A common 55mm lenses mounted backwards on bellows can produce a macro photograph in the range of five times life size. What are the advantages of a bellows vs. the Canon MP-E 65mm lens? How does one set up a macro lens using a bellows?
Why Macro Photography?
I’ve grown tired of landscape photography where numerous photographers huddle around an iconic scene like Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah and try to capture their own unique vision. On the other hand, how many unique shots can one get of a fly’s eyeball? Regardless of the rationale, I’m pursuing macro photography and documenting my findings in this photographic journey.
I’ve always been one to verify statements made by others, understand the details and dig deeper into the minutia. So why would someone look through a 55mm lens backwards, reverse mounting a perfectly good 55mm lens? What exactly are bellows and are there some advantages over a dedicated macro lens like the Canon MP-E 65mm lens? Both of these systems can magnify scenes from 1:1 to 5:1.
A 55mm Lens on Bellows
A 55mm lens is generally not considered a close-up lens and certainly not a macro lens. However, when mounted on a bellows, moving the lens further from the sensor can create greater magnifications. How does one construct such a set-up? Bellows added to a 55mm lens can accomplish almost a 5:1 magnification by moving the lens further from the camera sensor. This presents additional problems like proper lighting of the subject.
This third in a series of macro photography articles assumes the reader has read or knows all that was discussed in my first two articles. Here is a link to my first article: My Journey into Macro Photography .
Definition of Macro
A macro photograph captures a scene on the camera sensor life size or greater. Therefore, a full frame camera with a 35mm wide sensor needs to capture 35mm or less of a scene to be a macro photo. A metric ruler can illustrate this best. When looking through the lens focused on a metric ruler, you would need to see 35mm or less. The popular Canon, Nikon and Sony so called macro lenses accomplish this at only their closest focal distance. However, for macro photographers it is good to know that when using the bellows or the Canon MP-E 65mm lens, you cannot take anything but a macro photograph. Photos taken with a Canon MP-E 65mm lens or a 55mm lens on bellows will always be the 1:1 magnification and up to 5:1 ratio.
A 55mm lens mounted on a fully extended Nikon bellows can accomplish almost a 5 times life size photo. This means that you only see about 7 1/2mm on the metric ruler. When dividing the full frame sensor size of 35mm by the millimeters in view, 7 1/2 mm, the results is a 4.7 times life size photo. For less magnification, simply compress the bellows, bringing the lens back closer to the camera sensor.
Why Mount the 55mm Lens Backwards?
The 55mm lens and bellows can be an inexpensive way to explore macro photography with up to 5 times magnification. But a backwards mounted 55mm lens will provide twice the critical ‘working distance’ as the regular mounted lens. The working distance, or WD, is the distance from the end of the lens to the bug or subject being photographed. This is the limited space where the photographer must properly illuminate the subject.
The Lens Working Distance
Reverse mounting a 55mm lens will provide for much better working distance and will make lighting your bug subject easier. Lighting the bug from the bottom, sides or the top is much easier with more space to work in. With a regular mounted 55mm lens, the working distance is a mere 3/8ths of an inch as shown below. With such a small space between the subject and the lens, the risk of bright lights shining into the lens causing unwanted glare is very high. This space can be more than doubled if we reverse mount the lens.
When mounting the same 55mm lens on a fully extended bellows, the reversed 55mm lens will allow a whopping 1 3/4 inch lighting space. While still small, it is an almost five times larger space for the photographer to direct the light onto the subject. So knowing how to mount a 55mm lens backwards seems a worthwhile pursuit.
How to Mount a Nikon/Nikkor Lens Backwards
Working through this contraption from the camera to the lens, right to left in the above photo, my first problem is I need to connect a unique Sony camera ‘E’ mount to a unique Nikon ‘F’ mount since the PB-6 bellows are a Nikon product. This is accomplished with a Metabones adapter. These adapters are made for many different models of cameras and combinations, but not all. If the distance from the Sony sensor to the Sony lens mount is less than the distance on a Nikon camera, a Metabones type adapter can be used to add the necessary distance to match the Nikon space or flange distance. No adapter can take away distance. The distance from the sensor plane to the lens mount is called the flange distance, which becomes important later when working with microscope lenses or objectives.
Here is the Nikon PB-6 bellows, which are no longer made. Their original use was for duplication of photo slides and negatives. In this digital world there is little demand for such devices. So it is macro photographers who search ebay for these used devices in varying condition, last made in the 1970’s. Bellows are delicate and difficult to store. You will inevitably somehow crush your prized new purchase. This will cause shouts of horror, yelling, anguish and much consternation in the household. Or so I’m told. Any hole in the accordion-like fabric would need to be patched with electrical tape or some other embarrassing fix.
The knobs on the bellows will expand and contract the length of the bellows. The center knob will move the entire set-up, camera, lens and bellows, closer or further from the bug or subject. This is how you focus, the entire camera set-up moves closer or further from the subject.
