I do a lot of macro photography in the studio, for scientific and artistic purposes. I used tripods, poles and large copy stands to bring the camera closer. The configurations were often complicated and I sometimes felt like I was focusing more on the hardware than on the photo.
There are many macro and copy stands out there, but I wanted to build a better one, using only off-the-shelf parts, at a competitive price. I wanted it to be stable and have attachment points for the stage and the lights. After a few iterations, I had a design that I liked. When I added some articulated arms, it looked like a T‐Rex. So that’s what I named it. And, given that the mount uses T-slot extrusions, the name seems apt.
The T‐Rex in action
I used the stand to photograph tissue samples for veterinary pathology This is an image of a common bile duct in the liver of a sheep. The field of view is approximately 1.4″ (35mm) wide.
I prefer continuous lighting for my macro work; I used small LED panels, LitraTorches and even small LED flashlights. I fix them with an umbrella stand or on an articulating arm using T-nuts. I’ll write about my lighting techniques in a future post.
You can stage most small subjects with this stand. I also use the stand when I’m not doing macros. A 35mm lens can give you a field of view of around 20 inches (50cm). Sometimes I mount a ball joint on the bracket to move the camera away from the vertical rail and allow me to change the viewing angle. I even used the stand to hold subjects for photos while the camera was mounted on a tripod.
A priority for me is stability. I don’t want to worry about spilling the configuration while working. The lower horizontal rail weighs over five pounds (2.3 kg), which keeps the center of mass low. This allows the vertical rail to be 24″ (610mm) high, on a footprint just 11″ wide (280mm). The stand is rock solid. If you want more height, you may need a heavier or wider base.
Minimizing vibration is important. Because I use continuous lighting and apertures around ƒ/8, shutter speeds are slow. So when I place the camera on the end of a pole or long pole, even a small amount of vibration induces noticeable blur. The rigidity and mass of the stand, along with the anti-vibration feet, greatly contribute to vibration control. Also, not all vibration can be suppressed, so having your camera and subject firmly connected allows them to vibrate in sync.
I do extreme macro photography, using microscope lenses mounted on the camera instead of the usual lenses. (I’ll write about this technique in another article.) It takes very little vibration to ruin extreme macro photography, and the toughness of the T-Rex is crucial.
For extreme macro I use the computer controlled WeMacro rail to capture the focus stacks and the Swebo LS001‐4w XY stage to position the subject. I attach them to the T-Rex using dovetail rails and clamps.
I particularly appreciate being able to combine artistic and scientific photography. I used the stand to capture this image of a bee’s eye. Yes, they do have hair sticking out of their eyes. It was taken at 11x magnification; subject measures approximately 1/8″ (3mm) in diameter.
I based the construction on T-slot aluminum extrusions. I attach dovetail rails to make it easier to adjust the camera height and move the subject. The stand is represented in its vertical configuration; the camera would be positioned above the subject. The stand can be reconfigured for horizontal use. T-nuts that slide into slots in the bracket allow you to attach lights and dovetail rails.
I ordered the extrusions and connecting hardware from 80/20. There are other vendors, but 80/20 has a full catalog, and for each product they have a video on how to use it. Their customer service has also been excellent. (I have no connection with 80/20 or any other supplier.) The cost of these parts, including shipping to the United States, is approximately $250. They also have equivalent parts based on metric dimensions. The rubber feet and the hardware to attach them come from a hardware store, and you can also get them from Amazon. See step 6 below.
You will need a 3/16″ hex key (also called an Allen key) to tighten the bolts.
1. Prepare 90° plates
Using five flange head bolts (#3330) for each plate, loosely attach 2 triple nuts (#3285) as shown in the figure below. Leave out the middle bolt in each of the three bottom nuts. Note that triple nuts have a flat side and a side with ridges around the holes; the flat sides of the triple nuts should be against the plates.
2. Slide the plates at 90° on the horizontal rail
Slide the plates completely onto the sides of the horizontal rail, with the sloped side facing the rear end of the rail. Do not tighten the bolts yet.
