Reverse that Lens for Extreme Close-ups
Updated: Aug 8
When you do close-up photography, there’s a whole new set of rules to get quality results. I’m talking really close up. Believe it or not, your lens will perform better when it’s mounted in reverse. It will also magnify the image more.
When you get this close, you’re also going to have to learn about focus-stacking. I have an article on my close-up hardware that is located here.
An article on stacking software is located here. A related program I also use is called “CombineZP”, which has similar stacking features, plus a few more. There are many programs that feature focus stacking; I try to stick with recommending stuff that is free.
Some lenses that aren’t meant for macro photography can become quite useful when they’re mounted in reverse. My favorite bellows close-up lens has 52 mm filter threads, which fits my “BR-2” lens reverse ring. For my lenses with larger filter threads, I use “step-down” rings to step from the larger thread diameter down to the 52 mm thread size. I haven’t seen any vignetting by doing this, so don’t worry about this being a problem.
I’ll be talking about Nikon lenses here. All of their newer lenses have the “G” designation, which means they have the “feature” of no aperture ring. Believe me, you’re going to need their older macro lenses if you want into the larger-than-life game.
If you reverse and/or mount a lens on a bellows, you’re going to lose electronic connections with your camera and therefore electronic aperture control. With the Nikon auto-focus lenses that have an aperture ring (mostly the “D” lenses) you can unlock their minimum-aperture setting and have full use of their aperture. For even older manual-focus lenses, their aperture rings “just work” as-is.
You’ll always want to stop down the lens (typically to f/8) for best quality. At high magnifications, the depth of field becomes too shallow to be useful, which is where the focus-stacking software comes into play. Most of my macro shots are stacks of typically 20 to 80 shots. I move the lens on the bellows rack by about 0.2 to 0.5 mm per shot, until I’ve photographed my subject from front to back in slices. I also use a ring light mounted on the (now front-facing) rear of the lens, which I slip over my BR-3 ring that’s mounted to the lens rear. A ring light vastly simplifies lighting and also helps with focus. There are flash and continuous-light ring lights; I prefer the continuous light, but vibrations can be a challenge. Stacking photos obviously means that it’s limited to static subjects, such as deceased bugs. Please don’t kill anything just to photograph it; very uncool.
60 mm Micro Nikkor AF-D reverse-mounted. A bee is checking it out.
The shot above shows the 60 mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor AF-D lens with step-down rings to attach its 62 mm filter threads to the 52 mm BR-2 lens reverse ring. The LED ring light shown slips over the BR-3 ring mounted on the rear of the lens. I use the PB-4 bellows. You can find modern equivalents of this gear on the web, or maybe locate the original equipment on E-bay.
I normally use my 60 mm Micro-Nikkor mounted directly on my camera and stick with magnifications of life-sized or less, plus electronic flash. I just wanted to point out that the AF-D lenses have fully functional apertures when reverse-mounted on a bellows, but you need to get step-down rings to do this combination.
Nikkor 105 mm f/2.5 Reverse-mounted, including lens shade
The photo above shows my 105 mm f/2.5 Nikkor (pre-AI!) reverse-mounted on the PB-4 bellows. This lens allows a magnification range from 0.28X through 1.6X on the bellows. For lower magnifications, the working distance is as large as 16 inches (and therefore allows use of the lens hood). At maximum magnification, the working distance is reduced to about 115 mm. I keep the lens parked at its infinity setting. This lens isn’t as optically good as the modern 105 mm f/2.8 G Micro Nikkor, but at least it has a working aperture ring on the bellows.
When you want to try really, really magnified subjects, you can try mounting a short-focal-length lens. I have tried my 20 mm lens, but I don’t like the image quality.
My favorite lens on the PB-4 bellows is my old 55 mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor. I have many close-up shots in my gallery page taken with it. I can get magnifications anywhere from 1.68X through 4.3X when it’s reverse-mounted. The quality is simply sublime. It has a working distance at a near-constant value of 75 mm at any magnification setting, which works fine with my LED ring light. This is a bit too close for most live bugs, however, since they’re too skittish for this. The LED light also cuts into the working distance range, so I only use it for static subjects.
105 mm f/2.5 Nikkor (pre-AI) reversed 1.5X focus stack
While it isn’t optically stunning for macro, the quality of this 105 mm is very good when reversed.
55 mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor reversed 4.2X
It can be fun to try going way beyond life-size with a bellows. Did you know that a light bulb filament has coils within coils? You’d never know it, if you weren’t able to see beyond life-sized. The blue coils are made of tungsten; they can withstand the extreme temperatures inside a light bulb.
Beware that vibrations can get outrageous at these high magnifications. I use the “mirror-up” or live-view mode when using continuous lighting. If your camera supports it, then you should also enable electronic-front-curtain shutter mode. I always use either a wired or wireless remote shutter release. Electronic flash will of course freeze the subject motion.
I find extreme close-up photography very rewarding, yet challenging. You get to explore things that are otherwise invisible. If you aren't the patient type, then this venue isn't for you. This is yet another example of how science (focus-stacking software and modern computers) enables a whole new area of art. It's a great time to be alive.