Continuing on our way to mounting the lens backwards is the Nikon BR2A adapter. The lens has a Nikon F-mount which attaches to the Nikon bellows and has filter threads on the other end which match the filter threads of the Nikkor 55mm lens. The lens screws into this adapter with the filter threads, thus allowing us to mount the lens backwards.
Finally we get to mount the 55mm Nikkor 55mm lens. The filter threads of this lens fit over the visible threads of the BR2A adapter.
This is a close up photo of the backwards mounted 55mm Nikkor lens to the BR2A adapter attached to the Nikon PB6 bellows. As you can see, the normally protected delicate parts of the lens are now fully exposed. For those of you not used to exposing your delicate parts to the world, the more fussy photographers can continue to add adapters for some lens protection. However the set as shown and described so far is all that is really needed.
Extras for the Extra Fussy
We need an adapter that fits the Nikon F mount which normally fits into the camera body with threads on the other side. The Nikon BR-3 fits the bill. In addition to serving as some protection, it can be helpful as a lens hood helping keep out light glare.
Into the other end of the BR-3 we can now screw in a normal 52mm haze filter. A polarizer would also be acceptable, but further reducing light is not helpful in macro photography.
The problem is we now have a glass haze filter exposed. To go further, I used a leftover part from a Russian camera parts supplier, RAF. It had 52mm threads fitting over the 52mm haze filter threads. I then used gaffers tape, taping up the 25mm hole on both sides of the adapter and have now fully protected the haze filter which is protecting the delicate parts of the lens.
Why use such a set-up?
So why would a photographer utilize such a set-up? The main reason is the bellows can be a very inexpensive set-up for the novice photographer to get into the world of macro photography with some very capable equipment. Most avid photographers already own a 55mm lens. So after buying a few inexpensive adapters, they are well on their way to some great macro photography with almost 5:1 magnification.
What is an Alternative?
Rather than settling on a common 1:1 macro lens which may never take a real macro photo, as described in my prior blog, Macro Photography Hoax , a good option for the macro photographer could be the Canon MP-E 65mm f 2.8 macro lens, a lens that can only take macro photos. There are a few macro photographers who stick with the bellows set-up and do quite well. On the other hand, in my opinion, it stands to reason that a lens built for and dedicated to only macro photography would be better suited to macro photography.
The major quirk in the Canon 65mm macro lens, compared to other modern lenses, is there is no focus knob or ring. The only means of focusing this dedicated macro lens is to move the camera set-up closer to or further from the subject, often with the help of a focusing rail. The same is true of the bellows set-up discussed.
Focusing with High Magnification
In macro photography at magnifications of 1:1 and greater, your depth of field can be extremely small. At times the in-focus part can be the width of a hair. The only way to get a bug in focus is to take many shots of the bug. Each photo taken has one slice of the bug in focus, like a slice of bread. Thus far, I have taken 100 photos of a bug. Then through using time consuming software like Helicon, or much better yet Zerene, these 100 photos can be blended together for one in focus photo, impossible with a single shot.
Automate Taking a Hundred Photos
A common set-up to help overcome the very narrow depth of field which exists at high magnification is the Cognisys Stack Shot Rail. There are several ways to use this electronic set-up. But one easy way to understand its use is to know you can set the starting position for the first photo, set the ending photograph position and finally the number of photos you wish to take in total. The first photo is focused on the part of the bug closest to the camera and the ending position is that part of your subject furthest from you. The system will take the first photo and then pause between photos for a couple of seconds of time that you designate. This allows lens shutter vibrations to settle down and automatically move forward a tiny bit to the next photo position.
Below is the photography store which sells these focus stacking devises:
In my early quest to learn macro photography I have taken up to 100 photos all with a very narrow depth of field, then blended them together for a single close-up photo of a bug that is in complete focus.
How do you blend together 100 photos? That is a blog for another time.
Where to go for Serious Macro Learning?
My blog is generally intended for family, friends and a few people who followed our travels in years past. It is not intended to be an in-depth learning experience for the macro photographer. Serious photographers have many options for education on the Internet. My educational source has been Allan Walls on YouTube. Once at the YouTube site, do a search for ‘Allan Walls Photography’ to find his many helpful videos. Better yet, click the link below, subscribe and become a Patreon member to help support his continuing educational videos. The information I’ve learned about macro photography on this page and others would not be possible if not for his many educational videos.
YouTube link: Allan Walls on YouTube
Allan also has a web site for education: https://www.allanwallsphotography.com/
Recent Macro Photos
These are not prize wining photos, I’m still plugging along learning the craft.
What is Next?
I’ll continue down this path experimenting with 5X and 10X power microscope objectives and test the clarity of my lenses… exciting stuff. Thank you for looking and your interest macro photography. Photographers interested in the details of how to do this need to go visit Allen Walls on YouTube….
YouTube link: Allan Walls on YouTube