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Author Topic: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions  (Read 4706 times)

Michael Erlewine

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StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« on: April 09, 2018, 08:16:21 pm »

I have been stacking focus for many years now, so Iím no stranger to this technique. And the track of my learning curve (more like a spiral) has been fueled by my using better and better corrected lenses (APO) to enhance the stacking. In other words, the more finely corrected the lenses, the more careful I have to be in stacking, and on around. Itís like a Catch-22.

I get lots of emails and messages about my photos. And not infrequently (at least from photographers) is the question as to whether I have tried one of the automated focus rails. In the past, I have taken a certain amount of pride in pointing out to these folks that I can stack quite well manually, thank you very much. I had no intention of varying my technique.

Yet, as I pointed out above, the circular spiral of finer lenses and precise stacking led to more and better apochromatic lenses, like the Zeiss Otus series, the APO-El Nikkor 105, the Leica Elmarit-R APO 100mm macro, and so on. I pretty-much took these fine lenses in stride, hopefully learning to use them more and more skillfully.

Then comes the Schneider Macro Varon 85mm industrial lens. I had kind of heard about this lens on and off for some time, but never had seen one come up used on Ebay and even trying to get availability and a firm price from the manufacturer and distributors was difficult. It was almost as if they did not want to sell to me because I was not a company that required industrial lens for line-scanning. I wrote them. I called them on the phone.

A more detailed story about the Macro Varon would require a separate article. Suffice it to say that a good friend of mine, another photographer, sent me a FB message telling me that a Macro Varon just came up of Ebay and at an attractive price at that. It took all of perhaps one minute and I had bought it. It was not an impulse buy, because I had decided to get one quite a while ago, just not pay the retail price of about $4500. Ouch!

The Makro Varon is a very highly corrected lens, certainly worthy of the name APO. However, perhaps most remarkable was that this was a lens built for a wide range of magnifications, which is unusual for industrial lenses, which usually have a very limited magnification range at which they are at optimum sharpness. The Macro Varon even has a separate ring to compensate for whichever reproduction-ratio is used, actually moving the inner lens elements around to accommodate that reproduction range. And, interestingly enough, its specs showed me that it could easily outperform the sensor of my fairly new Nikon D850. ďHmmmm, I mused. Iíd like to see that.Ē

And see it I did and pretty quickly too. But such a revelation soon led me to rethinking my bias against automated focus rails. It was not that I could not stack well, but I continue to get older and I am old enough as it is, and the little bumps, jars, and vibrations caused by me began to be more visible; they got in the way.

Anyway, back to this blog. So, there I was, reading about the StackShot, when before I knew it my finger was hitting the return-key to order a copy. And to my surprise, the company (Cognisys) was right here in Michigan, only just up the road from where I live, in Traverse City.

So, it was only a day or so before the automated-rail turned up at my door. However, learning to use StackShot was a bit of puzzle. It actually is very simple, but the manual is SO complete that finding the simple in it is hard. At least thatís how it struck me. I just wanted to get going right away and stack something, but although eventually that was easy, at first it was not so.

And also, this device is meant for many kinds (or ways) of stacking. It took me a while to figure out what the name for what I wanted to do was. I finally did (Automatic Distance) and, as mentioned, it could not be simpler. Well, it could be explained more simply. LOL. As a software developer myself since the early 1970s, I recognized the kind of manual that indeed was precise, but is no beginnerís guide. I told them so.

The problem was, IMO, how do I find what increment or step makes sense for the kind of close-up focus-stacking that I do. I donít need the kind of detail one needs for stacking a beeís knees, but I do need enough overlap of images to make the rendering of the stack smooth with no banding.

Of course, I called the support line at Cognisys and spoke with a very nice person, only too willing to help. The problem was that at each question, each point where I was stuck, he pointed out that this or that particular choice was variable, very variable. So after fifteen minutes or so, I was right back where I started from, having to figure it out for myself. Whatís new? Story of my life! LOL.

And it took a while for me to run many stacks at different step-sizes to find a step-size that gave me what I was looking for and not one that took all day by over-stacking what probably couldnít be seen. I wasnít stacking a microscope image, but just a flower or two.

I messaged Rik Littlefield, creator of Zerene Stacker, the stacking software I use, and asked him about over sampling. His response was that it wonít harm anything to make too many images, but it might add a wee bit of extra noise.

