Macro Photography Gear: Bellows, Reversal Rings, Macro Couplers, and Focusing Rails

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In Part 1 of this series, we looked at three easy ways to get into macro photography: macro lenses, extension tubes, and close-up filters. As with most things photographic, there are many different ways to accomplish a single task, and macro photography is no different. Here, we will look at some additional ways that you can enter into the world of close-up photography with your camera.

Bellows

Bellows

One way to get your camera to take extreme close-up images—much more than with a macro lens on its own—is through the use of a macro bellows. A bellows system works exactly the same way as extension tubes, but by a different design. The collapsible, light-proof bellows is mounted between the camera and the lens and allows the photographer to move the lens even farther from the camera than several extension tubes would.

Bellows

The bellows must be mounted on a tripod or other support. Some lenses are designed for bellows use and can achieve infinity focus when connected to the bellows. What you get with a bellows system is the ability to focus at extreme magnifications with an existing lens or, better yet, a macro lens.

Bellows

Reversal Rings

Another way to achieve close-up photography using an existing lens is through the use of a reversal ring. When you remove a lens from an interchangeable-lens camera and look through it backward, you notice that the lens functions much like a magnifying glass, albeit an expensive and complex magnifying glass.

Reversal Rings Reversal Rings Reversal Rings

A reversal ring is an inexpensive, camera-specific device that allows you to mount your lens(es) on your camera—backward. One end of the ring is the lens mount, while the other screws into your lens’s filter threads. While not optically perfect (you will get soft edges) you can get some very good macro shots with this technique.

Macro Coupler

The macro coupler is yet another way you can do macro photography with two lenses you already own. This is another inexpensive device that connects two lenses together, one reversed, to make a macro lens. The lens of lesser focal length is reversed and attached, using the coupler, to another lens and you shoot through both lenses. One advantage of this is that, because one lens is normally mounted on the camera, you get full electronic communication (metering) from the lens.

Macro Coupler Macro Coupler Macro Coupler

To figure out how powerful your individual setup will be, divide the focal length of the normally mounted lens by the focal length of the reversed lens to get your ratio. Example: Normally mounted 105mm lens divided by a reversed 50mm lens = 2:1 macro... double life-size!

Depending on your lenses, you can create some extreme close-focusing and magnification with a coupler. The down side? You are taking a picture through a lot of lens elements and lens element groups that were not all designed with each other in mind. So image quality will suffer, but, for the money, it makes an attractive and funky option to try.

Macro Accessories: Focusing Rails

If you have ever done macro work, you have probably had the not-so-fun experience of constantly having to move your subject closer to or farther from the lens, or, if you can't move the subject, awkwardly moving the entire tripod/camera assembly in relation to the subject. If you just need to move a fraction of an inch, this can be an exercise in frustration and/or patience, or lack of patience!

Mounted between your camera and tripod, focusing rails allow you to ever-so-slightly change your working distance without having to move your subject or the entire camera or tripod. Problem solved!

Macro Accessories: Focusing Rails

Conclusion

"I want to do macro photography. What should I purchase?"

As you have read, there are several different mouse traps available to the macro photographer. There is no easy answer to this question that fits all photographers/subjects. The largest factors in your personal decision on how to enter the macro world will be cost and photographic goals. For example, a medical professional needing to take macro shots will probably lean toward a dedicated macro lens for the precision optics and the convenience of not having to add accessories. However, a casual traveler who wants to capture an image of a beautiful flower while out hiking might lean toward light and easy-to-carry extension tubes or close-up filters. As mentioned, an extension tube will preserve the quality of the lens placed on it, but if you are in a dusty area, it might be preferable to use a close-up filter to avoid exposing the insides of your camera to the environment while attaching a tube.

Additionally, the creative effects and extreme close-up options afforded by some of the examples above might appeal to photographers with different artistic vision or specialty needs.

Cost, convenience, size, weight, portability, complexity, versatility, and final photographic result will all factor into your purchase decision. If you have questions of your own, please post them in the Comments section, below.

More Ways to Do Macro Photography

Final Thoughts

Many photographers find that, by adding a wide-angle or telephoto lens to their bag, a different world of photography opens up in front of their camera. Suddenly they can see more, or reach further into the frame to capture an image. I feel that there are few journeys that you can take into photography that are more transformational than macro photography. With the right equipment, you will start seeing the world differently and you will start to see photographs that you never thought you would think of capturing before. Besides that, it is a lot of fun!

One other thought: some of the examples above, and the examples from the last article, provide solutions that are not optically as precise as the images designed to be produced by a true macro lens. But, many of these techniques can produce very beautiful and very unique macro shots with interesting characteristics. So, if you can use your imagination, and forget looking for a technically perfect macro image, do not be afraid to try different techniques/tools to get pleasing and distinctive results.

