Cognisys at BugShot

As if you needed another reason to attend our BugShot photo workshop in Belize, it seems we’ll have a rather interesting bit of equipment on hand:


Cognisys is a Michigan company that makes electronic gadgets for assisting macro and other science photography, and they have a growing reputation for affordable rigs of high build quality. I have yet to use any Cognisys gear, but my co-instructor John Abbott does a great deal with it, loves it, and has arranged a StackShot for our September course.

Let me explain why I’m excited to try it out.

In recent years I’ve watched entomologists gradually realize that high-magnification photography is better with SLR cameras + macro lenses than with traditional video cameras + microscopes. First, SLRs are just better at photography than video cameras. Images are crisper, bigger, brighter, deeper, and simply…better. Second, and this is important, SLRs are far cheaper. The magic combination of way better and way cheaper means we’re seeing fantastic micrography coming from folks who don’t have six-figure research grants and university resources.

Cognisys fits into this imaging revolution by providing, inexpensively, an integral part of the new SLR microscopy kit. Most insect microscopy uses a technique called focus-stacking to overcome limited depth-of-field at high magnifications. Stacking involves a series of exposures taken at slightly different focus points and merged into a single sharp image. Like so:

Over 30 separate images were combined to make this sharp portrait of Eciton hamatum, an army ant collected at the January 2013 BugShot course in Belize.

I don’t focus-stack often. When I do, I manually advance the camera along a rail to capture each image by turning a little focus knob. Turn, click. Turn, click. Manual stacking takes time, and it has the unintended consequence of fussy and uneven focus intervals. If I jump too far, I miss a slice and have to re-do the whole stack. My system is functional for occasional pieces, but people who work in the genre typically need an automated system to standardize intervals and speed the workflow. Automated z-steppers are what the high-budget folks at use with their microscope systems, and they are what StackShot can do for the rest of us.

In any case, if you come to Belize with us you’ll be able to see StackShot in action.

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