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Reverse Lens Technique

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/20/2011

The reverse lens technique is an innovative method which applies the principles of optics to get an effect akin to a macro lens without actually using one. Learn the reverse lens technique and how it can enhance your photographs by reading this article.

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    Reverse Lens Technique

    One of the most amazing subjects to shoot is what's less obvious to one’s eye. Hence, close-up shots of tiny subjects always yield intriguing photos. This technique is called macro photography and typically requires dedicated macro lenses. More often than not, these lenses are quite expensive. So what does a photographer on a budget, who’s just spent quite a few bucks on a DSLR camera and a good long zoom lens do if he has no spare cash for a macro lens? With some ingenuity and practice, one can get amazing macro shots without a macro lens, by using what's known as ‘reverse lens technique’.

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    Macro photography without a macro lens…you must be kidding!

    To understand the reverse lens technique, one should understand how a lens works. The elements of a lens are so arranged as to capture light from a wide angle of view, say, the whole landscape in front of you, and focus it onto a small plane, the 35mm film (or an even smaller digital sensor). So, the lens ‘converges’ incoming light and focuses it onto a much smaller plane. Now think what would happen if you flipped the lens and used it the other way round. Now the very same elements would ‘diverge’ light coming in from a smaller or narrower source. Precisely what we want while shooting tiny subjects. The same principle also applies, though in a more basic form, to a magnifying lens or binoculars. Now there’s just one more step to go. If you use only a single lens flipped over, you’d have realized by now that the image would not get focussed onto the film/sensor. So, in practice, the flipped-over, or reversed, lens is attached over a normal lens. The reversed lens magnifies the image of a tiny subject and the magnified image is captured by the normal lens and focused on the film or sensor. Neat, right?

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    Cool…what all do I need?

    To apply the reverse lens technique to your photos, you'll need:

    • An SLR camera
    • Your normal 50mm (or similar) lens
    • A second lens (which can also be a 50mm lens or a zoom lens)

    Just make sure both lenses are tightly opposed, or else you’ll have to tape them together to prevent stray light from entering the lens. Simply attach the second (or zoom) lens, wrong-side out, to the first lens, and you’re ready to shoot!

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    Reverse Lens Technique Tips and Precautions

    1. It’s best to use a wide aperture 50mm lens as the first lens. Again, these lenses are simple in construction and won’t lend their own artefacts to the image. That said, it's not a necessity and the technique will work with pretty much any two lenses.

    2. Try to keep the lenses at their widest aperture to let the maximum light in. It might be tricky with the reversed lens, as its aperture is no longer under the camera’s control. You may need to manually hold the aperture lever at its widest. Unconventional methods like taping the lever or using a thick card paper to wedge it might be necessary. Please be very careful with this step, as there is a potential to damage your lens irreparably.

    3. Automatic controls like auto-focus and auto-metering may not work. It's best to use manual focus. You also may have to physically move the camera back and forth to achieve focus. Be careful while doing that. Again, shoot multiple exposures and bracket a lot to get the exposure correct.

    4. Always protect your lens with a UV filter, lest you scratch it.

    5. If your first lens is 50mm, and you use a second lens with a focal length less than 50mm, you’ll end up with vignettes on your photo. There’s no solution for this except cropping that much out. Else use a really wide angled first lens.

    6. Use external lighting, as flash lighting would in all probability be blocked by the second lens, causing its own shadow to fall on the subject.

    7. A tripod will help a lot! You may have to restrict yourself to high shutter speeds and keep your hands rock-steady. A cable-release or using the timer would prove invaluable for sharp photos.

    8. One really neat trick with the reverse lens technique is that with two simple wide angle lenses back to back, you have a powerful high-magnification macro lens! Beat that!

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    The Final Word

    Reverse lens technique is similar in principle to a real macro lens. Only, the macro lens has it all encased in with the correct electronic points to make things easier and automated. You may face a lot of failures and difficulties while using this technique, but what the heck…..what’s life without challenges, especially if the outcome is worth the effort!

    Another way to accomplish macro photography without purchasing an expensive lens is to make your own. Here are two links on how to do just that:

    How to Make Your Own Macro Lens for a DSLR Camera

    How to Make Your Own Macro Lens for a Point-and-Shoot Camera

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    Disclaimer: Some of the techniques described in this article require use of non-standard procedures, which have the potential to damage camera equipment if improperly used. Any user is advised to take due diligence and try the techniques at his/her own risk. The author assumes no responsibility for any mishaps arising out of use of the above technique(s).