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Getting into the Reverse Ring Macro Craze

There’s never a right or wrong in photography. It’s more of a perspective and everybody has an opinion. The Reverse Ring Macro is a very old technique, an “oldie” but “goodie”, and I will be sharing my personal experience in this article.

I’ve been trying to get this technique to work for the last seven years. While I love macro photography, just magnification alone was not satisfying my creativity. Going back to the books and looking up old techniques helped narrowed down what I needed to get. I was looking for a distinguished blur, or as I call it, “artistic bluriness” for the background. And that’s when I discovered Reverse Ring Macro (RRM).

Here comes the trial and error learning process. Insect photographers swear by this technique. I was told that you could get more magnification on the reverse lens than your normal macro, but I wasn’t convinced till I tried it. And it wasn’t easy to master. First of all you needed steady hands, a cooperative subject and loads of patience. Everything is done manually – No autofocus, just you and your understanding of your equipment

What I also loved about this technique is the opportunity to try different lens that I already had in order to get closer to the subject. For instance, I had a NIKKOR 18-70mm f/3.5 lens from my Nikon D70s days and that worked out to produce some really interesting magnification. Then I had the new NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and that gave a set of different effects altogether.

I then wanted to go further with the experiments, so I combined lenses to further achieve my effect and got better and sharper details from my subjects. I tried a NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4 with a 50mm f/1.8, a 24 -120mm f/4 and more! It’s basically endless and with the best glasses that Nikon has to offer, the images are just out of this world. Instead of investing on third party glasses it was nothing compared to the NIKKORs, it’s much better working with what’s in your camera bag and learning the possibilities that it possesses.

Now, here’s the best part of my experience, shooting the subjects, underwater. Unlike being on land where it’s much easier to work, I had to work with my conditions like the sea condition, shy subjects, backscatter (floating debris) and water currents. Shooting RRM underwater, requires more discipline and patience. You must first understand your working distance, how light travels and reflects, subject characters and behaviors and lastly, the buttons of your chosen camera.

I had my Nikon D4 so that’s a pretty huge setup, underwater. Nevertheless, practising at the pool prior to getting into the ocean does help. RRM is not something you can just click and be happy with. It is a lot more of understanding what is presented to you and how you are going to making it look better. After all, it’s your duty as a photographer is to make the ordinary, extraordinary.

Some Tips About RRM

1) Is it about magnification? It's not just about magnification. We get that with normal macro anyways. We have the traditional NIKKOR 105mm and 60mm f/2.8, which are great lenses, however there's more to just magnifications.

2) It's all about the bokeh? What is bokeh? Bokeh, also known as “Boke” is one of the most popular subjects in photography. The reason why it is so popular, is because bokeh makes photographs visually appealing, forcing us to focus our attention on a particular area of the image. The word comes from Japanese language, which literally translates as “blur”. And YES, it is all about the bokeh!

3) Is RRM diffcult? Well, nothing in life is easy… Remember those first few years practicing with your dedicated macro lens. Trying to understand the lens, F-stop, sweet spots and distance. Same goes for the RRM, a little patience is needed to first understand it, then perfect it. As much as you learn about the lens, it teaches you patience and how to make small movements to get things sharp. Just to add to this, you must learn how to light up your subject. Light is important in RRM photography, so use those strobes or continuous lights.

4) What does one look for in RRM? It's a combination of sharpness and artistic blurriness. Not a lot of people understand this part, but it’s actually a combination of art and science. Art being the artistic blurriness while science is the part you get to identify your subject. I must say, it’s about making your images look unique.

5) Is this the poor man's macro? Well, yes… Back in the days when there was no dedicated lens, I believe people got innovative and decided to make do with what they had. Reversing a lens with a Reverse Ring Adapter helped.

6) What's a reverse 50mm f/1.4 like? A simple reverse 50mm 1.4 is almost equivalent to a + 20 diopter and the plus point is, if you are using a NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 like me, you're guaranteed the best glass in the market.

7) What is mininum focus distance? This could be 2 or 3cm or closer. Thus getting the right port configuration is a must to fit your lens configuration.

8) What about lens combinations? There are tons of lenses out there. Some you might have owned or can be purchased. It's like Lego - you can customise your image to your preference (bokeh, magnification etc). Combining your lens will give you more magnification, different bokeh and paper-thin-focus working distance, so it’s best that your practice on land prior to getting in the water.

9) What subject is RRM approved? Basically, it’s all about knowing your lens and working with subjects that fit your viewfinder. Easy? Try it - I suggest you practice on land first.

10) How to create the swirling bokeh? That's all about how creative you want to get. Understand your lens and you will be rewarded. The fun starts when you go reverse.

Well, I hope that I have helped inspire you to try and play with your equipment more.

Have a great day and enjoy all subjects in reverse!

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© Imran Ahmad


About Imran

Imran Ahmad is a professional underwater photographer who captures images different from anything seen before. Always pushing the boundaries of conventional photography, his style is creatively complex and unpredictable. As an internationally published photographer and a member of the Ocean Artist Society, his diversified portfolio includes commercial, editorial, portrait and underwater photographic assignments, and his work can be found in many diving publications and countless other leading media throughout the region. He has recently published his very own coffee table book titled “Ocean Tapestry”, a collection of some of his best works.