A low budget rig for focus stacking

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DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

A low budget rig for focus stacking

Post by DrLazer »

Hello guys, I understand for most of you this will be fundamental at best. Maybe you will find it interesting in other ways (like laughing at my wobbly gear). The level of skill knowledge and technique on this forum is insanity. I thank you all for any questions you answered for me, any help or critique you gave and for sharing enough for me to scrape something together that enables me to create images of insects, something I have been fascinated by since being very young, in a way I did not realise was possible until recently.

This was written specifically for my Flickr contacts, as I get asked a lot of questions there. But I had a chat with Rik and he thought it may be useful in this forum too. I am subscribed to the thread here so you are welcome to comment on either my Flickr or here.

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I have wanted to make a post to describe my setup for a while now ... well here it is. This post exists mainly for two reasons. Reason one is because a lot of people ask me questions about how my macros were put together, sometimes they ask about a specific piece of equipment, or sometimes ask questions as general as "how did you do this" which is a difficult one to answer really ... where to start with that one? Do you know what aperture means?

The second reason is that I think of myself as an absolute beginner at this kind of work. I have scraped together the basics of the knowledge I need to get the results I have gotten so far. I have a rig put together to take my studio macros and it is as basic as it ever will be, whilst still being in a state where I can use it to create reasonable quality images. I haven't spent much money really and I think this kind of setup will be accessible to most people, so I wanted to demonstrate how studio macro can be done on a budget. I have "upgrades" and more precise and expensive equipment on the way to me in the post and I don't want to forget how I used to do this in the future. Hopefully you may find the information useful if you are just starting out with macro, or even if you are just curious about my primitive rig. I thought now would be the best time to write this while it is all still fresh in my mind.

The rig explained below is a simple low cost method of focus-stacking for macro images with a magnification ratio of 1:1 or greater. If you do not know what focus-stacking means. You can read this excellent tutorial as a pre-requisite for this rig explanation. That tutorial is on the website of Zerene Stacker, and is my current favourite application for merging my images together.

I haven't put much effort into taking photos of the equipment or setup, they are just quick snaps to show the required info.

Camera Body - $100
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I use a Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10. I have a Lumix Superzoom/Bridge DMC-FZ35 also, but the G10 is the one I use for studio macro. The FZ35 is an amazing camera, my first real proper piece of photography equipment and I love it. I was very familiar with the layout and controls on that camera so this is the only reason I stuck with Lumix. A friend on Flickr offered me the G10 body for cheap and I couldn't resist. The main features which I would describe as being essential when picking a camera for this kind of work are ... #1 an interchangeable lens. In order to reach higher magnifications this will be a must. #2 Flashmount. Which is standard flashmount on the G10. Off-camera flash will be essential to light the subject well. #3 Ability to use a remote trigger. You can't be working at high magnifications whilst man handling the camera, you'll end up in all kinds of trouble so a remote trigger for the shutter is well needed.

The G10 is a micro four thirds camera, meaning its sensor is not quite as big as a regular DSLR, but neither is the camera itself so it might come in handy as a nice lightweight camera for field work in the future. See here for more info on sensor sizes.

M42 adapter - $20
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I purchased this adapter on ebay. There are plenty of them readily available. Most of the work done for studio macro will be done with manual settings throughout. There are lots of great cheap manual lenses/extension tubes/bellows etc that are M42 screw thread fitting. I also want to keep the budget low for the rig so these bits of equipment are ideal. Here is the camera with the adapter attached.
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You can see the inside of the adapter is painted with a non reflective matt black. This will prevent flare from stray light bouncing around inside the adapter and degrading the quality of your images. It is definitely worth checking an adapter has this coating before purchasing.

