Tools & Techniques

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Lenses

I predominantly use only 4 lenses (from left to right)


1. Laowa 25mm F/2.8 2.5 – 5X macro lens for any subject smaller than 5 mm high. This lens is substantially less expensive than the Canon Zoom macro lens, but everything is controlled manually.


2. Just obtained the Laowa 100mm F2.8 1-2X CA-Dreamer macro lens for 5-15mm subjects. This prime lens is a manual focus but offers camera information and has a much larger diameter light receiving lens than the 2.5-5X providing easier focus in low light.


3. Canon 24 – 105 mm 1:4 L-series zoom lens. Even though it is not a true macro, this lens is advertised as a macro lens and I use it regularly when I want to shoot a full image of the subject such as a flower or a large insect. Because it is a zoom it comes in very handy shooting multiple images of the same subject with different sizes. I also like to take a pic of the any identification plaques and then the subject. Additionally, this has built-in image stabilization that helps when shooting in the field


4. Canon 50mm 1:1.4 lens for any subjects I want to shoot that are less than 10-15 mm high. I almost always couple this with one or more of the Pro master extension tubes (36 mm, 20 mm, 12 mm) for appropriate image size. It’s a fast lens and provides me camera information such as aperture, ISO, shutter speed.



Canon 70D &
5D Mk ii

The camera bodies I use are starting to age, but they are high quality, durable cameras that are more than adequate for my photography needs. Additionally, they can be acquired used for very reasonable prices.

The Canon 5D Mark ii is a full frame camera with a sensor size of 24.0 X 36.0 mm, 22 megapixels. I use this predominantly for studio macro work. This full frame sensor camera has some advantages in that it provides a larger field of view on the sensor and does not enlarge the image size due to cropping. This makes calculating magnification and aperture much easier particularly when using extension tubes. It has a continuous shoot rate of 3.9 frames per second.


The camera that I use for most of my field work photographs is the Canon 70D. Because this is a crop sensor camera (22.5 mm X 15 mm), 21 megapixels, the image “appears” to be a larger magnification. It only appears to be larger because the image is cropped and enlarged by the image processing. The 70D also has a continuous shoot rate of 7 frames per second which is very helpful when you're trying to capture very fast subjects like hummingbirds with multiple shots. I purchased a compatible intervalometer that is set for 5-7 seconds when using the manual macro focus rail. After each shot I can manually advance one step.

Both these cameras use my EF lenses interchangeably and use the same battery, making it very convenient.


When shooting in the studio I use the Canon AC power adaptor so I never need to worry about changing batteries out.

click image for more detail

The Cage

The cage idea came from a very talented, and knowledgeable macro photographer named Allan Walls. Basically, it is a frame made out of plastic PVC pipe mounted to a heavy wood base with rubber feet. To the base you mount your macro rail on which your camera sits. The frame and base is used to hold all your lighting, reflectors, backdrops, lab lifter and props with clamps and magic arms. I added a small florescent light strip to help with positioning/set up (I turn off before shooting) and a power strip for ease of power access. You can use this frame to get anything you want into a particular position.

It may look like a jumble of wires and lights, but it does make it easier when I'm trying to position 5 lights, a backdrop and a soft box. It’s always set up with most of my equipment and ready to go. I set this entire cage on a heavy table that I placed on top of vibration dampening rubber pads.

I would place this whole rig on a tile floor preferably on a concrete slab like the basement or there may be vibration problems. The 1st time I used this cage without the rubber mounts, the air conditioning turned on in the other end of the house and I immediately started to see vibration occur.

Manuel Macro Focus Rail

Focus stacking is a term that means an image is made up of multiple shots with different focal points. Think of each shot as slices from front to back. Each image has the same exposure and aperture … you’re just moving the focal point along a track a little at a time. You merge all these slices into a single photo using a software program (Zerene or Helicon for example) that results in a whole specimen totally in focus.

