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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.