WeMacro, the company that produces the Wemacro focus stacking rail, has broadened its focus stacking portfolio offerings and has come out with some unique extreme macro products this year that have caught my eye, including a vertical stand for stacking and a microscope stepper. To my knowledge it is the only company that is offering accessories such as these at a price that is doable for the amateur.
WeMacro Vertical Stand
Some subjects require a horizontal setup but some do better with a vertical setup. Butterfly scales, sand and seeds are common examples of these, but there are others. This vertical stand for stacking is a phenomenal value for money product, as it prevents the need to construct your own stand out of DIY parts which, whilst fun to do, can be an expensive and frustrating exercise.
The WeMacro Vertical stand comes with all the parts illustrated, including the two rough positioning stages and the quick release clamp on the pillar. The pillar is 42 cm high which is fine for mounting the wemacro rail, and there are holes on the bottom so that magic arms can be attached. I have 4 magic on mine and use this device with continuous lighting. WeMacro has done well to listen to what stackers want and there are 4 large rubber footpads to reduce vibration. At this price ($99, 2017) I really cannot recommend this simple but essential piece of apparatus enough as it’s not only functionally excellent but also beautifully made.
a piece of microscopy stacking apparatus specifically designed for high magnification stacking with a microscope
The unit is very well built and works as advertised, using a 400 step 0.9 degree stepper. The height of motor can be adjusted from 2cm – 18cm so it can be married up to Nikon, Olympus etc. With the step length set as 1 micron, it will take 2132 steps to do a full circle, which is more than sufficient for high magnification work.
The metal footer plate can be drilled through to create a solid bond with the base plate using nuts and bolts, or of course it can be epoxied on using industrial adhesive. The attachment with the microscope can be size adjusted from 5cm diameter down.
Focus stacking is a photographic technique that digitally combines sharp, in-focus elements of a number of images, to produce one composite image which has a large number of elements in focus that it more than would be possible in a single image, regardless of the depth of field used for that single image. Focus stacking is a relatively new technique and is possible only because of digital photography: trying to combine the parts of several dozen negatives in the darkroom is simply not a practical task.
Focus stacking has various applications, from landscape photography that has already been covered in the previous article, but it is also one of the main up and coming techniques in macro photography. Macro photography has one especially notorious challenge, being the remarkably limited depth of field that macro photographers have to content with. Even at a relatively generous f./stop, ie f/22, macro photographers measure their depth of field in millimeters or fractions of a millimeter, and of course that’s no good when you’re trying to obtain a tack-sharp shot of a subject several millimeters long. Some photographers might be tempted to immediately suggest using an even more generous f/stop such as f/96, but unfortunately the laws of physics work against this, with a particular effect named “diffraction softening” actually making a shot at f/96 demonstrably softer than the same shot taken at f/22.
What is required for focus stacking?
At its core, there are really two requirements for focus stacking: the actual sequence of shots – of the same subject at the same scale from the same direction but at different points of focus – and a digital means to combine this series of images and to create that final stacked shot.
Focus Stacking Stages
Shooting a subject at the same scale from the same direction but at different points of focus requires an extremely steady hand, and whilst it is possible to do so hand-held, by and large the overwhelming majority of people use a tripod and stage (for outside shots) or a custom-built stacking rig (for studio shots). A stage can be something as straightforward as a Velbon stage, although most experienced macro stackers tend to use apparatus which can give smaller incremental steps, or even a precision electronic focus stage which can give micron focus steps (1/1000 mm).
Focus Stacking Lighting
Lighting these small images is a separate challenge on its own, but both flash and continuous lighting see use, but to obtain the most discerning of high quality focus stacking images some extensive research into effective diffusion of flash and continuous light is highly recommended. Just as flash diffusion is a holy grail for macro photographers of all genres, much the same is true of focus stackers.
Focus Stacking Lenses
In terms of the actual camera apparatus, just about any DSLR will do absolutely fine for basic focus stacking, as long as you can equip it with the appropriate optics. 1:1 macro lenses are a reasonable start in terms of the optics, but you’ll find that when you delve into more extreme macro such as 1:1 to 10:1, off the shelf macro lenses just don’t do the trick anymore, unless of course you are lucky enough to own a Canon, in which case the Canon MPE-65 is the single best lens you can purchase for extreme macro, giving you a range of 1: to 5:1.
That said if you don’t own a Canon don’t despair: there are all sorts of other relatively low-budget optical options available, many of which are covered at http://extreme-macro.co.uk/extreme-macro-lenses/ – and with the glut of phenomenal quality darkroom lenses, available on eBay there really are plenty of outstanding optics out there. From the JML21mm, to the epic Componon darkroom lenses, to the use of a 10x microscope objective.
Focus Stacking Software
Lastly, software. There is free software out there such as Picolay, ImageJ, Hugin Tools and the older CombineZP, but most stackers use one of two professional focus stacking packages: Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus. Both packages give spectacular results in the right hands and have a variety of editions geared at amateur and professional users, but there are more third party addons developed for Zerene Stacker and the majority of high-end stacking is completed using Zerene. Adobe Photoshop should also be mentioned as it has some limited inbuilt stacking functionality that will at least give you a flavor of stacking before purchasing custom stacking software.
