The ratio of the subject size on the film plane (or sensor plane) to the actual subject size is known as the reproduction ratio. Likewise, a macro lens is classically a lens capable of reproduction ratios of at least 1:1, although it often refers to any lens with a large reproduction ratio, despite rarely exceeding 1:1.

Apart from technical photography and film-based processes, where the size of the image on the negative or image sensor is the subject of discussion, the finished print or on-screen image more commonly lends a photograph its macro status. For example, when producing a 6×4 inch (15×10 cm) print using 135 format (3.6×2.4 cm) film or sensor, a life-size result is possible with a lens having only a 1:4 reproduction ratio.

Ordinary lenses can be used for macro photography by using a "reversing ring." This ring attaches to the filter thread on the front of a lens and makes it possible to attach the lens in reverse. Excellent quality results up to 4x life-size magnification are possible. For cameras with all-electronic communications between the lens and the camera body specialty reversing rings are available which preserve these communications. When used with extension tubes or bellows, a highly versatile, true macro (greater than life size) system can be assembled. Since non-macro lenses are optimized for small reproduction ratios, reversing the lens allows it to be used for reciprocally high ratios.

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Extending the distance between the lens and the film or sensor, by inserting either extension tubes or a continuously adjustable bellows, is another equipment option for macro photography. The further the lens is from the film or sensor, the closer the focusing distance, the greater the magnification, and the darker the image given the same aperture. Tubes of various lengths can be stacked, decreasing lens-to-subject distance and increasing magnification. Bellows or tubes eliminate infinity focus.

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