How to Build a DIY T-Rex Stand for Macro Photography

I do a fair bit of macro photography in the studio, for both scientific and artistic purposes. To get close to the camera, I have used boom poles and copy stands. The setups were often complicated, and I sometimes felt I was concentrating more on the gear than the photograph.

There are many macro and copy stands out there, but I wanted to build a better one, using only off-the-shelf parts, at a competitive price. I wanted it to be stable and have attachment points for staging and lights. After a few iterations, I had a design I liked. It looked almost like a T.Rex when I added some articulating arms. So, that’s what I named it. The name is fitting, as the T-slot extrusions are used to make the stand.

T-Rex macro stand

The T-Rex in Action

I have used the stand for photographing tissue samples for veterinary pathology This is an image of a bile duct in a sheep liver. The field of view is about 1. 4″ (35 mm) wide.

Sheep bile duct

I prefer continuous lighting for my macro work; I’ve used small LED panels, LitraTorches, and even small LED flashlights. I attach them with an umbrella mount or on an articulating arm using T-nuts. In a subsequent post, I will discuss my lighting methods.

You can stage most any small subject with this stand. I also use the stand when I’m not doing macro work. A 35 mm lens can give you about a 20″ (50 cm) field of view. To move the camera further from the vertical rail and change the view angle, I sometimes mount a ballhead on the tripod. I’ve even used the stand to hold subjects for photographs while the camera was mounted on a tripod.

Stability

A priority for me is stability. It’s not something I want to think about when working. The bottom horizontal rail is over five pounds (2. 3 kg), keeping the center of mass low. This allows the vertical rail to be 24″ tall (610 mm), on a footprint that’s only 11″ wide (280 mm). This allows the vertical rail to be 533″ high ([************************************************************************************************************************************************* *********************************************************************************************************************************************************] mm). A heavier, or larger base might be required if you need to reach higher heights.

Minimizing vibration is important. Because I use continuous lighting and apertures around f/8, shutter speeds are slow. Even a slight vibration can cause blurring when the camera is placed on the boom end or long post. Vibration is controlled by the rigidity of the tripod and its mass, as well as the vibration-dampening feet. Also, it’s not possible to remove all vibration, so having your camera and subject firmly connected allows them to vibrate in sync.

Extreme Macro

I do some extreme macro photography, using microscope objectives mounted on the camera in place of the usual lenses. (I’ll write about that technique in another article.) Extreme macro photographs can be destroyed by very little vibration. The solidity of the T-Rex’s body is essential.

For extreme macro, I use the computer-controlled WeMacro rail to capture focus stacks, and the Swebo LS001-4w XY stage to position the subject. These are attached to the T.Rex with clamps and dovetail rails.

Stand set up for extreme macro

I especially enjoy being able to combine artistic and scientific photography. This image was taken using the stand. Yes, they really have hairs growing out of their eyes. It was taken at a magnification of 11x; the subject is about 1/8″ (3 mm) across.

Honey bee eye

Parts

I based the construction on T-slot aluminum extrusions. To make it easier to move and adjust the camera’s height, I attached dovetail rails. The stand is shown in its vertical configuration; the camera would be positioned above the subject. You can reconfigure the stand for horizontal usage. Slideable T-nuts allow light and dovetail rail attachments.

I ordered the extrusions and connecting hardware from 80/20. There are other suppliers, but 80/20 has a comprehensive catalog, and for each product they have a video on how to use it. They have been very helpful with customer support. (I have no connection with 80/20 nor any other supplier.) The cost for these parts, including shipping in the US, is about $250. They also have equivalent parts based on metric dimensions. You can get the rubber feet and hardware from hardware stores. See step 6 below.

Assembly

You’ll need a 3/16″ hex key (also called an Allen wrench) to tighten the bolts.

1. Prepare 90deg plates

Using five flange head bolts (#3330) for each plate, loosely attach 2 triple nuts (#3285) according to the figure below. The middle bolt should be removed from each bottom triplenut. Note that the triple nuts have a flat side and a side with rims around the holes; the flat sides of the triple nuts should be against the plates.

90deg plates with bolts and triple nuts

2. Slide 90deg plates onto horizontal rail

Slide the plates all the way onto the sides of the horizontal rail, with the angled side facing the back end of the rail. Do not tighten the bolts.

