Focusing on Close-ups

by Kevin Shank | Feb 9, 2022 | 0 comments

Snowflake closeup
A microscope was used to magnify this snowflake. An adapter went onto an SLR camera body as if it were the lens, then the adapter slipped into the eyepiece tube in lieu of the eyepiece. Another, perhaps better, way to do this is with a microscope imager. Photo © Kevin Shank.

Lenses come in a wide variety of focal lengths. Some are wide angle, while others are short or long telephoto. A specialty lens that enables close focusing is called a macro lens. Zoom lenses offer a variety of focal lengths. Some range from wide angle to short telephoto, such as a 17 mm to 85 mm lens.

Many of us probably began photography with a camera body and a zoom lens such as this. In time, we may wish for a long telephoto lens for drawing in a small bird or a distant deer. At the other end of the spectrum, we may want to get a close-up photo of an insect, or even closer still, of the scales on the insect’s wings.

Did you know you can take a really sharp close-up photograph without buying an expensive macro lens? That’s right. For thirty-five dollars or less you can take very sharp close-up photos, if…

This “if” is important and pretty big. We are assuming you have purchased a quality lens, not a long telephoto with a huge front element, but a small lens of some sort. For the technique we will be looking at here, I prefer a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. There are several ways we can use this lens to take photos closer than its minimum focusing distance, effectively getting more mileage out of your lens investment.

The cheapest way I am aware of is to reverse the lens. The best way to reverse a lens is to purchase a reverse adapter. This is a metal ring with lens mounts for your brand of camera on the one side, and male filter threads on the other. To reverse the lens, you simply screw the ring onto your lens as if the ring were a filter, and lock the ring to the camera as if it were the lens. You now have the ability to take macro photographs with the same level of quality as the glass you purchased when buying the lens in the first place.

Stacked lenses on camera
Fork-tailed bush katydid on rose blossom
This portrait of a fork-tailed bush katydid on a rose was taken with a Nikon Close-up filter screwed onto an 80-200 mm Nikkor lens. To illuminate the katydid, I positioned a flash on a bracket just above the front edge of the lens. This system allowed me to hand-hold the camera, relying on the speed of the flashed light to freeze the movement of my shakiness. This has been a favorite setup since I can approach a flighty insect such as a butterfly or bee more easily than I could if I needed to position a tripod. Photo © Kevin Shank.

As you might expect when not paying for a macro lens, there are some disadvantages. For one, camera connections to the lens are missing, so you will be using manual focus. You will also not be able to control the f/stop unless you are using a manual focus lens with a manual f/stop ring. In this case, you can stop the lens down for better depth of field, but the diaphragm closes as you turn the ring, and the viewfinder will become dark. Nevertheless, when money is tight, a reversing adaptor is a valuable option for cranking up the power.

I briefly mentioned photographing the scales of an insect’s wing. You can really crank up the power by stacking lenses. To do this, you mount the primary lens to the camera body as you normally would. I like the small zooms for this lens. Next screw on a stacking ring which goes onto the lens like a filter, but also has filter threads to accept another small lens reversed on it. This combination will take power to another whole level.

Mourning cloak wing scales
To photograph the scales on the wing of a mourning cloak butterfly, I used a 50 mm lens stacked on the front of a 35-105 mm lens. Photo © Kevin Shank.
Stacked lens on camera

Adding extension to a lens also increases power by allowing you to focus the lens closer. A good set of extension rings should keep connected the electrical contacts of modern cameras. This has significant advantage over the reversing adaptor, but costs considerably more.

With any of these techniques you should be able to capture quality close-up photos even though you have not invested in a macro lens.

Honeybee on japonica blossom
This honeybee on a japonica blossom was photographed using a reversed 35-105 mm lens. A flash provided the lighting for this shot. Notice the pollen stored on its legs. Photo © Kevin Shank.

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