Mineral Photography

Several months ago I fiddled around doing some macro photography of minerals. At that time I did as most people might do, namely put my camera on a tripod and the item to be photographed on a table in front of it. This had several problems: It was quite clear to me that I wanted to do away with the tripod, and I also wanted to try some things with a belows and enlarger lens that I had acquired since my first experiments.

A solid foundation

I have seen photos taken by individuals with superb equipment (optics in particular) that have been spoiled by vibration problems. A photo that is not sharp is just not much of a photo, so getting sharp images is a first priority. With this in mind, I selected a sturdy desk (sitting at ground level on a concrete slab) to put my microscope equipment on. Doing this on a cheap lightweight table (or the worst choice of all, a folding card table) would be a recipe for disaster. This old steelcase desk is heavy and sturdy and best of all cost me only $20 at a surplus auction. The dremel tool with the tiny diamond cutoff saw that I use for trimming operations on micromounts will need to find another home. the last thing I want is dust flying around microscope and photographic optics.

Now for the stand to hold the camera. I purchased a cute little stand a few months back which has two legs in a V-shape to support a camera. On assembling it though, I am almost immediately discouraged by how light and unstable it is.

However, I have laying around a fairly heavy (3-4 pound) base from some kind of Olympus gadget. I have been wondering what to do with this and whether to toss it out, but I look it over and make some modifications that allow me to bolt the upper part of the stand to it. I feel much better about the new arrangement.
Even this stand really isn't as stout as I would like and ultimately I will want to build something much more substantial, but it will serve as a stepping stone to greater things. The wobbly point is the piece with knobs that slides up and down and holds the camera, but we could design a part to replace that .... The current setup does allow me to move on to trying some things with the bellows and enlarger lenses I have on hand.

Now for the bellows. Over the years I have somehow acquired two Canon bellows. As you can see they each have 3 knobs. One allows the lens to be moved. One allows the camera to be moved, and one allows the camera and lens to be moved together. This third knob is essentially a built in focusing rail and is a wonderful thing.

Both of the bellows I have were designed for old film era (pre-EOS) series cameras. They are in fine shape (the bellows fabric has not begun to crack and fall apart), but they are mechanicaly incompatible with the camera and lenses I have on hand. (They are Canon FD series bellows, which was what Canon sold from 1971 through 1987). The problems are not severe (at this time anyway), lots of adapters are available on Ebay. In particular I purchased an EOS to FD adapter that fits my camera and removed the small negative lens that was included with it (it serves to allow infinity focus, which is of no interest to me, and it is unquestionably a cheap optic that will only degrade the images I want, so out it goes). This gets my camera onto the bellows.

Take note of the bellows in the rear. Mounted on it is a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55 lens (which I picked up cheap). All this photo gear that people would die for and which I couldn't afford back in those days is now getting sold cheap or just thrown out. This is a legendary lens and it will be interesting to see what I can do with it. It is mounted on the Canon bellows with an adapter from Ebay and is ready to rumble.

I have lots of things I want to try with lenses, but the first thing I want to play with are some enlarger lenses. I purchased several of these from a friend who has lots of old photo gear, and at a bargain price. Two of them are Nikon El-Nikkor lenses which were always superb enlarging lenses (Nikon makes good stuff). The other is a German Schneider Componon, which is every bit as good and perhaps better (we shall see).

The trick is mounting these on the front of the bellows. This involved some machine shop work (which is a budding hobby and interest of mine, so I didn't mind). I don't have the lathe which I purchased up and running yet, so a friend came over with a rotary table and we did the work on my mill. What we did was to start with some aluminum plate, machine a circular hole to suit the lenses (they all require the same diameter hole, so it will be easy to swap them around). Then we machined the outside diameter to fit just inside a filter adapting ring with the proper threads, and then we epoxied the plate we machined into the adapter and we then have a gizmo to mount the lens.

You could just use cardboard and duct tape, but that is too bush league for us. Machining metal is much more satisfying (and termites pretty much leave it alone).

A touch of flat black paint is definitely in order though.

This little plate took us half a day to machine. When I get ready to do it again, I will use the lathe and cut the threads I need for both the lens and to fit on the bellows. For now though, the lens mounts on the plate we made using a retaining ring that came with the lens.
This assembly does not go directly on the bellows though. I first mount on the bellows a lens reversing adapter which then presents a set of 52mm filter threads (male) onto which I can thread the adapter we machined. A reversing adapter like this is sometimes used for macro photography and would fit onto a camera body (or bellows) and allow a lens to be flipped around and mounted via its filter threads.

Onto the stand this all goes, now all that is needed is a camera body.
And here we are ready to take pictures. Notice that a fiber optic light has been added. The business of light is every bit (maybe more so) as important as all the camera and optics setup. It will take a lot more than this simple setup to get really good photos, but this will at least get us started. Notice the machinists magnetic base being used to hold the fiber (very handy, and cheap from Harbor-Freight). The little thing grabbing the fiber is the clamp a chemist might use to hold a test tube.

And here is the first specimen I quickly grabbed for a test photo. It is a Linarite micro from Wales, though you can't tell it from this photo.

And here is the photo, taken at f/8 with tungsten white balance. Not all I would hope for, but a start, and I have the other two lenses to try out also. It certainly isn't hard to tell that it is Linarite. This is with the bellows at maximum extension. To get more magnification I will need more extension (I'll use tubes if I go that route), or a shorter focal length lens (I have some 16mm video camera lenses that have a 25mm focal length that I also want to try).

I also have an old Canon FD series 50mm macro lens. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against the 50mm enlarger lenses and if it performs better reversed or not. Lots of experiments just waiting!

My biggest complaint with the setup at this point (apart from wanting a sharper photo than this) is that the camera is upside down and pointing straight down, which makes things a bit difficult. It is worlds better than tripping over the tripod though.

I need to find my remote camera release, and look into setting up the USB cable to run the camera remotely from my computer (with a big screen to get an immediate view of results). The remote release will reduce the chances of bumping the camera and starting things vibrating. Last place I remember seeing it was at a uranium mine in Utah!

Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Mineralogy Info / tom@mmto.org