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Extreme Macro Photography


posted on 4th of august, 2017

This article is describing the technique I'm using to achieve high quality extreme macro photos, for magnifications beyond 3x, up to 10x (possible up to 20x).

This means that the subject frame is between 3 and 20 times smaller than the physical sensor dimensions (i.e. 22.2mm for APS-C).

This also means that creatures even below a few millimeters in real life, can almost fill the whole screen, revealing amazing, incredible details, unknown to the naked eye!

Here are a few examples:

4x
                     



4x
                     



10x
                     



10x
                     



The best way to achieve quality at these high magnifications is through microscope objectives.

All other popular macro techniques, based on reversed lenses or lenses + extension tubes/bellows, will only give acceptable results for magnifications up to 2x, probably less. Heavy diffraction will exponentially destroy the quality, if one attempts magnifications beyond 2x, with such setups.
Disclaimer: I don't own a dedicated Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 macro lens, but I read reports about good results obtained with it, up to 5x, although the same reports still give microscope objectives the edge in terms of IQ, in the 3x-5x magnification range.

In general, there are two types of microscope objectives:
- new types - infinity corrected objectives - must be used with a 200mm tube lens
- old types - finite objectives - can work with extensions tubes or bellows.

My choice was to work with the new, infinity corrected objectives.
Instead of a dedicated 200mm tube lens, I realized I can use a quality zoom lens I already own: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. It works well when zoomed to the max (200mm) and focused at infinity.

I also own two Nikon CFI microscope objectives:
- Nikon CFI 4x 0.20 Super Fluor
- Nikon CFI 10x 0.30 Plan Fluor
(CFI = Chromatic-aberration Free Infinity)

The objectives are attached to my zoom lens with two adapter rings: 77mm->52mm and 52mm->25mm (which is the standard thread for the new Nikon CFI objectives).

Here is my setup showing a microscope objective attached to a zoom lens:
DIY automated macro rail

When buying microscope objectives, besides the type and the nominal magnification, two additional characteristics are important:
- working distance (WD). If the WD is too small (eg < 5mm) there is not enough space between the objective and the subject, to insure proper illumination
- numeric aperture (NA). The higher the NA, the more details the objective can resolve (sharpness), but at the same time, the narrower the Depth of Field (DoF) is.

As mentioned above, microscope objectives offer superior image quality, but the drawback is the very narrow DoF (depth of field).
This is why, the only way to obtain usable images with microscope objectives is through focus stacking.

We are talking about focus stacking using, for my objectives, 20 microns step size for 4x magnification and 5 microns (!!!) step size for 10x magnification.
This is why, in most of these cases, manual focus stacking is very challenging, if not impossible. Automation is key for success.

There are several good and affordable automated macro rails on the market (google them).

However, I chose to build my own, around these main components:
- a Velbon Macro Rail (since it has a good native accuracy of 4mm/rotation)
- an Arduino micro-controller (relatively easy to program)
- Servocity structural components, to ensure mechanical accuracy.

I decided to use continuous LED lighting, instead of flashes, because I like to see what I'm about to get. Besides, when taking sequences of hundreds of photos, even the best flashes might misfire. The trade-off is longer exposure times: 0.5-1s. This also means absolutely no vibrations, no walking around the system and no big trucks passing nearby.
Preferably wife and kids asleep! ;)

Finally, stacks of several hundreds of photos are combined and retouched with a dedicated stacking software and fine-tuned in PS.

Obviously, this whole process requires a lot of patience and some financial investments, but the results are very rewarding and often beyond expectations!

I often point out that photographers are ready to spend tens of thousands and travel to the other side of the world to photograph wildlife, without realizing that the most fascinating creatures might live in their backyard, or the park across the street from them!

This micro-world is truly fascinating! Too bad most of us are oblivious to its beauty!

Comments (13)

Posted by Jdanne on October 08, 2017
Great photos! Thanks for sharing!
Posted by Gaithshalan on September 01, 2017
Wow, Great Job
Posted by Ongchangwei on August 22, 2017
Wow, very nice!!!
Posted by Markosloizou on August 10, 2017
@ Mandritoiu
Many thanks for the reply, i didn't know you could use a driver for breaking the steps of the stepper motor into smaller ones. Great that's all that i needed to know. Thanks again!
Posted by Mandritoiu on August 10, 2017
@ Markosloizou

Please analyse the setup photo I shared in the blog. It is not very explicit, but you can see how a stepper motor is connected to the rail with ServoCity components.
My stepper has 400 steps/rotation. This translates in 4000/400 = 10 microns per native step.
The stepper is controlled by a driver able to generate 16 micro-steps per native step.
This means that, in theory, the system can achieve 10/16 = 0.625 microns per micro-step
Posted by Markosloizou on August 09, 2017
Many thanks for sharing your experience and this useful tutorial!
i was always into macro photography but thought high magnification shots required even more effort than what you mentioned.
i would like to ask about a few details of your setup if possible. Given your 4mm step per rotation to get a 5micrometers step you would need to break one rotation to more than 800 smaller steps, do you achieve this using a stepper motor? If not could you give me a bit more details about how you achieve such a fine step?
Posted by TheSlowWalkers on August 07, 2017
Stunning photos for sure.
Posted by Cammeraydave on August 06, 2017
Nice !
Posted by Seawatch1 on August 06, 2017
Incredible shots. Anyone who wants to learn macro photography needs to start with your blog.
The third photo down looks like my 1st wife.
Posted by Karaphotography on August 06, 2017
I wholeheartedly agree with the other members in saying these are truly amazing photographs!
Posted by Bwagner656 on August 06, 2017
Wow, amazing!
Posted by Mccrainemercantile on August 06, 2017
Sensational, colorful images! They make you want to stare and stare at the detail of these everyday insects. You are an inspiration to beginners like me-well done article!
Posted by Ethnica on August 05, 2017
Thank you for sharing your expertise.
This has been very helpful article.
I did not know about 'stacking' and how it is done. It is a new learning for me.

Like so many photographers, i also want to capture such amazing and stunning microscopic photos, but did not know how, and what gear exactly needed.

Thanks to your article, may be some day, my dream will come true.



Comments (13)

This article has been read 3146 times. 12 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Mihai Andritoiu.

About me

I am professional photographer living in the greater New York Area. I have a long connection with the photography, since childhood, when my father taught me how to develop black and white photos in a mini-lab improvised in our bathroom. Today, I'm specialized in landscape and cityscape photography. Welcome to my world!

(Mandritoiu)
Rockaway, US

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