After a few happy days with StackShot, here is where I am at. So far, it looks like the more detail you can get with the smaller increments with Stackshot, the better the result, within reason.

StackShot likes to work in thousandths-of-an-inch or in millimeters or fractions thereof, your choice. I found myself working with MLS, thousandths of an inch, a setting of 20 Mls seems pretty good. 10 MLS is slightly better, but perhaps not worth the extra time, etc. A lot depends on keeping natural light even, which is hard with variable cloudiness.

My thoughts on using the StackShot automatic-rail are positive. I have stacked for many years, always barely touching the focus barrel or whatever mechanism as required. I got pretty good at it, but also made little accidental bumps and knocks, which have never helped at all. And, as I drill down on these ultra-sharp industrial lenses that can challenge the sensor of even the Nikon D850, there is less room for user-caused error and a greater demand for regular precise increments.

After many years of focus stacking, my most valuable learned skills are in setting up and composing the shot, although I have always done my best to move carefully through all the steps that focus-stacking requires. However, having tried out StackShot, I am convinced it has a lot to offer me in stability and consistency, leaving me more time to consider what shot I want to take. I am enjoying that.

I have a fair amount of testing the Stackshot yet to do, but I am already getting a handle on it. By testing various step-sizes, I am already converging on what seems to work for me. Iím not doing photo-micography, but rather just simple close-up and macro photography.

Of the many options that StackShot offers, the one I seem to be gravitating to is Automatic-Distance, which allows me to choose the granularity, the step-size, that works best for my work. In other words, I have one main step size that will be applied no matter what scope or distance I want to cover. Should that not be fine enough, I can easily make if finer, etc. The only caveat might be with spherical objects, where following the curve demands finer steps, IMO.

So, the step sizes I have settled on should work. Physically, the StackShot is very well made, meaning it is robust, as strong or stronger than any other focus rail I have and I have ten or so. Its vertical profile for my camera is low, about as low as it could be and I have fitted it with my favorite RRS Arca quick-release clamp, the one with a larger knob. I can see no way that this is not better than what I have been doing myself by hand.

And the program allows me to introduce all kinds of latency time, which I have done, so that at each movement of the auto rail, I take a second or so to let any vibrations created by the mechanism movement subside.

The only problem, which has nothing to do with StackShot, is that since I use natural light, on a variably-cloudy day the lighting changes from moment to moment and affects the stack. To counter this, I would have to be standing there, slightly modifying the shutter moment-by-moment to keep the light stable. That kind of takes the auto out of automatic, but thatís the price we pay for natural light. It varies.

So, my initial impression of the StackShot is not only good, but very good, almost something like ďwhere-have-you-been-all-my-life?Ē good. I like it.

As for taking the time I am used to spending stacking focus at the camera away from me, which I traditionally associate with meditative absorption on my part, it does not seem a problem. My hard-won skills are seeing the shot and setting up for it. With StackShot, I do the creative work and let an expert step through the mechanics while I do other stuff. Makes sense and seems fine.

StackShot is easily rough enough to take into the field, provided you realize that it is heavy and if you donít have any wind. Here in Michigan, I wait to see each day if there is no wind at first light. Rare, but it happens.

A Hidden Surprise

Surprise, surprise! There is almost always a surprise with new equipment. Using stackshot made one thing very clear. By standardizing the process of focus stacking (the mechanical part) all lenses were treated equally.

Itís true that I always did my best to incrementally stack focus as carefully as I could. But, I cannot pretend that on any given day, I may have stacked looser or tighter, even or less even. I can only guess at the variation.

But one thing is clear so far from using the StackShot and that is that the regularity of increments (the step size) reveals more clearly than I have ever seen the true or actual difference between any of these highly corrected lenses. It is clear that some of these lens differences were veiled by the more organic (sloppy) process of stacking by hand and not by auto-stacking.   

However, by regulating the stacking process, it creates a much more level playing field. And I found it very easy to see the differences between lenses, many of which I could never before be certain about.

And so, whatever else auto-rail stacking provides (and there is a lot) a wonderful bonus in allowing me to see more clearly than ever how lenses differ, something I have always strained to see (regardless of all the graphs) for myself. By stacking in a more regulated manner removes (at least for me) a veil that has been obscuring these difference all of this time.

Below are a couple of tables that might be useful. StackShot likes to work in thousandths-of-an-inch or in millimeters or fractions there of.

