Most point and shoot cameras have a macro mode (flower symbol) that let you take extreme close-up pictures of small things, when you move up to interchangeable lens cameras you need special macro lenses to get those pictures – but there is actually one cheap way to take extreme macro pictures without any special equipment.
Take the lens off the camera and hold it backwards – normally your lens take a light from a big area and shrinks it down to the the size of the sensor, if you simply hold the lens backwards in from of the camera you get the opposite effect – the lens take a picture of something very small and enlarges it on the sensor.
Here is a picture of the setup, flash pointing at the ceiling (we’ll talk about this in a moment) and the my hand is holding my 18-135mm zoom, fully extended at 135mm backwards, I actually shot the pictures for this post hand-held, in this picture the camera is on a tripod because I have one hand holding the lens and the other hand taking the picture with my cellphone.
Now, you need to be careful, the lens is not attached to the camera and you don’t want to drop it, also, you are using it not in the way it’s designed to be used – be very careful and if you damage your equipment don’t blame me.
You may have to enable some setting on the camera so it takes a picture without a lens attached, also, because the lens isn’t attached to the camera there’s no auto focus or aperture control.
The depth of field you get from this setup is extremely shallow and you focus by moving the camera forward and backwards until your subject is in focus, I recommend trying the live view focusing trick wrote about last week.
The aperture control is very brand specific, on Canon when the lens isn’t attached the aperture is wide open – making the already too thin depth of field even thinner – but there’s an easy trick you can use to stop down the lens on Canon cameras (this should also work with other brands where the aperture control is electronic) – attach the lens, set the aperture and press the depth of field preview button (locate right behind the lens on the lower left, right below the lens release button) – now, with the camera on and the DOF preview button still pressed detach the lens – the aperture blades will remain in the same position.
On Nikon when the lens isn’t attached it’s stopped down all the way – good for DOF but making us need a lot of light and can make the picture soft due to diffraction (if you don’t know what diffraction is that’s ok, but I’m not going to explain it now because it’s not the topic of this post), for Nikon (and other brands where the aperture connection is mechanical) there’s a little lever on the back of the camera you can push to open the aperture (at your own risk, I don’t own a Nikon and never tried it myself).
Marco photography needs lots of light, for those pictures I’ve used my flash on camera pointed at the ceiling – not to soften the light (with the flash head physically larger than the subject I expect the light to be soft anyway) but because at that distance the lens would have cast a shadow on the subject if I used direct flash.
So, let’s see what do we get, first, this is the setup, I’ve put the pencil there to show scale, it’s not there in the macro pictures (also, the picture was edited to remove a barcode that was visible on the corner of the paper, the edits are nowhere near the flowers).
Here’s the yellow flower in the middle with a reversed 50mm F/1.8 lens, stopped down to F/8 using the DOF preview trick (click to enlarge):
And the same flower with the 18-135mm at 135mm wide open at F/5.6:
We can clearly see that longer focal length means more magnification.
We can also see that the depth of field is painfully shallow – so take lot’s of photos, a tiny camera movement will move your focus and the more pictures you take the better chance you have to get one where the focus is just right.
After you take a few reversed lens macro pictures if you discover you like it you can buy a cheap “macro lens reversal ring” that let you mount your lens backwards without having to hold it in your hand, here’s one that fits Canon DSLRs and the Canon 50mm F/1.8 for less than $7 on Amazon (at the time I wrote this) and such rings for other lenses for Canon, Nikon and all brands (also on Amazon), make sure you get one that fit’s your camera and the filter thread size of your lens.
The next step up in macro photography is extension tubes – if you want me buy a set and write about them click any of the links in the previous paragraph and buy something on Amazon.