Proxxon Microcoordinate table KT 70. This high precision device is designed for milling and a drill press but makes a very high quality, zero backlash X and Y focus rail needed to perform exacting focus stacking. It is a third the cost of some of the more precise manual focus rails. It is supplied with two step clamps and securing bolts to secure to an old tripod mount that is then attached to your camera.


Both handwheels have zero-resettable dials with graduations indicating
1 revolution = 1.00mm,
0.1mm = 100 microns(µ) and,
1 division = 0.05mm or 1/2 of 1mm which equals 50 microns.
With a steady hand you could focus down to 25 microns for each shot step. That is amazingly small.


A micron (µ), or micrometer, is a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter. A human hair is about 90µ in diameter. Macro photography and particularly image stacking deals with very small depth of fields which requires a rail to get precise regular distances each focus step

I have been using the manual Proxxon rail guide for all my stacking photography but this is getting tiresome and often causes artifacts. I have to manually advance each step approximately every 5-7 seconds which could take up to 15 to 30 minutes depending on what I’m shooting and I can easily bump the set up causing artifact.

I have purchased Cognisys StackShot ($580-made in USA) instead of the WeMacro ($450-made in China) that turns a manual shooting process into “set it and forget it”. I can get it running and then come back in half an hour and it’s ready to stack. I have a comparison guide between the two different stacking setups. WeMacro vs StackShot (Web view)

Lights & Power

I have used both continuous lighting and flash lighting. I find when I need a lot more light, I fall back onto the flash. But I do like using the continuous lighting because it’s so much easier to adjust and see exactly what I’m getting, particularly with more difficult iridescent or shiny insects. You will have to determine for your shot what you want to use.

I did have to better understand color temperature when choosing fixed lighting. Imagine a scale from 1000 Kelvins (K) (very red) to 10,000K (very blue) (actual scale is wider). The higher up the scale you go, the closer the light resembles blue daylight.

Confusingly, color temperature does not describe the actual temperature of the lamp itself but the color it produces and counter-intuitively; the higher the color temperature the “cooler” a lamp will look. I looked for fixed warm lighting around 2,700-3,000 Kelvins.

Continuous or fixed lighting

I use four clip-on desk lamps with a variable temperature of 2700 – 6000 K and I adjust as needed. They are not expensive, at around $15 a lamp.

Speedlight or Flash lighting

2 Godocs TT 600 speed lights-came with foot stand and a soft diffuser.

1 Canon 430EXII-came with foot stand, and I bought a soft diffuser.

Several times I’ve had problems with battery cycling time and low batteries so I purchased 2 external AC adapters that can provide me continuous power to the Speedlight's. Now I never worry about running out of battery power.


Another piece of equipment I would love to purchase for field macro would be the Godox MF12 macro flash with 3 lights ($330). It looks to be the least obtrusive, most lightweight, compact and portable flash.


Diffusers

Oftentimes the lighting you require is too harsh and causes “hotspots” or over reflective areas. This is particularly true with many of the shiny or iridescent insects like beetles. A softer natural looking light distribution is achieved by using diffusers. The speed light diffusers I either purchased or came with the speed light, the other diffusers were DIY.

  • Small plastic sleeves on my permanent lights.

  • Standard larger cloth soft diffusers on my speed lights.

  • I’ve made a DIY diffuser box out of foam board and tracing paper that works well.

  • I have a tube diffuser (white translucent soap bottle) that encircles the entire specimen with light.

Microscope


Routinely you need to quickly look at the subject closely before taking 75-100 shots. You will identify dirt, damage and even positioning. That is when you need the scope.


TOMLOV 7" LCD Digital Microscope 1200X, 1080P Video Microscope with Metal Stand, 12MP Ultra-Precise Focusing, LED Fill Lights, PC View, Windows/Mac OS Compatible for about $110

It has some nice features

  • Removable, tilt, battery/AC powered, 7-inch LCD screen

  • 50 X – 1200 X magnification 1080P lens with a 10 LED fill light

  • 2 goose light illuminators.

