Inexpensive Motorized Focus Stacking Rail - WeMacro Rail Review
If you want macro images with a greater depth of field, you’re going to have to focus stack. Manually doing the process takes a long time.
The WeMacro rail is a motorized macro rail and camera trigger. Once a shot is set up, you can hit start and walk away. When you come back, you’ll have images ready to be stacked.
Build Quality & Design
Black anodized aluminum is screwed together to make the frame. The machining of the aluminum parts is of acceptable quality. The linear screw and rails are higher quality and are free from defects.
Weighing 1.3kg (2lb 13oz), plus the weight of the camera and lens, equipment is going to be needed that can support that amount of weight. Mounting shouldn’t be a problem as the bottom of the rail has an Arca Swiss style profile that can be clamped down. Additionally, there are a series 1/4" and 3/8" holes that alternate between being threaded and unthreaded.
There are two sets of 1/4" and 3/8" mounting holes on the front of the rail. Just like the bottom of the rail, one set is threaded and the other is not. The holes on the front are likely there for attachment points for lighting, reflectors, flags, etc. I tried to use these to mount the rail vertically but did not find it stable enough. To use the rail vertically, I would suggest using a vertical Arca Swiss clamp on your support system and clamping the bottom of the rail to it.
There is minimal room for fingers to screw in the included D-ring. I do not have large hands or fat fingers and I had trouble screwing the D-ring into equipment. Instead of wasting minutes wrestling with the D-ring, I bought Arca-Swiss style mounting plates and clamps.
The clamps and plates I went with are 120mm long. There are 3 mounting points on the clamps, 2 of which I use to attach the clamp to the rail. By using 2 points, nothing that is clamped to the rail will spin if nudged.
One change that I would like to see is for the top of the rail to have a slot instead of individual holes. The Arca-Swiss clamp that I purchased will just barely fit on the rail. In order to get the clamp to fit, the D-ring has to be offset in the rear mounting hole. A slot would allow for more and easier mounting options.
WeMacro claims 1um step accuracy, but I currently have no way to test this. The lead screw has a 1mm thread pitch, so theoretically 1um steps should be possible.
Keep in mind, at a 1um steps, you’re likely going to need a large granite or concrete block along with rubber pads to eliminate vibrations.
Specs on the packing list rate the rail as having a suggested limit of 3kg (6.5 lbs) for a vertical load and 5kg (11 lbs) for a horizontal load. The heaviest setup I used weighed a bit over 2.3kg (5 lbs) and the rail had no problem vertically lifting it. While there are no visible markings on the motor, I believe it is a NEMA 17 stepper motor.
I don’t like that the control box has connections on both sides. One side of the control box is always facing away from me when I am using the rail.
The side that is always facing away has the power switch, which is annoying because I don’t know if the control box didn’t connect because of Bluetooth issues, or because the box is off.
The box could be off because the battery bank turned itself off due to power saving, or that the batteries are dead. This means toggling the switch back and forth won’t solve the problem. I’m nitpicking, but it has happened frequently enough to where I get annoyed.
The rail can be controlled with a phone (iOS or Android) or tablet over Bluetooth, tethered to a Windows computer, or synced to Helicon focus. I am not sure if syncing with Helicon focus will work on Macs. Make sure to check that if you plan to use the rail with a Mac.
Both screens for the WeMacro App.
I have exclusively used the rail with an android phone over Bluetooth. There are enough wires running all over the place, that I did not want to add another one.
The WeMacro Android app needs to be downloaded from the WeMacro site. The link for the download is located near the bottom of the homepage. I had to turn on developer tools and agree to a security warning to install the app.
When the rail is on, the app will automatically connect to it via Bluetooth. There have been a few occasions where I have had to close and restart the app to get it to connect to the rail.
The Android app consists of a screen to set options and another screen for controlling the rail and starting the automated process. I have found the app very easy to use and have only one complaint about the functionality.
The one problem I have is that the total travel distance of the rail can be set for longer than the rail is able to travel. In fact the travel distance can be set to an arbitrarily large number.
If the rail were to travel forward for several kilometers, the stepper motor would likely burn out. Since the maximum travel distance is 10cm, I would like the app to reject distances further than that to prevent damage to the rail motor.
I’ve used several setups on the rail. The first were using the Nikon D750 or Sony A7 with a macro lens on the rail. The only issues I had involved the D-ring. Both cameras were not held in place well and mounting them on the rail was a pain.
To add extension or reverse mount lenses I used a D750 on a Nikon PB-4 bellows. This setup has better stability than just a lens on a camera. However, the bellows added a significant amount of height and weight.
Cheap M42 extension tubes were the first method I tried to use the Amscope 4x microscope objective. They were not rigid enough so there was flex and it was difficult to support them as ~117.5mm of extension was required.
