In my lab, I have a nice, inexpensive setup for capturing microscope images. About 10 years ago, I bought a dedicated photomicrography system from Jenoptik, a cooled CCD camera with a software package called ProgRes. It did what I needed, which was basically to provide an easy way for students to see on the computer screen what they were looking at on the microscope, and also to capture time lapse recordings of developing embryos. It had other useful features, like being able to calibrate the images, automatically annotate them with scale bars, etc. I had quite a few students learning how to easily get scientific-grade images out of this thing.
“Had”. The system has a few huge flaws: like most of the companies making these gadgets, the scientific side feels like a low-profit sideline for them, and most of the money is coming out of industrial imaging applications. That means poor support for us people who are on a tight budget who aren’t going to buy a hundred cameras for our factory, and that means you’re screwed when something doesn’t work. The software for this system breaks every time there’s an update to the MacOS. Like, it runs, but it doesn’t connect to the camera, so all I see is a blank screen. And the software hasn’t seen an update since 2010.
The last time this happened, they sent me a camera firmware patch that had to be run from a PC, not a Mac, and a slightly patched version of the application. It got it working again, but I can see the writing on the wall: as far as Jenoptik is concerned, they are done, they’ll continue to sell off their inventory as long as suckers are willing to buy it, but it’s not as if they’re going to invest any further resources into maintenance and development for mere biologists. It’s frustrating. The system is currently dead and useless.
So I’ve been exploring alternatives…on a tight budget. I’ve come to the conclusion that simple consumer grade cameras are far better bang for the buck. They won’t work if you’ve got some specific, narrow application, like low-light fluorescence imaging, but for the kind of general transmitted light microscopy I do, they’re better: higher resolution, more control, more imaging options. The only thing they lack is that one touch of a button capture of an annotated image.
I was tinkering this morning. Canon Rebel cameras come with something called the EOS Utility, which allows you to connect the camera with a USB cable (or in some models, over wifi) and control everything — aperture, exposure, focus, ISO, I mean everything, and take pictures with a click of a button. You can also set it up to do time lapse with intervals as short as 5 seconds (my usual is one image every 60 seconds, so no problem), and it was impressive to watch. It takes a photo, downloads it to the computer, and shows a preview image, and you end up with a folder of 30mbyte RAW images, which is just what my camera is set to take, I could go to a lower resolution. I’ve got tools to convert those to mp4s, and I also have tools to do bulk processing.
It’s somewhat more complex than a dedicated software solution, but I have smart students. They can master this easily. And the output is much nicer.
Now the next step: paying for this. Anybody want to buy a Jenoptik C3 camera? I can’t use it anymore, but maybe they’ll be better about keeping it updated for Windows machines. Otherwise, it’s going to get stuffed in a drawer and forgotten.
I can get a Canon t5i body (I don’t need lenses) for a few hundred dollars, and even the nice t7i for a bit more, and I’m happy with used cameras, too. It’s about a fifth of the cost of my Jenoptik! I may have to write an in-house grant proposal to scrape up that much, or if there’s anybody out there that has an old Canon sitting in a closet, I’ll take it off your hands. I’ll even put a label on it naming it after you: the [your name] Spider Cam! What an honor! I know some companies would dream of this promotional opportunity, but I’m sorry, I won’t accept the Exxon Spider Cam or the Facebook Spider Cam. I do have limits.
Until I can set up a dedicated lab camera, though, I’ll make do with my personal camera. If anyone out there is setting up a lab and need a low-cost camera system, I’ll offer a word of advice: steer clear of Jenoptik.