Reverse Lens Macro Offers High Magnification at Low Cost
If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to achieve high magnification in your photography, check out reverse lens macro photography technique. Reverse lens photography has allowed me to achieve magnification I couldn’t come close to with my more expensive equipment.
When I discovered the reverse lens setup, I initially hated it. I was frustrated with the razor thin depth of field and the inability to control my aperture. I tossed the setup aside for several years before digging it out of a closet and giving it another shot. This time, I fell in love.
What is Reverse Lens Macro and Why is it So Great?
The reverse lens technique is exactly what it sounds like. With the help of a special adaptor, you mount your lens backwards on your camera. With this technique you can achieve high magnification macro photography with an inexpensive setup.
Manual vs. Auto Reverse Macro Techniques
There are two major types of reverse lens setups: auto and manual. I got my start using the the manual method but have since switched to the auto method. In this article, I’ll talk about both methods.
For the manual reverse lens technique, you only need three pieces of equipment: your camera, a prime lens with manual aperture control, and an adapter.
The wider the angle of the lens, the greater the magnification you’ll achieve when the lens is mounted backwards on the camera. A 50mm or 28mm prime lens with a manual aperture ring are great places to start. Since the lens will be mounted backwards, you will NOT have electrical connectivity from the lens to camera. Because of this, you will not be able to change your aperture from the camera. Most modern lenses do not have manual aperture rings. Because of this, you might want to look for something produced in the film days. Also check with family and friends who might have something stored away in a closet!
The adapter you’ll need will depend on two things – your camera lens mount and the filter diameter on your lens. For example, I use a Canon EOS 90D with an EF lens mount. The lens I use for manual reverse lens photography is a Canon FD 28mm ƒ2.8 with a 55mm filter diameter. The adapter I use is a Canon EOS EF to 55mm filter diameter.
Manually Changing the Aperture
Although you can use a lens without a manual aperture ring, it’s probably not the best choice as your depth of field will be incredibly shallow (since the aperture will be wide open). Depth of field is already a challenge with the reverse lens method because you’ll need to be just inches away from your subject to achieve focus and the physically closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field. You need to be able to stop down your aperture as much as the lighting conditions will allow to achieve enough depth of field to get your subject in decent focus.
Some lenses do not allow you to change your aperture unless the lens is mounted to the camera. Because of this, you need to “trick” the lens into thinking it’s mounted on the camera. Check out this video to learn how to do this. Other lenses may allow you to change the aperture without having to trick your camera. Whether or not you have to do this will depend on the lens you’re using.
While I got my start with reverse lens macro using a manual lens, I made the switch to the auto method a few years ago after one of my readers reached out to me. This person let me know about a piece of equipment that would allow me to reverse mount a modern lens and maintain communication between my camera and lens. This piece of equipment was the Vello Macrofier Reverse Mount Adapter. And it became a fast favorite!
Reverse Mount Adapter
The Vello Macrofier works in two ways – as a reverse mount adapter and as an extension tube. 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 the electrical connectors of your lens which would normally be exposed in the reverse mount position.
With reverse lens macro photography, the wider the angle of lens, the greater the magnification. I’ve used both my Canon EF-S 24mm and Canon EF 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. 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. Because of this, I primarily use the 40mm lens.
Pancake lenses are slim and light, which makes this setup great for travel or throwing in a small bag for quick visits to the garden. I also like the low profile of the pancake lenses because I rely on my camera’s built-in flash for lighting. I pair my flash with a Graslon Spark flash diffuser for a nicely diffused flash output. If I use a longer lens, the light from the flash is physically blocked by the lens, rendering the flash useless.
With the Canon 40mm or 24mm pancake lenses and Vello Macrofier, I can use my camera and lens in several different orientations. In 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 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!
Tips and Tricks
Proximity to Subject
With the reverse lens technique, you’ll need to be close to your subject to focus. 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). And no, I do not use autofocus. But focusing is easy! Simply move your camera back and forth until the subject is where you need it to be. Your focal plane will be small, so you won’t need to move much.
I find it easiest to stabilize my shot by holding whatever my subject happens to be resting on. If I’m photographing a spider on a leaf, I’ll 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 sometimes means scaring away my subject before I can take the photo. I move slowly and quietly. Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal about the insects and spiders I photograph. Being able to predict animal behavior is a huge plus. Take time to learn which species are easily spooked and which are more tolerant of a nearby camera.
As with any macro photography, lighting is always a challenge. When I first got started with reverse lens macro photography, I quickly learned that an extra light is a MUST. I played with my Canon Twin Lite Macro flash, but found it a bit heavy and cumbersome. Out of sheer curiosity, I popped open my on-camera flash (which had previously been little more than useless). Much to my shock, the on-camera flash gave me the perfect amount of light needed to take awesome insect and flower photos. In my experience, low-profile lenses work well when using the on-board flash but longer lenses block the flash light.
Handheld vs. Tripod
Are tripods necessary for crisp shots? Nope! All of my reverse lens work (and 99% of my work in general) is handheld. I hate tripods. I find them awkward. By the time you set up a tripod in the field, the insect or spider you were about to photograph has already jumped, fallen, flown, or scurried away. Shooting reverse lens takes some patience (and lots of practice) but you can achieve amazingly sharp photographs handholding your camera. Because of the close proximity you need to be to your subject, I find it convenient to hold my camera with one hand and use my other hand to hold my subject steady (I hold whatever my subject is resting on, usually a leaf, flower, or branch).
A Few Final Notes…
The above information is based on my personal experience with the reverse lens technique. But everyone’s experience is different! Give it a shot and see how you like it!
Reverse lens macro photography takes practice, patience, and persistence. While tools like the Vello Macrofier can help make the method a bit easier (and more fun, in my opinion), 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!