Macro photography is one of the most fascinating methods of photography, as it lets you see everyday objects in a totally new way. Getting a super-close look at plants, animals, materials, and even the human body can be a fun experience, but spending hundreds of dollars on a macro lens isn’t realistic for many people.
Fortunately, there’s a much more inexpensive option: reversal rings.
What’s a Reversal Ring?
Reversal rings allow you to mount your lens on your camera backwards. Instead of the lens being close to the camera body, it’s now further away, which allows you to focus on objects that are much closer to your camera. The inability to focus on a subject that is very close to the camera is what makes macro photography almost impossible with a regular lens.
There are two types of reversal rings. The first type has threads on one side and lens-mounting projections on the other. The threads screw into the end of your lens, and the other side mounts to your camera like a regular lens. This is the type of ring I’ll be using for the examples in this article.
The second type of ring is threaded on both sides, and lets you mount a lens backward on another lens. This greatly increases the focal length of your setup, and moves the lens even further away from the camera body.
Buying a Reversal Ring
It’s easy to find an inexpensive reversal ring that will do the job — this offering from Goja costs $10 and comes with a cleaning cloth. The equivalent made by Nikon costs $29. You can also find more complicated setups that are more expensive but give you a few more options. This set from Fotodiox, for example, includes a reversal ring, aperture controller, and UV protector for $30.
Buying a reversal ring for your camera requires that you have two pieces of information. First, the type of camera body and lens mount that you have. Most reversal rings list a variety of different camera bodies in the Amazon descriptions, so you can look there for your camera. The second piece of information is the thread diameter of your lens. Each lens should have this information printed on the barrel (it’ll look like this: ø 58mm).
Once you have these two pieces of information, you can buy a ring! More expensive ones will likely be made of more durable materials, but in general, you probably won’t see a whole lot of difference between rings.
Using Reversal Rings for Macro Photography
To get your camera set up and ready for taking some macro shots, you need to get the reversal ring attached properly. Just follow these steps.
1. Remove the lens cap from your lens and screw the reversal ring into the filter threads. Switch the lens to manual focus.
2. Remove the lens from the body of the camera, turn it around, and lock the reversal ring into place on the camera body like you would a normal lens.
3. Adjust the aperture on your lens. As you may notice in the image above, the electronic contacts that usually allow your camera body to control the aperture of the lens are no longer facing the camera body. You’ll have to adjust the aperture manually. If you have a manual aperture ring, just turn the ring until you get to the aperture you want (starting with something in the middle, like f/11, would be good).
If you don’t have an aperture ring, you’ll need to use a bit of a workaround. Many kit lenses have small levers on the back that control the aperture. By sliding this and blocking it with a piece of cardboard or poster tack (I’ve used a folded piece of paper here), you can get some very rough control over aperture. (If you’re not sure how aperture works, use an online camera simulator to play with it and see what happens.)
If you can adjust the aperture on your lens, going with a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number) is going to advantageous, as the depth of field in macro photography can be very small. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to go!
Use the zoom and manual focus to get your images sharp, and start snapping away — it takes a bit of practice. I found that I needed to have my lens zoomed all the way out to 55mm to get any sort of sharpness.
You’ll notice that the depth of field on your pictures is extremely shallow with a reversal ring, as you can see in the image of the wine cork above. You can use it for artistic effect (sometimes you want a very shallow depth of field) or you can try focus stacking.
In short, focus stacking lets you take a number different pictures, each with a different focus, and combine them into a single photo that has a larger depth of field than any of the original images. As I mentioned before, the depth of field in macro photography is often very shallow, so you can end up with a tiny portion of your photo in focus. This is a great solution to the problem.
For focus stacking to work, a stable tripod is absolutely crucial. All of your pictures need to have the same elements in the same places (a remote or cable release can help keep your camera from moving when you’re taking the photos).
For this example, I’ve used a macro shot of some Pilot G-2 pens. In the first shot, I’ve started with a near focus (the purple pen).
In the second shot, I’ve moved to a focus point further away (the red pen).
By using Pixelmator (which you should be using if you’re on a Mac), I combined the two images, replacing the out-of-focus purple pen in the second shot with the in-focus one from the first shot.
It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well. Generally speaking, the more focus points you have, the sharper your resulting image.
Macro the Easy Way
Obviously, using a reversal ring has some drawbacks compared to a macro lens (notably losing finite control over aperture and a lack of autofocus), but paying $20 instead of $600 will be enough reason for most people to start out with this method. If you decide you’re fond of your macro results, your purchase of an expensive lens may be more justified.
Reversal rings offer a great way to get the most out of your DSLR without emptying your wallet. Getting used to the way your lens behaves when it’s been reversed can take a while, but with some practice, you will be taking great macro photos in no time!
Have you used a reversal ring on your camera? What did you find easy or difficult about it? Do you have any tips to help photographers getting started with macro photography? Share your thoughts below!