Reversing a lens is one of the easiest and cost-effective ways of getting into macro photography. This article discusses the choice of lens for reverse, different options of using reversed lens, and advantages/disadvantages of reversed lens macro photography.
The choice of lens for reverse
Not all lens are suitable for reversed macro photography. To achieve the best results, reverse the lens that are “symmetrical”, which have the aperture diaphragm appears to be roughly the same size looking through both ends. Another rule of thumb is to use lens that has similar diameters for both front and rear elements. Many lens with focal lens <50mm are good choices. I have seen excellent results from 24mm (examples, setup) upto 50mm lenses reversed for macro photography.
Another important consideration is to make sure the lens has an aperture ring so you can control the depth of field and make it easier to focus (focus with open aperture and close down to take photo). Some modern lenses no longer have a aperture ring since the aperture is set by the camera via a small lever at the lens mount. These lenses are typically stuck at its smallest aperture when reverse mounted, therefore not very convenient for reverse. However if you don’t mind holding the aperture open by hand for focusing and close it to its smallest to take the shot, these type of lens work just fine. Some have shown very good results with kit lens or third party cheap zoom lens such as Nikkor 18-55mm, and Sigma 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6.
Reversed lens macro photography
The cheapest method is to hold the reversed lens onto the camera using your hand during shooting, or attach it using a rubber band. For convenience and better result, an inexpensive reversing ring is highly recommended. A reversing ring is nothing more than a piece of metal with lens mount on one end and filter thread on another end. Thread the front of the lens on to the filter thread, then mount them together just like an normal lens. The photo on left is taken with a reversed Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D mounted on Nikon D200.
To achieve higher magnification (>1:1), you can mount a reversed lens onto another normally mounted lens using a macro coupler. This has not only the advantage of larger magnification, but also the benefit of retaining the metering capability. You can leave the front lens at its widest aperture and control the depth of field using the lens mounted normally on your camera. Here is an example shot taken with Nikkor 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 with reversed Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. Another combination for Nikon users is Nikkor 55-200mm with reversed 50mm f/1.8.
An alternative high magnification macro setup is to use a reversed macro lens with extenders or bellows.
You really should not dismiss the reversed lens technique as only “poor man’s macro photography”. If you want to get larger than 1:1 magnification, you will find reversed lens technique is one of the viable choices. Check out these amazing examples on flickr.
Advantages and disadvantages of reversed lens macro photography
The obvious benefit of macro photography using reversed lens is cost-saving. Instead of buying dedicated macro lens, you use the lens that you already have.
There are several drawbacks with reversed macro lens photography. With a single lens mounted with a reversing ring, you will definitely lose the auto-focus capability. This may not be an issue since manual focus is preferred method of focusing for macro photography anyway.
One some cameras, you may also lose TTL auto-exposure. Some cameras, such as Nikon D200, can still determine exposure using TTL metering with a reversed lens directly mounted on the camera. Other cameras such as Nikon D80/D40 cannot.
There are also concerns of getting dusts into the lens, and the danger of scratching the unprotected rear lens element.
One tip I’d like to offer is to remove other filter you may have on the lens (such as a protective UV filter) before attaching the reversing ring. They might get stuck together and become very difficult to separate.
Keywords: Macro, Macro photography, reversed lens