digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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How to turn your 50mm into a Macro lens for under $20

using your 50mm lens as a macro

Want to shoot macro, but can’t afford the big ticket prices for a “real” macro lens?

Read on to see how you can turn your little 50mm f/1.8 lens into a sweet macro photography toy for under $20 (if you already own the lens)

I found out about this little known, secret technique, over a year ago but only recently got all the pieces to actually do it right and create some images. It also took me a while to find the right lens reversal ring, so to save you time I’ve linked to all the major brands below.

Pros and cons of 50mm lens reversal

There are some good and some challenging things about using this technique. Here’s a list of some of the pros and cons.

PROS:

  • really inexpensive to do especially if you already have a 50mm lens
  • fun to play with super shallow depth of field
  • great way to see if you like shooting macro and want to invest the money in a special macro lens

CONS:

  • lens shoots wide opened (unless you have a lens with the aperture dial on the lens itself or you use DOF Preview to lock it before reversing the lens)
  • super shallow depth of field, we’re talking tiny, millimetres so you need to be precise
  • autofocus does not function so you focus by moving in and out until you find focus
  • use of a tripod is challenging because of the above point
  • is a little bit tricky to get the focus and exposure right
Nikon with lens mounted backwards

Nikon with lens mounted backwards

Macro magnification and other lens options

I’m already a huge fan of the 50mm f/1.8 lens and recommend you have one in your bag if you don’t already. I wrote about it in this article: Why a 50mm Lens is your new Best Friend on Digital Photography School. If you’re already on board with me you can do this little trick. It can actually be done with any lens but a 50mm will give you a 1:1 or true macro scale image. Long lenses will not give you as much magnification and wide angle lenses will give you more (28mm is about 3:1). All you really need to try it is a lens reversal ring that will cost you less than $20 and you’re ready to shoot.

Shot using the 50mm normally

Shot using the 50mm normally

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Technique and tips

#1 It’s pretty simple to do this technique. Once you have the lens reversal ring, attach it to the front of your lens and mount the lens backwards so the rear lens element is facing out. Take care not to damage the rear element while shooting or the electric contacts.

#2 Set your camera mode to Manual. You will likely see “F00″ where it shows aperture, that’s normal because it just means the camera can’t read the aperture from the lens.

#3 You can set your exposure using the camera meter but it may be a bit off. Check the histogram and adjust accordingly using the shutter speed or ISO to get more or less light.

#4 If you want a smaller aperture you can close down the lens but you have to first mount it on the right way around. Set it to the aperture you want, say f/8. Press the Depth of Field preview button (check your manual if you aren’t sure where it is on your camera) and hold it down WHILE dismounting the lens from the body. Doing so will lock it at f/8.

#5 Focus by moving back and forth until you see something sharp. If you have a focus rail tripod head designed for macro photography that may help.

The following images are all shot in the same field of the same little plant.

Shot using the 50mm normally

Shot using the 50mm normally

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Shot using the 50mm mounted backwards

Other options:

Another method of lens reversal which I haven’t tried yet is using two lenses. Basically you mount one lens as usual on the camera. Then you take your 50mm and attach it to the front of the other lens. The benefits are you have full control of the aperture for the lens mounted the right way and the one mounted backwards becomes a big close-up filter. Filters are another option for macro photography but they are usually of lower quality that most of the other methods. Using a lens as a close-up filter gives you better optics. All you need to do this is a “coupling ring” or “coupler” to attach them firmly together.

List of equipment needed:

Canon

Nikon

Pentax

Sony

For more learning on macro photography

Interview with macro photographer Don Komarechka

Up Close a Craft and Vision ebook by Andrew S. Gibson.

ACTION PLAN

If this type of photography interests you and you haven’t got a macro lens yet, why not give this try? What do you have to lose, $10 for a reversal ring? I say give it a go! If you’ve got some other tips for macro photography or have a great shot you’d like to share please do so in the comments below!

As always have fun and get out there doing photography!

Cheers

cheers

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  • Oliver

    Well, I’ve got a reversal ring as well as some manual lenses (eg M42 Zenit 58mm f/2.0). With the exposure ring, I can set the f number correctly so you can handle depth of field. Of course more light might be required of you stop the lens down. A manual lens like that can be a great solution if you have an extra $20. :)

    • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

      Yes exactly!

  • Tino Fourie

    Darlene,

    Thank you for the information. This topic is covered extensively on many Youtube vids and as you have mentioned it is a very inexpensive alternative to macro lenses and a good start to determine if macro photography is the type of genre you wish to explore as it can be challenging but the results are breathtaking most of the time.

    However you have neglected to mention that another Pro to lense reversal is being able to get a Bokeh effect due to the very narrow (short) DOF.

    An alternative to the lense reversal, one I much rather prefer and as cheap as the lense reversal option, is to purchase macro extension tubes. Again there are many vids available on Youtube and detailed comparison data available between the two options. Both of these techniques have their individual challenges and one particular Con of the extension tubes is the loss of light. But through bracketing (if your camera allows for that) you can overcome that problem very easily. The cheapest extension tubes you can get for around $19.00 USD from eBay. Using a tripod is easy and you will not have a problem with focussing. Unfortunately due to the loss of light, you will need to use manual focus.

    Another option worth looking into is macro filters which you can combine with the macro extension tubes for greater magnification. These filters (1x, 2x, 4x & 10x) can be purchased for around $17.00 USD also from eBay. With the filters you can use stock zoom lenses (55mm – 250mm) for really up close shots of your subject. Using of a tripod is super easy.

