Macro Techniques

Reverse Pancake Macro: High magnification and low cost

I am fiercely passionate about macro insect and spider photography. I’ve spent 18 years experimenting and practicing with various equipment and techniques, always looking for the perfect macro setup. Six years ago, I purchased the Canon ƒ/3.5L 180mm macro lens and a year later I paired it with the Canon MT-24EX Twin Lite Macro flash. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I wanted more magnification. That’s when I starting looking for other macro methods and equipment.

I discovered the reverse lens macro technique and although I initially hated it, I quickly fell in love after learning the ins and outs of the setup and achieving impressive results. You can read more about my experience here.

Bee on stick
I’ve been using an old Canon FD 28mm manual lens with impressive results.

A few years later, I discovered what I refer to as pancake macro. Pancake macro entails using extension tubes with a wide-angle pancake lens. The results are impressive and the setup is versatile, especially if you’re looking for an inexpensive macro setup or looking to travel light. Again, you can learn more here.

Leafhopper on plant
Combining a 24mm pancake lens with a 12mm extension tubes offers impressive magnification, but backgrounds aren’t quite out-of-focus enough for my liking.

I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with the reverse lens or pancake macro techniques for the last five years. But these techniques are not without fault. With the reverse lens technique, I usually recommend using an old manual lens with an aperture ring. With modern lenses, you set aperture via the camera but since the lens is reversed, there is no communication between camera and lens. If you use a modern lens you’ll be stuck with a wide-open aperture and a razor-thin depth-of-field. While you can force a modern lens to stop down to a set aperture for the reverse technique, it’s a messy process. First, mount your lens normally to the camera. Set your desired aperture. While holding the depth-of-field preview button, simultaneously detach your lens from the camera and mount it in the reversed position (with a reverse adaptor). To change the aperture, you’ll need to go through the entire process again. By using an old manual lens, you can easily change the aperture as needed, but keep in mind, when looking through the camera’s viewfinder, you’ll be framing your shot with a stopped down aperture which will make the scene dark and difficult to focus. Practice and patience can help overcome these issues.
My major fault with the pancake macro technique is messy backgrounds. With pancake macro, I’ve recognized that backgrounds need to be a fair distance behind your subject or you’ll have more background focus than desired. I like my backgrounds clean and completely out-of-focus, which I’ve found difficult to achieve with this technique when shooting at my desired aperture of around ƒ/11.

Recently, however, I discovered a way to combine both the reverse lens and pancake macro techniques while retaining full electrical connectivity between my camera and lens. Enter the Vello Macrofier. This $100 magical unicorn of macro photography is made specifically for reversing Canon EF and EF-S lenses while retaining aperture control and autofocus. It’s worth mentioning here that I only use manual focus with reverse lens macro photography so I’m not overly excited about the ability to use autofocus. However, the fact that I can easily control aperture while my lens is reversed is game changing for my methods. I can now look through my viewfinder and frame and focus my shot with a wide-open aperture that stops down only when I press the shutter (which allows me to see a brightly lit scene for easier focusing). Another added advantage is retaining all EXIF data for each photo so I know exactly what aperture and focal length I used for each image. Although EXIF data may seem trivial to some, it’s often required information when entering photography contests (which, truthfully, I’m really lazy about).

Backside of long-jawed orb weaver (ISO 400, ƒ/14, 1/250, 40mm reversed)
long-jawed orb weaver spider
Underside of same long-jawed orb weaver (ISO 400, ƒ/16, 1/250, 40mm reversed)

The Vello Macrofier works in two ways – as a reverse mount adapter and as extension tubes. With the reverse mount technique, your lens is sandwiched between the two rings of the Vello Macrofier which are connected via a 30″ tightly coiled cord. The “body ring” mounts to your camera, your lens screws onto the body ring via the filter threads (and appropriate adaptor ring) and the “lens ring” mounts to the end of your lens. The added bonus of the macrofier is that it protects your lens’ “guts” which would normally be exposed in the reverse mount position.

nursery web spider in web
Image stack of two photos. Nursery web spider stuffing insect leg into its mouth (ISO 800, ƒ/11, 1/250, 40mm reversed)

The Vello Macrofier comes with seven reverse adaptor rings (52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, and 82mm), which should cover most common filter sizes. When mounted in the extension tube orientation, the Vello Macrofier rings mount to one another and onto the camera and your lens would mount at the end of the macrofier. The macrofier is metal and feels sturdy and reliable in hand. The 30″ cord should allow adequate space for mounting short and long lenses.

