Green Hydras and Simple Lenses: On Being Creative with What You Have

Green Hydras, 15-20X

Imagine that you could eat lunch by just lying out in the sun?  That’s what these green hydras (Hydra virdissima) are doing after moving from their Washington Park Arboretum pond to one of my small desktop aquaria. Green hydras are phototrophic, congregating in areas with highest light to energize their symbiotic green algae.  These little fellows looped over and over up a stem to congregate at the top, which was about 2 cm below the surface under an LED desk lamp.  Then they clustered together like tourists on a beach in Miami, soaking up the rays.

My problem:  How do I photograph this coelenterate tailgate party???  The little stem was about 3 cm from the glass, out of range of microscope lens-based magnifiers and too small to magnify well with a cell phone on macro.  The macro setting on my old Canon point-and-shoot doesn’t go beyond 4X.  I don’t have one of those new digital 10X microscope cameras.  Nor do I have a bellows and sophisticated ultramacro lens for my digital SLR.  So how was I to record this event?

I used a Canon EOS digital SLR (half-frame sensor) with a Tamron 18-50 mm lens (about 35-85 mm 35mm equivalent) at ISO 1600, f/5 at 1/30 second and 50 mm setting. Then I added one of my favorite lenses, the Vivitar Series 1 10X macro close-up lens.

The Vivitar Series 1 lenses are old 35 mm lenses dating from 1975-1995. Vivitar sold aftermarket lenses that they had made by various manufacturers. Consequently, the quality varied from mediocre to superb. A couple, like the 70-210 macro, became legendary and were some of the best lenses of the 20th century.

The 10X closeup lens is a big old single hunk of glass that must be 1 cm thick in the center. Coated and sharp, it has nothing even resembling a flat field, but for non-planar subjects like flowers, insects, and wriggly pond things, it can create some superb images. It was typically sold in a set of four in a nice pouch; these can be found on Amazon or eBay for less than $20.

Using this combination, I was able to do a 10X image from 3cm away through a light film of algae on the glass, then crop to about 15X. I used manual focus at maximum magnification, then took about forty images hand-held on a box through the plane of focus. I didn’t try stacking, as the arms move slowly.

Posting this on Facebook’s Amateur Microscopy site brought up a number of responses, some enthusiastic and some dubious. This prompted the following thoughts on this lens, older lenses in general, and craftsmanship in photography, whether through the scope or out on the side of a mountain.

In today’s world of computer-designed, aspherical lenses and automatic HDR, we can point even a medium-priced camera anywhere and create a high-quality, flat-field image with better shadow detail than I can see with the naked eye. However, in this world where almost any lens is better than the one Ansel Adams used, I think that we have lost a connection with our lenses and their quirks and individual character. And maybe we have lost an element of creativity, too.

I too started work trying to buy the best and sharpest lenses I could find – Zeiss Sonnars and Tessars and Planars. Then I got into vintage cameras and found myself working with much simpler lenses. Every lens had its personality, and I found that I had to know every one like a member of my family. Then, I could make them sing – and in doing so, I stretched my own knowledge and creativity.

The big old Series 1 Vivitar (really a glorified, high-quality magnifying glass) is like that. A very imperfect, non-corrected lens, but also capable of some amazing effects if you just learn to work with its personality. These images show some of its strong points: the distortion creates arty effects in the flowers, and the leaf tips are in sharp focus because they are both in the midfocal plane of the curved region of sharp focus:

These aren’t microscopic images, however, so what does this have to do with microscopy? The first point is, that even though this is a simple and imperfect lens, it provides an easy way to enter that important no-man’s-land between macro and micro. It is an extremely powerful lens that can let my camera work at a distance of 3-4 cm and still take images of tiny creatures like copepods and hydras. Most macro lenses won’t go to 10X even with extension tubes, and working distance is often short with other arrangements such as low-power microscope lenses.

So restrict your subject to what works well with this combination, put the hydras or whatever in the center of the focal field, and think about what to do to make the rest of the picture look good – this is an exercise in creativity.

Secondly, unlike more sophisticated cameras-and-bellows-and supplementary lens arrangements, it’s cheap ($5), rugged, and portable. The more complex arrangements ARE very good, and much more technically sophisticated. However, if the hydras come out to play while you’re in the kitchen, you can run upstairs, slap on this lens, shoot your pictures, and be back before the soup boils over.

I’m living much of my life in hotel rooms, so everything has to be packable and rugged. The Vivitar is not perfect, but where else can you get a gizmo that lets an SLR photograph hydras, costs $5, doesn’t fall apart if you knock it, and can be slipped into your pocket to photograph bees and lichen on the side of a mountain in the rain? But you have to be willing to think creatively about when it will work and when it won’t, and you might just get an unusual image by thinking a step farther about how to make it all work.

But it’s another example of how knowing your equipment and its craft, and really working with what it does and doesn’t do well, can let you do wonderful things with simple stuff. Don’t turn up your nose at a simple device until you really know how to use it.

The CRITICAL point of all of this, especially for new microscopists who may despair of ever making good images or doing serious work, is that microscopy, like astronomy, is a field where worthwhile investigation can be done by serious amateurs with time to spend.  Popular Mechanics published an article on the sophisticated contributions that amateur scientists working outside laboratories are making to modern science; note that one of them is a microscopist  dealing with LED sources for fluorescent microscopes.  Amateurs are making significant contributions to diatom research.

And you may not need the most sophisticated equipment, either.  A Zeiss scope with a full complement of planapochromat objectives is wonderful, especially if you are doing high resolution work.  The ability to do dark field, phase contrast, and other alternative lighting mechanisms is highly desirable.

Join one of the many microscopy societies worldwide


Bahls, L.  “The role of amateurs in modern diatom research.”

Haake, A.  “Inside Amateur Science: The Best in Out-of-Lab Research.”  Popular Mechanics, Jun 10, 2009.  Accessed Sept. 12, 2016.

Green Hydras and Simple Lenses: On Being Creative with What You Have

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