Then I used a combination of a Nikon PN-11, other F-mount extension tubes, and M42 tubes to get the correct length. Trying to cobble together tubes to get the correct amount of extension was a giant pain.
Using the Nikon PB-4 made it easy to get the correct amount of extension for the Amscope 4x. Having to use an RMS to M42 into an M42 to F-mount adapter was not ideal, but it does work. I would prefer to have an RMS to F-mount adapter, but I’m not currently willing to pay $30 for one.
WeMacro Rail Price
The rail can be purchased from WeMacro.com for $250, plus the cost of shipping from China.
Over 2 years, I have only seen one WeMacro rail for sale on eBay. The used rail included an XYR stage and a battery bag. It sold for $350 + $16 shipping.
You should not count on trying to find a used WeMacro rail. The only rail I have seen show up every couple of months on eBay is the StackShot, which sells around $100 less than the new price, depending on the accessories included.
When motorized focus stacking rails show up on the used market, they sell quickly. This is a good thing because the prices stay relatively close to the original purchase prices.
I had this in mind when I decided to purchase the WeMacro rail. I figured that if I didn’t like it, or didn’t want to focus stack, I could easily sell it and maybe lose $50 instead of the entire purchase price.
|Dimensions (L W H)||250mm x 80mm x 81mm|
Two power adapters are included with the rail. They do not have labels. This is a problem because they have different output voltages. The adapter for the WeMacro rail is 12 volts. The adapter for charging batteries in the battery box is 12.6 volts.
The difference in voltage could cause damage to the WeMacro rail. I wrote “WeMacro” on the 12-volt adapter. Additionally, I labeled the WeMacro control box with “12v”. I do not use the supplied battery box, so I did not label the adapter for it.
18650 Battery Bank
The included battery box is of poor quality. The springs that make contact with the batteries are tight. I felt like I was going to rip a fingernail off trying to remove the batteries.
Instead, I use an Aili 18650 battery bank. The Aili holds 4 batteries instead of 3. Removing the batteries is easy. There are also 2 USB charging ports and the power output can changed to 9v, 12v, or 15v.
Camera Shutter Cable Release Extension Cables
Two cables are included. One is a special cable for Canon cameras. Both cables have a male 2.5mm plug and a female 2.5mm jack.
A shorter camera trigger cable plugs into the extension cable. Any generic cable with a 2.5mm plug will work. I’m very happy about this as I was able to spend less than $10 on cables for my Panasonic G7 and Sony A7.
The holder is a cheap tripod with an alligator clip on a ball head. The lack of fine adjustments is a problem. The rail can handle forward/backward movement for framing and focus. There is no way to control the height or left/right framing. A dedicated XYZ stage is going to be easier to use.
USB A (Printer) Cable for Tethering
It’s a 2m (6 ft) printer cable. If you plan to tether the rail to a computer, keep in mind that you can get cables that are up to 5m (15 ft) in length.
Optional Accessories from WeMacro
M424 Extension Tubes
These tubes are very thin. This is a problem because they are more prone to be affected by vibrations. The same tubes can be found for less on eBay and Amazon, but I would not recommend buying them. Vintage M42 extension tubes by Pentax, Novoflex, Vivitar, or Kenko are higher quality.
A Nikon PB-4 or optical test bench tubes will improve image quality. The PB-4 is widely available, less expensive, and easier to use. Optical tubes are more expensive, but smaller, are more rigid and offer more flexibility.
Quick Release Plate & Clamp
It had a heavy industrial oil odor. I felt the need to wash my hands after handling it.
Wiping it down with a dry paper towel did not reduce the smell. I ended up cleaning it twice with rubbing alcohol, and it still has a lingering smell.
In addition to the smell, the machining is very poor. Cosmetic defects are very noticeable. There is only one mounting hole, which does not keep the clamp in place. I would not recommend buying this, as longer clamps & plates do a better job of holding a camera or bellows in place.
Remote Release Cables
All of the WeMacro cables are generic. You can save a couple of bucks by purchasing cables from Amazon, eBay, or other online stores.
As long as the cable has a 2.5mm end, it will fit the extension cable included with the WeMacro rail.
RMS to M42 Lens Adapter
You’re going to end up with at least one, so you might as well get it included with the rail.
The adapter will allow the use of the $18 Amscope 4x microscope objective. The objective is the undisputed king of price/performance for macro photography.
Ring Support for Lens
I never got around to using this because cameras don’t mount securely directly to the rail.
After solving the problem by using an Arca Swiss style clamp, there is no clearance for the ring. The wing nut and the threading is different from the standard 1/4" tripod mount.
I am doubtful I will ever use the support and would not recommend buying it.
Raynox Reversed M42 Adapter Ring Pack.