Focus Stacking Limitations
Whilst focus stacking for macro is becoming more and more mainstream, focus stacking is not the answer to everything, nor is it appropriate for every situation. Stackers need to move through planes of focus in a series of shots, and the specimen needs to be stationary. A full stack run can either be slow (ie manually incrementing a focus stage to take a shot every few seconds), or fast (filming a sequence moving through the planes of focus, then extracting individual frames from that film to stack them). Needless to say, an insect that’s buzzing about in the heat of the day rarely affords the dedicated macro photography the opportunity to take a leisurely stack of images. Until technology advances enough to give us better options to shoot a rapid stack, single shot macro at a high aperture is still the unavoidable norm for many an outdoor situation.
Tripod if you’re stacking outside, you’ll want to mount your stage on a tripod to ensure stability throughout the stack sequence.
Focus Stacking Stage – there’s a range of options from relatively cheap eBay imports to precision electronic stages
Extreme Macro Lens – you can start out with a Raynox on a standard kit 50-200 zoom, but as you adventure into greater magnification, you may find yourself buying enlarger lenses on eBay or high-end Mitutuyo objectives
Lighting – you’re likely to want to supplement natural light with flashes or some form of continuous lighting
Software – there’s a range of free software out there that will do stacks, but for professional-looking results, Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus can’t be beat.
a kit that provides everything required to buy a base THK KR2001 rail, and to DIY it up yourself with the instructions and kit from MJKZZ, into a fully-fledged, class-leading electronic macro focus-stacking rail, all at about half the total cost of the current class leader
Electronic focus stacking rails are one of the more specialized pieces of photography apparatus used by macro photographers. They’re very much a niche item; there aren’t all that many companies that produce them. More than that, they’re one of those sorts of complex engineering constructs that the technically-minded like to make: bestowing an enormous amount of pride in designing, constructing and programming their own highly impressive works from scratch. A genuine macro labour of love, even.
In terms of those few companies that are currently making electronic macro stacking rails, this very small number of companies should be prepared to experience some disruption this year (2017), with the introduction of a brand new DIY macro stacking rail kit by MJKZZ. This is a kit that provides everything required to buy a base THK KR2001 rail, and to DIY it up yourself with the instructions and kit from MJKZZ, into a fully-fledged, class-leading electronic rail for focus stacking, all at about half the total cost of the current class leader.
Stackshot Macro Rail, 2010
The Stackshot macro rail was ground-breaking: the first ‘off the shelf’ rail enabling automated focus stacking for photographers of all levels and capabilities
Everything started with the Stackshot macro rail. The Stackshot macro rail, first available in 2010, was the first commercially available focus stack rail, and is truly the granddaddy of them all. The Stackshot macro rail was ground-breaking: the first ‘off the shelf’ rail enabling automated focus stacking for photographers of all levels and capabilities. Stackshot’s impact cannot be understated and it is fair to say that the device has helped to hasten the widespread adoption of the digital-only focus-stacking approach to extreme macro photography. Photographers had previously been limited to the use of single high aperture shots maximizing their depth of field (and running into diffraction issues), or doing stacks manually (tedious micron by very tedious micron). Stackshot replaced all this drudgery with machine automation: making a machine do all the boring bits. The result is today’s increased proliferation of beautifully detailed high-resolution image stacks, crisp from corner to corner, full of sumptuous, salivating & tantalizing tack-sharp pixel-level detail.
Fabulous photography continues to be done with by hand to this day, but manual rails are not without certain disadvantages
Although stacking machinery existed before the Stackshot macro rail, these were bespoke creations, in museums, laboratories, research institutes and amongst a handful of the most advanced macro and micro photographers. Thus, electronic rails were unavailable for purchase by the public, which is what made the entry of the Stackshot macro rail in onto the market in 2010 so very exciting at the time.
Until the Stackshot macro rail came around, the photographer had no choice but do any focus stacking process by hand, using industrial components such as a Newport stage, a Melles Griot precision stage or even a Proxxon micro compound table. Fabulous photography continues to be done with by hand to this day, but manual rails are not without certain disadvantages. The use of manual rails makes stacking more repetitive, slower, and more prone to errors than it needs to be. Repetitive, because for a deep stack you may have to move focus plain hundreds of times. Slow, because unlike fickle human beings, a machine doesn’t need rest room breaks, doesn’t answer the phone and never has a craving for a coffee. And prone to errors, because an electronic device, subject to exact electronic instructions and repeatability couched in robot language of 1s and 0s, doesn’t estimate by eye, or move by hand in the way us clumsy error-prone humans do.
The Stackshot macro rail is superb at what it does and fully deserves its popularity within the macro photography community. It is indisputably the leading focus stacking rail available today, and boasts the most inbuilt functionality. I am just one of many people who consider it an absolute delight to use
The Stackshot macro rail is superb at what it does and fully deserves its popularity within the macro photography community. It is indisputably the leading focus stacking rail available today, and boasts the most inbuilt functionality. I am just one of many people who consider it an absolute delight to use. That said, the Stackshot macro rail package is also not cheap. The cost of a full Stackshot macro rail package, including shipping and customs, is approximately US$750 or so, and this somewhat spendy sum is clearly a deterrent to consumer purchase. If it’s a choice between a shiny new lens which will see regular use, or an electronic focus stacking rail with occasional use, often it’ll be the lens that gets the nod. After all, stacks can always be done by hand.
