As with any specialized area of photography, the art of macro photography – that is, making images of objects at a very close range – is in a creative world unto it’s own.
This is true not only in terms of the specialized gear required to tell a story at a true 1:1 scale, but even more so in regard to the patience and practice needed to produce a clear and consistent result.
In this article, we’ll explore a technique known as reverse lens macro and consider one economical approach to producing amazing close-up images by using a simple reverse ring adapter and a manually-operated lens.
What is a Reverse-Ring Adapter?
A reverse-ring adapter is a small piece that essentially flips the face of a lens, allowing the glass elements to be reversed and used as a macro lens.
If you’ve ever looked through a pair of binoculars from the opposite direction, we find that what is drawn to a closer view one way is now pushed into the distance when viewed in reverse. A rudimentary analogy at best, but a good visual on the nature of macro vs. telephoto and how these lens groups are internally constructed for their intended function.
While an adapter is by no means a substitute for a true macro lens constructed solely for this purpose, using a reverse-ring filter adapter can be a great way to initially explore the medium with an existing lens before making an informed leap into any costly gear investments.
Attaching a Reversing Ring
To locate the right filter adapter for your camera and lens mount, search your favorite gear resource for reverse (or reversing) ring adapters at the proper lens filter diameter, which is typically labeled on the face (and/or side) of the lens housing.
The samples in this article were captured with a 58mm Canon-mount adapter purchased on Amazon for less than $20.
Once you’ve located the right piece for your camera make, attach the filter adapter by threading clockwise directly on to the face of the lens. Be sure to remove any existing filters and lens hood before attaching for best results.
To avoid cross-threading the filter grooves, place the (externally) threaded side of the adapter down loosely on the (internally) threaded lens housing and turn counter-clockwise gently until you feel the threads click into place before spinning clockwise to hand-tighten, being mindful not to over-crank.
Once installed, the lens can now be attached to the camera in the reverse direction via the mounting-side of the adapter and we’re ready to start shooting.
Note that all of the electronic connections are now reversed as well and disengaged from the camera body, rendering any automatic control of the lens of no effect. It’s all manual from here, as opposed to a true macro lens designed to maintain this full-electronic command and control.
Filling the Frame
Making macro images is not always about the extreme close-up, it’s also an ideal approach to filling a given frame when addressing a very small subject..
Focal plane and depth-of-field can be a challenge when framing subjects at such short distances. When working with a prime (fixed focal plane) lens, focus is essentially controlled by the distance to the subject from the face of the lens only and creates a potential limitation when a subject starts to spill outside the frame when within the field of focus.
Using a moderate zoom (in this case, an older manually-operated Quantaray 28-80mm f/3.5) will add a ton of flexibility in terms of shooting position and being able to punch-in or out to more easily frame a shot.
Telephoto Vs. Prime
The above image is captured at a fixed 50mm focal plane (fully-open @ f/1.4 with a Zeiss prime lens), sending the edges of the subject out of view at the desired point of focus.
If we were shooting in normal (non-macro) focal lengths, we could simply take a step back and re-frame to contain the subject.
However, with a reverse-lens (or any macro) setup, even the slightest movement can be extreme and moving only half an inch back or forward will place the subject out of a suitable focal range.
The above sample is captured from the same position with the old 28-80mm zoom, providing a more flexible range of focus to more easily contain the subject completely within the frame at an equally close proximity.
When shooting macro, acquiring focus is difficult without getting very close to the subject – considerably closer than usual, so much so that it can take a little getting used to at first. In fact, I was having a difficult time acquiring focus on a simple, static object resting completely still only three inches from the lens face.
Only by slowly rocking forward an inch or so did my subject begin to come into clear view. My advice here is to get as close as possible without impeding your primary light source, be patient and subtly adjust your position to locate and acquire focus.
All of the images in this article are hand-held in natural light, modified by a shoot-thru diffuser tucked into a moderately shaded window.
Creative Bokeh & Focus Stacking
As macro photography is notoriously limited to working in very thin planes of focus, macro lenses inherently generate soft out-of-focus areas useful for creative applications. For those who enjoy using bokeh to draw the eye, this would be a fun and ideal place to experiment with composition ideas.
Conversely, a given frame can sometimes require the merging of dozens, if not hundreds of images to produce a more complete focus in post production.
Skilled macro shooters use a technique known as focus stacking within a layered Photoshop workflow to mitigate the effect and manually generate a complete focus across their subjects.
For those interested in learning more about this technique, I would point you to Get Extended Depth of Field with Focus Stacking by Rich Harrington and the book Sky Crystals by Don Komarechka for further study and inspiration.
Any live or potentially moving subject presents a major challenge in terms of acquiring a clean macro exposure. Once again, using a moderate telephoto zoom will be considerably easier and a bit less invasive for live subjects as far as framing a shot.
In the above image, for example, having tried for a while in vain to combat a slow and steady sway in-and-out of focus, the best solution was to have my subject lean back comfortably against a wall to make hand-held focusing a much easier task.
It’s imperative to keep in mind that even the slightest movement is enough to throw off the intended focal point. When shooting macro images of a live subject, doing all we can to stabilize the scene will go a long way in producing a cleaner, more appealing result.
A quick word of caution for those considering a wide-angle zoom in conjunction with an ASP-C (crop-sensor) Canon body..
When recently experimenting with a Sigma 10-20mm f/4 and a Canon crop-sensor body, I found that the bulky flange of the 77mm Fotodiox reversing ring adapter purchased expressly for this setup was bumping slightly into the flash housing (as pictured above), just enough to prevent the lens from fully mounting.
It does however appear that there is a bit more void space between the lens mount and the upper housing on full-frame Canon bodies to accommodate a clean fit, though I’ve yet to fully test this issue personally.
I would strongly recommend reading any and all reviews available to be absolutely certain the adapter ring you’re seeking will work with your camera body.
Seek Out Older Lenses
One of the most appealing aspects of reverse lens macro is that it has no allegiances with specific lens manufacturers. The 28-80mm lens used in this article has been on the shelf for a good 20+ years, and was far more effective than the newer 50mm prime – in most cases.
In fact, I recently noticed a similar lens available through KEH.com for less than $10. If you, too, should happen to have old glass laying around, this is a great way to end the early retirement and let them shine in new ways.
For those new to the concept, search far and wide for manually-operated zooms and primes; you’ll be pleased to find that older glass is amazingly inexpensive these days and fairly easy to come by comparatively.
In my opinion, macro photography works the smaller, less appreciated muscles taken for granted and brings a renewed sense of vision and patience (or lack thereof) to my workflow. It reveals how impatient and sloppy I can sometimes be, and serves as a reminder to slow down and savor.
Life presents much more than what initially meets the 50mm eye, and reverse lens macro is one capable approach to learning and experiencing life at full-scale.
Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find yourself inspired to grab that old glass and get it back in the rotation. If you have any questions along the way, drop me a line at [email protected] any time.