This is by no means the only way to make macro photos on a budget; many people also use extension tubes or bellows, teleconverters, close-up filters – or some combination of any of the aforementioned.
First, I’ll just walk you through the equipment I’m using:
In my macro setup, this telephoto mounts normally onto the camera body.
Next, a 50mm prime lens:
The aperture control lever is also referred to as the “stopdown lever,” for good reason: it simply controls the size of the aperture (your f-stop). I have no idea whether or not Canon lenses also operate this way.
At any rate, you need to make sure that the lens you’re reversing stays open at it’s maximum aperture. This is really important, as a lot of light is lost when you stack lenses.
By default, the lever remains at the smallest aperture (f/22 on this lens) when not mounted to a camera body. We need to manually open it up all the way.
I do this by making a tiny splint out of thick card stock:
Be careful splinting the lever; you don’t want to wedge the card stock in so far as to be irretrievable.
Now we need a way to mount the lenses in the unconventional, reversed configuration. Here is where adapter/ coupling rings come into play:
The BR-5 is basically what’s known as a step-down/ step-up ring. On this particular ring, one side is threaded at 62mm, and the other is 52mm. They’re also handy in non-macro applications, allowing use of any type of round photographic filter on more than one lens.
The generic macro coupler threads onto the front of whatever lens you’ll be reversing- like this:
Keep in mind, you’ll need to get coupling rings in the correct size for the lenses you’ll be using. The filter diameter can usually be found on the inside of the lens cap.
Next, the BR-5 step-down ring screws onto the front of the 70-300mm which has a filter diameter of 62mm. This allows the 50mm prime lens (with coupler) to be mounted inversely onto the 70-300mm, since the BR-5 “steps down” to the smaller 52mm filter diameter.
*I’ll apologize in advance for the following photos- they were taken with a point & shoot. I’ve actually no idea how to make nice images with a p&s, having never owned one.
Here’s a shot of the lenses connected by the coupling rings:
Here’s the setup all together:
I usually end up taking the battery grip off of the D80 because its extra weight stresses the lever that holds the tripod shoe (and thus the camera to the tripod).
I shoot all my macro subjects in the DIY lightbox I created, way back in this post. You need as much light as you can possibly get when stacking lenses, and having a white box for light to reflect around in really helps. In the near future, I’ll probably cave and buy a real fabric light tent and better lights, because portability and durability are nice things which are lacking in cardboard and tissue paper. ;-)
Here’s the tripod and setup in question:
That tripod has served me well so far, and actually can become quite tall (taller than my line-of-view into the camera viewfinder). I originally bought it for its portability and its completely awesome hybrid joystick ball-head, which simplifies the composition process since you don’t have >2 levers to adjust vertical, horizontal, and tilt placement, ect.
The only complaint I have with this tripod is the quick-release lever that holds the shoe in place; it really can’t take the weight of an SLR+ longer lenses, especially when you start tilting it at odd angles. (However, it was only designed to support 2.2 lbs or so, so I cannot fault it for this.)
So, once the tripod, lightbox, and lights are in position, I change some essential settings:
- Set focus to manual on the camera body
- Make sure the reversed lens has its focusing ring dialed to infinity
- Stop down the camera-mounted lens considerably: usually between f/22 & f/38
- Enable the remote shutter release (some shutter speeds will approach ~1 second)
- Double-check shooting mode is in RAW file format
- Set ISO to 100
- Set a custom white balance, OR-
- be lazy and use the incandescent setting (which is approximate), and fine-tune later in post.
Important things to know:
- In all likelihood, your camera won’t know how to meter accurately, so keep an eye on the exposure and figure out what works through trial-and-error. (yay, digital!)
- Magnification levels are measured by dividing the normally-mounted lens’ focal length by the focal length of the reversed lens. So, in my case, if I had the telephoto zoomed out fully to 300mm, it would be 300mm/50mm = 6x magnification.
Even when shooting with a real macro lens, the concept remains the same; people utilize specialized focusing rails so that the camera can be positioned precisely. This alters the focus by changing the distance from the subject.
You’ll also notice how close the lights are to the subject (a beer bottle cap) and the lens:
Sometimes, the subject will need to be propped up. That’s ^ just a beanbag I use to stabilize the camera in low-light situations when I don’t feel like carrying a tripod.
And, that’s about it.
There are definite drawbacks to the reverse lens macro approach, some of which are:
- Not suitable for insects or anything that’s going to move on you (This excludes the most interesting macro subjects, unfortunately!)
- Difficult to obtain tack-sharp focus
- Vignetting is likely- especially if a zoom is used as the normal mount
- Nearly-impossible to use in the field; I think you really need a studio-type setting, where the camera can be stabilized and the light controlled.
- In general a highly-finicky process, approaching tediousness: lots of room for error
Since I’ve never shot with a macro lens, I’m sure there are even more drawbacks (by comparison) inherent in this method to which I’m just naive. Ah well, some day.
However, If you posses a 50mm prime (or any prime, really), and any other lens, reverse mounting and/or lens stacking is a really accessible way to experiment with macro photography. I spent about $40 USD on the BR-5 step down adapter ring, which considering the average price-tag of any dedicated macro lens, is virtually nothing. You’d probably be able to locate a generic adapter/ step-down ring for less, as well. The other coupling ring was dirt cheap because it’s a (plastic) generic, yet the threading on it is flawless, and it works just fine for my purposes.
All in all, this experiment’s been a little like having a microscope in the house- which is super nerdly-cool, if a little frightening at times.
Here, the focus was soft and it was a little overexposed, so I repositioned the bottle cap and lights, and eventually came up with this:
A collection of my macro photos made using reverse lens stacking can be viewed in this Flickr set:
I hope this has been useful to some of you!
If you need clarification or have questions, please ask away in the comments.