Macro on a Budget: Reversing Rings

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Close-up or macro photography is an incredible way to capture the tiny world around us on a super-detailed level. While the dedicated macro lens is still one of the best tools for exploring the world on a miniature scale, there are some very inexpensive ways to jump into macro photography with the lens or lenses you already own—no need for a specialized close-up macro lens. In this article, we will take a closer look (no pun intended) at reversing rings.

Non-product photos © Todd Vorenkamp

The Nikon 50mm f/1.2 reversed using a Nikon BR-2 reversing ring and a Novoflex adapter on the FUJFILM X-T1. Most of the images for this article were taken with this setup on the X-T3.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.2 reversed using a Nikon BR-2 reversing ring and a Novoflex adapter on the FUJFILM X-T1. Most of the images for this article were taken with this setup on the X-T3.

What Is a Reversing Ring?

The reversing ring is a simple device that allows you to mount your lens on your camera backward. The ring has a lens mount (just like the one on your lens) on one side and lens filter threads on the opposite. The most basic versions of the reversing ring are simply metal rings, but there are some on the market that have electronic connections to preserve auto focus and exposure control.

If you remove the lens from your camera and look through it from rear to front, you will see that the lens is basically a magnifying glass. You can use this feature for close-up photography through the use of a reversing ring.

Shackle detail
Shackle detail

There are two main variables in your reversing ring purchase: 1) You must get a reversing ring specific to your camera mount and 2) you’ll need to match the thread size to the filter size of the lens you wish to reverse.

The FUJIFILM XF 14mm f/2.8 lens reversed onto the X-T1.
The FUJIFILM XF 14mm f/2.8 lens reversed onto the X-T1.

When considering what lens you want to reverse, know that the shorter the focal length, the greater the magnification when reversed—a wide-angle or normal focal length lens will have a greater magnification than a telephoto.

Flowers

What Are the Benefits of Reversing Rings?

Like our other “Macro on a Budget” options, cost and portability are the primary benefits of reversing rings—the basic rings are very inexpensive. Standard reversing rings can be easily slipped into your camera bag or pocket—think of a thicker lens filter with no glass—to be broken out to grab that amazing macro shot when you don’t have a dedicated macro lens.

Watch detail
Wristwatch detail

As there are no extra optical elements involved, you also maintain the optical quality and light-gathering power of your reversed lens. Although optical designers probably don’t take reversal into consideration when designing a lens, a high-quality lens can give you high-quality macro performance when reversed.

Flower detail
Flower detail

Another boon for the reversing ring is that because you are simply screwing the lens onto the front of the reversing ring, you can use any lens with that size filter thread—any brand, any focal length.

You can combine the reversal ring with extension tubes to increase magnification, as well.

Watch detail
Wristwatch detail

What Are the Possible Drawbacks of Reversing Rings?

A dedicated macro lens is designed to have a flat focus field to create edge-to-edge sharpness. Most non-macro lenses have a curved focus field. While a subject in the center of the frame can be very sharp, you can get a fair bit of sharpness falloff moving away from the center, depending on the lens. If you own a macro lens, you can certainly reverse it to increase its magnification.

The Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 with a Nikon PK-13 extension tube has a 1:1 magnification. Here is a shot with that lens and then the same setup reversed—giving better than 1:1 magnification.

Combining reversing rings and old(er) lenses with mechanical focus rings and aperture diaphragms is great, because you can adjust focus and aperture when shooting. Many modern lenses feature “focus-by-wire” electronic focus and electronic aperture control. Using these electronic wonders on a reversing ring usually means that you cannot adjust focus or change your aperture. I would encourage you to dust off your manual lenses or even go pick up an inexpensive manual lens (maybe of a different brand than your camera?) for use in the reversal role.

Flower
Flower

Another possible downside to the reversing ring is fragility regarding the lens. The rear of a lens can contain sensitive electronic connections, mechanicals, and very exposed optical elements. These parts are usually protected by the camera’s lens mount, where they avoid fingerprints, dirt, dust, and more. With a reversing ring, the rear of your favorite lens is now at the business end of your kit and subject to the hazards of the planet. Reversed lenses have very short working distances with macro subjects, so be careful not to ram your lens’s rear (now front) element onto your subject.

Shell detail
Shell detail

Another note about fragility: I would not recommend screwing a heavy telephoto lens via its filter thread to a reversing ring, because the weight of the lens can put a lot of stress on the threads and cause damage. We already mentioned that the shorter the focal length, the greater the magnification, so you probably wouldn’t want to reverse a telephoto lens, anyway.

