Dr Jennifer Deegan has been awarded an OpenPlant Fund grant to develop teaching materials to enable others to build duplicates of her focus stacking photography setup, and to capture images that can be used for teaching and publications in plant sciences. We caught up with her to find out what she has been up to and how her project is progressing.
Jennifer, please can you give a brief overview of your project?
Jennifer Deegan: The project follows on from my Biomaker 2017 project to build a low budget DIY Focus stacking photography system. The system takes photographs of tiny plant specimens about 2mm across, with the entire specimen in focus.
In the past it was not possible to take photographs of such tiny specimens and have them fully in focus. This was because single images taken at high magnification had only a very shallow depth of field. With this new technique we take about 40 photographs of a tiny specimen, with the camera moving progressively towards the subject. Then all of the focused parts of the images are cut out and amalgamated together into one fully focused image.
Commercial systems are available to do this, but they are very expensive. The more affordable ones only move the camera in increments of 2 micrometres. This is not small enough for use at very high magnification. Our system is very cheap and can moved in increments down to about 1/128th of a micrometre.
As part of this OpenPlant project we have two goals:
- Document the construction of the focus stacking system so that others can copy it.
- Use the system to take plant photos that have never before been possible. These photos will then be made available for plant science teaching and text books.
What inspired the project?
JD: I have always been frustrated that there are no great photos of fern gametophytes anywhere. Fern gametophytes have a very interesting planar heart shaped structure that is brought about by a tightly choreographed series of cell divisions. In the literature they are usually drawn by hand, because they are too small to be photographed in full focus. During my career break to raise my son, I have been working at home as a volunteer, to try to build a system that can take good, full focus, high magnification photographs of these structures.
What has been your favourite aspect of the project so far?
JD: The judges asked me to document my system using videos rather than just in writing. This threw me for a loop initially as I have never made video and didn't have the equipment. However, I have managed to cobble a system together, and am loving my new craft. The time, nuance and attention to detail that is needed to make a short video is amazing. The photo below shows the many photo, video and sound files that I had to record and line up in order to create one short video. I'm now the proud owner of a YouTube channel. (You can visit it, and the other documentation on GitHub and Hackster via www.chlorophyllosophy.uk)
What are the biggest challenges you have come across?
JD: There have been a lot of challenges, particularly with the transition from written documentation to video.
The biggest problem is that my laptop is ten years old and is a bit slow for editing video. It cannot play my videos at full speed, so I have to upload them to YouTube between editing session to see what they look like. Saving the files out for upload to YouTube takes 2.5 hours for each video, so it is a slow process.
One of my funniest solved problems is that my DSLR is the only camera that I have that can record video, but it also has to appear in the videos. I got around this problem by putting my 27-year-old film SLR as a body double in the videos. The photo to the right shows my DSLR filming the focus stacking setup, with decoy camera body in place. It’s great fun editing the sound of the camera shutter into the finished video.
My other challenge is making these rather technical videos engaging to watch. There is a definite risk of them coming over as a bit dry, and so I try to keep them short and make the images interesting. I think that if I can improve my editing equipment at some point, I could make my videos much more engaging.
I’m really enjoying making educational videos and would like to keep doing this work after the end of the OpenPlant grant. I’ve been in touch with the University Public Engagement Office, who have been very helpful, and I’m hoping to learn some tips from them.
You have been awarded both a Biomaker Challenge and OpenPlant Fund grant. How have these enabled the development of the project?
JD: My work absolutely could not have been done without these grants. Most of the work has been done through collaboration, volunteer labour, and home engineering. However, the grants paid for the microscope objectives. Without these amazing lenses, I could not have done the work.
How do you feel the project is progressing?
JD: I think it's going very well. I have four good videos already online, and a lot of written documentation. I have registered a new domain (www.chlorophyllosophy.uk) as a central doorway to all of the material, and I still have lots of ideas for other videos to make.
Two out of three of my lenses have arrived and I am looking forward to taking some great photos. My Utricularia gibba (bladderwort) plants are growing well in their casserole dish. Utricularia gibba is a small, carnivorous aquatic plant that develops traps to capture its prey. They are being studied by my collaborator Christopher Whitewoods at the John Innes Centre and I have already taken my first few photos of them, as the new traps develop. The traps have a beautiful structure, and as an aquatic plant, will be a great challenge to photograph.
I hope soon also to visit the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge to photograph the trichome mutant phenotypes in Arabidopsis thaliana, belonging to my collaborator Aleksandr Gavrin. I really look forward to the challenge of photographing trichomes, that will have other trichomes behind to confuse my software.
I have also just sewn a new batch of fern spores and those plants will be a real treat to photograph when the time comes.
What are the future opportunities to take this project forward?
JD: One of the biggest pitfalls for photographers is that they become so fascinated by the stream of newer and better camera equipment, that they forget to actually take any photos. I think that in the next couple of years, it's very important that I actually take the time to take some photographs. With this new technology that I have built, and with the opportunity of my volunteer labour, these will add hugely to the body of research knowledge.
Jennifer's project is also documented on Github: https://github.com/BioMakers/Gametophyte-Fern-photography-2018/blob/master/README.md