1 Millimeter = 39.3701 Thousandth of an Inch

1 thousandth of an inch in is equal to 25.40 μm
Thousandths-inch TO MILLIMETER

10-mils = 0.254 Millimeters
15-mils = 0.381 Millimeters
20-mils = 0.508 Millimeters
25-mils = 0.635 Millimeters
30-mils = 0.762 Millimeters
35-mils = 0.889 Millimeters
39-mils = 0.9906 Millimeters
39.37 mils = 1 Millimeter

MILLIMETER to Thousandths-inch

.25 MM = 9.84 Mils
.333 MM = 13.11 Mils
.5 MM = 19.685 Mils
.666 MM = 26.22
.75 MM =29.5276 Mils
1 MM = 39.37 Mils
1.25 MM = 49.2126 Mils
1.5 MM = 59.055 Mils
2 MM = 78.7 Mils
2.5 MM = 98.42 Mils
3 MM = 118.11 Mils
3.5 = 137.8 Mils
4 = 157.5 Mils
4.5 = 177.2 Mils
5 = 197 Mils


Here are three example images, both done with StackShot, one with the Schneider Macro Varon f/4.5 and another with the APO-El Nikkor 105mm f/5.6. A third one is with the Nikkor ďOĒ CRT lens.
« Last Edit: April 09, 2018, 08:55:43 pm by Michael Erlewine »
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Eric Myrvaagnes

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #1 on: April 09, 2018, 08:41:59 pm »

This is a beautifully written, informative and entertaining article. Thanks for sharing it.

Eric
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Michael Erlewine

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #2 on: April 09, 2018, 08:57:24 pm »

This is a beautifully written, informative and entertaining article. Thanks for sharing it.

Eric

Glad someone reads and likes it. I am new to these auto-stackers. LOL.
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LesPalenik

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #3 on: April 09, 2018, 11:49:47 pm »

Beautiful images and a very valuable article.
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32BT

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #4 on: April 10, 2018, 04:15:03 am »

Interesting colordifferences between 1 & 2. Did you also finetune the focus for the lenses? Perhaps you also need to make separate colorprofiles for each lens. That would be a completely new can of worms to keep yourself occupied! ;-)

At first impression, the APO Nikkor second image has my preference both colorwise and sharpnesswise.
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bjanes

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #5 on: April 10, 2018, 09:52:40 am »

I have been stacking focus for many years now, so Iím no stranger to this technique. And the track of my learning curve (more like a spiral) has been fueled by my using better and better corrected lenses (APO) to enhance the stacking. In other words, the more finely corrected the lenses, the more careful I have to be in stacking, and on around. Itís like a Catch-22.

I get lots of emails and messages about my photos. And not infrequently (at least from photographers) is the question as to whether I have tried one of the automated focus rails. In the past, I have taken a certain amount of pride in pointing out to these folks that I can stack quite well manually, thank you very much. I had no intention of varying my technique.

Yet, as I pointed out above, the circular spiral of finer lenses and precise stacking led to more and better apochromatic lenses, like the Zeiss Otus series, the APO-El Nikkor 105, the Leica Elmarit-R APO 100mm macro, and so on. I pretty-much took these fine lenses in stride, hopefully learning to use them more and more skillfully.

Michael,

I have been following your work for years and have a lot of respect for your artistic and technical abilities. Your stacks with stackshot look excellent, but are you aware that Rik Littlefield does not recommend stacking by rail at lower reproduction ratios such as that involved with a bouquet of flowers or even a single rose? Personally, I have used Stackshot in such cases with good results and feel that his recommendation in this area is a bit overblown and would be interested in your opinion regarding this matter.

https://www.zerenesystems.com/cms/stacker/docs/troubleshooting/ringversusrail

Regards,

Bill Janes
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Michael Erlewine

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #6 on: April 10, 2018, 10:00:17 am »

Michael,

I have been following your work for years and have a lot of respect for your artistic and technical abilities. Your stacks with stackshot look excellent, but are you aware that Rik Littlefield does not recommend stacking by rail at lower reproduction ratios such as that involved with a bouquet of flowers or even a single rose? Personally, I have used Stackshot in such cases with good results and feel that his recommendation in this area is a bit overblown and would be interested in your opinion regarding this matter.

https://www.zerenesystems.com/cms/stacker/docs/troubleshooting/ringversusrail

Regards,

Bill Janes

Rik recommends a bellows system and moving the rear standard about working with a focus rail. But we shall see what is possible. I am working on it It seems to work fine, so far.
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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #7 on: April 10, 2018, 10:10:32 am »

A very nice article!

