This is the third in a series of posts about the BugPhoto approach to macro photography.
Macro vs. Reverse
The most straightforward way to take macro shots with a DSLR camera is to use a macro lens, i.e. one that has the optics to focus closely. Usually these lenses top the photographer out at “life-size,” i.e. that magical 1:1 ratio (which I discussed in the first post of this series). Without those special optics, you can have a nice lens and camera combo like any other but you won’t be filling up your frame with tiny things like insects.
So it probably seems easy enough: if you want to shoot close, you get a macro lens. For one reason or another, some of us, myself included, have a different approach.1 As it stands, I have very limited experience using an actual macro lens, and I do not believe any of the photos I have posted on this site to date have been taken with such a lens. Instead, I have achieved the vast majority of the photos here using the “reverse lens” (or reversed lens) method. What you do…(wait for it)… is… reverse the lens, i.e. mount the front end to the camera body instead of the usual back end. Heady stuff, I know, but how do you pull this off, you may be asking? The answer is a piece of equipment called a “reverse lens adapter.”
The adapter works simply by screwing into the filter thread at the front end of the lens; the back end of the adapter then mounts onto the camera like any lens would. Reversing the lens allows it to focus closely and create images at high magnifications. (Note: Reverse lens adapters come in different thread sizes, e.g. 52mm, 55mm, 67mm, etc., to accommodate different lenses.)
Why REVERSE IT?
That’s great and all, right? But why would someone do such a thing? I personally have two primary reasons: first, it’s cheap. While a good macro lens will cost hundreds of dollars or more, a reverse lens adapter goes for around $10 (USD). The basic kit lens for many of Nikon’s DSLR bodies, the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G, happens to render quality images reversed so when I purchased my D5000 with kit lens I was ready to go with the addition of one ten buck ring. Little did I know it at the very beginning, but the lens also had the benefit of my second reason, a wide magnification range. Most macro lenses2 stop at a 1:1 magnification ratio, and if you’ve poked around my site at all, you’ll know that’s not enough magnification for my macro obsession. Sometimes I want my images really close-up and other times I want them extremely really close-up. Now generally3 a shorter focal length will produce a higher magnification, e.g, a 28mm lens reversed gets you closer than a 50mm lens reversed, but having to switch out lenses not only is a pain in the butt, it could be the difference between getting a great shot or just missing it. The 18-55mm reversed, if my calculations are accurate, has a generous range of 0.75x (i.e. under life-size) magnification at 55mm to 3.9x at 18mm, allowing me to fill my frame with everything from large wasps to tiny jumping spiders.
While a photographer can get great photos from a reverse lens set up, it’s important to know that it isn’t necessarily easy. I feel like I should say this if only as a disclaimer, so first (if not foremost), handle your equipment with care. I am careful anyway and have had zero problems with my rig, but it is worth noting the camera and lens were not designed to attach in this manner.
Second and actually foremost, you will lose a lot of functionality on your camera by reversing your lens. The contact nodes on the lens (see photo to the right) that normally connect to the camera body are lost in space, so to speak, and with them things like the exposure meter and TTL flash capability. I’m guessing the prospect of shooting like that sounds like driving blind for many. For me, I had no experience with a DSLR and all I knew was that I wanted to get great macro images and that a reverse lens could do it for me. The biggest thing was trial and error. To develop intuition with this setup has taken time, but it didn’t take very long to get down some working parameters. Certain factors or preferences may help in finding settings that work for you. For instance, I really was abhorrent of noise in my shots, so I almost always shot at the native ISO setting (200 on the D5000). And because I usually wanted to avoid blur in my erratically- and fast-moving subjects, I had to shoot with a high-enough shutter speed. After that, the biggest thing was setting the flash output, which only has so much of a usable range when those other settings are spoken for. Shooting in RAW format is pretty much a must for cleaning up imprecise exposures in post-processing.
Potentially the biggest loss of functionality (related more to the mechanical rather than computerized connection) is the loss of aperture control. If you are using let’s say an older prime lens, you don’t have to worry: they have manually adjustable aperture rings that give you some nice, simple aperture precision and save you a potentially big headache. If you use a gelded lens, say a contemporary 18-55mm kit lens, then you have an aperture lever sitting in a closed position and nothing to set it at a certain opening.