Bellows - $80
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I spent a quite a bit on bellows, in hind-sight this was a bit of an error on my part. I wish I had bought a real basic bellows unit so I could have played with it for while till I figured out how to use them properly. These bellows are branded Pentax ASAHI and are M42 mount so will screw nicely into my adapter. The main purpose of a bellows unit is to move the lens further away from the camera sensor. The greater the distance from the lens to the sensor, the more magnification achieved. The metal blocks at the far left and far right of the bellows unit hold the concertina of non reflective synthetic material in place and are called standards. The one on the left is the rear standard. The small metal arm at the bottom locks it in place. When raised the rear standard is free to move up and down the rail. The front standard is moved around with a wheel for more precise movement, but ultimately the same result. A lot of cheaper bellows units will have only a front moving standard and a fixed rear standard. It is nice to have bellows where both move, that way the rail doesn't get in the way. You can just move it backwards or forwards to a suitable position. This picture shows it almost fully closed up.
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And these two pictures show the other side. The block on the bottom has a threaded hole that most tripods will fit. The block also moves around on the rail, meaning I can move the camera + lens forwards and backwards to where I wish to have it quite easily.
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To get these bellows mounted, both standards have to be pushed along the rail to the "rear" so the rail isn't in the way whilst you try and screw them onto the body. It is important the bellows are mounted completely straight. I measured them with a protractor. I am sure you could think of a more sophisticated method than that, but it does the trick for me.
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Now we are getting somewhere! Already the kit looks like it's going to do the business for you. A false sense of confidence can never be underestimated. Now would be an ideal time for a box of beers.

I went for Tuborg. I like the noise the lids make when you peel them off the bottle. We are going to be taking photos of tiny stuff real soon.

Enlarger lens - $22
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You can't take any photos without a lens, a common error people make is assuming that macro images with a magnification ratio of greater than 1:1 can only be achieved with a very expensive lens. This lens is a Japanese made enlarger lens. They are designed to project images of slides onto larger surfaces for viewing (I think). $22 on ebay, I picked it up fairly cheap but this lens is readily available on ebay for less than $40. The build quality on this puppy is just incredible. The aperture blades snap into place, it has a real solid feel to it. Before buying one, be sure that it has no fungus, no marks, no dirt caught inside the glass elements, the aperture blades work smoothly and are oil free, and also make sure the threads on both sides are in good condition as we are going to need them. There are other enlarger lenses and other types of lenses that will also work, but this is a well known beauty. This is the El-Nikkor 50mm f/2.8. The El-Nikkor comes in other focal lengths too, but this one is the most common (therefore cheaper). John Hallmen a great inspiration of mine, has written a nice little performance review of the lens here. He tests a more modern version but I preffer the look of the old one. I don't think there is much of a performance difference between the old style and the new style.
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The side on shot shows the manual aperture control, with a range from f/2.8 at it's brightest to f/16 at it's most closed. From previous testing I know this lens has a sharpness sweet spot at around f/5.6 so that's the aperture I normally use. You can also see the matt black non reflective coating on the underside too. So we need to somehow mount this onto the bellows unit. If we think about how this lens is supposed to be used .. projecting a large image onto a surface. This means the front of the lens would be facing the projection (bigger image) and the back of the lens will be facing the slide (smaller image). We want to use it for macro with ratio's greater than 1:1, meaning the subject will be bigger on the sensor than it is in real life. Sticking with the design of the lens to achieve the best possible quality, we should mount it how it was designed to be used: with the front facing the sensor (larger image), or mount it in reverse. The filter thread on the El-Nikkor 50mm/f2.8 is a random 40.5mm, but fortunately and I have no idea why ... there is an abundance of 40.5mm -> 52mm step-up rings available on ebay. Get one of those rings and then a 52mm->42mm reversing ring and we can mount it on the bellows.
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In the first image one more thing worth noting: most reversing rings and setup-up/step-down rings are made from metal and are quite shiny. This will degrade the image quality quite badly as light will bounce around inside the bellows. You can see in the photo I have lined my reversing ring with a flocking material so I will get no flare. You can use any blackout flocking material but personally I like to use the material made for the job. Protostar. Available quite cheap and for postage worldwide here. If you are planning on acquiring one of these lenses, be sure to get the f/2.8. The f/4 also exists but is an entirely different lens that will not render results as crisp.