WeMacro Rail, 2016
it performs basic stacking very well, and more significantly, it crushes the Stackshot macro rail package on the final all-in price
Although there were other electronic rail vendors during the intervening years (i.e. the Spain-based “Macrorail” and Rainer Ernst’s StackMaster), the WeMacro rail, which came out last year (2016) seems to now be the best-known alternative to the Stackshot macro rail. The WeMacro rail may not be as comprehensive or as refined as the Stackshot macro rail, and doesn’t offer as many controls or as many modes, but nonetheless it performs basic stacking very well, and more significantly, it crushes the Stackshot macro rail package on the final all-in price (approx. costs after tax and customs: WeMacro:US$400 vs. Stackshot: US$750).
The WeMacro rail package includes everything that’s needed to make focus stacks, be it in the field, in the studio, be it to move a camera for macro or as a motor driving the fine focus mechanism of a microscope. WeMacro is produced in China by a small specialist macro outfit, with the focus rail being its sole product. The WeMacro Rail succeeds precisely because it is the opposite end of the scale to StackshotWeMacro has rightly made a splash in its first year, and it has staked a claim for a place in the focus stacking community as a viable budget alternative to the Cognisys Stackshot
: a budget electronic stage without any bells and whistles, that does exactly what it says on the tin, no more, and no less. So, it suits those who might not need all the functionality that the Stackshot macro rail package offers, nor have the budget available for it. WeMacro has rightly made a splash in its first year, and it has staked a claim for a place in the focus stacking community as a viable budget alternative to the Cognisys Stackshot.
MJKZZ Stackrail, 2016
The story of the electronic macro rail doesn’t end here though, with the Stackshot macro rail and the WeMacro rail slugging it out between the two of them. In fact, a more significant three-way marketplace is now unfolding, because in addition to the emergence of WeMacro, 2016 also saw a Kickstarter project for another new focus stacking rail project out of China, MJKZZ’s ‘Stackrail’ family of rails.
As a user of the precision PR-110 Stackrail rail myself, I cannot speak highly enough of the construction quality
Stackrail rails are created by a boutique Sino-Californian photography company MJKZZ, which unlike WeMacro, already had a social following for niche photography products, before dipping its toes into extreme macro waters with the macro rail Kickstarter. [Kickstarter – a web way of raising funds online to turn theoretical product ideas into actual capital-backed production companies.]MJKZZ already successfully distributes equipment for water drop photography at price points affordable to hobbyist photographers and has a dedicated Facebook following. MJKZZ competes with Cognisys in this water-drop arena; both companies’ product development in this area can ultimately be traced back to the innovative Mumford Time Machine which has been around since 2001. The MJKZZ macro kickstarter was a success, 50 backers pledged a total of $11,385, and as a consequence, the macro rail became actual macro rail products in last year, 2016. MJKZZ’s further expansion into macro has continued, with four different MJKZZ focus stacking rails being brought to the market in the last 6 months: the standard SR-90 and SR-200 rails, and the precision PR-18 and PR-110 rails.
MJKZZ’s further expansion into macro has continued, with four different MJKZZ focus stacking rails being brought to the market in the last 6 months: the standard SR-90 and SR-200 rails, and the precision PR-18 and PR-110 rails
As a user of the precision PR-110 Stackrail rail myself, I cannot speak highly enough of the construction quality. This is a top piece of kit, nicely over-specified, integrating the best of high quality precision components. The PR-110 rail has a travel distance of 110mm using a NEMA 17 stepping motor, with 400 steps per revolution. In 1/32 micro step mode, the minimum step size of the PR-110 is the sub-micron 0.3125µm. The rail includes a built-in screw cover to protect it from dust, and weighs a whopping 1.5kg without motor – as far as I’m aware, the heaviest, most solid automated electronic stage that’s been available to date, period.
Unfortunately, MJKZZ’s PR-110 rail is now discontinued. This isn’t for lack of demand, but rather because the manufacturer hiked the price of the 110mm base rail, making PR110 untenable for sale by MJKZZ. The base rail is the single most expensive single component of an electronic focus rail package, as it requires precision machining to an extremely exacting engineering standard to ensure step size uniformity (to prevent wobble and to minimizes backlash). On the upside, it was only this very top of the range PR-110 rail that had to be discontinued; both the precision PR-18 microscopy rail with 18mm of travel, and the SR-90 macro rail with 90mm of travel are available moving forward.
MJKZZDIY macro rail kit, 2017
MJKZZ’s genius stroke therefore is to capitalize on this inherent DIY nature and ability of us macro types, by putting out a DIY macro rail kit the THK KR2001 Conversion Kit that can be used with a member of the THK KR2001 industrial rail family to emerge at the other end with a complete macro focus stacking rail, at approximately half the cost of the Stackshot package
Us macro types are a bit of a breed apart. We’re comfortable with crafting, tinkering and tweaking to make a unique macro setup that suits us individually, and in just the way we like it. You only have to look at all the proudly posted gear threads in photography forums the web over, displaying home-made diffuser setups, or reversed lens setups, to realize that the macro crowd is genuinely more hands-on than most. We’re happy to make diffusers or experiment with unusual optical setups because commercial products on the market tend to be expensive or just don’t perform that well, or the way we like it. I’m no stranger to this, with a steady stream of obscure DIY photography bits and pieces arriving in the mail bought through the remarkable global marketplace that is eBay.
