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How to Take Macro Photos on Budget

Last year, feeling in a bit of a rut photographic rut, I decided to act on a DIY project I’d been contemplating. In my internet perusals of nature photography I’ve always been impressed by macro photography of insects and plants and I found a photographer on Flickr who was doing something I’d never seen before. Instead of spending hundreds or more on a dedicated macro lens, he had simply flipped a lens.

The short and sweet no physics required, of it, is that a camera lens or even binoculars, flipped in reverse, magnifies things. This is all well and fine, until you realize you need to attach the lens to your camera and that you loose much functionality in the process. You can no longer focus and aperture adjustments are not nearly as dramatic as before. Still, I wanted to see what I could do.


The body cap and filter combination connected to the lens.

My goal was to spend as little money as possible. So I started with what I had. My first step was to take a camera body cap. This, with a hole cut in it and glued to a clear filter, would allow me to attach a reversed lens to the camera. Hole cut, filter glued on, I was able to afix a manual 50mm 1.8 lens to the filter and attach the body cap to my camera. Peering through the camera, I could see I was in business.


You have to be careful, you are exposing the rear element and the connection points of your lens by using this method.

Everything was manual, so I had to not only guess at exposure but literally move the camera back and forth to focus. With a tripod I was able to make very slight adjustments, but this only worked for stationary subjects. Animal subjects had to be sought out and slowly approached with an asinine undulating of one’s head. With some practice, I was in business and getting halfway decent shots considering the very simple and cheap route I’d gone. Then, I ran into another issue. Light.

With a 50mm lens flipped, you tend to be very close to your subjects. The very reason 100 and 200mm macro lenses exist is because not every creature appreciates close quarters, nor does getting really close help the lighting situation. The problem of light can be overcome with fancy macro flashes, but this was low budget operation with no way to move away from the subjects.


A Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) resting on my hand. This is a true macro shot, the image is 1:1, meaning its a life size image (actually a little bit larger). Pretty sweet for low budget.

Because I am interested in off camera flash and creative lighting, I own several speedlights which could be put into action. I originally considered using my wireless kit to trigger a remote flash, but when you’re chasing insects it’s too hard to get one set up properly. So I opted to use a wired system on a bracket attached to my camera’s tripod mount, which can articulate the flash. I could just put the flash on the camera’s hotshoe, but that’s not always where you want light.


The full lighting bracket. I’d like to get something more sturdy, but this works well for now.

The bare unit alone wasn’t going to fit the bill, so I created a diffuser that would simulate natural light, beamed from above. The first iteration was made of cardboard, tracing paper, and lots of duct tape. That lasted surprisingly long, but this winter I built a tougher version that can extend and contract, out of plastic, clear poly vinyl, and again, lots of tape. It also works surprisingly well despite looking very low budget.


The diffuser, fully extended. Notice that the clear poly vinyl. The only part that light can pass through, is a square which points downward at the subject when the flash sits normally.

Yes, in the future I’d like to invest in all the fancy gear, but for now, this works pretty well and allows me to have fun without going into debt. Of course one can buy a screw on macro filter, buy extension tubes, or use a point and shoot, which can be remarkably good, but my goal was to use my current camera and not buy more stuff. The build was pretty simple and cost me nothing more than what I had lying around and various adherents (and I’m happy to answer questions about the process). By far the hardest part is getting perfect focus, which is still achieved by bobbing my head back and forth like an idiot. I’ve always wanted to find more ways to simultaneously look moronic and embarrass friends and family while observing nature . Now I’ve found it.

I’ve been making good use of it lately, so look for more shots and posts soon.


Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa) right out my front door!



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