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How to Enjoy Macro Photography on the Cheap

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Macro photography–or, taking photos of things under high magnification–is really fun; the price of dedicated macro lenses, on the other hand, is not. Read on as we show you how to use low cost tricks and techniques to enjoy macrophotography on a budget.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

Dedicated macro photography equipment is pricey–a single high end macro lens can easily cost over $800. If you’re not sure if you want to sink that much cash into an aspect of the photography hobby you’re just starting to explore (or if you’re a die-hard MacGyver-style photographer at heart) there are a wide variety of ways to enjoy the high-power magnification of macro photography without skipping the mortgage payment this month to fund your adventures.

Now, we’ll be the first to emphasize that for serious macrophotography work (e.g. you’re trying to put food in your mouth selling insect macro photos) there’s no substitute for one of those beautifully engineered (albeit pricey) lenses. That said, for someone dabbling with macro photography these techniques are fun and more than serviceable. More importantly, every technique we outline in this guide requires an outlay of $25 or less for the parts (and you could purchase all the parts necessary for all the techniques for $50 or less).

Before we proceed, one thing we’d highly encourage you to do is to check out exactly what people are doing with their various inexpensive and DIY macro rigs. The photos we’ve selected as samples in this tutorial aren’t the most exciting because we’re using them to demonstrate the changes in a baseline image over time when the lenses/techniques change (rather than to dazzles you with our photography chops).

If you want to be wowed by what you can do with reversed lenses, macro extension tubes, and other inexpensive macro techniques you’ll want to hit up Flickr and search for those techniques. You’ll find gems like this photo by photographer Thomas Shahan:

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Here are some links to get you started:

Browsing photos and reading their notes/tags is a great way to get a better sense of how people are using their equipment.

What Do I Need?

To follow along with every section of our tutorial you’ll need the following items (separated by section). We’re using a Nikon camera with a 50mm prime lens as the basis for our macro photography platform. If you’re using a different camera and/or lens you’ll need to adjust the specs for some parts (like the reversing rings) to match the size of the lens/threading diameter on your particular gear.

For all sections:

In addition, you’ll need the following for each technique:

Lens Reversing:

or

  • 1 Reverse Ring Kit ($25) (Highly recommended; Includes mount plus additional parts to protect your lens assembly while reversed.)

Extension Tubes:

Lens Stacking:

optional:

  • 1 Reverse Ring Kit ($25) (Highly recommended; Includes additional parts to protect your secondary lens assembly while reversed.)

In addition to those must-have parts we also strongly recommend a tripod and a remote shutter release of some sort (be it a hard-wired cable or a wireless remote) as macro photography requires a very steady camera and very minute adjustments in distance between the subject and the lens.

At this point you might be thinking “Hey, wait! You said I wouldn’t spend more than $50, but I don’t have a prime lens or a second lens to use for the stacking section!” Fair enough.

First, you don’t need to buy a prime lens for this project if you don’t have one. Prime lenses are ideal because you are able to open the aperture wider than on zoom lenses.

Second, for most major camera brands like Nikon and Canon, you can pick up a brand new 50mm prime lens for around $100. Even if you had no intention of doing macro photography we’d still recommend it because, hands down, the ultra-sharp 50mm prime lenses are the best values in photography–period. Dollar for dollar you just can’t go wrong picking one up.

Even better, 50mm prime lenses are about as ubiquitous a lens as you can find. If you’re not looking for the newest whiz-bang works with digital cameras and modern auto-focus systems lens you can pick up perfectly serviceable 50mm lens manufactured over the last 30 years everywhere from eBay to your local camera shop for an absolute steal–usually $25-40 or less. In the lens stacking section of the tutorial, for example, we’re stacking an old 50mm Nikon lens we snagged off eBay for $30.

Finally, if you read over the list above and you’re a little confused about the difference between a reverse ring mount and a reverse ring (or any other piece of equipment) don’t panic. We cover each component in depth as well as how it works in its respective section.

How to Use a Reverse Lens Adapter

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Just about every kid has, at some point, taken a pair of binoculars and turned them around to look through them the wrong way. Doing so reverses the lens elements and causes the binoculars to make things seem very far away instead of close up.

The same thing happens when you reverse a camera lens. The lens is designed to take something larger than the surface of the film (or digital sensor) such as a person and reduce that person (and the environment around them) to a very tiny space inside the camera.

Here is, for example, what a $5 bill looks like when photographed with a 50mm lens. Nothing unusual here, the 50mm lens is roughly equivalent to the human eye. This is exactly what a $5 bill looks like when you stare at it from the same distance the lens was from the bill (roughly a foot or so). Coincidently, the width of a piece of US currency at the minimum focal distance afforded by a 50mm lens is exactly the right size to fill the frame edge to edge:

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Now let’s look at the same image only with the zoom set to 100% and cropped around President Lincoln’s eyes. This is the maximum enlargement we can get from this particular setup (the standard 50mm lens) without resorting to software-based enhancement. In other words, if we want to blow the image up any further we’re going to lose image quality and rely on the computer to enlarge the image.