    Regards,

    • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

      Tino thanks for your comments. Yes you do get nice bokeh effect from the shallow DOF.

      As for using extension tubes yes you can do that as well. Not sure I’d trust ones that are $19 though the Kenko ones are about $199 for the set. There has to be some difference between ones that are one 1/10th the price. Same with the close up filters – you can buy cheap ones but the optics will not be very good. You’ll get a better result using your lens that has good optics and reversing it. Or spending the money on good filters, good extension tubes or a good macro lens.

      Sometimes you get what you pay for so I’d just be leery of stuff that’s a lot cheaper than the name brand stuff.

      • Vince

        “There has to be some difference between ones that are one 1/10th the price.”

        Well said! :)

        • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

          It’s a simply law of business right? Cheap price usually equals cheap product.

      • Tino Fourie

        We must remember that the extension tubes does not have any optics in them, it is merely a “spacer” between the camera body and the body of the lens. Personally I did go for the more expensive models but I am already familiar with macro photography through macro filters on stock zoom lenses and the 55m – 250mm lens gives me astonishing results.

        I completely agree with the quality of the product but for a test run I think it is maybe worth considering the cheaper option first before committing to more expensive equipment.

        Kenko products I am familiar with, in fact I use their macro filters with fantastic results.

        • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

          Test yes and I agree there are no optics in the tubes. My concern would be if they fit correctly to my camera body or damage it. A $20 test that damages the connections on my $2500 camera body all of a sudden isn’t so inexpensive. Just playing devil’s advocate. Not saying that would be the case I’d just be cautious.

    • http://www.uk.citibox.es Edmund

      Tino, macro filters are nonsense. You spend ($?) on your prime lens and then a few dollars on a macro filter. Do you really expect to get a class result? Extension tubes I use but I agree with Darlene that if you wreck your camera with a cheap set then you are going to be very unhappy.

      Macro photography is a niche in the whole photography spectrum. If you are going to do lots buy a macro lens, if you are just experimenting use the macro filter but don’t expect to get tack-sharp results.

      • Tino Fourie

        @Edmund:

        Your comment about the macro filters holds truth if you compare them to macro extension tubes – extension tubes outperforms any macro filter. Although macro filters stacked together can give you some amazing optic distortion results, something that no unmodified lens or extension tubes can offer.

        I personally invested in the Kenko tubes and it works like a charm. I have no problem attaching them to both camera body or lens and removal is as easy as attaching them. Inter-locking is firm which means there are no other light, apart from the light coming in from your lens, enters the assembly.

        Your comment on lens reversal and potential damage to the lens holds tremendous value because I have knocked my lens a view times against objects as I was trying to get as close as possible to my subject. Personally I will never opt for lens reversal no matter what lens I use because if you damage your lens your shoot is over !!

        @Darlene:

        The cheaper option did not ruin any of my equipment.
        I have found that various cheaper products to be worth 10x their price compared to the more “expensive” products. Allow me to bore you with some detail:

        Pocket Wizard remote triggers vs Cowboy Studio triggers – never had a failure using the “cheaper” (Cowboy Studio) product. I bought 3 sets, carry two sets with me at all times and have one as a backup should something happen to any of the triggers or the remote.

        Canon Flash (GN43) vs YongNuo (GN39)Flash – YongNuo priced at 1/4 of the price of a Canon, I have never had a misfire and after more than a year and countless shoots it still works perfectly. (I have 4x YongNuo flashes of which I use the same two all the time)

        One should be careful when applying “The law of business” as you put it. Best to compare the cheaper product with the more expensive product before discarding cheaper options or at least invest time into reading (Google) and / or watching (Youtube) product reviews before you settle on a product. All products break in the end, even the expensive ones.

        • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

          For what it’s worth Tino I use the Yongnuo remote triggers as well and have a Tamron lens. Those however can’t cause any damage to my camera. As for Kenko that’s not what I’d consider the “Cheap” options. Look on Amazon there’s many brands I’ve never heard of and I wouldn’t put them on my camera. Kenko is a known and trusted brand.

          • Tino Fourie

            Darlene, would you mind giving a product review on the YongNuo triggers ? I’ve had a quick glance at them in the past but because I already own 6 remotes I did not really bother much on finding reviews on them. If they are as good as the speedlights then I’d seriously consider replacing my Cowboy Studio triggers when they eventually reached their shelf life.

            Have you used any other brands other than YongNuo ?

          • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

            Tino – I have used them 3 times and not a single misfire! I’ve used: ProMaster brand and Cactus – both failed many times. I don’t want TTL and don’t see spending the extra on the Pocket Wizards if these work well.

  • http://www.uk.citibox.es Edmund

    “I found out about this little known, secret technique”

    It has been around for ages, Darlene. The thing is that I would not consider using a lens normally without a protective UV filter in place and this method exposes the vulnerable rear element on which you can place no filter. OK, a bog-standard 50mm f1.8 can be bought pretty cheaply but I’m pretty sure that you have dropped a lens at some point in your life and there is no way I would do this with a valuable (say f1.2) lens, the filter and lens hood has got me out of trouble many times to save valuable glass.

    So yes, buy an obsolete lens which you don’t mind wrecking and push it deep into the undergrowth that you want to photograph but I don’t think you should encourage people to use this technique without warning them that a small scratch will ruin the lens for good.

    • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

      Yes I totally agree with that Edmund. You can also stick an extension tube on the back side of it to protect the rear element but if you have one of those why not just use it the right way round? I’d look at picking up an old manual lens, they can be had for pretty little these days.

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