Creative Photography ... Through the Microscope!

by John H. Siskin

Mud Opal 1
Mud Opal 1
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
All of the ideas in this article will work with either a 35mm film or digital camera. Iíve done this several times with film, and though it works quite well there are problems with color. If you use an ISO 64 slide tungsten film, either Kodak or Fuji, and a 3200 Kļ (tungsten balance) light source you can get accurate color. You will need to bracket your exposures; meters are easily fooled in this environment. Color negative films will work well with the exposure, but they do not record enough information about color balance, so your prints often vary widely from what you think you shot. The instant feedback from a digital camera makes this easier and more fun. Of course you can also use strobes to light you images, this provides better color control.

The microscope is a somewhat intimidating machine that we often associate with scientists. In reality it offers a simple optical tool, which extends our creative vision into new areas! We will see new landscapes of color and texture that exist only on the wing of an insect! In order to enter this new land we will need only a few simple tools. These tools are surprisingly affordable and accessible.

Microscope and Computer Set-Up
Microscope and Computer Set-Up
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
You can purchase a microscope from Surplus Shed (www.surplusshed.com) for as little as $95.00. The additional adapters will cost only about $45.00, cheaper than almost any lens. This equipment will let you photograph between 30 and 60 times life size at your capture area. You will enlarge this even more when you make a print! All of this is possible with most DSLRs!

A simple student grade microscope will suit most photographic needs. There are several characteristics we will want to look for: Monocular design with standard replaceable eyepieces, smooth focusing, and a mechanical stage. The stage can be purchased separately and added later. Rack and pinion focus is a sign of sufficient quality for our needs. Although stereomicroscopes can be adapted for photography, they usually do not offer the larger magnifications of a monocular design.

The microscope is attached to the camera with a simple adapter available at Surplus Shed or other photo retailers. The adapter has two pieces, one fits on the scope and the other on the camera. The microscope eyepiece will fit into the camera adapter. Once the two pieces of the adapter are attached to the camera and the microscope these two pieces connect to each other.


Insect Trapped in Amber
Insect Trapped in Amber
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
The microscope is used vertically as this will better support the camera. Viewing is accomplished through the camera viewfinder. In order to focus use the gross focusing knob on the microscope, the fine focus is not really useful with the lower power objectives. Since focus is manual the DSLRs with better viewfinders will be easier to use.

The lens near the microscope stage is called the objective; the lens near your eye is the eyepiece. The stage is where we will put our subject. The least powerful objectives are the easiest to work with. This is because the 4X lens is in focus at a distance of at least several millimeters from the subject. This relief from the subject gives us room to light! The 40X lens is in focus almost on top of the subject; it can only be used with prepared slides and transmitted light. Although this can be an interesting environment to photograph, it presents difficulties beyond the scope of this article. There are several different types of lenses available for the microscope.


Body of a Fly
Body of a Fly
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
The best lenses are called Plan; these are roughly similar to an apochromat or apo in regular camera lenses. You can purchase these through Edmund Optics and they are sometimes available at Surplus Shed. Standard lenses are called achromatic; their primary defect for photography is that they are not flat field. The edges of the frame tend to be out of focus with these lenses. Of course we are not attempting to make scientifically accurate photographs, so the best-corrected lens may not be the best picture taker.

The eyepiece or ocular is the second piece of the optical equation. In order to discover the reproduction ratio of your system multiply the power of the objective (lenses are referred to by power not focal length) by the power of your eyepiece (8, 10 or 15X) then multiply this by the enlargement of your print (an 8X10 from a full frame DSLR, like my Kodak DCS Pro 14n would be an 8X enlargement). An 8X10 from a camera with a smaller chip, like the Canon 10D would be an even greater enlargement. You can see that it is easy to get an enlargement of several hundred times!


Nominative
Nominative
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Now that youíre connected to the microscope the fun begins. If the camera is tethered to the computer you will have instant feedback, and the image will be big enough to be meaningful. This is really helpful, since we will want to be able to evaluate each image and be able to make minor changes. On the software for the Kodak 14n, I have shutter and color control, the color control is a real help. I use my camera with the light setting on tungsten. Then I use the color temperature control in the software to get the color where I want it. If I wanted accurate color I would do a white balance through the camera and microscope.

Your exposure is controlled by shutter speed or by power output on your strobes since microscope lenses donít have diaphragms. Your shutter speeds will likely be pretty long, around one-half second. As a consequence of the long exposure times the noise level can be pretty high. My current camera is the Kodak 14n, and the latest firmware for long exposure is a real help. When I had the Canon 10D it did a good job with these long exposures. Regardless of camera noise will be an issue. Using more light on your subject will reduce the problem, but it may produce too much heat.

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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, John H. Siskin
Photography Instructor: John H. SiskinJohn Siskin is a commercial and fine art photographer who makes architectural, portrait and macro images. He has worked for General Motors and Disney Studios. He teaches the BetterPhoto course An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and is the author of the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers.

In addition, he teaches studio lighting black and white photography at Los Angeles Mission College. His studio is in Reseda California and more of his work can be seen at www.siskinphoto.com

His work has been part of many exhibits. His photographs have been shown at the Brand Library, 2nd City Art Gallery, Haroldís Gallery, Farmani Gallery, and The Atelier. He has been a participant in the Valley Studio Tour several times.

John has published quite a number of technical articles about photography. His articles have appeared in Photo Techniques, View Camera, Studio Photography and others. He has written about photographic lighting, building lenses, framing, photographic lab work, building cameras, as well as some more speculative photographic subjects. Since he is so well versed in photographic subjects, he is often hired as a consultant by businesses.