Wristwatch details

Magnification

If you scour the Internet enough, then you might stumble across a magnification calculator for a reversed lens setup, but most of these calculators deal with coupled lenses (see the related article in this series) and not a simply reversed lens. Regardless of the math, you will find that your wide-angle and normal focal length lenses, when reversed, can render more than a 1:1 (life-size) magnification.

The same ballpoint pen photographed with a 50mm, 35mm, and 14mm lens. With a reversed lens, the shorter the focal length, the more magnification you can get.

Tips for Use

Reversing rings are a fun and effective way to turn your regular lens into a macro machine. Here are some tips for employing them.

Take out your manual lenses: Having a manual focus lens with an old-fashioned mechanical aperture adjustment ring will be very helpful when the lens is reversed.

Lens detail
Lens detail

Play with depth of field: The higher the magnification, the shorter the depth of field. When you use a reversing ring and push past life-size reproductions, you will see ultra-shallow depth of field in your images. You can do things to counter this, as I discussed in this article about macro depth of field.

Flowers

Try out normal or wide-angle: As mentioned above, the shorter the focal length, the greater the magnification. Reversing rings are very friendly to normal focal length and wide-angle lenses. Due to the manner in which you are mounting the reversed lens (by its filter thread) and the magnification gained, small and light lenses like a  “nifty-fifty” 50mm lens are perfect candidates for reversal work.

Eye detail
Eye detail

Experiment with and expand your lens collection: When using a reversing ring, there is no need to buy an adapter to connect a Brand X lens to a Brand Y camera. The reversing ring is the adapter and, since it is using filter threads instead of a lens mount, you can mount any lens (reversed) on your camera as long as the filter threads are the same size. Here is a great excuse to find a beautiful, older, manual lens (check our Used Department) and stick it on your camera… backward!

A tiny flower
A tiny flower

Reverse It!

The reversing ring is a great item to drop into your camera bag to shift photographic gears quickly to capture the macro world with a standard lens. Making photos through a lens mounted backward on your camera opens a whole new world of photographic exploration without the need for an expensive, dedicated, macro lens—and, besides that, it’s just funky and fun to shoot through a reversed lens!

In the other articles in this series—Macro on a Budget—we look at additions for your lens, or lenses, that allow you to explore the world up close: extension tubes, close-up filters, and macro couplers.

Do you have any questions or thoughts about reversal rings for macro photography? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

Photo bombed!
Photo bombed!

4 Comments

Hey, Todd, two questions?

1. What is the focal length of a reversed lens? Is it the same? I ask because the Pentax Shake Reduction system asks me to provide a focal length whenever I mount a non-autofocus (or adapted) lens to the camera. (Olympus IBIS asks the same thing with my Venus Laowoa lens.) I realize I should be on a tripod for macro, with Shake Reduction off, but even for the purposes of planning a shot and selecting a lens, it would be helpful to know the approximate focal length.

2. What happened to focusing? Focusing seems to be entirely handled by moving the camera slightly toward or away from the subject. I get why that might be the case for my 1990s FA 50mm f/1.4, because that lens has the focusing element up front (meaning that, when reversed, the focusing element is all-the-way-opposite from where the designers expected it to be). But I've got two internal-focus lenses here, and I see little if any change between "∞" and ".3m"

I don't know if you've watched Joey Terrill's OPTIC video (it's pretty ho-hum for 10min, but it really gets interesting in the second half). I've got my tripod's center column in horizontal mode, shooting straight down at a glass table. Almost the way people used to photograph documents before we all switched to scanners. So I need lens focusing. Adjusting the camera/subject distance requires me to make tiny adjustments to the lengths of three tripod legs. Huge pain. Any ideas?

(Yes, my Pentax DA 35mm Macro Limited is a modern 1:1 macro with autofocus, but it's too wide for these shots. I own five lenses with 49mm filter rings. Surely I can get one of them to work??)

Thanks in advance. Some of my issues are Pentax-specific, but I hope that focal length questions are generally applicable to anyone reading this series of articles. Happy July 4th weekend!

Hey Artie,

Good pair of questions!