As far as I know, there isn’t a perfect solution here, but I have tried a few over the years. I started off with the “finger adjustment” method. This is where you put your finger on the aperture lever and hold it open while shooting. This has some obvious drawbacks: potentially adding camera shake/instability; imprecise and/or “moving” (let’s call it) aperture settings; and if you have sensitive fingers it might just hurt your fingertip after a while. It does, however, offer instant, variable aperture adjustment. That might not seem like a big deal, but moving on to my second solution, The Toothpick Method (see photo above), you might long for a little aperture variability. By wedging a bit of toothpick into the lever opening, you can achieve stability and hold your camera normally, but unless you have a set of variably-sized toothpicks, twigs, stems, etc., you’re probably going to be working with a fixed aperture more or less. Sometimes I would insert a second piece of toothpick to get a bigger aperture, but even so it still makes for a limited working range.
My third and currently-employed solution is to use an accessory known as an “aperture enabler” (which I think definitely deserves scare quotes). Here’s a couple views of the Fotodiox one I use:
At first, I was a bit turned off by it. I wasn’t sure where to set it at, and probably worse, it appeared to darken my shots a stop or so worth, which meant I’d probably have to blast my flash a little more (and blasting my flash makes me unhappy to begin with). So I put it in the cupboard. In favor of the toothpick. Eventually, for whatever reason (invariable loss of variable aperture? better flash set up? loss of toothpick?), I tried it again and found it much more useful. It’s a fairly simple device that you manually rotate like a focus ring, which pushes a small bar down onto the aperture lever, giving it a stable and fairly fluid ability to adjust the opening. A bonus is that the aperture enabler also has a filter thread on the end if you want to put on a protective cover, CP filter, etc. At around $20 (USD), it can fit into most budgets, too.
(I do want to add: don’t be too put off by the toothpick; it can be a more than adequate solution. Rundstedt Rovillos, the first photographer who inspired me with his great insect photos to make some of my own, is (was?) a proud and highly successful progenitor of the method! Also keep in mind, depth of field will be much more delimiting at high magnifications, so there isn’t really a great range of useable aperture sizes to begin with; and a fixed aperture might actually make working out the other settings easier over time.)
A Final Few Words
Essentially, by choosing a reverse lens, I’ve chosen a full (and maybe even “extra”) manual mode approach; it requires some (or maybe a lot of) trial and error. It’s certainly not for everyone, and I haven’t gone through all the quirks and challenges it entails here, but it is inexpensive and potentially powerful. You can get great results, maybe some of the best out there (SEE: Thomas Shahan, he of the reversed prime lens). There are always trade-offs in macro photography, and especially so with live arthropods, so I don’t usually focus much on the limitations of my reverse lens. Frustration will set in sooner more likely than later, but in the end if you can push through that and put in the practice time, you can make it work for you. I’m biased I guess, but I’d even say it’s a case where those limitations can spur creativity; like a tree growing under the outcropping of a cliff, you’ll find a way to grow around them and reach the light.
In the next BugPhoto Guide post, I’ll discuss the related topic of the crucial role of flash illumination in high magnification, handheld macro photography.
Previous BugPhoto Guide posts:
1. The approach I’m discussing here is specifically a basic lens-to-camera body reverse mount, but naturally other methods, e.g. bellows, extensions tubes, mounting a reverse lens to another lens, etc., are possible for achieving macro photographs.
2. Canon’s MPE-65 lens is a notable exception. Basically, by all accounts I’ve heard, it’s the holy grail of macro lenses with its built-in 1–5x magnification range. Judging by the photos, I believe the hype. It also costs $1,049.00 (USD), which is actually cheaper than I remember (ha!).
3. But there’s always a catch! I say generally, because when dealing with simple lens, like prime lenses, or presumably the case of the 18-55mm Nikon kit lens, the lower focal lengths correspond to higher magnifications. Beware, however, of complex optics. Case in point: I purchased an 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G Nikkor lens, thinking, “Oh, great, I’ll get a slightly longer zoom which will give me a little less magnification and allow me to shoot bigger insects without changing my lens.” Not so fast, Mike. At 70mm, I had a higher magnification than at 55mm on the kit lens. I’m not sure what specifically accounts for this discrepancy, but take note that not all lenses will be good candidates for reversing.