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That’s a less than ideal situation, obviously, as there are significant limits to what kind of enlargement software is capable of. Furthermore there is no software around that can put data into an image that isn’t there to begin with. You can’t magically, CSI-style, enhance a photo of a bowl of almonds to the point where you can see the individual grains of salt on the nuts because the original camera never captured the individual grains of salt.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how simply reversing the lens on your camera can yield surprising results. There’s  a good chance you’ve never thought about your camera lens in such a fashion, but it’s essentially a magic shrinking ray that takes all the big stuff in the world around us and makes it appear on a surface the size of a postage stamp (or even smaller in modern DSLRs). When someone snaps a photo of you standing there the lens takes the very large reality of you and reduces you via the lens elements to about 1/4 of an inch tall on the camera’s film/sensor.

If you want to capture really detailed and really close up images, you’ll need a lens that passes the image through in a 1:1 equivalency–rather than taking a large image and making it smaller, a lens with such a magnification ratio captures the image at life size or greater magnification on the sensor/film.

Flipping a 50mm lens around is the fastest and cheapest way to play around with a lens capable of 1:1 reproduction. Let’s flip the lens around using the reverse lens adapter now. First, remove your camera lens from your camera. Second, screw the lens (via its filter threads) onto the male thread adapter of the reverse lens mount. It should look something like this:

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If you purchased the full reverse mount kit (that includes the bayonet-to-filter adapter to project your exposed lens elements) now would be an appropriate time to attach it. If you don’t have a bayonet-to-filter adapter it’s a good habit to keep the plastic element cap that came with your lens over the end when you’re not shooting.

Take a moment to open the aperture of your lens all the way open using the aperture adjustment ring. Note: if your camera lens does not have a manual aperture adjustment ring you will most likely have to put the lens on the camera the traditional way, adjust the aperture all the way open, and then turn the camera off and remove the lens (effectively tricking the electronics in the camera/lens into leaving the aperture wide open).

At any rate, now that you have the lens reversed, you can snap some up close pictures. Let’s take a look at President Lincoln now that we’ve flipped the 50mm lens around. Here is the capture from the reversed 50mm lens (full frame width, cropped at the top and bottom).

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One thing you should notice immediately is how the entirety of the image isn’t in focus. One of the tradeoffs you make when working with macro lenses (be they DIY reversed lenses or full fledged professional macro lens) is that the depth of field decreases significantly as you increase the magnification. Just a millimeter or two of curvature in the $5 bill we were photographing was enough to ensure that while Lincoln’s eye was in focus his ear (a fraction of an inch to the left) was not.

Now, however, instead of the full frame capturing around 6″ at the minimum focal distance, the full frame only captures around 2″. Comparing this to the 100% crop of the standard 50mm image we just looked at a moment ago, we see that the full frame capture of the reversed 50mm image is as close up as the 100% crop of the full frame 50mm. In other words, without even looking at the reversed lens image at 100% we’re already as close as we were at the maximum optical magnification afforded by the regular 50mm setup. With that in mind, let’s look at the maximum enlargement we can squeeze out of the reversed setup.

Here is a 100% crop from the image, demonstrating how much magnification you gain simply by turning the lens around:

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My, what a dapperly etched gentleman! When you flip the lens around you reverse the elements. Now instead of taking a big portion of the world in front of it and making it very small, the lens is taking a very small portion of the world in front of it and making it big. If we attempted to enlarge the original image (the standard image taken with a regularly mounted 50mm lens) we would not see the details we see here (such as the raised cotton fibers at roughly 4′oclock on Lincoln’s iris).

The very definition of macro photography is photography with a lens that reproduces the subject in front of it on the film or camera sensor in at least a 1:1 ratio, a feat we’ve achieved simply by turning a 50mm lens around. (And, coincidentally we only had to spend $5 on a reversing ring to photograph this $5 bill, what a bargain.)

If you’re curious if your setup is capturing a 1:1 or better ratio, a super simple way to test it is to take a photograph of a ruler using the setup you want to measure. Look up the size of the sensor in your camera (A Nikon D90, for example, has a sensor that is 23.6mm wide) and compare that size to the what the camera captured. If you’re capturing at least 1:1 then the portion of the ruler visible in the photo will be 23.6 mm or less (if you could only see roughly 11.8 mm on the ruler, for example, your setup would be reproducing the subject at a 2:1 ratio). Conversely if you can see more than 23.6 mm on the ruler than your setup is producing photos that could be considered close up photos, but not true macro photos.

Continue reading to learn about stacking your lenses, extension tubes, and even more tips.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/17/13

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