I don’t ordinarily do product endorsements on the blog, but here’s one: the image-stacking software CombineZP. I recommend it for two reasons. First, CombineZP produces smoother, more artifact-free images than the very expensive competition. Second, CombineZP is freeware. Alan Hadley, a British arthropod enthusiast, wrote it in his spare time.
Good. And free. Not much to argue with there.
CombineZP and similar products are designed to counter a major challenge of macrophotography, the narrow depth of field at high magnification. With standard optics, getting an entire insect at close range into focus is difficult to impossible. These programs solve the problem by taking multiple photos from different focal depths and merging the sharp parts of each into a single fully-focused image.
The technology is especially useful for preserved insect specimens. Antweb, for example, has employed several of these sorts of programs to assemble a library of more than 30,000 focus-stacked ant images.
If you’d like to get into the specimen imaging game and already have a scope with a camera attached, CombineZP means you don’t need to drop any additional money on stacking software. That’s the situation our wasp lab was in: we had a partial image system assembled from various bits and parts but lacked the final- and presumably expensive- stacking software. It made my week to discover a free program that stacked images quickly and cleanly.
Caveats apply, of course. CombineZP lacks the full set of bells and whistles included in commercial competitors. The user interface is very much a get-what-you-pay-for clunker that will transport you back to your favorite Windows programs from 1992. And it is Windows-only. But the heart of CombineZP, the underlying algorithms that align and stack the images, are about as good as they come.