3. Slide the vertical track over the 90° plates
Align the plates with the back of the horizontal rail and slide the vertical rail down onto the plates. Tighten all bolts.
4. Attach the rear foot supports
Insert two 1” Bolts (#3118) and Washers (#3260) into each of the Dual Leg Brackets (#4336).
The bottom bolt of each bracket goes into the empty holes at the bottom of the plates and threads into the triple nut already inside the horizontal rail. The top bolt goes through the plate and is held in place with the nut (#3278); make sure the flat side of the nut faces the plate. If the bottom bolt does not line up well with the triple nut, you may need to temporarily loosen the other bottom plate bolts.
5. Attach the front foot supports
Insert a 5/8” Bolt (#3320) through each of the Single Leg Brackets (#4332) and loosely secure the T-Nut supplied with each bolt; make sure the flat side of the nut faces the bracket. Slide the brackets on the sides of the base to the front and tighten.
6. Add feet
I use 1½” diameter rubber air compressor feet. They help dampen vibrations that could ruin your shot. Plus, they protect your work surface. The holes in the center of the legs are sized for 1/4″ bolts. Attach each leg to its bracket with:
- 1/4-20 Thread Button Head Cap Screws (black looks cleaner, if available)
- Washer (again, black if available)
- 1/4‐20 threaded nut
Legs and hardware can be found on Amazon or at hardware stores. The length of the pan head screws depends on the thickness of the legs. For the legs I purchased, the one inch screws were a bit too long, so I added 1 ¼” diameter fender washers.
Place the washer in the bracket, then slide the screw through the washer, the bottom of the bracket, the fender washer, and the foot. From below, inside the recess in the foot, screw the nut onto the end of the screw. You may need a socket wrench or pliers to hold the nut, in addition to the hex wrench for the screw, to tighten the assembly.
7. Add sliding T-nuts
Sliding T-nuts (#13054) fit into the T-slots on the track surfaces. They are tapped with 1/4-20 threaded holes for accessory attachment. Each has a spring-loaded ball bearing to hold it in place; this prevents those not in use from rattling. I usually put three in the center slots to attach rails and dovetail clamps and stage the subject. I put one in each side slot to position the lights. You can even put them in the slots on the edges of the rails.
8. Attach the end caps
Attach end caps (#2046‐Plain) to the top of the vertical track and to each end of the horizontal track. The end caps are held by friction studs which fit into holes at the ends of the rails.
Dovetail rail and clamp
A dovetail rail makes it easy to adjust the height of the camera. These rails have a dovetail section and you can get clamps that allow you to easily position a camera anywhere along them. These accessories can be very expensive, but the Haoge and Sunwayfoto brands available on Amazon are excellent and reasonably priced. They are compatible with Arca style parts and some of their products cost about 1/3 the price of comparable top brands.
Attach a Haoge 400mm double dovetail rail (Haoge HQR-400) to the vertical part of the bracket. Double rails (also called doubles) have dovetail profiles at the top and bottom, so you can clamp on either side. Use two or three screws to attach the dovetail rail to the sliding t-nuts in the bracket. By placing the top surface of the dovetail rail against the vertical rail of the bracket, the screws will be below the surface and will not interfere with positioning a clamp.
The dovetail rail comes with stop screws. Use one at the bottom to prevent the camera from accidentally slipping out.
Use a double clamp (Sunwayfoto DDB‐53) to position the camera on the dovetail rail. One set of jaws attaches to the dovetail rail and the other attaches to a quick release plate on the bottom of your camera. You can easily adjust the location of the clamp on the dovetail rail and thereby set the height of the camera above your subject.
Finally, attach a quick release plate to the bottom of the camera…
…and you’re done.
About the Author: David Garnick’s fine art photography is held in public, corporate and private collections. He collaborates with museums to create images for exhibitions, and produces, organizes and judges exhibitions of contemporary photography. He also works with science labs to help them improve and expand their imaging capabilities. You can see his blog and some of his work at davidgarnick.com. This article was also published here.