Laser aiming and focus in photomacrography

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Chris S.
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Laser aiming and focus in photomacrography

Post by Chris S. »

Or, the Bratcam gets a sighting laser:

In a post last spring, Olympusman wrote, "One trick I have taken up recently is to shine a flashlight through the camera eyepiece to create an axial spotlight to help ‘find’ and center the mounted insect initially."

I have also used a flashlight this way, but find that an inexpensive laser works much better—so much so that after almost three years of working with a sighting laser (as I call it), I wonder how I ever got along without one. Olympusman's remark reminded me that I've been meaning—far too long—to share. Below, I'll try to demonstrate why I find the sighting laser so useful, and give a parts list for others who want to make one.

A laser shining through the viewfinder of a DSLR shows precisely where the camera is aimed. Vitally, it also shows when the lens is in focus. Looking at the beam of the sighting laser on the subject, I can aim even a 100x objective and adjust it to within 50 microns of perfect focus. Only then do I bother looking through the lens, quickly tweaking focus on a computer in liveview. Those who work at higher magnifications will understand the utility of this. On traditional microscopes, one first performs positioning and focusing with a low-powered lens, then rotates the turret to sequentially higher and higher magnifications, tweaking position and focus with each step. It’s hard to go straight to high magnifications without this step-by-step approach—you won’t know what part of the subject is in view, and depth of field is so thin that finding focus requires a long, frustrating search.

But the sighting laser is not limited to high magnifications--I find it great convenience even down to 2x.

Here is a 50x objective in focus:
Image

Same 50x objective, out of focus:
Image

Focusing at 50x works like this:
Image

In actual use, the focused laser beam is far more clear and crisp than it appears in these photos, and is shaped like a tiny cross hair. But the brightness of the laser beam, compared with the subject, greatly exceeds the camera’s contrast range, and I didn’t feel like doing HDR for this post—so the central portion of the beam is burned out.

With a lower-powered objective, the laser cross hairs are much larger. Here is the laser with a 2x objective, in focus:
Image

Focusing at 2x works like this:

Image


A homemade bracket holds the laser in correct alignment:
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Here is what the sighting laser projects in plain air:
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You can make your own sighting laser for very little money—about $20 USD. Perhaps a bit more if you don't already have a few simple tools and shop supplies on hand, or less if you can scrounge an item or two from your scrap box. A potential parts list is below. It differs slightly from what I've shown in this thread, due to changes in availability and the fact that, as I've experimented, I've mixed portions of different offerings. But it is very close to what I’m using.

Image


A: Homemade bracket for DSLR eyepiece. The bracket shown here fits my Nikon D200 and D7100 bodies, and was surprisingly easy to make. The materials were pieces of aluminum right-angle stock and aluminum flat stock from my local hardware store. These cost only a few dollars, and since they are handy for a wide variety of jobs, I keep a selection on hand as shop supplies. If you don’t have them already, you should be able to get lengths of several useful sizes and shapes for under $10 USD total. Depending on what brand and model of DSLR you use, you may need a different shape—but regardless, it should be easy to make.

Aluminum, being a soft metal, is easy to work by hand. The only tools needed to make this bracket were a hacksaw, a file, and a drill.

For anyone daunted by even rudimentary metalworking, I'd urge you to go ahead and jump in at this level. While I take difficult work to my fabricator, this bracket did not require his expertise or equipment. A hacksaw (a hand saw for metal), is a roughly $10 USD item. For this project, I would strongly recommend purchasing a round "rod saw" blade for the hacksaw, such as this one ($5 USD). This thin, round type of blade allows you to cut in any direction—in this case, down, then sideways, then up. I’d suggest you cut a slightly smaller hole than is required by your viewfinder, then enlarge it—slowly, with a hand file—until you get a precise fit.

As an alternative to making one's own bracket, perhaps it would work to purchase an inexpensive “universal” right-angle viewfinder that includes adapters for assorted cameras, and alter one of these adapters to hold a sighting laser. I haven't tried this.


