Macros With Stacked Lenses

First published on: Tuesday, 29 July 2008

I decided that it’s about time I wrote a brief post on how I captured a “portrait” of this jumping spider, as I have received several queries about the technique behind it. Click the thumbnail to view a larger version of the image.
Portrait of a Jumping Spider, using the Stacked Lenses Technique

It turned out that writing this was a little more difficult than I first thought, because I did not know the proper terminology behind the technique. Browsing through my copy of The Complete Guide to Close-Up & Macro Photography by Paul Harcourt Davies, I note that I was using a technique of macro photography called “Stacked Lenses”.

I’m not handy at drawing diagrams, so I hope the following illustration is clear enough:
[spider] <-- [reversed Nikkor 50mm f/1.8] [adapter ring] [Nikkor 28-200mm G] [Nikon D70 + SB-800 flash]

Let’s get to the notes on the setup. One thing to bear in mind is there are tons of different ways in which you can configure the setup, and mine is by no means the best or only way. I’ll add some links to some well-known macro photographers and their technique as soon as I have my to-do list sorted out.

Jumping Spider

The spider was placed on a white card. The poor fella wasn’t feeling in tip-top condition, so I had no trouble with it jumping all over the place; it just remained at the spot for the entire duration of the shoot. The “scene” was illuminated by incandescent lamps at my dinner table, but these lamps were only to aid in autofocusing, as the main source of light at image capture would be from the SB-800 flash mounted on my Nikon D70.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D AF Lens

The 50mm was opened up to an aperture of f/1.8. Since this lens has a mechanical aperture ring, it’s a cinch to do this. I also turned the focusing ring to infinity. This shortens the barrel length of the lens and produces a lower degree of vignetting.

Yup — before I continue, just be aware that photographing macros using this setup will produce vignetting, also know as dark corners, which you will have to crop away in an image editing program. The bonus is you are able to get some serious magnification with cheap hardware.

Adapter Ring

The front end of the 50mm lens has to then be, how shall I say this, pressed against the front end of the Nikkor 28-200mm lens. I did not (and still do not) have an adapter ring that would make this operation a little safer, and had to use my left hand to hold the 50mm in place, but there you go. I took extra care to make sure that glass did not come into contact with glass, only the rims touched.

Without the adapter ring, I guarantee that the muscles in your left hand will feel cramped before long.

Nikkor 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF Lens

You’ll note from the EXIF data that the Nikon 28-200mm lens was zoomed to 135.0mm. Using the formula: Magnification = [Focal length of main lens] / [Focal length of supplementary, or reversed lens], this combination results in a magnification of 135 / 50 = 2.7x — much greater than what you’ll get with any of the stock 1:2 or 1:1 macro lenses. At 135mm, autofocusing and holding the camera steady becomes a difficult feat — I found it much more easier to use my cheap Sigma 18-50mm at 50mm focal length rather than the 28-200mm at 135mm — the magnification at 50mm wouldn’t be as impressive, though.

A magnification of 2.7x gets pretty scary when you shoot a spider’s portrait — depending on the size of the bug, either its whole body, or just its face will fill up your entire viewfinder. The formula also shows that if you use a supplementary (reversed) lens with a shorter focal length, say 28mm (some VERY nice Nikon lenses come with a fixed 28mm focal length), you get very much higher levels of magnification.

The aperture of the 28-200mm lens was stopped down to f/16 to give as much depth of field as possible, which, as you can see from the photo, isn’t much. Well, just call it a portrait and suddenly a shallow DOF makes aesthetic sense.

By the way, you could use almost any lens in place of the Nikkor 28-200mm — some suggestions would be your 18-50mm or 18-55mm lenses, 55-200mm, 18-70mm, 18-135mm, 18-200mm, Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 or Nikkor 105mm Micro lenses — you name it. I guess the only thing to keep in mind would be that the focal length of the primary lens has to be equal to, or greater than the focal length of your supplementary or reversed lens, otherwise you’d end up with reverse magnification based on the formula given above.

Nikon D70

Given sufficient lighting from the dinner table lights, the camera managed to acquire a lock while autofocusing the 28-200mm lens. I know that many advocate manual focusing for macro photography, and if you were to reverse the 50mm lens directly to the camera lens mount (also known as the traditional “reversed lens” technique), then manual focusing is all you can do. With this setup, the camera is able to AF the 28-200 lens, which suits me just fine since I pretty much hate to focus my lenses manually.

I have to emphasize again that sufficient lighting is a must in order for the camera to perform its AF operation with this type of setup.

My D70 was also put into M mode, and Auto ISO turned off, so that I could manually have the camera settings at 1/250 sec shutter speed, f/16 aperture and ISO 200. It’s also advised to shoot the images in NEF (RAW) mode. I strongly believe that all photographs shot with equipment set up to this extent and with so much effort have to be shot in RAW mode.

Nikon SB-800 Flash

The last apparatus in the setup is my Nikon SB-800 Speedlight. This was totally necessary considering that the 28-200mm lens was set at f/16, 135mm and that it was night time. With stacked lenses, it seems that the D70 was not able to relay accurate information to the SB-800, and it was impossible to get an accurate flash exposure; in fact the pictures shot at TTL or TTL-BL modes were all but overexposed. So, the SB-800 had to be put into manual, and flash intensity manually selected the trial and error way.

I used the supplied diffusion dome and built-in wide-flash adapter to diffuse and spread the light from the flash as much as possible.

Final Thoughts

Shooting macros this way is a major pain in the derrière, and I’ll have to admit that most of the time, the thought of setting up the equipment dissuades me from shooting the many colorful bugs that can be found in my garden.

If you haven’t tried it though, you owe it to yourself to give it a go — I can tell you that it’s immensely satisfying if you manage to capture shots like these — you’ll feel that the effort was worth it.

Go here for a list of links to other macro photography techniques. Or read this post on why macro lenses with a longer focal length makes photographing bugs a bit easier. And here’s a discussion thread on reversed lens macros with photo samples.

Archive of comments from the old Nikon D70 / D70s blog

  1. Luis Says:

    Hi, I bought a new Tamron Di 90mm macro lens for my Nikon D200. In regards to the aperture ring can it manually be selected because I tried it but I get a message error “FEE” on my viewfinder. I can only take pictures on the minimum 32 aperture setting.
    Hope you can give me an advise since I`m new to macro lenses.

    Thank You,
    Luis Rodriguez.

  2. David Chin Says:

    @Luis — it’s meant to be this way. When you mount modern lenses on Nikon digital SLR cameras, you must rotate the aperture ring to the smallest opening (largest value). You then set the aperture directly via the dial on the camera in Aperture priority or Manual mode — the aperture is stopped down to the correct value when the shot is taken.

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