What if I told you that there’s a whole new world of photography out there waiting to be discovered, and only for a few dollars. That would be quite a proposition, right? And what if I told you it was possible to dive into this new world of photography for free (well, if you have an interchangeable lens camera). That all you’ll need are few common household items? The financially broke students out there (myself included) would certainly be intrigued.
At the very beginning of every photographer’s journey there’s a phase, a time where we are trying everything possible with our new toys. From awkward poses, to light trail long exposures, to pestering our family members for that “just one more” picture.
I did all of this. And next on my list was understanding exploring the world of tiny things (something which was easier said than done). Experimenting with a dorky magnifying glass did result in a very marginal increase in magnification, but it was accompanied by a drastic loss of image quality. It was then that a dear friend of mine mentioned and introduced me to reverse lens macro photography.
What is reverse lens macro photography, and how does it work?
A lens, when attached correctly to a camera, projects a small image of a distant large body onto the sensor or sheet of film. This is how cameras fit life size objects with immense detail, onto a tiny 36 x 24mm image area (as is the case with 35mm or full frame digitals). By reversing the lens (literally attaching the lens to our camera with it facing wrong way round) we flip the equation. With the front of the lens close to the sensor and the back of the lens far away we are projecting a large image of a tiny object onto the sensor.
Wider focal lengths having the maximum magnification abilities (as compared to a standard 50mm focal length). Focal lengths from 18-35mm can help in bringing out details from small subjects like flora and fauna, whereas 50mm and upwards are ideal for something like product photography and creating some distance between your subject. Though higher magnification is always desirable, when on wider focal lengths it is advisable to be cautious as more often than not, you will find yourself bumping into the subject.
Reversing the lens can be done in two ways – either by hand holding it (very similar to free lensing) or with the help of an inexpensive reverse coupling ring. Both achieve the same results, albeit with varying levels of clarity and frustration.
While hand holding a newer lens (ones without an aperture ring) is entirely possible, results are far more consistent with older lenses with a dedicated aperture control ring. With a set it and forget it approach, vintage lenses provide a good starting point for anyone trying reverse lens macro photography for the very first time. On newer lenses with a physical aperture control (some lenses have electronically controlled apertures, which makes this technique very difficult), taping the aperture tab on the mount will help you open up the lens to its maximum and fix it at that. While you will lose depth of field, you gain a lot of light-gathering ability at the same time.
Stability is also very much an essential need when doing reverse lens macro photography. With razor-thin focusing planes and very shallow depth of field, a tripod can be very beneficial. When hand-holding my advice would be to sit down and use your elbows as a support mechanism, restricting your motion to only one axis.
Lighting is another factor that plays an essential role in the final quality of your results. Table lamps are a great way to start with, where wrapping a white cloth bag will diffuse the light and spread it evenly across your frame. Get your light source as close to your subject as possible. This will give your sensor enough light to bring out details in the shadows. Macro photography is all about details.
While hand-holding to free-lens with reverse lens macro photography is fun and can create unpredictable and exceedingly artistic results, the purest results come by using a dedicated reversal ring. These rings are cheap and made for nearly any camera and lens combination. They are simple devices – one side of the adapter is threaded to screw into the filter threads of your lens (buy the one which matches your lens’ filter thread diameter), and the other end of the adapter has a bayonet lens mount which attaches to your camera body like any other lens. Screw the adapter to the front of the lens, reverse the lens and attach it to the body. Simple. Using these adapters will make the sharpest, brightest images, allow you the most control, and nullify most of the potential drawbacks outlined below.
What are the potential drawbacks?
As mentioned, reversal ring adapters are great and the free-lensing method demands the most compromise. As such, the drawbacks noted here will apply mostly to the hand-held method.
When we detach the lens from the body, we lose all of its technical capability. Things like autofocus and EXIF data recording are lost. Focusing is achieved by moving the entire setup back and forth linearly and slowly. You also lose things like automatic diaphragm (where you can focus and compose at f/2 but take the photo at f/8), leaving you to deal with a darker viewfinder. This is where strong lighting becomes essential. Using live view alongside focus peaking will help in composing the image properly in such a scenario.
As an added note, exposing your lens outwards does come with an increased risk of damaging the contact pins. An extra bit of caution never hurts, so be careful with those exposed bits. Lastly, we also lose infinity focus capabilities. This is hardly a problem with macro photography. And of course there’s also a slight chance of getting dust inside your camera. This is a negligible risk, really. I have had it much worse trying to change lenses on a seashore compared with doing reverse lens macro for extended periods of time.
Patience is paramount with reverse lens macro. It can be slightly intimidating when getting started, with things going wrong all the time. Achieving focus is particularly challenging as even the slightest changes in the environment can cause disturbances. Working in a space with minimal disturbance can be of great help.
Reverse lens macro does come with its fair share of drawbacks and challenges. But it’s got plenty of advantages as well. Firstly, there’s a higher magnification effect than we can achieve with conventional close-up lens filters (which James covered here). A conventional macro lens goes to about 10 diopters, whereas a reversed lens can be anywhere from 20 to 40 diopters in comparison.
There is also a variety that can be had when using the reverse lens macro technique. As this technique does not depend on the lens mount, you can experiment with countless other lenses with varying focal lengths, apertures, and specs. You can even mix it up and try various optics not conventionally used for photography (such as projector lenses).
You could even combine the effects of reverse lens macro by stacking it. Twin lens reverse macro is a powerful tool that can help you get even closer while giving some degree of control back to the user. It allows you to use two lenses, one of which will be mounted correctly to the camera and the other mounted in reverse to the filter thread of the first one. This way, with native lenses, you can even control the aperture and use the focus ring up to a certain degree.
Lastly, it’s the infinite possibilities that open up when doing macro. Everything from paintbrushes to flowers to dewdrops, everything becomes a fresh new subject. Stuck as we are in times of uncertainty, macro photography helps us explore new worlds right within the comfort of our homes. A tiny drop of water takes on an exciting shape and form when viewed through the lens of a macro photographer. Day to day objects give rise to new creative outlooks and ideas. The shopaholic within us can take a break.
For those of us, like me, who have convinced ourselves that photography is an expensive hobby, try this technique out. You’ll spend nearly no money, and open up a whole new world of photographic possibility. And if you try it, let us know. I would love to see the photographs you make, and to know about your experience in the comments below.
Get your reversal ring from B&H Photo here
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Another fun and cheap way to explore macro work are macro extension tubes. They basically move the lens further from the film or sensor with no optics in the path. Literally a hollow tube with lens and body mounts on ends. Many carry the electrical connections (for modern, digital systems) through to the lens, retaining all the functions for aperture, focus, etc. You can get stackable sets for $30 for a lot of major brand systems.