Canon 5DmkII, Tamron 90mm f2.8, 31mm ext.tube, 5"/f8@ISO100, Incandescent light
I have finally got a stage which I can use for macro photography, not by buying a microscopy stage, which is unlike me because I cannot really spend money, but by getting a custom-made rig which included a customized stage in it, taking it all apart and reassembling for my needs.
Cheaper on the long run as I can replace the camera to retrieve costs, with one drawback being limited to one-axis, but the movement can easily be controlled down to 0.1mm which is good. Also it is fitted on extruded aluminium, amounting to a quite heavy rig, so I'm less worried about movement when I simply lay it flat on a table.
Speaking of laying flat, taking the rig apart was a nightmare because of all the hex bolts which were completely stuck in place. It is those damn ribbed washers grabbing on the softer aluminium, or something, but it took a lot more than brute force to turn some of them, and two were stripped. I had to cause some cosmetic damage by grinding a slit into it with a dremmel tool and a metal cutting disc and then ground a flat head screwdriver's bit to fit into a car's spanner to apply enough torque to remove that stubborn last one.
The rig came with its own custom-made power source to power both a Canon 5Dmk II and a WFT E4 bII from mains, as well as a lightbox filled with surface-mount LED ribbons. The whole thing was great and self-contained, but it was laid out for a particular job where the focusing plane is the table that the rig is put on (to photograph printer samples to inspect ink spillage with a macro lens, which originally was a Schneider Kreuznach Makro-Iris Apo-Componon 45mm f4 mounted on its own routed aluminium mount. See three screw holes right under the camera). It needed taking apart so I could use the stage horizontally.
This photo on top was not "stacked" but at least it was focused using this stage, which allowed me to achieve a really nice plane of focus that could include the edge of the leaf, the pink anther, the tiny/mini flowers under the already-small big flower. I wouldn't be able to focus right where I wanted if it weren't for the stage. Forget handheld.
Info of the shot above:
Diameter of the rim of the biggest flower: approx 4mm
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Tamron 90mm f2.8 1:1 macro
Extension tubes (I think I only used 31mm for this shot?)
Here are a couple %100 crops:
Word of warning: DO NOT BUY CHEAP ALTERNATIVES. It is a losing investment.
I have bought one cheap macro focusing rail over two years ago. Never used it. This chinese cheap alternative is utterly useless. The gears do not match or hold your rig in position. It will wobble, and will not actually move forward/backward under the weight of the camera. I've been looking for focusing bellows as an alternative. I have bellows, but non-focusing type. A good quality focusing-bellows will be much more firm and will hold things in place better.
Do you need a stage or focusing bellows? The difference is the range and speed of movement. A stage move extremely slowly and is best suited for extreme macro. If you're doing flowers and still-life objects that are slightly larger, and do not need to stack that much (non-extreme macro), then a focusing bellows is the better combination of magnification+focus. A stage will still require some tinkering and extra pieces to get everything mounted appropriately.