To my eyes, the apo el Nikkor looks even better thean the Macro Varon.
Which one do you like best so far?
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Michael Erlewine

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #8 on: April 10, 2018, 10:15:37 am »

A very nice article!

To my eyes, the apo el Nikkor looks even better thean the Macro Varon.
Which one do you like best so far?

To early to tell. Although I have a more level playing field for testing with the StackShot, I am still searching for the right increment. In those two shots, the shot with the APO El-Nikkor had a smaller increment than the Macro Varon, so that may be the difference. My hunch is that the special quality of the El Nikkor is very special, but we will see. I'm on it.
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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #9 on: April 10, 2018, 10:36:34 am »

Michael, thanks for the article. Informative, as always.
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bjanes

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2018, 11:10:35 am »

Rik recommends a bellows system and moving the rear standard about working with a focus rail. But we shall see what is possible. I am working on it It seems to work fine, so far.

Is this what you are currently doing (moving the rear standard)?
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Michael Erlewine

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #11 on: April 10, 2018, 11:40:17 am »

Is this what you are currently doing (moving the rear standard)?

The StackShot does not power a view camera, so the answer is no. However, I wish (and there is no reason it could not be done) we had a small moterized-rail view camera. That would be the best.

The Stackshot is just a motorized focus rail, so it is an inferior method for focus-stacking software. That's what I have been told.

Like algebras, we have all these methods, and each one looks at the whole thing from a different perspective. There is no magic bullet.
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bjanes

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #12 on: April 11, 2018, 03:44:03 pm »

The StackShot does not power a view camera, so the answer is no. However, I wish (and there is no reason it could not be done) we had a small moterized-rail view camera. That would be the best.

The Stackshot is just a motorized focus rail, so it is an inferior method for focus-stacking software. That's what I have been told.

Like algebras, we have all these methods, and each one looks at the whole thing from a different perspective. There is no magic bullet.

The Stackshot excels in stacking subjects the size of a raisin or fruit fly as documented in Rik's FAQ rail vs ring. According to Rik, for a bouquet of flowers it is awful and it is only mediocre for a single rose. It is not well suited for the stacks you posted, even though it can be pressed into service in such situations if one uses good post stack editing. That was the subject of my previous reply.

You now say it is an inferior method, whereas you extolled the Stackshot in your original post. I am confused!

Bill
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Michael Erlewine

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #13 on: April 11, 2018, 03:47:26 pm »

The Stackshot excels in stacking subjects the size of a raisin or fruit fly as documented in Rik's FAQ rail vs ring. According to Rik, for a bouquet of flowers it is awful and it is only mediocre for a single rose. It is not well suited for the stacks you posted, even though it can be pressed into service in such situations if one uses good post stack editing. That was the subject of my previous reply.

You now say it is an inferior method, whereas you extolled the Stackshot in your original post. I am confused!

Bill

Rik Littlefield states that the best methods of stacking to work with his Zerene Stacker sofware, in order by best:

(1) Best. Moving rear standard on a view camera, hold the front standard and lens fixed.

(2) Using the focus barrel on a lens.

(3) Using a focus rail like StackShot.
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bjanes

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2018, 04:28:49 pm »

Rik Littlefield states that the best methods of stacking to work with his Zerene Stacker sofware, in order by best:

(1) Best. Moving rear standard on a view camera, hold the front standard and lens fixed.

(2) Using the focus barrel on a lens.

(3) Using a focus rail like StackShot.

The best method depends on the imaging scale as shown in the graphic below:


Are you using a view camera? If not, methods 2 and 3 would apply. For the images you posted, focusing via the lens helicoid would be better than using Stackshot (Focus Rail, motor screw).

Bill
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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #15 on: April 11, 2018, 06:58:08 pm »

So i understand the automated focusstacking, as available in the d850 and Phase-one XF, may proof its value in alle cases but closer than 1:1...

But then of course you need an AF-lens...




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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #16 on: April 11, 2018, 08:19:52 pm »

The best method depends on the imaging scale as shown in the graphic below:


Are you using a view camera? If not, methods 2 and 3 would apply. For the images you posted, focusing via the lens helicoid would be better than using Stackshot (Focus Rail, motor screw).

