Cheap Macro: Reverse Mounting Prime Lenses

"Nothing As It Appears" by D. Travis North

50mm f/1.8, reverse mounted.

Macro and close-up photography was always something that appealed to me.  Being able to capture detail that isn’t accessible to the human eye is incredible.  But when I first discovered close-up photography, macro lenses were rare and quite expensive.  Not much has changed, macro lenses are still quite expensive.  Does that mean you can’t shoot close-up?  Of course not.  If you have a normal ranged prime lens (such as the nifty 50mm fixed), you have yourself a macro lens.  You just need to turn that lens around.

True story:  I have now been shooting for about 16 years.  The first several years of which were done with my film camera, a Nikon N2000 (circa 1984).  I had such desire to do close-up photography that I really think it ultimately postponed my move to digital.  There was a time there were I seriously considered spending my meager budget on a good macro lens instead of upgrading my camera.  I’m glad I didn’t, because I would have been kicking myself.  Truth is that I didn’t know – at the time – that reversing a lens was at all possible.  Fast forward to about 5 years ago, the photography community on the web was growing and I learned this cool trick.  I reversed my 50mm prime and suddenly the world of macro was not outside of my reach.  I only wish I discovered this much earlier.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Reverse Mounting

Okay, I’m going to be blunt:  A reverse mounted prime lens is not going to be a perfect solution.  It is not going to top a good quality macro lens.  And it surely is going to have it’s limitations.  For starters, the lens was not designed to work reverse mounted.  That means that vignetting is going to be a serious struggle.  You must be prepared to throw out the majority of your image if you want to avoid the vignetting.  You will also need to give up any automation in your camera.  You will need to operate in full-manual mode, and you will be giving up your internal light meter as well.  This means you’re working blind.  Capturing a well exposed shot will require some trial and error and you will waste a lot of shots while trying to find the perfect exposure.  With regards to aperture, many modern prime lenses won’t allow you to control the aperture unless it’s connected (correctly) to the camera.  Even if you have an on-lens aperture ring, you’ll find that the smaller apertures are prohibitive because of the vignetting and the light levels.  In short, you will have very little control over depth of field.  And that depth of field is going to be incredibly narrow – possibly as small as a few millimeters.  As for focusing, automatic focus is out the window because the electronic connections are facing the wrong way.  The manual focusing ring won’t help either because of your close proximity to the subject.  To focus, you’ll need to physically move the camera closer to or further from the subject (focusing rails help).

"All in a Name" by D. Travis North

This was shot at a slight angle, note how small the depth of field is.

That’s a lot of disadvantages.  After swallowing that pill, one might be curious why anyone would consider shooting with a reverse mounted lens.  The short answer – because you already have the lens and you can shoot macro with a minimal additional cost (I’ll get into that).  Though it won’t appeal to some, the do-it-yourself appeal is there as well.

Perhaps the best way to look at this is to compare a reverse-mounted setup to a traditional macro lens.  The reversed mount will get you roughly 75% there without the cost.  You’ll still be able to get that lens close to the subject.  Some lenses can get as close as a half-inch; whereas it can only focus on a subject nearly two feet away if it were mounted normally.  If you can get used to focusing by physically moving the lens, you’re going to have a great amount of detail as well – the shot will be clean and crisp.  Finally – and I cannot address this enough – you’re not adding an additional lens to your kit and you’re saving money overall.  Nuances aside, the reverse mounted prime lens is ideal for the dabbler or the person that is not so serious about shooting with such an exclusive lens.

How To Shoot With A Reverse Mounted Lens

Shooting with a reverse mounted lens is a lot easier than you think.  Since the aperture is not effective, you’re essentially eliminating that aspect of the exposure triangle.  There’s no reason to change the ISO – set it to ISO 200 and forget it – so you’re almost eliminating that aspect of the triangle.  All you’re left with is the shutter speed.  Again, you’ll need to do some trial and error, adjusting after checking your shot on the back of your camera.  You already know how to adjust the shutter speed to accommodate your exposure needs, so that part is easy enough (for you) as well.   All that remains is mounting the lens.  There are two ways to handle it:

Free Floating

If you just want to try out reverse mounting, you don’t need any hardware.  Simply remove the lens from your camera, turn it around and hold it close to your camera’s opening.  Don’t worry about light leaks – you’re operating blind and the trial-and-error is inevitable anyhow.  It is however difficult to hold the lens in place accordingly while trying to focus by moving the whole system in and out.  Dust is also a potential issue and if you shoot this way too often, your sensor chamber could acquire some undesirable dust.  Free floating the lens is great if you want to know what this is all about.  But I don’t recommend it if you start to get more serious about it.

Using a Mounting Ring

Reverse Mounting Ring

One example of a reverse mounting ring.

A better long-term solution is a reverse mounting ring.  They are quite cheap – only $10-$20 USD for a generic brand.  There are brand-named rings available, but they aren’t worth the price difference.  It’s a piece of metal.  There are no electronics, so there’s no risk in using generic in this case.  Reverse mounting rings come in various sizes.  The size should match the filter size of your lens.  If your lens takes a 52mm filter, you need a 52mm mounting ring.  One end screws into the filter side of the lens, the other snaps into the lens mount.  And it’s as simple as that.

The Shooting Process

Once the lens is mounted or in place, it’s time to shoot.  As I mentioned, you will need to operate in full manual mode, the camera will give you an error otherwise and most likely will prevent you from operating the shutter.  I would suggest the following shooting routine:

  1. Place the camera in manual mode.  Your camera likely won’t operate otherwise, so get int he habit of doing this every time.
  2. Set the ISO.  I would suggest using ISO 200.
  3. Set the aperture manually if available.  Same principals apply – the best aperture is likely going to be two clicks from wide-open.  If it’s a digital-only lens, and you don’t have an aperture ring, you are stuck shooting with the widest aperture (which isn’t a serious concern).
  4. Put the lens into place (or mount it if you have a ring).
  5. Focus by moving closer to or further from the subject.  Depth of field will only be a few millimeters deep, so make sure you’re checking your focus before snapping the shot.
  6. Adjust your shutter speed to something reasonable or adjust accordingly.
  7. Take the shot.
  8. Check the shot on the back of your camera.  Zoom in to check focus and exposure.
  9. Repeat steps 6 through 8 as necessary.

I offer two caveats to the shooting process.  First, watch your camera position and angle.  With such a shallow depth of field, you want to be as parallele to the subject as is feasible.  Second, light is a bane of any macro photography.  Even with a well-lit room, the light levels could cause problems as your camera is so close to the subject (blocking a portion of the light).  The good news, with such a small area to light, even a desk lamp or a bare light bulb will do wonders.

Reverse Mounted

Self Portrait with a reverse mounted lens and a convex mirror.

Final thoughts

My best advice is the bear-with-it.  There is a lot of trial and error at first, but you will eventually develop a knack for identifying exposures that are close to ideal so that you can minimize the trial-and-error.  If you stick with it, and practice often, you’ll appreciate reverse mounted photography for all that it’s worth – which again, from a strict monetary point of view, is minimal cost.

In the end, you’ll follow one of two paths.  Either you will find satisfaction in the reverse-mounted macro photography; or you will find yourself headed down the road of inevitable macro lens purchases.  Either way, the $11 ring will do you well.

So try reverse mounting your prime lens.  Post your results on Flickr and please post your results in our Shutter Photo at Flickr Group.



About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father’s Nikon N2000, he’s been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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