Introduction: DSLR Microphotography
Microphotography is the art of photographing objects with magnification greater than a standard macro lens, but less than a typical microscope. This allows you to photograph things very - very - close up, but still use relatively standard photography equipment.
There are a number of ways to accomplish microphotography using commercially available lenses and systems. However, in this tutorial I am going to show you how to DIY your own microphotography setup for a fraction of the cost. While building your own system includes its own set of challenges, it also provides a large degree of flexibility and enables customization.
Step 1: Macrophotography Vs. Microphotography
A typical macro lens has a 1:1 magnification. What this means is that the size of the object being photographed gets translated onto the camera sensor at its own size. In other words, if you have a 1" square being photographed, the square will take up a 1" square worth of area on the camera sensor.
With microphotography, the object will show up on the sensor bigger than it actually is. For instance if you have a 2:1 lens (2X magnification), and you shoot a 1" square, it will take up 2" square worth of space on the sensor.
The magnification in microphotography can be as great as 20X larger. Anything beyond that is typically considered microscopic photography and employs a microscope to view very small things.
Step 2: Homebrew Microphotography Rig
The microphotography rig that I have created is centered around a Canon 6D DSLR camera outfitted with a microscope objective. An objective is essentially the lens element at the end of a microscope.
Follows are a list of items that I needed to create this setup:
(x1) Canon DSLR
(x1) Microscope objective
(x1) Adjustable bellows
(x1) Canon EF to 42mm lens adapter
(x1) 42mm to RMS adapter
(x1) LED ring light
(x1) Canon wireless remote
(x1) Zip ties
(x1) Tripod with horizontal column (optional)
(x1) Tripod head (optional)
(x1) Adobe Photoshop Subscription (optional / recommended)
In the steps that follow, I will explain what each components does.
(Please note that some of the links on this page contain Amazon affiliate links. This does not change the price of any of the items for sale. However, I earn a small commission if you click on any of those links and buy anything. I reinvest this money into materials and tools for future projects.)
Step 3: Microscope Objective
In this example the objective I am using has 10X magnification, but I could easily swap it out for any other objective between 2X up to 20X magnification.
There are two types of microscope objectives, those being infinite focus and fixed focus. Infinite focus lenses need to be mounted at the end of a camera lens focused to infinity. Fixed focus lenses don't require an additional lens, but need to be placed a fixed distance away from the camera's sensor.
Microscope objectives are like camera lenses in that they are not all created equal. Some are manufactured better than others and use better optical glass. When just getting started, it is not particularly important how high-end of an objective you get. However, it is recommended that you always buy one that is new. At high magnifications, a little bit of wear and tear can cause big blemishes in your photograph.
I decided to use a microscope objective with a fixed focus of 160mm. What this means is that the microscope objective should be placed 160mm from the camera's sensor. This distance is a fairly standard fixed focus distance.
Step 4: Bellows
One way to achieve this spacing - and the one I decided to use - is to use a 150mm bellows. This should provide the 160mm that is needed for the objective since the camera's sensor is not right at the opening of the camera body, but set back slightly inside of the camera. In fact, this distance will likely be greater than the 10mm (0.4") distance that needs to be made up. This is fine since the bellows is adjustable and can be tuned in as need be.
The benefit of using bellows is that it is cheap, and adjustable allowing for easy focusing. The cons of using a bellows setup is that they are notorious for collecting dust, and essentially function as an air pump which moves dust and particles into your camera body and onto the sensor. If you are using this setup often, do not be surprised if you see pieces of hair or dust starting to show up in the exact same places in all of your photos. This means that your camera sensor needs cleaning. While you can do this yourself, I recommend having it sent out for professional cleaning instead.
Another option is to use fixed extender tubes. By stacking extender tubes, you can get the length you need, although one of the downsides of using them is that focusing becomes trickier. Also, unless you buy high end extender tubes, they are known for breaking and dropping lenses.
Step 5: Adapter Rings
To connect the objective to the Canon bellows I ended up using two sets of adapters. The first adapter converted the Canon's standard lens attachment ring down to a 42 mm threading.
