This article is about the how-tos of microphotography without spending $10,000+ on a microscope that has these capabilities.

My journey led me to explore a variety of options, with three seemingly most viable. The micro photography world is very complex and can be intimidating if you aren’t well versed in photography and camera equipment, which I am not! I began by exploring how to put a microscope objective onto my camera. I did succeed and did take a good picture or two but it didn’t give me the ease and flexibility I wanted and needed. I then talked with a friend who uses a digital imager on his microscope; that system didn’t provide the high quality, high definition I wanted. After further research, I finally arrived at a solution that provides me everything I need: flexibility of use, high quality images, and a relatively easy learning curve.

Let me go through the options and then elaborate on the one I chose. The microscope objective set up saves a few hundred dollars but frankly, for me, that savings isn’t worth the complications and extensive knowledge necessary. The learning curve is quite steep. Working independently and being able to troubleshoot and finesse my equipment is important to me. Using the microscope objective would not have allowed that because of the knowledge required and the need for multiple configurations of the components. If this interests you, the folks at photomacrography.net are extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and willing to share their time and information. This link to photomacrography.net specifically talks about connecting a microscope objective to a camera.

Here’s a couple of photos of the 2 microscope objective options. As you can see one version gets very long and becomes unstable when being moved with my focusing mechanism . Note the numerous adapter rings required to fit the system together, the microscope objective, and the Raynox macro conversion lens, which need to be switched around to ensure the subject fills the frame at different magnifications.

A friend of mine uses a Celestron Digital Microscope Imager. If you are wanting very basic images, this is a good option. Depth of field is limited as is quality and resolution, but for the price, it’s a viable choice.

Like all journeys, one thing leads to another. It is this exploration that helped me to decide the set up best for me. This equipment cost for this third option is around $3100, not including the camera body.

Here’s my equipment list:
– Camera – Canon EOS t5i
– Canon MP-E f2.8 1-5x lens
– Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash
– Canon CP-E4 Compact Battery Pack
– Lithium batteries
– Cognysis StackShot Macro Rail Package

The camera body can be any Canon model but the rest of this equipment was chosen for very specific reasons.

Canon MP-E f2.8 1-5x lens
This lens is not a general macro lens, it is a specially designed macro lens for photographing subjects at life size (1:1 ratio) and up to 5x life size (5:1 ratio). It’s different from other macro lens because there is no focusing ring. You adjust the lens to the magnification you want so your specimen fills the frame. It offers flexibility because it replaces the unwieldy and awkward microscope objective combination with a simple turn of a dial. This is important when photographing insects from different angles which may require different magnifications.

Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash
This twin light flash (aka speedlight) is the best thing since sliced bread! There might be other speedlight systems that work with this set up, but I already owned this twin light for shooting insects at night with my 90mm macro lens. It is awesome in low light!! The advantage it offers is to direct light away from the specimen by bouncing it off the walls and highlighting the specimen without creating the harsh glare of direct light.

Canon CP-E4 Compact Battery Pack
The flash, like any piece of camera equipment, really drains the battery power. When you’re taking 6-60 shots of one specimen, you can go through a number of batteries in no time. This system uses lithium batteries for longer battery life and  quicker recycle time (recharge time between flashes) on the speedlight, too. This means I’m using fewer batteries and finishing shots faster. I keep a record of how many flashes I get with the lithium versus the alkaline, just because I want to know! This battery pack can do double duty by clipping it to your waistband for shooting in the field.

Cognysis StackShot Macro Rail Package
Microscope objectives and the Canon MP-E f2.8 1-5x lens have very shallow depth of field. This is the optical reality as you get closer to your subject. A shallower the depth of field, means less of your subject is in focus. Focus stacking is a software technique that increases depth of field by combining several images focused on different planes of the specimen.  Certainly, one could manually move the camera and lens incremental distances and manually operate the camera. I have seen this done successfully, but “know thyself” is always in play and I knew I did not have this type of talent, patience, or steadiness! The answer is the Cognysis StackShot, a motorized camera mount; once it is programmed, it moves the camera incrementally and remotely operates it, too!

Once the stack of photos is taken, the next step is processing them through the focus staking software. A “stack” of photos would be defined as all the images captured on a particular view of a specimen. For example, when photographing insects, one stack would be all the photos for the lateral view, one stack for the dorsal view, and one stack for the face view. The number of images in each stack will vary depending on the incremental distance programmed for each shot and the overall size of the specimen. To process these stacks, Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker are two very popular options. They both offer 30 day trials so you can check out which one suits your needs. Last I checked neither were “subscription” software and each was around $150 including updates. Adobe Photoshop also has focus stacking capability.

My very talented husband built me the wooden components that were needed. These include the piece of wood the StackShot was bolted to for additional stability and ease of movement; the wooden piece that puts the specimen at the right height; and the box-like stand that allows for the set up to be at a comfortable height when setting on a 6’ folding table. This box-like stand also keeps the specimen drawer, notepad, and the front covering piece in a convenient place.

The lighting set up took some trial and error. Wanting to control the background color, I found a cardboard box and cut out the front and the sides, taped tissue paper over the sides, and glued white posterboard on the inside of the remaining walls. In the beginning, my thinking was to have the lighting come from the outside with a diffuser between them; but soon found out there was no light bright enough to make that work! Working off an idea picked up from another person, I lined the inside of those tissue paper walls with the white posterboard and voila! I was in business! This box design allows the light to bounce around, illuminating the specimen from all sides, eliminating shadows. The only other lighting issue I needed to address was having enough light directed on the subject while setting up camera and the StackShot. Since there is no auto focus on this lens, one must be able to see well enough to know if the subject is in focus. I found a self-standing flashlight or a desk light was sufficient; this light is only used for the purpose of determining the first focal point and the last focal point in the stack. It is not used for the actual photographing. After some more experimentation, I also added a front posterboard panel. This slips over the front opening once the shot is set up.

The insects I have been photographing are those too small to photograph while alive,many smaller than 5mm in length. They are specimens collected during the insect season and frozen. When winter arrives and indoor work begins, they are pointed, photographed, and identified. I have not experimented with using live specimens…yet.

Here’s an example of the type of images this set up can achieve. This beetle, Notoxus desertus, is about 3mm long. The mechanical pencil has .5mm lead.

The good news here is that there are options for getting good photos at the micro level; options that don’t cost $10,000+. What system works for you will depend on many factors — your budget, your goals, your creativity, your knowledge base, your patience – to name a few.