Vello Macrofier
When mounted in the reversed orientation, your lens is sandwiched between the two pieces of the Vello Macrofier

With reverse lens macro photography, the wider the angle of lens, the greater the magnification you’ll achieve. I’ve used both my Canon EF-S 24mm and Canon EF-S 40mm pancake lenses and both work brilliantly with the Vello Macrofier. The 40mm pancake lens offers a 1.2:1 magnification ratio with a focal distance of around two inches and the 24mm pancake lens offers a 2.6:1 magnification ratio with a focal distance of just over one inch. I find the magnification of the 24mm pancake lens to be a bit too much, unless I’m working with very small subjects, so I’ve primarily used the 40mm lens. If you’re using a full-frame Canon camera, you have other EF lens options, but most are quite a bit more expensive than the EF-S pancakes for cropped sensors.

Even in the reverse orientation, the Vello Macrofier acts as an extension tube since the “body ring” mounts between the lens and camera body. The “body ring” offers about 14mm of extension and the “lens ring” offers about 18mm of extension (for a total of around 32mm of extension when combined).

Canon 70D with Vello Macrofier
My setup: Canon 70D with reversed Canon EF-S 40mm pancake lens, Vello Macrofier, and Graslon Spark flash diffuser.

The pancake lenses are slim and light, which is imperative for my methods since I rely on my camera’s built-in flash for lighting. I know it sounds crazy since built-in flashes are generally useless, but I LOVE my camera’s flash and my macro photography methods simply wouldn’t be the same without it (I pair my flash with a Graslon Spark flash diffuser for nicely diffused light). If I use a longer lens, my camera’s flash won’t be able to illuminate my subjects. I tried reversing my Canon EF-S 17-85mm lens with the Vello Macrofier and the lens physically blocked the light coming from the flash, rendering the flash useless.

jumping spider on leaf
Jumping spider (ISO 400, ƒ/16, 1/250, 40mm reversed)
thick-legged hoverfly on flower
Thick-legged hoverfly (ISO 400, ƒ/14, 1/250, 40mm reversed)

With the reverse lens technique, one of the major drawbacks is the proximity you need to be your subject. With the 40mm pancake lens, I need to be a mere two inches from my subject to achieve focus (keep in mind with the reverse lens method, you lose infinity focus). To achieve focus, I simply move my camera back and forth ever-so-slightly until my subject is where I need it to be. The focal plane is just a millimeter or two so I’m not moving much. I find it easiest to stabilize my shot by holding whatever my subject happens to be on. For example, if I’m photographing a spider on a leaf, I try to hold the tip of the leaf with my left fingers while resting my camera on my left wrist for added stabilization. This works well since I have to be so physically close to my subject to achieve focus, but it often means scaring away my subject before I can take the photo.

two-marked treehopper adult
Two-marked treehopper adult (ISO 500, ƒ/16, 1/250, 40mm reversed)
Leafhopper nymph (ISO 400, ƒ/11, 1/250, 40mm reversed)

I move slowly and quietly. I’ve learned a great deal about the insects and spiders I photograph, so I’m sometimes able to predict their behavior.

Snipe fly
Snipe fly (ISO 400, ƒ/11, 1/250, 40mm reversed)
fly on leaf
ISO 400, ƒ/14, 1/250, 40mm reversed

So far, I’m loving the results of the Vello Macrofier. My favorite macro technique is so much more fun now thanks to this handy tool. It has simplified and alleviated some of the major drawbacks of the reversed lens technique (other than close focusing distance which you’ll need to get used to). I’m finding it much easier to get my subjects in focus thanks to looking through the viewfinder with a wide-open aperture.

orchard orb weaver spider
Orchard Orb Weaver (ISO 400, ƒ/13, 1/250, 40mm reversed)

I should also mention the sheer versatility of this setup. With the Canon 40mm or 24mm pancake lenses and Vello Macrofier, I can use my camera and lens in several different orientations. With the reverse lens orientation, I achieve high magnification macro photography which is great for shooting small insects and spiders. With the extension tube orientation I can shoot larger insects and spiders (if I can get close enough) like butterflies or flowers. Remove the Vello Macrofier altogether and I have a great all-purpose lens for shooting a variety of subjects. This setup is awesome for traveling light and inexpensively! That said, I recognize this setup won’t work for everyone.

