By Jeff Fitlow, Rice University

About a month ago one of our science writers came to me and asked if I would be interested in helping get a shot that could potentially go on the cover of Science, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I immediately said, “yes.” Science is one of the world’s top academic journals and has been around since 1880. Landing the cover of such a prestigious publication would be an honor.

Our writer put me in touch with Rice University bioengineer Jordan Miller and his research assistant, Daniel Sazer. The energy and excitement these two guys had was contagious. I’m not usually into macro photography, but fed by their enthusiasm, I really wanted to make it happen. Science gave us about 10 days to capture the cover shot or they would have to go with something else.

Why the interest from Science? I might be over simplifying but basically the researchers used a bioprinter to print an extremely entangled vascular network that mimics the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph and other vital fluids. It is a huge biomedical breakthrough that will lead the way to printing replacement organs from a patient’s own cells. A ready supply of functional organs could one day be deployed to treat millions of patients worldwide. Pretty amazing -- but VERY small -- stuff.

A sense of scale

When I realized my subject was about the size of pea, had pulsating blood and was encased inside a yellow, postage stamp-sized block of gel, I had concerns. My first inclination was to shoot with my Nikon gear and a 105 f2.8 macro lens.

One of the failed attempts. Not sharp enough. Too green.

The initial attempts underlined the various technical challenges: I wasn’t able to fill the frame or get a really sharp front-to-back shot. The background was really dark and the lighting was a bit uneven. But the biggest problem was the sharpness.

I decided to ask UPAA members for their advice. After posting to the UPAA Facebook page, I was immediately inundated with responses. Of particular help were Jeff Miller at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Roger Hart at the University of Michigan, who both had recent experience photographing tiny objects. Their advice was outstanding and really motivated me to go after this image.

(My favorite failed attempt) Background too dark. Still not sharp enough. Uneven light on the white nipples that let the blood in and out.

Unhappy with our first results, we realized we would have to approach this from a more scientific standpoint. (Bill Douthitt, photography managing editor at Science, gives a fantastic rundown on the science behind Dr. Miller’s project in relation to this shoot in his “Visuals” article.) With the help of researcher Dan Sazer, we were able to shut off the pulsing for up to 15 minutes at time, which stabilized the subject.

I had to get closer to the vascular system in order to make a sharper image. I decided to try to use my Nikon again with a bellows attachment and macro lens to fill the frame, but even finding the right equipment to use for this shoot was problematic--and the clock was ticking.  I found a used bellows at and had it overnighted. The professor -- who is well versed in macro equipment -- reminded me that since the grip on modern cameras is larger I would have to use a closeup tube just to get the newer d850 on to the older bellows. Houston doesn’t really have a great camera store, but luckily I found a used one and was good to go.

Nikon D850 with 105VR and bellows

Still, things weren’t right.

The problem here was that the lens defaulted to f32 and we lost approximately four more stops of light with the bellows. No matter how much light I pumped in, I couldn’t see to focus. After maxing out the power of all my strobes, I realized this was not going to work. While I was trying this, the professor was using his Canon with a specialty ME-E 65mm macro lens, which allows up to 5x life-size enlarging of a subject, and StackShot, a motorized focus stacking device that allows a series of photos with a narrow depth of field to be digitally combined into a single clear, sharp image. (This kit ended up being the system used for the final image.)

The StackShot system

We learned a lot from both cameras and set ups, but we still did not have the picture. We showed our progress to Science magazine and they told us we were getting close, encouraged us to keep going and gave us a few more days to get the shot.

It’s important to note that every time we tried to photograph the subject, the Rice scientists had to produce multiple 3D printed vascular networks. When I was done after a seven- or eight-hour shoot, they were heading back to lab to make sure we had enough material for our next attempt. It was a laborious, tedious process.

f32 and a bellows demanded a LOT of light!

Given the time constraints and complexity of subject, I took a few days to plan our final crack at it. I decided to combine the elements from both of our attempts that worked--the professor's Canon kit and the lighting from the attempts with the Nikon kit. I knew I wanted to begin by backlighting the entire subject. Building the lighting piece by piece, I started with a small LED panel and a blue gel sandwiched between a corrugated plastic sheet. This produced the nice blue background and helped light the inside of the internal air sack.

To light the front without killing the background, I used a 1,000ws LED mono light with a grid directly above the camera. We used a couple of whiteboards as fill on the sides and shot 100 images at 1/125 @ f5.6 that were later stacked one micron at a time together using Helicon Focus and Zurene Stacker by Miller. The resulting image was given to the graphic artists at Science who tweaked it and designed the cover.

Above: it! 

(l-r) Jeff Fitlow, Daniel Sazer, Jordan Miller

I gained so much from this once-in-a-career experience. I learned many new ways to shoot tiny objects at varying learning curves and financial expense. I did not realize the Nikon has built in focus stacking capabilities and will be using this a great deal in the future. The bellows will be used not only in macro work but the tilt and swing can be used for perspective control in future landscape work and shooting buildings on campus.

I never would have imagined that shooting such a tiny object would lead to so many huge possibilities.


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