What lens should you use for reverse macro shooting?

kit lens with 18-55mm focal length

I’ve used a 50mm prime lens for the photos featured throughout this article. And a nifty fifty is a great way to get started with reverse lens macro photography.

But don’t forget that you can try this out with just about any lens (though I do recommend using a cheaper option, just in case your lens gets damaged). Kit lenses like the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II (pictured above) work great.

Got an old film camera lens?

If you’re an old guy like me, you remember film. You might even have your old film camera and a few lenses for it kicking around. If not, film camera lenses are cheap at pawn shops, online, or even at garage sales. For this technique, lens brand or mount type doesn’t matter since you’re not going to be connecting the lens to the camera in the usual way. Almost any lens will work so long as it has filter threads on the front.

The lenses I used with my old Pentax ME Super film camera are a 50mm Pentax lens with a 49mm filter ring and a Vivitar 28-105mm zoom with a 72mm filter ring. The thing to remember when using reversed lenses is the wider the focal length, the closer you can get to your subject. A zoom lens gives you a “variable macro.”

The biggest reason old film camera lenses work best for this is that, unlike most digital lenses, they have aperture control rings on the lens. You won’t be able to control the aperture from the camera, so having it on the lens is perfect.

Additional tips for top-notch reverse-lens macro photos

Now that you’re familiar with the basics, let’s take a look at some quick advice for improving your reverse-lens macro shots, starting with:

1. Think about the lens focal length

Choose the lens you want by considering how much magnification you want – shorter focal lengths allow you to get close to the subject with more magnification, while longer focal lengths allow you to be further from the subject but provide less magnification.

When reverse-mounting my 50mm Pentax prime, I was able to photograph at a little more than a 1:1 magnification ratio. My Vivitar 28-105mm zoom at 28mm gave me close to a 2:1 ratio. At 105mm, however, it was more of a close-up rather than a macro lens, and at around 70mm, it was 1:1.

12 - reverse-lens-macro-photography-rick-ohnsman
This is the Vivitar 28-105mm reverse-mounted on a Canon 6D. (Image by Rick Ohnsman)

2. Choose your subjects carefully

Your depth of field when doing reverse-mount macro photos will be sliver-thin (sometimes only a few millimeters). If you’ve never done shallow depth of field photos before, you might want to start by choosing subjects with minimal depth and position them so they lie in the same focal plane as the camera. Stamps, coins, paper bills, or other flat objects are great, especially when you’re learning the technique.

3. Set your camera to Manual mode

When doing reverse-mount photography, you’ll be able to control the ISO and shutter speed from your camera, but not the aperture. (Remember, that’s on the lens ring.) Using Manual mode – which allows you to set the ISO and shutter speed independently – will let you tweak exposure and experiment with different settings until you get the result you want.

I’d recommend you focus before you dial in your exposure settings. And for the best results, open the aperture ring all the way while you focus manually. Move the camera or subject back and forth in tiny increments until you get the focus you want (the focus ring won’t have much effect).

A few quick tips: If you’re using a zoom, you can use the zoom feature to help you focus. If your camera has Live View, use that. Use the Zoom feature of Live View to magnify your subject and check the focus point. If you don’t have Live View, you’ll have to focus with the viewfinder. And remember: autofocus doesn’t work for this type of photography, so LCD screens where you touch to focus aren’t going to help.

Once you’ve focused, if the lens has an aperture ring, use it. Smaller apertures give greater depth of field, so if you’re photographing a slightly deeper subject, you’ll want to make sure you use a small (i.e., a narrow) aperture.

Know that as you stop down the lens, the viewfinder will get darker, as will the overall exposure. Also, it can be hard to adjust the aperture ring without bumping the focus slightly, so be prepared to refocus as needed.

Reverse lens macro photography: conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be able to confidently create a macro photography setup (without spending lots of money on a dedicated macro lens).

Reverse lens macro photography is a lot of fun, so order your reverse ring and get shooting!

Now over to you:

Do you prefer the single lens reverse macro technique or the twin lens reverse macro technique? Do you have any tips for improved macro photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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