MJKZZ’s genius stroke therefore is to capitalize on this inherent DIY nature and ability of us macro types, by putting out a DIY macro rail kit the THK KR2001 Conversion Kit that can be used with a member of the THK KR2001 industrial rail family to emerge at the other end with a complete macro focus stacking rail, at approximately half the cost of the Stackshot package. By using a THK KR2001 industrial rail bought separately by the user as its mechanical base, the completed rail will have a higher specification base rail than the equivalent base rails used in Stackshot or WeMacro. It will give DIY tinkerers the best of all worlds. Buy the kit from MJKZZ, grab a THK KR2001 off eBay, follow the DIY instructions and you’ve made yourself a premium electronic stacking stage. Easier and quicker than learning, coding and constructing using Arduino (i.e. fast-stacker), and a proven construct that works.
a super precise, super stable industrial rail of a supremely high standard, with minimum wobble and negligible backlash, manufactured by the highly regarded Japanese rail-making company THK
The THK industrial KR2001 rail family is the critical element in this – a super precise, super stable industrial rail of a supremely high standard, with minimum wobble and negligible backlash, manufactured by the highly regarded Japanese rail-making company THK. The THK KR2001 family, Both P (high precision) and S (standard) variants, have very high precision, high accuracy and industrial-standard repeatability, are widely available and can often be found used on eBay for $150-200 or so.
MJKZZ’s THK KR2001 Conversion kit includes:
1x Camera mount block
2x Base stand to mount the rail on other surfaces such as 2080 aluminium T-slot boards
1x Nema 17 motor mount plate
1x Aluminium Coupler
1x Nema 17, bi-polar 400 steps/rev precision step motor
1x Camera quick release clamp and plate.
1 set of Allen wrenches
1 set of necessary stainless screws.
A THK KR2001 rail can be costly if bought new, but a reasonable priceguide for a used one on eBay, with carriage and 90mm of travel, is $150 or so.
MJKZZ Stacker Control
The stacking control for all MJKZZ rails is a hardware controller unit together with paired Windows stacking software, communicating with the camera through the remote-control cord. The stacking software communicates with hardware controller via USB, and allows motor running power and idle power to be set digitally – i.e. the torque. The motor control software also allows custom profiles for any other rail system. The hardware controller takes a 12-24V DC power supply, using a 2.1mm centre positive plug – the same as both the WeMacro rail and the Stackshot macro rail. In addition to the Windows software there’s also an iphone/ipad app, controlled through a Bluetooth dongle speaking to BLE-capable phones (i.e. iPhone, Android).
The stacking software includes the stack functionality that users need, including settle time, hold time and shutter time. Start and end position are user-set, and the software gives user choices for step size or number of steps. Three micro stepping modes can be used: 1/4 micro step, 1/8, and 1/32 micro step, the latter being used for the smallest steps. Four motor speeds are possible: fast, medium, slow and crawling. The software also incorporates several inbuilt calculators: a focus step size calculator for APSC, FF and 4/3 formats, an objective step size calculator, a close-up lens calculator, an extension tube calculator, a stacked lens calculator and a reverse lens calculator. The software has a user-settable range limiter, and all in all the MJKZZ stacking process is not wildly more complicated than the process employed by WeMacro.
Like anything, Stackrail soon becomes second nature. Connect up the camera and all the USB software control bits, get the software and motor to talk to each other (choose a COM port), set the travel range by pressing up or down whilst also pressing shift, finish off by setting the number or size of steps, and off it toddles away on its merry way.
MJKZZ SnapFuse Focus Stacking Software
MJKZZ also puts out SnapFuse, Windows focus stacking software to make a stack out of a series of focus-stepped images, software along the lines of the market-leading Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus. SnapFuse focus stacking software has four parameters that can be controlled: detail level, texture, saturation and exposure, and there is further functionality such as image alignment and stack reversal. SnapFuse currently sucks in the JPEG and/or the TIFF format (including mixed) and spits out the completed stack in TIFF format. There is a full feature 30-day trial edition which will save at a limited pixel size with a watermark. SnapFuse is ongoing software development; the latest version upgrade also added exposure fusion functionality. SnapFuse comes in both 32bit and 64bit PC versions, but MAC is not supported.
MJKZZ Stack and Stitch, 2017
Stack and Stitch is the term for combining focus stacks and stitching them together, to for example image a subject in high resolution that would be too large for a single stack, exceeding the camera’s field of view. The goal is detail at the pixel level for the largest of combined stacks. Stack and Stitch allows for billboard-sized prints containing extraordinary large numbers of pixels, with number counts ever increasing as the pixel race marches on. MJKZZ’s three axis stack and stitch package is in final beta testing at the time of writing, using three MJKZZ SR-90 rails in the X, Y and Z axis. This is a multi-axis stacking system with automated and unattended image capture, and seems set to become a viable low-cost alternative to Gigamacro’s Gigapixel. The imminent Stack and Stitch package from MJKZZ will cost about $900 for the full package with 3 standard rails, and about $1400 for the full package with precision rails.
Update – SnS (Stack and Stitch) packages now available at http://www.mjkzz.com/mjkzz-sns; choice of Stack and Stitch System with Precision Stacking Rail (US$1,287), Stack and Stitch System with Standard Rails (US$790), a Stack and Stitch Upgrade System (US$651) or the Stack and Stitch XYZ Control System ($200).