B: Laser module. (Includes laser diode, barrel, focusing mechanism, and cross-hair lens.)

"650nm 660nm Red 5mW Laser Cross Module Diode w/ driver": $6 USD

Image

This eBay item—and the above image—came from eBay vendor buyamore. I’ve purchased a number of items from this vendor, and my experiences have been good. (Also, shipping is free.)

This laser requires 3 volts DC, and draws less than 45mA of current. (These numbers will become important when choosing a power supply.)

Regarding the laser’s output power: I chose a reasonably low-powered laser of 5mW (milliwatts), in the color red (650-660nm). These specifications are similar to office laser pointers. The U.S. FDA categorizes these as "Class IIIA" lasers, safe for "responsible use" by consumers, and unlikely to cause eye injury if brief mistakes occur. My 5mW lasers are bright enough for easy use with low-powered objectives in a well-lit room; as magnification increases, I often prefer to dim the room lights while sighting with the laser. Since my room lights are controlled by foot switches and turned off for shooting, this is convenient for me. Still, I’ve purchased, though not yet installed, a more powerful laser. I think it is safe in my implementation.


C: Mount/heatsink

"Mount/Cooling/Holder Heatsink 12.5mm Laser Diode Module Cool System Fixed Device": $5.50

Image from eBay vendor buyamore
Image

The above item doesn’t seem to be as finely finished or anodized as mine, but should work just as well. The term “heatsink” is a misnomer here—we’re just using the item as a convenient mount—but “heatsink” is a useful search term.


D: Power supply for laser

Among many power-supply options, here is a nice one: Jameco AC to DC power supply wall adapter transformer single output 3.3 volt 1.5 amp 4.5 watt: $11. You can safely ignore the fact that this unit outputs 3.3 volts, rather than the laser’s nominal 3 volt rating.

Image from Jameco
Image


This is a good place to note that the laser listed here includes a built-in “driver,” which simplifies hooking it to a power supply. With a built-in driver, you need only control the voltage delivered to your laser—the driver limits the current.


E: Switch

The way a switch feels in my hands influences the satisfaction I get when using it, so I purchased locally, flipping quite a few switches on and off before choosing. The switches I chose are not the cheapest available, but feel good in hand. I use both a momentary pushbutton switch and a toggle switch, wired in parallel. The pushbutton switch lets me flash the laser briefly; the toggle switch allows a hands-free “on” state. (If you pick just one, I recommend the toggle switch.)

Pushbutton switch—RadioShack part# 275-646: $3.50
Toggle switch—RadioShack part# 275-663: $5.50

Pushbutton switch (image from RadioShack)
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Toggle switch (image from RadioShack)
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F: Project box

Many small containers will hold the switches. I used a RadioShack part# 270-1801: ($3.50). This is a small project enclosure (aka "project box"). Since the Bratcam's base is made of steel, I attached magnets to the bottom of the project box to hold it in place.

Project box (image from RadioShack)
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Details on laser lenses:

You can swap lenses, if you prefer a dot-shaped beam to a plus-sign shaped beam. For a few more dollars, one can also buy glass (rather than plastic) lenses. I’ve wondered if these improve performance, but have not tried them.

Image from eBay vendor buyamore
Image

canonian
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Post by canonian »

Incredible. The Ever Evolving Bradcam.
I'm waiting for the moment when The Bradcam is catching prey, rapidly cools down the subject, start focus stacking it, after which it posts the results to the Forum and releases the specimen ....:)

johan
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Post by johan »

This is really good - easy to make, incredibly useful and well written up.

Salut.
My extreme-macro.co.uk site, a learning site. Your comments and input there would be gratefully appreciated.

Pau
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Post by Pau »

A really nice device, clever idea and engineering.
Pau

ChrisR
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Post by ChrisR »

A valuable evolution in technique, elegantly executed and described :) .

GemBro
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Post by GemBro »

You gotta be kidding me ...

I only got out my cheap laser pen the other night and shone it through the viewfinder to do exactly this ...

