June 26, 2022
I do a fair bit of macro photography in the studio, for both scientific and artistic purposes. I’ve used tripods, boom poles, and large copy stands to get the camera in close. The setups were often complicated, and I sometimes felt I was concentrating more on the gear than the photograph.
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 staging and lights. After a few iterations, I had a design I liked. When I added a couple of articulating arms, it looked like a T‐Rex. So, that’s what I named it. And, given the stand uses T‐slot extrusions, the name seems apt.
The T‐Rex in Action
I have used the stand for photographing tissue samples for veterinary pathology This is an image of a bile duct in a sheep liver. The field of view is about 1.4” (35 mm) wide.
I prefer continuous lighting for my macro work; I’ve used small LED panels, LitraTorches, and even small LED flashlights. I attach them with an umbrella mount or on an articulating arm using T‐nuts. I’ll write about my lighting techniques in a future post.
You can stage most any small subject with this stand. I also use the stand when I’m not doing macro work. A 35 mm lens can give you about a 20” (50 cm) field of view. Sometimes I mount a ball head on the stand to get the camera farther out from the vertical rail, and to let me change the angle of the view. I’ve even used the stand to hold subjects for photographs while the camera was mounted on a tripod.
A priority for me is stability. I don’t want to worry about knocking over the setup while working. The bottom horizontal rail is over five pounds (2.3 kg), keeping the center of mass low. This allows the vertical rail to be 24” tall (610 mm), on a footprint that’s only 11” wide (280 mm). The stand is rock solid. If you want more height you might 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 boom or long post, even a small amount of vibration induces noticeable blur. The rigidity and mass of the stand, plus the vibration-dampening feet, go a long way towards controlling vibration. Also, it’s not possible to remove all vibration, so having your camera and subject firmly connected allows them to vibrate in sync.
I do some extreme macro photography, using microscope objectives mounted on the camera in place of the usual lenses. (I’ll write about that technique in another article.) It takes very little vibration to ruin an extreme macro photograph, and the solidity of the T‐Rex is crucial.
For extreme macro, I use the computer-controlled WeMacro rail to capture 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 especially enjoy being able to combine artistic and scientific photography. I used the stand to capture this image of a honey bee’s eye. Yes, they really have hairs growing out of their eyes. It was taken at a magnification of 11x; the subject is about 1/8” (3 mm) across.
I based the construction on T‐slot aluminum extrusions. I attach dovetail rails to make it easy to adjust the height of the camera and move the subject. The stand is shown in its vertical configuration; the camera would be positioned above the subject. The stand can be reconfigured for horizontal use. Sliding T‐nuts in the slots of the stand allow lights and dovetail rails to be attached.
I ordered the extrusions and connecting hardware from 80/20. There are other suppliers, but 80/20 has a comprehensive catalog, and for each product they have a video on how to use it. Their customer service has also been great. (I have no connection with 80/20 nor any other supplier.) The cost for these parts, including shipping in the US, is about $250. They also have equivalent parts based on metric dimensions. The rubber feet, and hardware to attach them, came from a hardware store, and you can also get them from Amazon. See step 6 below.
You’ll need a 3/16” hex key (also called an Allen wrench) to tighten the bolts.
1. Prepare 90° plates
Using five flange head bolts (#3330) for each plate, loosely attach 2 triple nuts (#3285) according to the figure below. Leave out the middle bolt in each of the bottom triple nuts. Note that the triple nuts have a flat side and a side with rims around the holes; the flat sides of the triple nuts should be against the plates.
2. Slide 90° plates onto horizontal rail
Slide the plates all the way onto the sides of the horizontal rail, with the angled side facing the back end of the rail. Don’t tighten the bolts yet.
3. Slide vertical rail onto 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 rear foot brackets
Insert two 1” bolts (#3118) and washers (#3260) into each of the double foot brackets (#4336).
The bottom bolt on each bracket goes into the empty holes on the bottom of the plates, and screws 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); be sure that the flat side of the nut is facing the plate. If the bottom bolt doesn’t align well with the triple nut, you might need to loosen the other bottom bolts in the plate temporarily.
5. Attach front foot brackets
Insert a 5/8” bolt (#3320) into each of the single-foot brackets (#4332), and loosely attach the T‐nut that came with each bolt; be sure that the flat side of the nut is facing the bracket. Slide the brackets onto the sides of the base at the front and tighten.
6. Add feet
I use 1½” diameter rubber air compressor feet. They help dampen vibration that could ruin your photograph. Also, they protect your work surface. The holes in the center of the feet are sized for 1/4” bolts. Attach each foot to its bracket with:
- 1/4‐20 thread button head cap screw (black looks tidier, if available)
- Washer (again, black if available)
- 1/4‐20 thread nut
The feet and hardware can be found on Amazon or at hardware stores. The length of the cap screws depends on the thickness of the feet. For the feet I bought, one-inch screws were a little bit too long, so I added 1¼” diameter fender washers.
Place the washer in the bracket and then drop the screw down through the washer, the bottom of the bracket, the fender washer, and the foot. From underneath, inside the recess in the foot, screw the nut onto the end of the screw. You might need a socket wrench or pliers to hold the nut, in addition to the hex key for the screw, to get the assembly tightened.
7. Add sliding T‐nuts
The sliding T‐nuts (#13054) fit into the T‐slots on the surfaces of the rails. They’re tapped with 1/4‐20 threaded holes for attaching accessories. Each has a spring-loaded ball bearing to hold it in place; this keeps the unused ones from rattling about. I usually put three in the center slots for attaching dovetail rails and clamps and staging for the subject matter. I put one in each side slot for positioning lights. You can even put them in the slots on the edges of the rails.
8. Attach end caps
Attach the end caps (#2046‐Plain) on the top of the vertical rail and at each end of the horizontal rail. The end caps are held on with friction fit studs that go into holes in 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 cross-section, and you can get clamps that allow you to easily position a camera anywhere along them. These accessories can be very pricey, but the Haoge and Sunwayfoto brands, available on Amazon, are excellent and reasonably priced. They’re compatible with Arca‐style parts, and some of their products are about 1/3 the price of comparable big-name brands.
Attach a Haoge 400mm dual dovetail rail (Haoge HQR‐400) onto the vertical part of the stand. Dual (also called double) rails have dovetail profiles on both the top and bottom, so you can clamp onto either face. Use two or three screws to attach the dovetail rail to sliding T‐nuts in the stand. By putting the top surface of the dovetail rail against the vertical stand rail, the screws will be below the surface, and not interfere with the positioning of a clamp.
The dovetail rail comes with stop screws. Use one at the bottom to keep the camera from accidentally sliding off.
Use a double clamp (Sunwayfoto DDB‐53) to position the camera on the dovetail rail. One set of jaws clamps onto the dovetail rail, and the other clamps onto a quick release plate on the bottom of your camera. You can easily adjust the location of the clamp on the dovetail rail, and thus set the height of the camera above your subject matter.
Finally, attach a quick release plate to the bottom of the camera…
…and you’re done.
About the author: David Garnick’s artistic photography is held in public, corporate, and private collections. He collaborates with museums to create imagery for exhibitions, and produces, curates, and judges exhibitions of contemporary photography. He also works with science labs to help them improve and extend their imaging capabilities. You can view his blog and some of his work at davidgarnick.com. This article was also published here.