Hi Bill,

I believe that Rik's qualifications of fitness for those specific subject sizes are mainly based on the effect the method has on perspective, and potential of occlusions. The less the entrance pupil of the lens moves, the more the perspective between slices remains the same, as from a single perspective point. The "impossible" means that it is physically not a viable combination.

While he is technically/scientifically correct, that doesn't say that it won't work artistically.

So product photography may or may not be ideally done with a Stackshot, it depends on how symmetric the subject is and whether the perspective change is noticeable or objectionable. With flowers, I'm not that sure how distracting or noticeable it is, although occlusions can also create issues. But Michael is an experienced focus stacker, and he uses the technique creatively by applying selective focus, not full focus for the entire stack.

I do know that for situations where lots of shallow DOF slices are involved (mainly macro scenarios, like 5:1 with my Canon MP-E 65mm), the Stackshot is a heaven-sent solution. I've done stacks of 100+ images, and after setting up and starting I just walked away and did something useful during the time that all the shots were taken in the background.

The Stackshot needs to be experienced to value its utility, as Michael found out. It is a liberating experience, I can tell you. Once the starting- and ending-position are set, the stepping at the given distance-interval never skips a shot (which could otherwise ruin the entire stack), and the shot interval timing can be set to let vibrations peter out and a flash to recharge before the next shot is taken. By the way, one needs to factor in the slower recharging as the batteries get discharged during a deep stack to avoid non-flash exposures towards the end (= experience talking). Even the acceleration and torque for the steps can be optimized for the specific bulkiness of the camera and lens (and flash) at the given rail azimuth angle (horizontal is easier than vertical for the stepper motor, and the latter could also shake for a longer time).

An alternative setup (for lightweight rigid subjects/objects) is to mount those to the focusing rail (e.g. on a plateau) instead of the camera. That would avoid any chance of stepping motion induced camera shake (since the camera doesn't step but the subject does). Care must be taken of the lighting setup though, since the lighting is usually stationary while the subject then moves relative to the lighting.

My method of determining the stepping-distance interval is based on the COC being equal to the photosite's pitch (a requirement for edge detail with depth). For that purpose, a DOF formula with the Magnification factor is easiest to use. That allows using a simple precalculated table (see the attached example for my MP-E 65mm on a 6.4-micron pitch sensor) for setting the stepping interval. Rik Littlefield uses a somewhat different approach.

Cheers,
Bart

P.S. With a focus rail the magnification factor is fixed, hence the exposure per focus bracket is constant (assuming the light-source is constant). It might be important to keep the per-slice exposures constant (for similar per/shot-noise and post-processing).
« Last Edit: April 11, 2018, 09:02:00 pm by BartvanderWolf »
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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #17 on: April 11, 2018, 09:30:44 pm »

Thanks, this is very interesting!

Cheers,
Bernard

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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #18 on: April 12, 2018, 12:50:02 am »

Something I learned early-on from photo-forums is that I should, if I can, check everything out for myself. What that means, for example, with lens comments is to actually buy the lens and find out how it works for me, rather than become biased by otherís comments.

This is true for some of the comments here about the use of StackShot for the kind of close-up/macro photography I do. So far, as I am still testing, despite the tables and what not, StackShot seems to be doing a very good job, certainly for many kinds of stacking better than I can do manually. And we do not have to stack an entire photo. That was kind of a result that beginners in focus stacking like to do just because they can. LOL.

For example, here is a StackShot photo using the Nikon D850 and the Nikkor ďOĒ CRT 55mm lens that only stacks part of the photo, in this case the circular central-disk flowers in this Gerbera flower. The rest is left to be whatever it is, some kind of bokeh. I set StackShot to cover only the central disc from edge to edge.

This observation on my part does not jibe with some of the tables posted here. It could easily be that photographing at the microscope level (or whatever) is different than taking stacked photos at the level of an entire flower, as shown here. As usual, I could care less, provided it works for my work, floats the boat Iím trying to float. And it does.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2018, 01:14:42 am by Michael Erlewine »
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Re: StackShot Automated Macro-Rail: First Impressions
« Reply #19 on: April 12, 2018, 06:22:44 am »

Michael, thanks for this very interesting post and discussion

Regards
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