I was originally going to build it into a 2nd hand right angled viewer, as they're pretty cheap ... but I was going to go with the blank view finder dust cover and drill out a tiny hole ... I've already bought 10 tiny lasers (for other projects) from China for £2 (the lot) ... I was going to fix this into a small potting box enclosure to strengthen it up a bit ... I was gonna wing it and epoxy the laser in position as once done it should never need to move again ... until I saw this :D ... gonna have a re-think ...

Your design seems better with the handy crosshairs (not essential mind) ... and the adjustment screws very handy ... then line the laser to the middle 'Spot Focus' LED ...

Nice one Chris ... it looks like I'm off to China to buy some more bits :) ...

Minds ... like ... and all that? ...

Gem
Last edited by GemBro on Fri Nov 07, 2014 11:53 am, edited 1 time in total.
Canon 550D(T2i) ML (Nightly Builds) | Canon 5D MKII | Raynox 250 | Palinar 35mm f2.8 (reversed) | EL-Nikkor 50mm f2.8 N | EL-Nikkor 50mm f4 N | EL-Nikkor 50mm f4 | Bellows | Objectives: LOMO 3.7x 0.11 : 8x 0.20 : 40x 0.65
RiG II - 'Bamboo': Olympus CH Focus Block with Inverted Arca/Swiss | Canon 430 EX (x2) | Olympus T20 flash (x2) | Youngnuo YN-622C Wireless triggers (x3) | Ikea Jansjo 3W LED Lighting (x3)
Stepper Motor Focusing System (Helicon Remote)

JL
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Post by JL »

This is a very useful gadget. Another item for the "to do" list.

Thanks for sharing.

ChrisR
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Post by ChrisR »

my cheap laser pen
Sure, key-fob lasers, LED head torches and the like all work to a point (focused..), but this one is cool 8) , and I think the cross hairs are a significant advantage.
A battery version would save a cable and probably have sufficient life, perhaps..

GemBro
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Post by GemBro »

Oh definitely ... this is a cool design ... I only used the cheap laser pen to see if it would work before I saw ChrisS' post ...

I just thought it was a weird coincidence ;) ...

Gem
Canon 550D(T2i) ML (Nightly Builds) | Canon 5D MKII | Raynox 250 | Palinar 35mm f2.8 (reversed) | EL-Nikkor 50mm f2.8 N | EL-Nikkor 50mm f4 N | EL-Nikkor 50mm f4 | Bellows | Objectives: LOMO 3.7x 0.11 : 8x 0.20 : 40x 0.65
RiG II - 'Bamboo': Olympus CH Focus Block with Inverted Arca/Swiss | Canon 430 EX (x2) | Olympus T20 flash (x2) | Youngnuo YN-622C Wireless triggers (x3) | Ikea Jansjo 3W LED Lighting (x3)
Stepper Motor Focusing System (Helicon Remote)

ray_parkhurst
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Post by ray_parkhurst »

I love elegant solutions that promise better functionality. Bravo. Now to experiment...

pierre
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Laser aiming and focus in photomacrography

Post by pierre »

Hello Chris,

Definitively a good work :shock:
Thanks for sharing this.
Regards

Pierre

Olympusman
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Aiming

Post by Olympusman »

My technique is a bit less sophisticated. I shine a penlight through the camera eyepiece and work the X-Y axis until the insect is spotlighted.
Michael Reese Much FRMS EMS Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA

RogelioMoreno
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Post by RogelioMoreno »

Super idea!

Thank you for sharing.

Rogelio

soldevilla
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Post by soldevilla »

I use too a cheap LED flashlight. Not only point to the target, but show the FOV covered for the lens when the objective is focused.

But good idea the laser, I will test a defocused laser.

These days, I'm making a collimator for telescope, buying cheap LED and laser flashlights in the nearby Chinese store for only 2,5€ :D

ChrisR
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Post by ChrisR »

Minor update - Ebay Item 262203403699 is the laser/driver with holder/heatsink, for under $7.
Draws 35mA from a single CR123.

[Yes I put this end of the wrong thread recently too..]
Chris R

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