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Trial and Error with Extreme Macro Photography

Posted on 01-07-2013 in Influential Photo Gear

The "piece" of photographic equipment that has been the most influential on my photography would be my extreme macro setup. My interest in macro photography was piqued by browsing macro photos online and wondering, "Why can't I do that?". I was quite stunned with how amazing even the simplest everyday objects looked when magnified - even something as common as a zipper or a screw (shown below). None of the images in this post are cropped or post-processed. The only thing I've done is shrink them to allow me to post them here (please click on the thumbnails to see the full size!).

Zipper Earring
Chewed Screw Threading a Needle

So I began trying to use my 55-300mm DA L to take macro photos, this was before I really appreciated the nuances of photography and had an understanding of why the 55-300mm wasn't working the way I wanted (very long minimum focusing distance!). I found a Praktica 80-200mm M42 macro lens at a garage sale for 20 bucks, so that was the next step. This still wasn't enough and I found a used Pentax-M 100mm macro lens locally, so I bought that. Then I tried using teleconverters, close up diopters, extension tubes, and I still wasn't happy! This led me to using reversal rings. I put my 55-300mm kit lens onto the camera and reversed my 18-55mm lens onto it. This led to some amazing magnification, however the plastic body construction caused some "wobble" and made it extremely difficult to focus. What is particularly interesting to note is that anybody with the Pentax K-r kit and both kit lenses can achieve this with a 2 dollar reversal ring from ebay!

Finally, I found a used Tamron 06A 200-500mm f6.9 from the forum marketplace (thanks derekkite!) and took a Pentacon Auto 50mm f1.8 that I had laying around and reversed it onto the lens. This gave me a sturdy all metal setup and the ability to modify the magnification (with the 200-500 lens). There are some other accessories that are very helpful for this setup, including a remote control, a used wireless AF360FGZ flash, and a scrap of tinfoil (I'll get to that later!) Below is my setup where you can see the camera (these pictures were taken with my K-r so I had to use an old film camera to stand in) with the Tamron 200-500mm and the 50mm reversed onto it. I've got the flash to the bottom (I have to hold it up/away to when I'm actually shooting). I've got a “helping hand” to hold my subject and let me maneuver it. You can see some of the other subjects (the screw above is just to the left of the tinfoil) and accessories (extension tubes and teleconverter) I have used in the past.  

There's quite a few reasons why the building of this setup has been so influential. Most of the items/accessories that I use in this rig were purchased specifically for this purpose, but I can also use them on their own. The 200-500mm is quite fun (and frustrating) to try to take out in the early morning and snap some songbirds, the remote control is great for self portraits and group shots that I get to be in, and the flash makes general indoor photography much simpler. The equipment I acquired is obviously useful, but the skills I learned were essential.

When I began trying to take these shots I didn't fully appreciate the fundamentals of photography. With this kind of setup the auto exposure mechanism is useless so any exposure adjustment involves a lot of trial and error. I couldn't just rely on the camera to do it for me and doing it manually was the fastest way to learn what was really going on. I also learned a fair bit about how the camera operates - particularly the KAF mount. The wireless flash is not allowed when manual lenses are used, so I had to learn how to trick the camera into thinking there was a lens it could meter with attached (http://www.robertstech.com/matrix.htm). This is where the tinfoil comes in, if you short out all of the pins it will allow you to use the wireless flash.

Here's a few more photos I've taken to try and illustrate the amount of magnification that is possible. The first photo is of a circuit board that I had designed and built for a class. The second shot is halfway zoomed in on the two inductors in the mid left. The next shot is as much magnification as possible with my current setup. I could use extension tubes, or a wider reversed lens, but it is nearly impossible to focus anything at this scale. The final photo in this set really emphasizes the absurd amount of magnification that is possible. The small beige thing in the final photo is the same size as the green thing in the previous photo, they are 603 smd sized electronics (1.6 mm × 0.8 mm). Remember, I have only shrunk the images in this post. None of these photos are cropped or post-processed.

This entire exercise demonstrates there is no reason to accept the limitations of a piece of equipment. I of course, do not claim to have invented this concept (there are many resources online with much more detail and mathematics behind what is happening) but I wasn't happy with the magnification I got from one lens, so I researched what others were doing and tried to add my own insight to that. If you try things out and experiment you might just achieve what you want. Of course, the most influential part of this setup is the captivating photos it allows me to take. It provides a window into a world that is in front of us every single day, but that we normally cannot appreciate. It's also fun showing photos to friends and asking them to guess what the picture is of!

Please let me know in the comments if you've got any questions! Thanks for reading!

Some tips if you decide to try this:

  • It doesn't have to be expensive - look for used and manual equipment!
  • The general way it works is the magnification equals the length of the forward lens divided by the length of the reversed lens. So you want a long forward lens and as wide as possible of reversed lens.
  • Try to use lenses with all metal construction, it will prevent any wobble.
  • Use lenses with manual aperture rings (if you don't, you'll need to force the aperture lever open somehow).
  • Focus both lenses to infinity (the distance of the photo subject to the focal point of the reversed lens is always the focal point) and make sure both lenses are wide open.
  • Only stop down the forward mounted lens if required.
  • Get something adjustable to hold the subject as it can be frustrating to get the subject in focus.
  • Start with as little magnification as possible then zoom in as required (this makes it easier to find the subject then zoom in).
  • Experiment with Teleconverters and Extension Tubes from here (it adds some wobble of the setup, but produces absolutely unreal results).

- athlantar

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samcd1 [Delete] Feb 22nd, 2013 9:43PM

Great writeup! I really like the ingenuitive use of those lenses! Good luck!

tyronet2000 [Delete] Feb 16th, 2013 5:33PM

A very interesting article well illustrated. Now on the lookout for all metal lenses.

athlantar [Delete] Jan 12th, 2013 2:28PM

The "product stand" is actually known as a helping hand. It's pretty handy when you're soldering small components together.

enoxatnep [Delete] Jan 9th, 2013 10:36PM

Where did you get the funky product stand, the one with the alligator clips, or is this a home-made contraption?

DavidH [Delete] Jan 8th, 2013 6:15AM

I've got some old screw mount extension tubes. This makes me want to play. 100mm of extension tubes with 150mm lens should be fun.

VisualDarkness [Delete] Jan 8th, 2013 5:48AM

Really nice blog! Goes way beyond simply using my 105mm macro lens. :p

jt1667 [Delete] Jan 8th, 2013 1:50AM

Wow! Ive got to say that this is pretty freaking cool! It makes it even more amazing to think that I can do something like this with my kit K-r lenses...Well off to ebay & amazon to look for a reversal ring.

dmort [Delete] Jan 7th, 2013 7:16PM

A very nice concise explanation of gear and technique. Got to try this myself sometime!

tessfully [Delete] Jan 7th, 2013 8:18AM

Good title for your blog! Your extreme maco set up and results are amazing. Thanks for this detailed information.