The Future: Looking Good
MJKZZ in general, and Peter Y Lin, the driving force behind it in particular, are to be lauded. MJKZZ embodies the quality-first spirit of the extreme macro community, exposing itself to critique and scrutiny during its development period, and engaging positively with expert members of the focus stacking community at photomacrography.net. If the quality of the MJKZZ PR-110 rail that I’ve been using is anything to go by, then we’re looking at a prospect of some excellent stuff coming onto the market from MJKZZ in the months and years ahead from someone who knows what he’s doing and listens to the community.
If the quality of the MJKZZ PR-110 rail that I've been using is anything to go by, then we're looking at a prospect of some excellent stuff coming onto the market from MJKZZ in the months and years ahead from someone who knows what he's doing and listens to the community
It’s a great time for stacking and macro, and it’s been an especially good few months if an electronic rail is something that you’re looking at. Market competition can only promote wider product diversification, and should lead to a better choice of specialized tools for any particular focus stacking project. We’re living in quite a disruptive era, with newly emergent Chinese industry making inroads into sectors in which it is traditionally not seen as an especially strong player.
We’ve probably all seen, heard and considered the new Chinese macro lenses in the last year or two such as the Venus 12, 15 & 60mm macro lens range and the Zhongyi 20mm super macro lens. YongNuo is now the main electronic flash unit in many an amateur’s bag, and now we’re seeing not merely one but two Chinese stacking rails come on the market! The global marketplace driving down prices for us consumers is a very welcome thing, and one can only hope that more low-priced and high quality China-based players come into the photography marketplace. Certainly, this is a Chinese tiger that is only just starting to wake up, and it’s difficult to see it stopping anytime soon.
As a Pentax Brand Ambassador, What Digital Camera interviewed me for some Pentax macro tips for their readers in the December 2015 issue. They asked me to focus on using Pentax for macro, and my experiences using the new Pentax K-3II.
How has Pentax gear aided your macro photography? What do you like about the cameras you use and why are they particularly suited to what you do?
I do various very different types of macro, from studio and field focus stacking, to nighttime macro, to UV macro, to conventional butterfly-type macro. Each of these macro niches require different settings and different types of equipment, but the collection of Pentax bodies that I use all have various things in common that make this system great for me.
the collection of Pentax bodies that I use all have various things in common that make this system great for me
The bodies themselves are rock solid, made of metal, and weather resistant. Whether I’m running chasing butterflies or scrabbling about on the ground, I’m never worried about doing damage to the bodies. I’ve dropped them, scratched them, got them wet and knocked them against trees and rocks: no problem at all.
As a system, the bodies have the commonality to be able to handle any of these types of macro in a consistent manner, and they all produce beautifully naturally toned out of the camera JPG results. With the relatively recent acquisition of the K-3II, I now tend to keep each body for a specific purpose:
My Pentax K-7 is a relatively older model now, and it lacks the high ISO performance of more modern DSLRs. This is ideal for AF160FC ringflash photography using Raynox diopters as this always and only uses ISO100. For stacking this is a great value model – the CMOS sensor gives lovely images at ISO 100, and the flash on the K-7 works with my Metz 58-AFII the way I’d like it to. pentax made a change on later models that makes rear synch with a Metz 58-AFII a tedious bodge.
The Pentax K-5 has outstanding high ISO capability and I keep it ready for UV fluorescence macro. This uses UV torches, and with exposure times ranging from 5s to 30s, you need all the sensitivity to light that you can possibly muster. The K-5 shines in this department.
The Pentax K-3II will be my goto camera for focus stacking and field macro when the season starts again in spring. The K-3II has an especially interesting new feature that makes it look like an excellent choice for natural light field stacking: pixel shifting, which combines 4 consecutive exposures to create a higher resolution image than would be possible with just 1.
Pentax Pixel shifting isn’t appropriate for creatures on the move so I don’t see myself using this particular feature when I’m chasing butterflies next Spring. On the other hand, the higher processing power of the Pentax K-3II and therefore faster FPS means that it’ll still be the camera of choice for me for bracketing macro shots next spring.
What lenses do you use for your shots? What do you like about them?
The lenses that I use are very much dictated by the type of macro that I’m working on at the time. I do a lot of ringflash photography in the evening after dark and the sheer convenience of a kit 50-200 with Raynox diopters and a Pentax AF160FC ringflash on the end just can’t be beaten. The Pentax AF160FC has a great ‘modelling lights’ feature and these are great when it’s dark outside but you want to have some light to see what you’re doing.
For conventional butterfly and dragonfly macro, I use a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 Macro, with an extension tube. This is a great value lens that’ll give you pin sharp images with a lovely smooth bokeh.
For stacking, I all sorts of optics, from microscope objectives at 10:1 to machine vision optics at 5:1 and various reversed 6 element enlarger lenses at 1:1-5:1. Enlarger lenses are optimised for flatfield performance and give superb resolution when reversed and used with bellows. Unlike modern optics, old lenses have a mechanical aperture ring, an absolute must when using a reversed lens.
How do you focus in macro capture?
Focusing is a real challenge in macro, and regardless of system, autofocus isn’t generally up to the job
Focusing is a real challenge in macro, and regardless of system, autofocus isn’t generally up to the job. Whether it’s butterfly macro using a 70-200, or night macro using Raynox, I never use the focusing rings but instead move forward or backward for the shot, looking through the viewfinder for focus. When I’m out and about during the day I use a RRS BH-55 ballhead on the excellent Manfrotto 685B monopod, a combination which gives me access to a large variety of angles in minimum time.
