Photomicrography: Hobby, Meet Degree

Introduction

Photomicrography is something I started playing around with at high school. By opening up a world not visible to the naked eye, it built upon macrophotography as a catalyst for my current career path.

In the beginning, I had my Pentax DSLRs hanging off the eyepiece of my venerable Zeiss Standard 14 microscope using a Pentax K Mount to Microscope Adapter. Now, I work with an eBay-sourced adapter and my Micro Four Thirds bodies for fun, and book time on a departmental microscope for research applications.

Considerations

Microscope, camera and adapter choice varies based on application. When I started out, it was just for fun, so a DSLR with an adapter mounted over the eyepiece sufficed. Now, however, I have to choose between imaging for work (which I’m unable to publish here) and imaging for play.

Rat intestine, haemotoxylin and eosin stain. Pentax K-7 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 320x magnification, brightfield.
Rat intestine, haemotoxylin and eosin stain. Pentax K-7 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 320x magnification, brightfield illumination. 1/60 s, ISO 200.

Since none of the manufacturers of Micro Four Thirds equipment make a suitable microscope adapter, I have been forced to use one from eBay with my current digital bodies. While this does work, it has issues: alignment is difficult to achieve and repeat; the structure is very light; and the eyepiece is slightly offset. Combined, these degrade the image quality compared with the more thoroughly engineered Pentax adapter, as you can see in the pictures. Slight optical misalignment, or transmission of shutter vibrations, is enough to cause a significant loss of image quality when working at high magnifications. However, for having a bit of fun, it’s perfectly acceptable. All up, a passable microscope and adapter costs about as much as a high-end new camera body and lens.

Hyphae on green algae. Pentax K10D with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, fluorescence with blue excitation (can't remember the wavelength).
Hyphae on green algae, unstained. Pentax K10D with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, epi-fluorescence illumination with blue excitation (can’t remember the wavelength). 30 s, ISO 100.

The best option (which I resort to for research applications) is to use a microscope with a photo port and dedicated microscope camera. These give the best image quality, while also adding extra interpretation and annotation features, often required for publishing. Two prominent examples would be merging photographs of a specimen dyed with two fluorescent stains and viewed at different wavelengths; or merely adding a scale bar so that relative cell sizes may be accurately determined. Sadly, precision comes at a cost: most research microscopes equipped for imaging will cost more than a brand new car. There’s a reason I book time on a departmental research microscope…

Gram stain of yeast, tentatively Rhodotorula sp. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, brightfield illumination.
Gram stain of yeast, tentatively Rhodotorula sp. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, brightfield illumination. 1/6 s, ISO 200.

As with anything in photography, it’s a good idea to see if you’re interested in photomicrography before making any financial commitment. There is a trove of images available online,  frequently accompanied by detailed descriptions. Looking through these should give you some idea of interest. It’s also worth looking into any available courses, and should you decide to take it up, researching what is and isn’t safe to work with. Outside of a lab with the appropriate physical containment level for the risk, I won’t work with anything I don’t know the source of; the bacteria and yeast in this post were photographed in the lab and disposed of in biohazard waste; the rat intestine was fixed in a lab and contained under a sealed coverslip (safe for home); I collected the algae myself, and thoroughly dried it before disposal (to ensure it was dead).

Crystal violet and Gram safranin artifacts in a Gram stain. Some Gram negative bacteria are present; the label wore off the slide, so I'm unsure of their full identity. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, brightfield illumination. 1/15 s, ISO 200.
Crystal violet and Gram safranin artefacts in a Gram stain; this was not a good stain, as the cells clumped and trapped the stain during washing. Some Gram negative bacteria are present; the label wore off the slide, so I’m unsure of their full identity. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Zeiss Standard 14 microscope, 800x magnification, brightfield illumination. 1/15 s, ISO 200.

Conclusion

Photomicrography documents observations of a world we can’t normally see. It comes in many forms, at many costs, and with many degrees of success. The process is fun, and the successes are rewarding; it has been, and continues to be, an enjoyable part of my scientific journey.

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5 thoughts on “Photomicrography: Hobby, Meet Degree”

    1. With an SLR, yes, and I ran the Pentax cameras with mirror lock up and live view whenever possible. However, since Micro Four Thirds cameras are mirrorless, they are permanently in live view, and there is no moving mirror to be locked up. It’s probably a simple case of putting a short monopod on the bench to support the rig, or stiffening the adapter to reduce resonance from the shutter. I have tried video (which uses an electronic shutter) and the images are significantly sharper; the physical movement of the shutter introduces sufficient vibration to cause problems.

      1. does your micro four thirds have vibration reduction? some cameras the vr is in the lens and others it is in the camera. no matter what, you have an interesting project.

        1. Thanks.

          All the Olympus bodies have in-body stabilisation. I keep this active all the time, but it’s still not quite enough to compensate at such high magnifications. Most dedicated microscope cameras use either an electronic shutter or a leaf shutter to skirt the shutter shock issue.

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