Large Format Photomicrography part: XII

One thing I’ve learned on this little project is that I’m certainly no photographer! Most of what I know of photography has been gleaned from a handful of books and a few dimly remembered classes at school so I hope anyone who is enough of photographer to call themselves one will take this next bit in the spirit in which it is intended. Photographers are crazy!


Photography is amazing, it’s a powerful, scientific medium and profound means of artistic impression. In the right hands a camera can be a paintbrush or a chisel and mallet. A camera can shout with the report of shotgun or whisper as the falling of snow. It’s not lightly that I say some of the efforts of photographers just make no sense to me, I’m referring to, of course, macrophotography. Some of the accoutrements of macrophotography make sense to me. Specialized lenses that are specifically constructed for high magnification and short working distance are perfectly reasonable in my mind. Even those macro extenders and bellows units that extend the distance from the rear element to the film plane and thereby reduce the minimum focusing distance make sense to me.

I can’t even begin to understand the motivation for some other macro accessories. There are society thread (microscope objective) to camera body adapters that I have to call absolutely insane. This is asking for a bad experience and all but ensuring the objective will be badly damaged. Then there’s so-called lens reversing adapters, or macro-reversing-rings that seam to me with my meager photographic knowledge to be an equally dangerous abuse of a camera lens. Maybe these sorts of devices are sold more for novelty than anything else, or perhaps with my microscope slide orientated vision I have trouble seeing how these are best used.

To my mind if a photographer wanted to have a crack at photographic a microscope slide they’d need a box full of macro optics and a finely controllable vertical tripod of some sort. It seems far easier to my mind to just use a microscope. No, I don’t mean a forty pound monster like the BalPlan or any expensive trinocular microscope at all. I mean a flea-market bargain or a school surplus, monocular, two objective microscope.

Large Format Small Budget

A photographer probably has access to a cut film holder and apart from that all any aspiring large format photomicrographer needs in a microscope. Everything else (not necessarily including the slide one wishes to photograph) is likely already on hand. Today, I used an Amazon shipping box and a desk lamp to get a large format negative of a pine needle section. I supported the box that acted as my camera on a ring stand but I could have used a couple stacks of books just as well, it may have even been more stable if I had!

I took my little shipping box and tapped it up with some strips of duct tape. Next, I traced the outline of my film holder on one end of the box. That done, I measured out a rectangle just under 4×5 inches which I cut out with a razor. On the opposite end of the box I cut a small hole in the center. The hole I cut in the center was only just the size of the ocular, I wanted to keep the hole small enough that I didn’t need to bother with any sort of baffle or light-seal around the eyepiece. I should have used a box a bit longer, a shoe box would have been much closer to the ideal. A sufficiently long box would provide enough extension as to be par focal with the virtual image seen by the eye at the eyepiece. Additionally it would have been a good idea to use a projection or photographic eyepiece so the real image… well lets keep it simple.

Instead of some fancy ground glass a sheet of lean with the protective cover was used but I might just as easily have used a sheet of wax paper. I didn’t bother with any light proofing or consideration for stability. A layer of fleece glued to the face of the box where the film holder would sit would be a useful improvement as would a layer of black paint on the inside of the box—good ideas if I ever find a longer box to use.

The Process

  1. Load a sheet of film into the film holder in a changing bag.
  2. Position a desk lamp with a frosted bulb on the table with the shade oriented to direct all the light downward, place it about 8 inches from the mirror of the microscope.
  3. With your eye at the eyepiece manipulate the mirror so that the light fills the field of view.
  4. Place a slide on the stage and bring the microscope to visual focus.
  5. Place the “camera” over the eyepiece and stabilize it with a bit of masking tape.
  6. Place the focusing screen (wax paper, ground glass, etc.) over the large opening.
  7. Focus the microscope such that the image on the screen is clear.
  8. Turn off the room lights (the darker the room the better, but just enough light to see is ideal).
  9. Remove the focusing screen and turn of the desk lamp without moving the lamp or “camera”.
  10. Place the loaded cut film holder over the opening of the camera and gently pull out the dark slide.
  11. Briefly turn on the lamp to make the exposure and then quickly turn it back off (exposure times up to 5 seconds are reasonable for 100 ISO film, a 40 watt bulb, and a low power objective).
  12. Carefully replace the dark slide.
  13. Process the film.

The Result

I put this whole thing together in about 15 minutes. It took me longer than that to develop the film! Here’s the scanned negative together with an edited inversion in lieu of a print.

Not bad considering I didn’t make overmuch of an attempt at being precise. I should have used a longer box or a more powerful eyepiece, something to raise the magnification enough to fill more of the frame with the specimen. I might have used a shorter box if I enjoyed the look of a circular vignette. A shorter exposure would have been good as well, the negative is very dense and the only thing that saved it was the very dark stain in the specimen. With the 40 watt bulb, 10x objective, and 5x ocular I’d wager a 2-3 second exposure would have been closer to an ideal result. Still, not bad for a microscope that I picked up for under $20.00 USD.

Next time, the wrap up! -K

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