Slide 90deg plates onto bottom rail

3. Slide vertical rail onto 90deg plates

Align the plates with the back of the horizontal rail, and slide the vertical rail down onto the plates. Tighten all bolts.

Slide vertical rail onto plates

4. Attach rear foot brackets

Insert two 1″ bolts (#3118) and washers (#3260) into each of the double foot brackets (#4336).

Attach rear foot bracket

The bottom bolt on each bracket goes into the empty holes on the bottom of the plates, and screws into the triple nut already inside the horizontal rail. The top bolt goes through the plate and is held in place with the nut (#3278); be sure that the flat side of the nut is facing the plate. You might have to temporarily loosen other bolts on the plate if the bottom bolt is not aligned with the triple nuts.

5. Attach front foot brackets

Insert a 5/8″ bolt (#3320) into each of the single-foot brackets (#4332), and loosely attach the T-nut that came with each bolt; be sure that the flat side of the nut is facing the bracket. Attach the brackets to the bases at the front.

Attach front foot brackets

6. Add feet

I use 1 1/2 ” diameter rubber air compressor feet. These feet help to dampen vibrations that can ruin photographs. They protect your work surface. The holes in the center of the feet are sized for 1/4″ bolts. Attach each foot to its bracket with:

  • 1/4-20 thread button head cap screw (black looks tidier, if available)
  • Washer (again, black if available)
  • 1/4-20 thread nut

The feet and hardware can be found on Amazon or at hardware stores. The thickness of your feet will determine the length of the cap screws. For the feet I bought, one-inch screws were a little bit too long, so I added 1 1/4 ” diameter fender washers.

Foot parts

Place the washer in the bracket and then drop the screw down through the washer, the bottom of the bracket, the fender washer, and the foot. Screw the nut on the end of your screw from underneath. To tighten the assembly, you might use a socket wrench, pliers, or the key to loosen the screw.

Foot assembly

7. Add sliding T-nuts

The sliding T-nuts (#13054) fit into the T-slots on the surfaces of the rails. They’re tapped with 1/4-20 threaded holes for attaching accessories. To keep the accessories from moving around, each has a spring-loaded bearing that holds it in place. I usually put three in the center slots for attaching dovetail rails and clamps and staging for the subject matter. I put one in each side slot for positioning lights. You can even put them in the slots on the edges of the rails.

Sliding T-nuts

8. Attach end caps

Attach the end caps (#2046-Plain) on the top of the vertical rail and at each end of the horizontal rail. The end caps are held on with friction fit studs that go into holes in the ends of the rails.

End cap

Dovetail Rail and Clamp

A dovetail rail makes it easy to adjust the height of the camera. You can find clamps to allow you position your camera any place along these rails. They also have a dovetail section. Although these accessories are expensive, the Haoge or Sunwayfoto brands can be found on Amazon. They’re excellent quality and affordable. They’re compatible with Arca-style parts, and some of their products are about 1/3 the price of comparable big-name brands.

Double dovetail rail

Attach a Haoge 400mm dual dovetail rail (Haoge HQR-400) onto the vertical part of the stand. Double (also known as dual) rails can be clamped onto both sides of the stand by using dovetail profiles at their top and bottom. Attach the dovetailrail to the slide-nuts of the stand using two to three screws. The screws won’t interfere with positioning a clamp if you place the top of the vertical standrail against it.

Dovetail rail attached to vertical stand rail

The dovetail rail comes with stop screws. Use one at the bottom to keep the camera from accidentally sliding off.

Stop screw on dovetail rail

Use a double clamp (Sunwayfoto DDB-53) to position the camera on the dovetail rail. One set of jaws clamps onto the dovetail rail, and the other clamps onto a quick release plate on the bottom of your camera. You can easily adjust the location of the clamp on the dovetail rail, and thus set the height of the camera above your subject matter.

Double clamp

Finally, attach a quick release plate to the bottom of the camera…

…and you’re done.


About the author: David Garnick’s artistic photography is held in public, corporate, and private collections. He collaborates with museums to create imagery for exhibitions, and produces, curates, and judges exhibitions of contemporary photography. He also works with science labs to help them improve and extend their imaging capabilities. You can view his blog and some of his work at davidgarnick.com. This article was also published here.

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