1. Is the focal length the same? Wow. That is a hair-hurting question on many levels! I assume the focal length is the same...the lens hasn't physically changed sizes, but the field of view is considerably changed—almost akin to using a crop sensor...so maybe the effective focal length has changed. Maybe 2x the focal length for the purposes of the shake reduction to be on the safe side? Or, experiment and see if you see a noticeable difference in the amount of help the camera is giving. I would be curious if, even in "normal" shooting, you can detect a difference.

2. Focusing. I could probably read some books and come up with a super-smart-sounding answer to this question, but I will skip the self-imposed homework idea and tell you that the focus probably works when the lens is reversed but it's almost useless...kind of.

I was typing out an answer, but as I did some physical experiments to prove my hypothesis, I realized that I was making a lot of assumptions that may be incorrect and then I did another experiment that shows what you are experiencing with focus and will relay that sans any scientific or mathematical data!

I did this experiment with an old Nikon 50mm f/1.8 manual focus lens...

When I removed the lens from the camera I looked through the front of the lens at my phone LCD screen (with a bright image of Fin on it). With the lens focused at the MFD, I moved the optic to a position where the phone screen was in focus using the lens like a magnifying glass. Rotating the lens from MFD to infinity has little, if any effect on the sharpness of the image. The same results can be seen when looking through the rear of the lens at the phone. (Ironically, the lens, plus its hood, give a perfectly sharp image when the hood rests flat on the screen.

This tells me that when you are using the lens as a magnifying glass (as you are when reversing it), regardless of which way you are viewing through the optic, the focus ring has a minimal effect on the focus of the image. Interesting and cool and maybe some optics engineer will see this thread and reply to educate us both!

I did write this article years ago: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/how…

3. Do I have a solution to adjusting your lateral arm tripod height? Yes! A new tripod with a geared center column! :)

If you want to get super serious about macro work, it might be worth the investment. If this is a sometime hobby, you might just have to deal with adjusting the leg length. Focusing rails are a must, and as I just skimmed this article [https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/ess…] I realize now that I need to add a geared center column to the list! I have a modular Induro tripod (other brands have similar functionality) that allows me to swap out a solid base for a geared center column or leveling base. Let me know if you want to take a deeper dive into these options.

Happy July 4th weekend to you, Artie! Standing by for follow-ups!

Best,

Todd

 

 

Hi Todd: Okay, I'm game. I'm trying to do some water droplet photography à la Joey Terrill (BH OPTIC 2021 video). So, I bought a 49mm reversing ring for Pentax K-mount from B&H. 49mm is the filter thread for my FA 50mm f/1.4 and for nearly all the DA Limiteds, of which I own several. So I now have quite a few macro lenses! Some initial thoughts:

1. This feels very silly. My lens is on backwards!
2. This was extremely cheap. Even if I feel silly, it was only $7.
3. When I mounted my DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited on backwards, I could have sworn I heard it say "You realize I'm ALREADY a 1:1 macro, right?"
4. I didn't like giving up aperture control on the DA lenses, especially since modern DA lenses default to f/22 in their resting/unmounted/reversed state. Most of my Pentax lenses perform poorly at f/22. (My 1990s era FA 50mm does allow manual aperture control.)
5. I hated hated hated how exposed the electronics are on my reversed lenses. An indoors-only toy, for sure.
6. But I SOLVED problems 4 and 5! See, I have a decent micro 4/3 adapter for my K-mount lenses. The cheapo versions of such adapters don't offer aperture control. But the GOOD versions of the K-mount to micro 4/3 adapters allow rudimentary aperture control: fully open, kinda open, kinda closed, fully stopped down. And my adapter is a ring of metal that acts much like a lens hood, sheltering my rear element and my electronic contacts! Hooray!

Understand, I'm not "using" the micro 4/3 adapter ring in the traditional sense of mounting Pentax glass on an Olympus camera; the adapter is just kind of hanging off the rear of my reversed lens. I recognize that there are VERY few people who shoot Pentax, who have a K-mount-to-M43 adapter, and who are interested in extreme macro, but if there are any, this is your solution!

Hey Artie,

Great stuff! That is some serious perseverance! And, yes, it feels really wonky shooting with a backwards lens...but the results can be awesome!

Also, as you noted, the trend towards electronically controlled apertures is kind of ruining some of the adapting fun you can have and that is unfortunate. There are a few modern lenses that I would love to adapt, but the fact that they are "frozen" at their widest or smallest apertures makes the idea undesirable. And, of course, when reversed, all bets are off!

Thanks for sharing your experience and solution for the silent majority of Pentax/Micro Four Thirds shooters out there! :)

Best,

Todd