I have not used this yet. I am planning on it, but I need to get the Raynox lenses first.
26 (Mitutoyo) to M42 Adapter
I will absolutely be using this after I find a good deal on a Mitutoyo objective. The build quality looks similar to the RMS to M42 adapter. If you foresee the need for this size adapter, I would recommend purchasing one.
Third Party Accessories
Arca Swiss Style Plates & Clamps - Using the included D-ring to mount a camera onto the rail is a terrible experience. The D-ring is difficult to reach and it makes the process take more time than it should. Plus, it only provides one point of contact, so nothing is strongly secured to the rail.
Inexpensive Arca Swiss style plates and clamps make using the rail more enjoyable. I have a clamp permanently attached to the top of my rail. The bottom of the rail has an Arca Swiss profile, so I keep clamps around to the rail to tripods or other fixtures. I highly recommend picking some plates and clamps up.
18650 Cells - Do not buy the cheap SureFire cells off eBay or Amazon. They are nowhere near the advertised capacity and will likely die after a couple of months of use.
The cheapest way to get 18650s is to rip apart old laptop batteries, power tool batteries, or buy them from other salvage sources. Quality batteries with lots of life left can be found for $1-2. Used batteries will need to be tested with a battery analyzer. A battery analyzer will be able to measure the capacity, voltage, and internal resistance. After performing the tests you’ll be able to discard the batteries that are dead or close to death. My personal favorite battery analyzer is the LiitoKala Lii-500.
New batteries from reputable sources are going to cost around $5 apiece. Batteries that cost less than $5 might be counterfeit. In order to make sure you do not get counterfeit batteries, you will need a battery analyzer. Since you’re going to need a battery analyzer anyways, you’re better off buying used batteries from the start.
Comparable Focus Stacking Rails
Cognisys Stack Shot
StackShots made by Cognisys are the most well known motorized macro rails. There are several different models available that vary by length and included a controller box. The cheapest model is $549 with a dated control box. The most expensive model is $1,829 and includes a motorized stage with 2 rotational controls.
Getting nickled and dimed is what turned me off from purchasing a StackShot. One trigger cable is included, but replacements or additional cables for other camera systems cost $29 or $39 each. Having an RCA plug instead of 2.5mm plug on the end of a cable isn’t worth paying an extra $35 for.
Battery kits are being sold for $99 and $149. They are made up of either 4 or 8 18650 batteries. Brand new, high-quality Panasonic 18650 batteries can be purchased for less than $5 each. A 18650 battery bank costs less than $10, and a battery analyzer, which has more features than a charger, can be had for $20.
If you know how to hold a pair of pliers, you can harvest high quality 18650 cells out of dead laptop and power tool batteries for ~$1 each. The battery analyzer will identify which cells are still good and which ones should be disposed of.
MJKZZ.com has a couple of different rails for sale. There are also controllers for microstepping, setups for water droplet photography, and a variable tube system to use a Raynox DCR-150 or DCR-250 with an infinity-corrected microscope objective.
One of the rails is based on the Open Builds “C-Beam Linear Actuator Bundle”. Getting the assembled rail, a controller, trigger cable, power supply, and a few extras for $175 looks like a good deal before I saw the shipping cost. If this had been released when I was purchasing a rail, I would have considered it.
Stackrail.info has a bunch of MJKZZ branded rails and other accessories. Depending on the item and your location after shipping is factored in, prices could be on Stackrail.info than MJKZZ.com. I’m assuming the two sites are run by people on different continents.
There is the Stackrail Precision RS-90 and Open Focus Rail available. The Open Focus Rail is the same as the MJKZZ offering based on the Open Builds linear actuator. There is also a Stack and Stitch System which allows for control over the X, Y, and Z axis.
Open Source Projects
Open Builds C-Beam Linear Actuator showed up in October of 2018. The parts are available as a kit, which is nice because it eliminates the need to machine parts. I’m not sure if there are any open-source microstepping controllers available for it yet. It should not be difficult to find a controller that will work as linear rails are very popular with the DIY CNC crowd.
Fast Stacker is an open-source rail that is based on a Velbon Super Mag Slider and Arduino microcontroller. The project is well documented and worth taking a look at if you are a DIY type of person. The total cost for the parts comes to ~150. A drill press with vise, tap & die set and soldering iron will be needed.
I’m happy with the WeMacro rail, though I shouldn’t have bothered with many of the accessories. Unless I run into unforeseen problems, I don’t have any intention of getting any of the other commercially available options.
The Open Builds linear actuator is interesting. I have enough experience with programming and soldering that I am interested in building my own rail. The time that would be involved to DIY a rail is likely not worth the savings. Using the learning experience to add additional movement to create a stack & stitch or 360-degree image setup would be worth the savings. This is something that I will attempt in the future.