So, grab a macro lens, extension tubes, close-up filters, or any of the gear detailed above, and start seeing and photographing the world in a very different, and close-up-and-personal way! Be sure to share some of your experiences in the Comments section, below, and check out all our other close-up focused content on the Macro Photography Week page!

22 Comments

Hi Tod, your article has given me renewed interest, I have actually owned a set of bellows which has been packed away for about a decade. I took it out last night to give it a shot but have found when connecting my Canon 5dMKIII to the T2 mount it is obviously giving an error to camera, is there a way to bypass this to fool the camear into seing a lens or do I need to by a modern T2 connector ?

Thansk for the great article.

Hey Brendon,

I am glad the article inspired you to break out your bellows!

You do not need a "modern" T2 connector...the connectors are non electronic. Your Mark III may give you an error if you are trying to shoot in Automatic or Aperture Priority mode on the bellows as there is no way for the camera to control aperture. You should see a "00" for aperture in the display when no lens is attached.

So, to control aperture, you need to fit a lens on the end of the bellows with a manual aperture ring (rare in the world of modern Canon lenses), and I recommend setting the camera to manual or shutter priority to see if that works.

Let me know!

Thanks for reading!

What type of reversal ring do I need to get for a Pentax K3II and where would I be likely to find it.

Great article and I was wondering where you get this equipment mentioned in the article ? Searched B&H for the lens reversal adapters/rings  ( Canon Eos with 52mm thread and a 67mm for reversing the 100mm macro), but could not find them.  Also could not find a lens coupler to fit Canon. I presume that lens reversal and coupling only works with prime lenses ?

Hi Darrell,

Thanks for reading!

Here is a link to a Vello reverse mount for Canon EOS cameras: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1050997-REG/vello_rm_cef_macrofier_reverse_mount_adapter.html

There is also this one: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/197010-REG/Novoflex_EOSRETRO_Reverse_Lens_Adapter.html

I believe you can use both on primes and zooms. I could not locate a coupler ring for Canon, sorry! Let me know if these items were what you were looking for!

One thing that was not mentioned in these articles is a means to activate the camera shutter without actually pushing the shutter button. Pressing the shutter release will cause the camera to shake and creat a poor image.  One should use a cable shutter release or electronic shutter release when making macro images.

Hey John,

Great pointer! Thank you! Yes, you'll definitely want a timer or remote release while doing macro shots.

Thanks for chiming in and reading the B&H blog!

A question on the calculation of magnifcation for the Macro Coupler.

How is the formula changed when using crop sensor. Is 105mm with 50 on crop still 2:1 ((105 x 1.5) / (50 * 1.5)), or is it 3:1 ((105 x 1.5) / 50)?

Hi Macro,

Good question.

Because the focal length of a lens is not related to sensor or film size, the math will remain the same. The different sensor sizes change your angle of view, but the focal length of a lens is a measure of the distance between the lens' nodal point to the image plane.

I hope this answers your question. Thanks for reading!

Great article: Part I and II.

Thanks, Ed!

Excellent pair of articles!  One more topic could have been added - that of macro-focusing telephoto lenses.  I do a lot of macro shooting in the field and find my tele-macro lenses (from Sigma) to be invaluable, especially in muddy or watery locations where I don't want to get "down and dirty".  I realize that they do make some optical compromises, but they often enable a shot that can't be gotten in any other way.

Hi Richard,

You are correct, there are definitely some great telephoto lenses that are capable of doing excellent close-up imagery. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Thank you for this comprehensive article on Macro Photography. I have used everything but Bellows and can say any way you can shoot Macro will be a rewarding photographic experience, not only in the results but in the education it affords you by slowing down and paying attention to detail.

Thank you, Alan! I agree. One of the aspects I enjoy about night photography is just that...the fact that it makes photography more of a process. Macro works the same for me. It is fun to compose and explore the world up-close!

Very informative article, especially the second half. I would love to learn more about the set-up, particularly for outdoor subjects. How does one handle a flower swaying ever so slightly in the wind? Bugs? Does one always need a tripod? Thanks for an interesting read.

Hey Stephen,

Thanks!

I will tell you, from experience, outdoor subjects are challenging because of movement. Shutter speeds are usually relatively slow with macro work due to several factors, so any movement of the subject is problematic. I am not a professional shooter, but I am sure those who make a living photographing flowers, bugs, etc, in the wild, have an arsenal of tricks to block the wind and freeze the action. Many use extra lighting from a flash as well. Check out this link for ring lights that are great for macro work!

Tripods are almost always a must, but with enough light, and a steady hand, you might be able to get good results without one. I strongly recommend using one to increase your chances of success!

Great article!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lily! 

One topic that I think should have been included is the small depth of field with most macro systems and ways around it such as focus stacking.  Otherwise, very interesting and informative.

Hi David!

Thanks for the comment and suggestion. Focus stacking might make a great future stand-alone article. We will look into it!

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