Reverse lens macro photography takes practice, patience, and persistence. The Vello Macrofier can help make the method a bit easier (and more fun, in my opinion), but it still requires a good working knowledge of photography, your camera, and the subjects you’re shooting. After all, you’ll be getting fairly intimate with the insects and spiders you photograph!

Good luck and happy shooting!

Unfortunately, I do not know of similar reverse adaptor systems for camera brands other than Canon. There are similar products like the Meike MK-C –UP Auto Macro Extension Tube AF Reverse Adaptor for Canon and the Novoflex Reverse Adaptor EOS-Retro. Though I have not personally used either, they may be worth checking out.

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  • Brent

    This article gave me the incentive to wipe the dust off my unused macrofier and pair it with my 24mm pancake. Wow, I am pleased with the results and it was fun, too. Thanks.

    • Danae Wolfe

      So glad you’re enjoying the setup. It’s become my new favorite (with the 40mm pancake). I’m so pleased with the results!

      • Brent

        Today, I picked up the Graslon Spark and a used 40mm pancake. I already have the great 100mm macro lens but I love the the portability of this set-up and the simplicity of the Graslon vs. the unwieldy flash rig for my 100mm.

  • Tj Thorniley

    Have you tried the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM?

    • Danae Wolfe

      I’ve not tried my nifty fifty yet! The focusing mechanism on my 50mm is quite loose. Generally, with reverse lens macro photography, the wider the angle of lens you use, the greater magnification you will get. I sometimes find my 40mm pancake provides a bit too much magnification (for larger insects and spiders especially), so I’d be interested in trying a 50mm!

      • Tj Thorniley

        Yep, that’s what I thought when I read that. I just bought my first DSLR; a 650D, the 50mm STM, reverse-mount/macrofier thing, a cheap focusing rail, and about 70~80mm worth of extension tubes. I’m not satisfied with it yet, but most of my subjects are considerably smaller; I think you’ll love it.

  • Tj Thorniley

    Also, I was just wondering: Are the images in this article stacked/composites; or single shots?
    I think you mentioned the effective focal depth was about ~1mm, but these guys are looking nice and sharp.
    My favourite is the fly @ ƒ/14, second from the bottom.

    • Danae Wolfe

      The only photo in this post that was stacked was the nursery web spider – that was a stack of two photos. You can see more of my work on my Facebook page – Wolf Macro Photography. I have one two additional stacks that I posted in the last month or so. I find stacking exceptionally difficult to achieve with handheld photography!

      • Tj Thorniley

        That’s a relief. I’ll just have to swap out my 50mm for the 24mm and/or 40mm.
        : )

  • Tj Thorniley

    Probably not as suitable for lens reversal, but what do you think of the Tamron 90mm for this kind of macro photography?

    I might pick up a cheap one, secondhand.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/172188eb769a26b3af72b938b4f9d4da1c74a2885610a1c2e6e7d610cb9fa507.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65a75286ae5e4179affcd6025d5b45a2a980d8285ab24d41707b56f06f0503fe.jpg

    • Danae Wolfe

      Like you said, it probably wouldn’t work well with the reverse lens technique since the lens will likely block the light from your camera’s built-in flash (assuming you’re using your built-in flash like I do). I have a Canon 100mm macro and it’s a solid lens. I like it a lot, but I don’t get the magnification I prefer. The bokeh is great and the sharpness is awesome. But I’ll be honest in saying I don’t get out much with that lens. I much prefer the reverse lens.

      If you can get your hands on a good macro lens like the Tamron 90mm, it’s great to have that experience and option for shooting!

      • Tj Thorniley

        I’m using the MR-14EX, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
        I meant more because of the longer, 90mm focal length.

        • Danae Wolfe

          I’m not sure what your magnification ratio would be with a reversed 90mm. You may end up with less than a 1:1 magnification ratio (which would be less than the lens is capable of producing when mounted forward-facing). So it may defeat the purpose. It would still be a great macro lens, no doubt!

          • Tj Thorniley

            Yep, thats what I’m talking about.
            I just picked up a cheap bellows and second-hand 4.8 diopter macro filter.
            Have you tried either? I’ll let you know how they go.

          • Danae Wolfe

            I’ve not tried either. I’ll be curious to hear about your experiences!!