For stacking, the usual technique is to set the start of the stack by focusing in front of your subject, and the end of the stack behind the subject. Then you’ll need to work out what number of images to take in between, which depends on the magnification and f/stop of the lens that you are using. Finding a suitable end and start point is made very much easier by focus peaking, and with the K-3II having focus peaking in the camera, it looks like I can now leave behind the field monitor which used to do this for me previously. One less item to carry along is always good!
Could you outline how you set up your camera to start shooting macro? How do you position it, what settings do you use, and do you make use of any accessories?
Setting up for a macro stack is a 10 minute process in the field, and involves a number of steps.
Out in the field, I’ll have marked out the subjects that I find with some poles first. Once I’ve chosen which one to shoot, it all starts with a waterproof photography rug spread on the ground. Then I’ll get out the tripod – a wooden Stabil makro tripod which lets you get nice and low. I’ll spread out legs, mount the Stackshot electronic stage on the RRS ballhead, mount the bellows and camera on top and compose using live view.
When I have the composition I like I’ll switch liveview off, attach my plamps to the tripod legs and clamp the plant to keep it steady. I may cut away any distracting elements nearby.
My settings for stacking are always the same – JPG, manual mode, manual focus, with a fixed colour temperature and the lowest ISO possible on the camera
My settings for stacking are always the same – JPG, manual mode, manual focus, with a fixed colour temperature and the lowest ISO possible on the camera. The only thing to test for is exposure time. Typically I use the Pentax green button for this, and then tweak the exposure time based on the histogram that is produced. The Pentax green button is a really handy feature that lets you get the correct exposure for any manual lens. For the sake of stack processing speed I shoot JPGs rather than DNGs, and the priority at this stage is to retain as much continuity between the consecutive images to be combined into a stack, so my image settings are as neutral as possible – sharpening 0, contrast 0.
Once I’ve got the settings and specimen right, the last thing to do is just to do a couple of testshots, one at both ends of the stack. This is to make sure that the full stack photographs well, and that there are no magnification issues at either end that might cause the stack to fail. It also lets me decide if I need additional lighting or a reflector. And, this lets me set start and endpoints on my electronic stage.
With the start and endpoint defined, I calculate the number of steps that I need to make based on my f/stop and magnification, and set the stack on its way. The electronic stage then takes over and does as it’s told, moving the camera by increments measured in microns (1/1000 mm) to ensure a series of shots that can subsequently be stacked using stacking software.
Are there any tips and tricks you can share with Pentax users to make their life shooting macro easier?
Macro is a varied discipline – what works for the butterfly shooter doesn’t necessarily pertain to macro stackers. So I’ve split my tips up into a couple of categories:
Butterflies/ closeup insects
I like to use a quality fast monopod and smooth RRS BH-55 ballhead – this gives me a few extra stops, and it’s not as inconvenient as a tripod. And always carry a small pair of scissors with you to cut away distracting foliage
It’s worth experimenting a bit with bokeh by using bracketing. Although f/2.8 might get you the smoothest bokeh, you might find that your butterfly’s wing is in better focus if you take the shot at f/5.6.
It can be pretty frustrating chasing butterflies during the heat of the day when they’re at their most active. Morning and evening is when you’ll find them resting. Macro really does reward those who get out their bed at 5am in the summer.
Noise is better than blur. Modern DSLRs perform remarkably well at ISO 800/ ISO 1600, don’t be afraid to go high.
Use a hood, and check assiduously for stray light and light leaks in your bellows and extension tubes. Much of this is old equipment, and any stray light will show up as an dull grey extra that you don’t want.
Always check front and back, switch off liveview during the stack and always, always make sure that you’ve got extra batteries along with you! There’s nothing more annoying that running out of juice halfway through a stack. Liveview consumes battery power like crazy so once you’ve done your checks, I switch it off. Very easy to forget.
Aim for consistency between frames, set values manually, and avoid auto. By using auto, you let the camera decide settings, and this can introduce inconsistencies in a stack. For example on a 75 image stack, you don’t want a DSLR choosing different colour temperatures on the first 25 images to the rest. This can and does happen.
For studio stacks, I like using three flashes on low manual power settings (ie 1/64). The short flash duration makes for sharp images, whereas using long exposures and continuous lighting can make for blurry images.
Stacking is not a suitable pursuit for people in a hurry. A single stack can take hours to shoot, stack and post process.
You mentioned the K-3 II — what has impressed you about the K-3 II in your time using it?
Like many Pentax shooters I wasn’t sure whether to upgrade to the K-3II as I have a perfectly good K-5 body (k-5 released 2010) but when I started using the K-3ii I really noticed its beefier processing power and better autofocus. My K-5 occasionally waits to catch up the buffer when I’m taking multiple shot sequences, but even using DNGs I’ve never yet had the K-3 pause and queue on me.
Autofocus too is a league better than on my old K-5. I’ve never used autofocus for macro because I’m much quicker doing this manually by adjusting body stance, but with a K-3ii and extension tube I’m almost finding the autofocus useful for macro. I still prefer manual, but it’s a much closer thing now and at least it’s a realistic option.
Pixelshifting looks to be a nice feature, and in my experimentation it does indeed increase image resolution, a similar order of difference as taking an f/4 shot with a f/2.8 lens. The larger screen on the back is also a very nice improvement.