Speedlight - $50
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There are lots of awesome macro images on Flickr using natural light only. However, to do this the conditions need to be right. You have to be in the right place at the right time etc. I want to be able to shoot studio macro whenever I wish so for this I will need to provide my own lighting. This can be done with LED lights but may lead to long exposure times, vibration and other complications. I think flash gives you a lot of control over the image and is probably easier for a beginner (like me). I picked up this Nikon SB24 on ebay for $50. It's big and bulky so probably wouldn't be best for fieldwork, but as we making a rig for the studio this will be fine. It works from standard flashmount so will be good for my G10. It also has a full manual mode where I can set the flash power from anywhere between 1/16th and 1.
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It's got a bit of gunky sticky tape stuff on it .. sorry about that, it's been used in many experiments. To produce nice even light, reduce hotspots and specular highlights as well as harsh shadows it will be necessary to diffuse the flash when fired. I didn't want to spend much on this so knocked together something simple out of a cardboard box, some black tape and a sheet of white kitchen towel. Oooosh
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The kitchen towel makes an excellent diffuser. You may want to experiment with other materials to diffuse the light. Yoghurt pots are good ... maybe Styrofoam, white paper, tracing paper, facial tissue etc. Just find the material that diffuses your flash nicely. For me this kitchen towel is simple, easy to replace and seems to do the job.
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What I have created here is a very primitive (and small) softbox. Just like the ones they use in portraiture all the time. I am not 100% satisfied with it, it leaves square highlights on shiny surfaces, it could be further improved by making it round or elliptical.

Flash Cable - $20
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Off course we will not be mounting the flash gun directly to the cameras flashmount. It would be a very restrictive setup and I wouldn't be able to move the flash around to where I wanted it. Not to mention that it would likely cast a harsh shadow onto the subject where the bellows or the lens are between the flash and the subject ... not ideal really. You can purchase nifty wireless flash triggers, but in keeping with the theme of low budget, a synch cable with a long stretchy cord should enable you to move the flash around nicely. This cable is standard flashmount to standard flashmount, I ordered it on ebay from the far east for a measly $20.

Tripod - $25
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A way of holding the flash gun in place will be needed. This cheap lightweight tripod is not at all ideal, but very cheap and will do the job. It has a ball head, that's the main thing really so I can angle the flash exactly where it will work best. The legs on this tripod extend to about chest height, so I can make it sturdier by extending a few sections if required.

That's about it for lighting. I don't think i really need to post a picture of the flash gun on the tripod with the diffuser placed over the business end of it. I'm sure you can use your imagination to visualise that. I like imagining things; I think I probably do it more often than most. I guess sometimes real life just isn't punchy enough.

Macro Rail - $20
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This was also ordered on ebay from the far east. It's the dirtiest most inaccurate piece of equipment you can imagine, but it is also a very very cheap option, and it can come in handy for other things in the future should you choose to upgrade it. All it does, is enable you to move whatever you mount on it, forwards and backwards with a nice textured thumbscrew. On the underside you can see that the block will mount directly onto any tripod and will be fixed firmly in place. The smaller of the two thumbscrews locks the rail in place, when loosened off, the bigger thumbscrew can be used to move the plate forwards and backwards. The bellows unit can mount directly onto the plate. We now have a method of focusing. This rig is for focus-stacking. The depth of field will be very small, but I can adjust finely (in the loosest sense of the word) throughout the entire subject, taking a photograph at each step that will merge together to create a final image.

Tripod - $100
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We need a tripod that is a little more sturdy to hold the rig in place. Even with the u4/3 lightweight camera, lightweight bellows and a small lens ... this still weighs quite a bit. Plenty enough to make a tripod designed to hold a point and shoot camera topple over. This Velbon tripod cost $100. I really wouldn't recommend spending any less than that on a tripod for focus-stacking. It's not great, it's tricky to use and has a bit of play in practically every direction. However, it does have a head built in, it can pan left and right, tip up and down, and open out to hold the camera sideways on .... all with independent and separate controls.

Remote Trigger - $9
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The final piece in the puzzle. It is not essential, and I didn't have one at first, I used a 2 second or a 10 second timer. However, if you add up all those seconds on an 80 image stack. It's a slice of life that you are just wasting. For a mere $9 again from the far east, you can have that slice of life back to do whatever you choose with it. Maybe you could take an archery lesson. I've always wanted to do that .... never quite got around to it. hmmmm

Total cost for this rig : $446

Examples of what this rig can achieve. As you can see, they are not the greatest macro images ever produced, but they are a ##### sight better then setting your camera to the "flower" mode.
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canonian
Posts: 890
Joined: Tue Aug 31, 2010 4:00 am
Location: Rotterdam, Netherlands
Contact:

Post by canonian »

Hi Craigh, that's a lot of pictures in 1 post :D
It's nice to see your setup, these things always interest me, what people work with and what results they get with it. I like to learn from that.
You start out with a good set of parts here. The El-Nik is one of my favourites.