  • Aluminum base and stand.

  • Has the option to take photos and video. I’ve actually use this for a 3 or 4 stack image, and it worked pretty well.

Flex and Magic Arms

Flex arms are great for holding reflectors, small lights, flash, snoot light, diffusers, props and actual specimens on a pin. They can hold just about anything lite.

The Magic arms are very sturdy and can hold greater weight than the flex arms including flash, and snoot lights.

Small assortment of clamps help hold backdrops, cables, etc.

Photo Stacking Software


Focus stacking is the process of merging multiple photos using the same aperture, shutter speed, and lighting but at different focal points . Because of the extremely small effective apertures used in macro photography the depth of field focus is very narrow so if you want more of the area in focus in your final picture you will have to use photo stacking.

There are all kinds of photo stacking software. Some come as part of editing program like Photoshop and others are dedicated photo stacking programs that do nothing else. I am not a professional photographer, and I don’t want to pay a monthly fee to use my programs. I want to buy it and keep it.

After a lot of research, I purchased one of the top rated programs called Zerene Stacker. You can try it free for 30 days. You pay a very reasonable onetime purchasing license for $89 and that program is yours to use with free updates for life. After installation I was able to start basic stacking in about 5 minutes.


One thing I really like about this company is that it is created and based in the USA (Washington state), the company is very small but very responsive, and professional. When you contact support or call their number, you will more than likely be speaking with the inventor of Zerene Stacker, Rik Littlefield who is an internationally recognized macro photographer. I’ve spoken with Rick several times on topics outside of Zerene stacker and I’m just a nobody, totally amateur photographer.

Lab Lifting Platform

Lab lifting Platform


It is a good solid base to mount your specimen on. This little device comes in very handy to raise and lower your subject as well as general positioning.


You don't want to be repositioning your camera once it is level and in position on the macro rail.

Standard insect paraphernalia


  1. Inexpensive foam insect pinning board.

  2. Assortment of tweezers and forceps. For the butterflies and moths, I would recommend some rubber coated ones to reduce damaging the wings.

  3. Pins. I use 2 different sizes of insect pins which are very nice but are fairly expensive. I have also found quilting pins with glass heads work very well.

  4. Ethyl acetate used to humanely dispatch the insect. They calmly fall asleep reducing damage to antenna, wings, and legs

  5. Tracing or parchment paper is used instead of regular paper because it does not leave any residue on the insect. You need small strips to hold wings and legs into position.

  6. A few small petri dishes for collection.

  7. A “kill” jar to dispatch the insect is used to reduce damaging the insect, particularly moths and butterfly wings. I’d be careful mixing wing scaled insects like butterflies with other specimens because the butterfly wing scales have a tendency to come off like dust and get on all the other specimens.

  8. An insect net. The one I purchased used a mesh scrim that didn’t capture small specimens, so I made my own using a finer weave material that captures even the smallest insect.

Insect Cleaner


This is a standard jewelry or ultrasonic cleaner. You would be surprised at how dirty some insects can get and you will need to clean them in this ultrasonic bath if you are taking any macro photography. You may have to clean the same insect several times.


I mount the insect on a pin with glue, stick the pin into some sticky putty and secure that to the bottom of the basket. Use distilled water with one small drop of dish liquid soap for 90 seconds. Repeat if still dirty. Be careful with very fragile insects or you will "clean off" legs and antennae.

Backdrop

Oftentimes your backdrop is as as important as the actual specimen you're shooting.

Use about anything that you like that complements the image.

Sometimes the simplest background is the best while the more complex backgrounds make the image too busy and distracting. I've used leaves, twigs, flowers rocks, colored sheets of paper, and sparkly reflective, even gift wrap paper or combination of all these.

Macro Equipment