Occasionally a little “backward thinking” can be a good thing, especially when it comes to coming up with an economical way to do macro photography. Sure, you can shell out a few hundred dollars for a nice macro lens. You might give extension tubes or bellows a try, or even buy some closeup diopter lenses. But what if I told you how you could use that old film camera lens and an adapter easily purchased for under $15 to make some nice macro images? Might that not be a great and inexpensive way to explore the macro world? Great… now get ready to “think backwards.”
Yes, literally… You will need to think backward to take advantage of what is called “Reverse-Lens Macro Photography.” You will be mounting a lens backward on your camera so what is normally the front of the lens is the part that attaches to your camera. Before we look at how to do this, let’s first define “macro photography.”
What is “true” macro?
Many lens manufacturers indicate their lens has “macro capability” and they might even put the word “macro” on the lens. These lenses indeed allow you to focus closely on your subject. However, in the true sense of the term, a macro photo is one in which the size of the image recorded on the camera sensor is the same size (or larger) than the physical object photographed – a 1:1 magnification ratio or greater.
Here’s a practical example: A U.S. Quarter is 0.955 inches (24.26 mm) in diameter. A full-frame digital camera sensor measures 24mm x 36mm. So shot with a true macro lens on a full-frame camera, the uncropped image below represents a 1:1 magnification ratio or a true macro photograph. On a crop sensor camera where the sensor is 14.9×22.2mm (Canon) a 1:1 shot of a quarter would more than fill the frame. So, if the lens you’re using cannot focus close enough to fill the frame with a quarter, it might be a close-up lens but isn’t a true macro. Don’t be fooled by cropped images either. An image can be cropped tighter in editing, but that alone does not make it a “macro” photo.
Does it matter? No, not really. The fun is getting close to your subject. Close enough to see things you might not be able to see with your unaided eye. Whether it is a “true macro” may not matter unless you are entering a contest where only true macro shots are allowed. How close you can get depends on the equipment you have. How close is close enough? Well, that’s an artistic judgment.
Before we start… some cautions
Anytime you take the lens off your digital camera you expose the sensor and the insides to dust. You will be taking your lens off for this procedure. If you aren’t placing another (reversed) lens onto the camera, use a body cap to keep dust out until you are ready.
When you do put the reverse lens on your camera, know that the back end with its associated controls, connection pins, rear element and such will also be exposed. Use a rear cap on it when you’re not working with your set-up. Practice the same cautions you use with regards to dust and all will be fine.
There are several ways to make macro photos.
- A Dedicated Macro Lens – The easiest but the most expensive
- Extension tubes or a bellows which increase the distance between the lens and the sensor
- Magnifying lenses (diopters) put in front of an existing lens
- Reversing a lens on the camera – This is the technique we’ll be teaching here.
What lenses work?
Almost any lens can work for this technique including those you usually use on your digital camera. Do you want to see? Take the lens off your camera, hold it backward and tight to the camera body, turn on the camera and get close – very close to a subject. Move very slightly toward and away from the subject to focus. The focus ring has little impact.
You can see this technique shown on numerous online videos and while it may give you a macro in a pinch, it’s not very practical. Trying to hold the camera with a loose lens and adjusting focus might be okay if you’re in the field and have nothing better, but it’s hardly optimal.
You’ll also note that once you disconnect the lens from the camera, you no longer have autofocus or aperture control. The camera may show a blank where the f/stop would typically be. I’ve seen the technique where you set the aperture with the lens on the camera, push the depth-of-field preview button and then disconnect the lens, so the aperture stays fixed at that setting. Right… funky at best. Let’s teach you how to do this right.
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, unlike most digital lenses, they have aperture control rings on the lens. You won’t have aperture control from the camera, so having it on the lens is perfect.
Setting it all up
Here’s where the “backward thinking” comes in. To mount your lens to your camera you need to attach it backward. You need to use an adapter with male threads on one end and the proper mount type for your camera on the other end.