When I started photographing insects, about half a year ago, I had the impression: "now I have the same camera as Rik and Charles use, so nothing stands in the way of making equally good shots"....Wrong! It takes time and a lot of practice, patience and an underestimated knowledge of behaviour of light to get a fraction of the quality of --what I like to call the top photographers on this Forum-- "My Sensei's".

Your results I see on this forum and on Flickr are very good. My guess is we are roughly on the same level. What I experienced is that it is fairly easy with the hardware that's easily available to achieve 80% of the quality you aim for. It's the next 15% that take a lot of time, effort, tweaking (flare!) and experience. The last 5% will take investing in better equipment, I'm pushing the stuff I work with to its limits now.

(LOL, I now see that the body you use is equally priced as your tripod.)
The M42 platform is a good way to start, lenses are readily available with this thread, they are easy to come by (at fleamarkets and auctionsites) and it keeps your hobby on a small budget. There are some real gems out there, I personally like the old OM Olympusses (Olympii!?) and the Asahi Takumars in photolenses. I like to buy the 10-20 $ ones and got equally surprised as dissapointed at the results; its trail and error but the web can give good info what lenses to buy or not to buy. And of course the Nikon CFI60 microscope objectives, although these are getting more and more expensive.

Keep up the good work and happy shooting/climbing.

DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

Post by DrLazer »

Thanks for the reply Fred
Your results I see on this forum and on Flickr are very good. My guess is we are roughly on the same level. What I experienced is that it is fairly easy with the hardware that's easily available to achieve 80% of the quality you aim for. It's the next 15% that take a lot of time, effort, tweaking (flare!) and experience. The last 5% will take investing in better equipment, I'm pushing the stuff I work with to its limits now.
So true. It's like a Bugatti Veyron, it was easy to achieve 200mph but more enginerrinfg went into getting the last 60mph than the development of the rest of the car put together.
Keep up the good work and happy shooting/climbing.
You too! Look forward to seeing more of your work.[/quote]

SONYNUT
Posts: 635
Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2011 2:27 pm
Location: Minnesota USA

Post by SONYNUT »

These aren't your pictures are they...???????
Last edited by SONYNUT on Tue Jul 12, 2011 6:18 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Just shoot it......

DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

Post by DrLazer »

These aren't your pictures are they...
Errrrrrr excuse me?

SONYNUT
Posts: 635
Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2011 2:27 pm
Location: Minnesota USA

Post by SONYNUT »

the pictures of bugs.did you take them with this rig?
..............................................................................
Just shoot it......

DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

Post by DrLazer »

the pictures of bugs.did you take them with this rig?
I did. Do go on?

SONYNUT
Posts: 635
Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2011 2:27 pm
Location: Minnesota USA

Post by SONYNUT »

ok...It was unclear since you stated ''examples of what this rig can achieve''

rather than pictures taken with..or simular
..............................................................................
Just shoot it......

DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

Post by DrLazer »

ok...It was unclear since you stated ''examples of what this rig can achieve''

rather than pictures taken with..or simular
Ah ok. A little assumptive maybe. My name is watermarked on all the images though. It's probably a little more obvious on my Flickr as a reader can just flick through the images to find the ones in the post. Each one has a fairly big write up, like here for example. I like to share my experiences.

Hey, are you the guy that can machine little metal plates that can be placed between the camera and a linear stage, to fit them all together?

SONYNUT
Posts: 635
Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2011 2:27 pm
Location: Minnesota USA

Post by SONYNUT »

I did'nt know that was your name..thought it was Dr Lazer..

and yes
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Just shoot it......

DrLazer
Posts: 293
Joined: Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:45 am

Post by DrLazer »

I did'nt know that was your name..thought it was Dr Lazer..
Lol, I wish it was. Hi, I'm Craig.
and yes
You think you could maybe machine up another one if I ask nicely? What is it exactly that you make? I just heard a little birdie mention your name once. I just moved onto microscope objectives, I made something out of wood for now, but I feel it's got a limited lifespan, it tends to make worrying cracking noises a lot.

SONYNUT
Posts: 635
Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2011 2:27 pm
Location: Minnesota USA

Post by SONYNUT »

just draw up what you need with all measurements
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Just shoot it......

rjlittlefield
Site Admin
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Contact:

Post by rjlittlefield »

canonian wrote:Hi Craigh, that's a lot of pictures in 1 post :D
It is, but perfectly OK. The 6-per-day rule applies in the image galleries. There is no limit for image postings in the technical discussion forums, as long as the images are specifically referenced in the discussions.

--Rik

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