Buying a Focus Stacking Rail?

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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.

Cognisys Stackshot, the class leader in focus stacking apparatus

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).

WeMacro focus stacking rail, performs basic stacking very well

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.

The fabulous MJKZZ pr-110 precision rail

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.

MJKZZ DIY 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.


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Comments (3)

Article: MJKZZ DIY macro rail kit
Philip Kieras says...
Really enjoyed this article. Own and regularly use the Cognisys StackShot, both long and short rails.
5th May 2017 10:55am
Loren Lewis says...
Thank you for a well written article. I was an early backer of Peter Lin's Water Drop Kit and also of his macro rail. Both products are first class - and his follow-on product support can't be beat.
8th February 2017 1:15am
Denis says...
Thanks Johan, excellent review. When you think China, people think poor quality. I have the MJKZZ water drop system , precision PR-18 and recently acquired the XYZ rail and every single component I have received, is of high quality. the water drop system and the PR-18 works 1st time without any issues everytime. Great and prompt support
7th February 2017 11:31pm
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