A few years ago I needed to image some ants for a short taxonomic paper. Lacking a decent specimen imaging system (like Entovision), I decided to snap the photos at home using my standard macro gear: a dSLR with the Canon MP-E lens. The images turned out fine and were published in Zootaxa with the paper.
Later, the Antweb team imaged the same species using their standard set-up: a high-res video camera on a Leica microscope, focus-stacking the images with specialized software. I decided to compare the two. Here they are (click on each to view the uncompressed file):
How do they look? Well, the Antweb image has smoother lighting and a limitless depth of field. Points to Antweb.
But the antweb shot is also a lot smaller. The video camera is tiny compared to the SLR’s massive sensor, and a close-up look reveals that the SLR captured considerably more detail. Consider:
Score for Canon.
My point isn’t to disparage the museum-grade scope/image-stacking systems. Rather, it is that not all specimen imaging situations require them. Image quality is a product of many parameters (lighting, optics, sensor, software etc.) that interact with each other in complex ways. Some imaging situations fall into an area where the cheap SLR gear (well, cheap at $3000) outperforms the $40,000 professional grade museum systems.
In this case I was imaging a relatively large insect, and I had a lens designed to produce a sharp image over an acceptable depth of field for an object of that size. For a small ant, there is no question that the image-stacking system would produce a superior image.
Finally, since I’m not a huge fan of dead bugs on pins, here’s a healthy, happy, living Pachycondyla apicalis worker from Panama.