In 2004, while a student at the Gemological Institute of America, I opened the Photoatlas of Inclusions in Gemstones Vol.1 for the first time. I was looking for a career change and, while I didn’t exactly have a plan, I knew I was burned out in my previous job. I was excited by the idea of studying gems, and by the challenge it offered. I met great people, and I learned a lot, but the bigger surprise was the gemstones – the secrets they held, the unbelievable vistas within, and the way they fired my imagination. Within a year, I was working at the GIA, honing the skills that would set the foundation for a decade long adventure of photomicrography.
In the years since I left the GIA, I’ve taken many of photographs. Sometimes I make mistakes, sometimes I fail, but often that’s where I learn the most. What follows is an attempt to share the most important lessons I’ve learned from my experiences.
What is Photomicrography?
Photomicrography is essentially photography under magnification. It can be accomplished by a number of means, but generally the practice involves a combination of digital photography equipment and computer equipment. I discuss more specifics below, and the actual equipment setups will be the subject of a future article.
You may think that your subject is well polished but, once it’s under magnification, far too frequently you’ll find that’s not the case. Draglines, pitting and abrasions all diminish the quality of an image. If you’re serious about getting the sharpest shot possible, it starts here. Polish is key, so make friends with a competent lapidary or learn how to do it yourself. I cannot. Perhaps one day I will, but for now I trust my pieces to someone who knows the material and can set the foundation to a good photo.
Once you’ve had your stone sharpened up, it’s time to use those gemological, visual observation skills. To find the optimal line of sight to the inclusion and then stage the lighting is an exhaustive process. I like to imagine that my stone is at the center of a sphere of possible light angles. Not only am I turning the stone on all of its axes, but as I do that, I’m also constantly changing the incidental light angles. Which brings me to…
In photography, lighting is everything and photomicrography is no different. In most of my work, I am using no fewer than 2 light sources. I have dual light guides for each of them, which allow multiple angles of incidental lighting. These light guides allow me to quickly and easily change the direction of my light source. Early on in my gemological career, I struggled with the more ubiquitous, rigid, steel wrapped guides. No longer. One of the most important tools in my work-life and in my photomicrography-life is the “limp” light guide with a 2mm or 3mm pinpoint attachment. An investment in one of these will change the way you use the microscope.
Because of the nature of photomicrography, you will be shooting relatively long exposures. At anywhere from 1/40 and slower, vibrations begin to show as blurriness in the image. Since everything vibrates: the fans in the light source, the computer on the floor, your music, the camera reflex, the car down the street, you’ve got to do whatever you can to minimize vibration. Depending on your budget, there are several ways this can be done. First off, remove the light source from the microscope table and make sure your computer is either far away or dampened. Next, make sure that your scope is on a very solid, heavy desk/table. In the Photoatlas of Inclusions in Gemstones, it suggests layering a steel plate, dense rubber and granite between the tabletop and the scope. Granite countertop remnants and used, heavy rubber door mats served me very well before I invested in a laboratory grade vibration isolation table.
Finally, be sure you have software that can remotely control the camera as manually pressing the shutter release button on the camera is out of the question.
With the invention of “focus stacking”, photomicrography has gained what it always lacked: depth of field. Depending on your magnification and the depth of field you’re looking to cover, you could “shoot a stack” of 10 or 100. If this is the route you’d like to explore, get to know one of the several image stacking software on the market and experiment. Remember that you’ll have to also have a way to change your focus a millimeter at a time – or less. Precise, repeatable movements yield the best results; this means mechanical stepping is ideal for this application. You’ll have to do little research and find which stepping mechanism is right for your microscope and budget.
You can never get a stone perfectly clean and even if you do, there might be a tiny little something inside the stone that you couldn’t avoid. Photo editing software like Adobe’s Photoshop can help touch up your images. Some photographers use photoshop to bring out colors where there may not have been any and that’s fine for a specific purpose. I photograph gemstone inclusions to showcase how amazing these stones are on the inside. Therefore I always try to keep the final image as close to the view through the oculars as possible.