The fine folks at Wimberley – famous for amazing tripod heads and superb macro arms – sent me a Plamp II with accessories to review, and now that I’ve had a chance to use it for a while I thought I’d put my thoughts online. In summary, it’s really very good, and almost exactly what the vast majority of macro shooters want. I was also lucky enough to make a very simple improvement that for me made it better.
The Plamp II: Unboxing
A Plamp (“stands for PLant cLAMP“) is a macro photography plant holding tool that allows the photographer to keep stems rigid, by holding the stems still with clasper clamps. Packaging is perfectly good, as you’d expect – it comes in a box with instructions, so really, what else can you ask for. The product itself is about as intuitive a product as I’ve ever come across, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist either to work out how to use the Wimberley spike accessory, which is a clever device that allows you to mount the plamp straight into the ground rather than on a tripod leg.
A Plamp: What Is It?
The Plamp II has two sets of clasper clamps, the fine set that holds the stem and a stronger, bigger orange one for Plamp II support onto a tripod or spike. On the Plamp II, the strong bottom orange clasper clamp – the orange and black clamp – works fine, it fits snugly onto the spike as it should, with no slip or give. I very much like the fact that the blurb says the spring tension is adjustable although I can’t claim to have tried it yet myself.
Also, important, the bolt that holds the Plamp II onto the tubing is wide and strong and is a big improvement. I’ve found that because of the awkward rounded moulded shape of previous clamp component, the bolt that is usually used to hold such a clamp onto loc-line isn’t quite wide enough, and this becomes a source of looseness as these nut and bolts slacken over time. My other Plamp derivatives are actually all a bit floppy at the base now. On the Plamp II there isn’t such a problem because the loc-line tubing is attached differently, using a better fitting.
Plamp II Loc-line Tubing
The flexible loc-line tubing length is the for me the Plamp II’s weakest point for me, as it’s actually so stiff that it’s hard to smoothly micro adjust. When I’m positioning the fine flower clamp head next to a plant, and want to grasp the plant, the tubing is stiff and resists movement, you have to give it a bit of a firm push, and that push often moves it more than I’d like. So I do find micro adjustment more awkward than I’d like in the ideal product.
That said though, Wimberley responded to this comment by adding another accessory to their Plamp II range, a Plamp II clamp extension, which is just the fine head on a rigid length. The rigid length is mounted in the original Plamp II fine head, and allows for easy micro adjustment. Think an additional fine head (like the pic below) on a rigid plastic length (like a lollypop), and the rigid plastic fits into the original fine head, so is easily adjusted.
The Plamp II Fine Clamp
The fine head clamp component is superb for flowers and stems, close to perfect. It’s very easy to micro adjust and clasps the plant perfectly. On a perfect system the foam jaw insert might be a little longer for me, as in wider across the jaw’s length, but all in all it’s prettymuch spot on, especially the fact it’s a foam jaw so it clasps gently rather that harshly. The notch for diffusers doesn’t really work for me at all – but then I don’t use commercial diffusers for macro but have my own pieces of card. Big floppy circular commercial diffusers are a bit of a waste of time as they just flop and get in the way and they’re generally just too darned big. They’re large so there’s no room to hold them under a subject, which means that you have to put them distant, the other side of the tripod, so you lose a lot of that bounced light. I prefer a small light “cake-bottom” card (10×10cm) very close to the subject rather than some huge thing 50cm away.
What I mean by “cake-bottom” card is heavily crinkled aluminium-foil covered cardboard base (makes the cake look pretty), and I like to use those – you can’t beat small light and cheap. Even if I wanted to though I couldn’t use the Plamp II to hold it – my circular reflector has quite a wide edge (1cm) which wouldn’t fit in the notch. And I’d suspect, too large a “sail” – in the field the wind would catch it and make it unsteady. And heavier than the Plamp II would probably like.
Overall the Plamp II does a great job and as a generic product it’s absolutely perfect for 99.9% of macro enthusiasts. That said, I’m in the other .1%! I do field stacking with a Cognisys Stackshot which moves the focus plain by 1+ micron increments. Absolute rock solid steadiness and the ability to micro adjust when composing are both critical for my stuff.
The Plamp II Spike Accessory
The Plamp II spike accessory is clever – it’s just a screwdriver in a tall plastic cap, but a smart simple addition, and well designed for ease of packing. And avoids camera vibrations by not attaching to the tripod. In truth, for my use I did find both the screwdriver metal and the handle to be a little shorter than I’d have liked, I like it a bit deeper for firmness (especially near water where soil is wet so less firm). But again, a very useful accessory for the macro photographer.
The Plamp II Rod Extension
As yet unreleased, this is a studio rod with clip. In Wimberley’s own words: “It is called the Plamp rod extension and it is a carbon fiber tube that is help easily with the grey clip of the plamp. It can be moved back and forth in this clip and rotated without having to re position the plamp arm.”
Minimising Plamp II Vibrations
A bit of physics: any plamp device, being a “one long arm” design will always be prone to “arm pendulum oscillation” vibration, especially as the length of arm increases, and I did find this to be the case. This will also be the case with 2 Plamp IIs, one either end of the plant/stem, as they’re still individually long oscillating arms with the plant clamp element at the very end – the point where any oscillation is always at its maximum. And, where I am in England, being an offshore island between an ocean and a continent, does seem to have a tediously mildly windy climate – and whilst I personally live well inland in a valley far from the sea, there are just about always annoying 2-5mph breeze flurries that will oscillate the subject and I can’t have that.