The second adapter converted the 42mm threading to the smaller RMS threading used by the microscope objective. RMS stands for Royal Microscopical Society and is one of the more common threadings for microscope objectives.
Step 6: LED Light
When working with microscope objectives, a lot of light is necessary to help get a sharp focus. Achieving good lighting can become a little bit challenging.
At the end of the bellows I have attached a lens-mount LED ring light. Since the bellows did not have a camera lens threading appropriate for attaching the light, I simply zip tied the light to the end of the bellows. This positions the light centered around the microscope objective, and set back ever-so-slightly from the lens. In my experience I find it works fairly well.
I always keep the LED light set to full brightness. Since I am not using the ring light as a strobe, it does not particularly matter if the trigger unit is plugged into the camera's hot shoe. However, it is designed to be mounted there and I just find this is the most sensible place to keep it.
Other microphotographers use two camera flash units mounted on each side of the objective pointed inwards at 45 degrees. They say this produces a crisper image with less blur. However, I found this setup to be too cumbersome and difficult to dial in. I decided to stick with constant LED lighting, and have generally been pleased with the results.
Step 7: Tripod
If you don't want all of your pictures to be blurry, you will need a very stable tripod. For my shots I have been using a quite sturdy Manfroto tripod with a horizontal column. This means that the central column of the tripod can extend outward, and then pivot a full 90 degrees, allowing you to point your camera directly downwards. Put another way, it allows you to move the tripod head to be on a plane perpendicular to the tripod itself. While this setup is extremely helpful when doing this kind of photography, keep in mind that it can be pricey.
Step 8: Focusing
Focusing is extremely tricky. The focal plane at this magnification is very small and it's extremely hard to focus in upon anything. If you look at the above video you will notice how quickly the subjects enter and leave focus.
The first thing to note about this is that the strange alien forest is actually a closeup on bread mold, and the spores we are looking at are barely visible to the human eye under normal circumstances. However, when trying to focus upon it, very slight adjustments to the focal plane rapidly sends us through a three dimensional fungi universe.
In short, focusing requires both patience and practice. Having adjustable bellows is helpful because it allows you to easily make slight adjustments to the position of the objective. Typically, a few millimeters of give and take is all you need to focus in upon an object.
Step 9: Shooting
With focusing being so touchy, the simple action of pressing the camera shutter button is more than enough to knock your subject out of focus or create motion blur. To compensate for this, I use the wireless remote to trigger the camera so that when I have my shot lined up, I do not need to then touch the camera to capture it.
Additionally, the vibration from the camera's mirror system alone can be enough to cause a shot to be blurry. To account for this, I shoot in live view mode with Silent LV: Mode 2 enabled. This configuration creates the minimal amount of mechanical movement within the camera when shooting pictures.
Step 10: Alternate Method
Another way to get a magnification greater than 1:1 is to simply attach a macro lens to the end of a camera bellows. The pictured Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens has given me a magnification of a little over 2X. This is not quite as good as the 10X that I can get using the microscope objective. However, the ease of use and image quality makes this a quick method for achieving micro level photos.
Step 11: Focus Stacking
Even under the best of circumstances, if you are shooting something with any depth, only a sliver will be in focus at any given time. One way to get around this is to use a technique called "focus stacking."
Focus stacking allows you to take a bunch of photos that were shot at slightly different depths, and merge them together into one crisp image in post-production (typically using Photoshop). By doing this, it will average the images and merge the parts which are in focus.
If you would like to learn more about focus stacking, check out my Focus Stacking instructable.
Step 12: Explore the Microscopic
Now that you've got your microphotography setup under control, all that's left to do is to take some pictures. Like anything else in life, the most important thing is practice, practice, practice.
To start, I was simply just amazed at the things I was able to see. Then, I was annoyed that the pictures were not coming out as well as I had hoped. Finally, after a lot of shooting and refining my techniques, I was able to take some photos that I was pleased with. I'm hardly close to being an expert at this, but I do enjoy the challenge of exploring the microscopic world.