High Resolution Macro Photography
Greetings ant studiers. In case you
haven't seen or heard about automontage images of small insects,
here is a short update. You can see examples of automontage images
of ants at the Ants of Costa Rica website, www.evergreen.edu/ants
(the home page has some shortcuts to species with automontage images).
This imaging technology will revolutionize the way insect taxonomy
is carried out and communicated. For the first time images of small
insects are almost as good as the specimen itself, and details of
pilosity, surface sculpture, and color can be compared between an
image on a screen and a specimen under your scope. There are actually
two bits of technology involved in improving images, one very low-tech
and one very high-tech.
low-tech change has to do with lighting. Many of us are used to using
incandescent bulbs, either in old-fashioned microscope lights or in
fancy fiber optics light sources. On our shiny little ants glare is
a significant problem that often obscures details of surface sculpture.
Phil Ward recently discovered that a high-intensity flourescent light
source made a much flatter and more diffused light that was a great
improvement over the fiber optics light sources. A perfect source
was the "Bookworm" reading light that comes with a convenient
little clamp. Another convenience is that it costs about $15, instead
of the $500 for a fiber optics source. I went hunting around my local
office supply stores until I found them, then bought about a dozen.
Processed without automontage
Processed with autmontage
Ann McNeil of Syncroscopy (see below) discovered another great trick.
If you take an ordinary styrofoam cup, cut off and discard the bottom
so you are left with a tapered cylinder of styrofoam, set that over
your specimen on the dissecting scope stage, and direct the light
pipes of a fiber optics source so that they are horizontal with the
light just grazing the rim of the styrofoam, it makes a terrific diffused
light. Convince yourself by looking at an ant with the light source
shining directly on the specimen, then put the cup over it and rearrange
the pipes. This is not good for ordinary dissecting scope work where
you are constantly moving and switching specimens, but it is great
for taking digital images. Styrofoam cups are often free just down
the hall around the coffee pot.
the automontage itself; what all the fuss is about. This is a piece
of software that receives a stack of digital images, examines each
one for areas that are in focus (the algorithm for how it does this
is part of the trade secret that makes the software so pricey), then
stiches all the in-focus bits together to make one image. In effect
it allows you to make an image with as much depth of field as you
setup I have now is marketed by a company called Syncroscopy.
The hardware is comprised of a Leica MZ16 dissecting scope with axial
carrier, a motorized z-axis (focusing) drive, a JVC-KYF70B digital
camera mounted on the scope, and a PC with the automontage software.
The way it works is I put a specimen on the stage, using a live image
on the computer screen I get the specimen oriented the way I want
it and get the lighting right (these are the most time-consuming steps),
focus to the uppermost focal plane I want to capture and click a dialog
box on screen to set it, focus to the lowest focal plane I want and
click to set it, choose the number of steps or images I want between
those two points (usually 10 images is sufficient), click Capture,
lean back a few seconds while the motor drive takes over, after the
ten images are captured (about 10 seconds) I click the automontage
button and wait while the montaged image appears before my eyes (the
exciting part). I can obtain about ten montaged images per hour.
major issue for the average entomologist is that this setup costs
considerably more than a styrofoam cup. The software by itself is
many thousands of dollars. However, it can be purchased and used as
a stand alone product. It does not have to be linked to a particular
camera/z-stepper/scope combination. If you have your own scope and
digital camera, you can use manual focus to obtain a stack of images,
then import them into the automontage program. Actually, if you are
incredibly patient you can make your own automontage images in Photoshop
by putting all the images in as layers and erasing the parts of each
layer that are out of focus (Piotr Naskrecki told me about this option).
But it will take hours per image instead of minutes.
"deluxe" setup described above, with the automated z-stepper
and image capture, is relatively new and "hot off the press."
The people who did the serious investigating and comparison shopping
were Brian Fisher of the Cal Academy, Gary Alpert of the MCZ, and
Piotr Naskrecki of Conservation International, and when I had some
grant funds available they advised me on what equipment to purchase.
They found that the best product was by Syncroscopy. Stephen McJonathan
and Lisa Ann McNeil are the two Syncroscopy sales representatives
and technical support personnel who have worked with us, and they
are anxious to recruit more entomologist clients. I'm sure Brian,
Gary, and Piotr will continue to be the point people as they ramp
up for large-scale type imaging projects, and we all owe them a debt
of gratitude for bringing this technology into the myrmecological
Lab I, The Evergreen State College
Olympia WA 98505 USA
Ants of Costa Rica on the
Date of this version 10, December 2002
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Notes from Underground