In my case, I used a Canon EOS mount so I could attach the lens to my Canon 6D. I bought two Reversing Ring adapters, one with 72mm threads on one end and a Canon EOS mount on the other. The second, with 49mm threads and a Canon EOS mount on the other. Mine are cheap Fotodiox rings, at $7.95 US each for the 49mm, and 72mm from Amazon. The things to remember when buying these is to get the proper filter thread size and camera mount type.
They are available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, and many other camera mount types.
The mechanics of making your macros – a step-by-step approach to making this work
Mount the lens
Screw the adapter to the lens filter threads and then mount the lens (backward of course) to the camera. 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, longer focal lengths allow you to be further from the subject.
With my lenses, the 50mm Pentax prime gave a little more than a 1:1 ratio. The Vivitar 28-105mm zoom at 28mm was almost a 2:1 ratio. At 105, it was more a “close-up” rather than a macro lens and around 70mm was 1:1.
Use a tripod
The magnification of macro greatly amplifies any camera movement and, with very limited depth of field, trying to work handheld will be frustrating, if not impossible. If there’s any wind, shooting outside probably won’t work either.
Your depth of field with this technique will be sliver-thin, sometimes only a few millimeters. Beginners might want to start with subjects with minimal depth and shoot 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.
You’ll often be really close to your subject and in your own light. You’ll also be wanting to use smaller apertures to get more depth of field, further reducing light. Get creative with how you light your subject.
Camera settings – Use Manual Mode
You will be able to control ISO and Shutter Speed, but not Aperture. Remember, that’s on the lens ring.
Open the Aperture Ring all the way while you focus. Move the camera or subject in tiny increments to get focus (the focus ring won’t have much effect.) 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 image and check the critical focus. If not, you’ll have to use the viewfinder. Also, remember that autofocus doesn’t work here and so LCD screens where you touch to focus aren’t going to help.
Stop down the Lens with the Aperture Ring once you’ve focused. Smaller apertures (like usual with all photography) give greater depth of field.
You will usually be struggling to get more depth of field in macro photography! Also know that as you stop down the lens, things get darker. It’s sometimes hard to adjust the aperture ring without bumping the focus slightly, so be prepared to refocus.
Making your shots
Shoot, “chimp,” adjust exposure, and repeat. To control exposure typically adjusting shutter speed on the camera should be the easiest. Expect to make LOTS of shots, making adjustments as you go to get that “perfect shot.” Macro photography can be “fiddly,” so get used to it.
Taking it to the next level
If you decide you like macro photography and want to make things a little easier and more precise, you may want to invest in a Focus Rail. Mount this device to your tripod, and mount your camera to it. Using a system of fine gears and adjustment knobs, you can move your camera in tiny increments. Macro is a game of millimeter movements and obtaining more precise control can be a huge help. Taking it up even more, one can buy very sophisticated rails, some with motorized, computer-controlled movement. If you’re ready for that, you’re not as likely to be using the reversed lens technique. I’m quite happy with my Neewer Macro Focusing Rail which cost under US$30.00.
Sometimes more is better, right? When you can’t get enough depth-of-field with one shot, taking multiple shots (each focused to a just slightly different point), and combining them in editing to get a front-to-back depth of field, may be the answer. Photoshop has focus-stacking capabilities and for a beginner is a good place to start. When you’re ready to dive deep into focus stacking, programs like Helicon Focus or Zerene Stacker are what the pros use.
I have a friend in our camera club who decided to pursue macro photography in a big way. He purchased a motorized, programmable focus rail, a nice macro lens, bellows, extension tubes, and then uses Zyrene Stacker to assemble what are often dozens of images into a single spectacular macro. I’m happy at the moment to use my reverse mounted film camera lenses, (though I did purchase a dedicated Tamron 90mm macro lens too).
One of the attractions of photography is that it teaches you to see and then share through your photos, things people don’t ordinarily notice or see. Macro photography takes that a step further, opening up a tiny and incredible world of detail. The reverse lens macro trick is one that allows you to get a glimpse into this new world with minimal expenditure. I hope you’ll give it a try!