But I did cure it, it’s actually ever so simple. If you look at my macro holding tools page the blue plamp-like thing I illustrate there is shorter and actually has two of the big orange and black clamps, one at either end. I found that by using the Plamp II to grab the plant, attached on my Stabil macro tripod (onto the inner splines of the forward legs positioned vertically), I can then also attach another of my blue Plamps immediately above the Plamp II tripod clamp on the spline, and then use the other end of my thing to clamp onto the tubing of the Plamp II itself – as near to the flower clamp end as possible. This makes the whole arrangement immediately an order or magnitude better, because my addition provides a rigid “cross brace” so that oscillation vibration just won’t occur. I’ve found this invaluable. And on another note, the inner spline of a Stabil tripod is quite narrow and thin, and the Plamp II only barely manages to clamp it, and only if I clasp the width edge rather than its side. This works for me and maybe it’ll work for you, worth a shot.
The Perfect Plant Holder
John Hallmén’s DIY plant stem holder, the epic Gorillazilla, is more or less the best out there at the moment, although it doesn’t do 2 more rotation degrees of freedom which I’d personally ultimately like to add. It’s proving difficult – the components I’m after don’t seem to have been invented yet.
For the perfect contraption for me, in terms of parts there’s the support component (ie the legs) and the clasper component. For the support component, although I could use a cheap old tripod, I’m quite attracted to the idea of a rigid but light studio rod system that can be added to each other by screwing them together, with some sort of 10 cm diameter circular base component (big pad so it doesn’t sink in wet ground) that also screws in. The Novoflex rod set looks like a suitable candidate. But the big pad base should have holes at the edges so that I can insert aluminium tent hooks through for extra stability if I want. With an option to quickly substitute the pad foot with a ground spike foot.
My working height ranges from ground to 1.5m, and whilst in cases of the taller shoots it’s easier to just snip off the grass head and clamp it lower down, this can disturb the bug, and in the case of a protected plant, it’s just not something you want to do. So variable height is nice. The rod setup needs to have some bits of ‘rod coupling’ plastic that will allow me to add a couple more thinner rods where I want and use them as cross braces, straight down into the ground at an angle, each with a 30 cm spike, at 90 degrees to each other. Ie looking down the main height from the top, at midday and 3 pm respectively. That would create a nice brace. The bits of ‘rod coupling plastic’ should be able to move up and down, and be easily tightened with a single turn of two independent screw tightener handles. The bits of ‘rod coupling plastic’ should also not be a full circle but say 60%, so the cross braces can be popped in easily and quickly, as a completed setup step before starting on the plant clasping steps. Setup to this point should take <1 minute.
For plant claspers I’d like to have a couple of arms coming off the main rod, obviously attached in a very flexible ‘up and down along the support component’ way, so I can move them up and down easily. It’d be lovely to have a sesitive microscope-like rack and pinion controls on both of these to move them up and down, like the controls on my bellows, but that strikes me as a bit unlikely on studio rods. So I suspect they’ll just attach with pressure tightening. In terms of these arms I suspect that I’ll have to end up buying some sort of superior absolutely no-give/shake/rebound microphone gooseneck as the arm for the claspers, which should allow very precise adjustment, but keep steady as well. Hopefully they don’t need to be long – just 6 inches or so – the longer the neck, the more any potential oscillation vibration. And a double arm mechanism like above if single doesn’t cut it. The claspers would ideally be something like the ones on the Plamp II, ie a screw that you can use to tighten and loosen the jaw. Maybe the screw knob could have a bigger diameter face so micro adjustment is easier. Goosenecks are suprisingly difficult to find, although this site looks promising.
But! the clasper needs to have a party trick up its sleeve, an additional ability to rotate to the PlampII head, on another axis. As in, in order to make it better than anything that exists today, I not only want to clasp the plant stem but I also want to be able to rotate the stem along and about the stem’s axis. This is the bit that’s still defeating me – even the amazing bits site McMaster Carr doesn’t seem to have a component that can achieve this for me, a ‘clasping rotating jaw’. The nearest product I’ve found is a fly tying vise, but these are designed for the hooks of fly fishing so the super thin clasper jaw designed to hold a small hook rather than a 1cm wide stem. That said, that is a minor (but surely solvable) issue.
Beyond that, micrometer rotation stages exist aplenty – I have one – but they don’t clasp. Also, in terms of the clasper, I should imagine that a ’2 halves of a one inch long tube with foam inside that you use a rotation wheel to bring together’ type clasper would work better than a jaw mechanism – longer length of support – but I have not found that either. The system I describe is quite handy because different claspers for things like diffusion, reflectors and flags would be very easy. But unfortunately it’s also rather unlikely to ever to make it to market because of the approximately 10 people that would buy it worldwide.
The cool thing about working with Wimberley is that the R&D guys there are taking a look at this idea, and seeing if they can come up with something. It’s a bit of a tall ask and I know R&D takes time, but let’s hope they come up with something cool!
Lastly, I’d like to thank Wimberley for reaching out to me to let me test their product. What really impresses me is that they’re using my criticisms to try and make an even better product, which can ultimately only benefit all of us.