Focus stacking is frequently used by macro photographers, but it is also a great tool for landscape photographers. There are several advantages in using focus stacking with your macro or landscape images
Some of the newer cameras, such as the Nikon D850 and the latest mirrorless cameras, including Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon and Canon, have a function called “focus bracketing,” which is the in-camera ability to automatically capture a set of images taken at different focus points with one click of the shutter button. The technique is called “focus stacking,” and until the recent new camera models hit the market, focus stacking could only be done manually.
Focus stacking is frequently used by macro photographers, but it is also a great tool for landscape photographers. There are several advantages in using focus stacking with your macro or landscape images:
- everything can be in focus
- use of larger apertures (f5.6 or f8) to capture images without diffraction
- use of a faster shutter speed
- use of a lower ISO
With the assistance of focus stacking software (we like Helicon Focus*), the images shot at multiple focus points can be merged together to produce an image with a much larger depth of field than would be possible in a single photo. When “stacking” the images post-processing, you have the option to select all the images in the bracket set should you want everything in focus, or you can select only those shots that captured the subject area in focus, leaving your background or foreground out of focus.
The focus bracketing menu has three parameters:
- Frames – the number of images the camera takes
- Steps – the distance the camera shifts the focus point between images
- Interval – the time delay between images
- The smaller the Step, the more Frames you will need.
- The larger the aperture (f5.6 or f8), the more Frames you will need.
- The closer you are to the subject, the more Frames you will need.
There is variation among the different camera brands as to the number of frames available. We shoot with Fuji X-T2 and X-T3 mirrorless cameras. The frames can be set between 1 to 999 on these cameras. Other camera brands will vary.
The step is calculated using the distance between the near and far limit of the depth-of-field on the first image captured. Setting the step to one (1) shifts the focus by approximately 20 percent of that distance. A step of five (5) shifts the focus 100 percent of that distance.
As an example, if the difference between the near and far limit of depth-of-field is one foot, a step of five (5) will shift the focus point 100 percent, which is the equivalent of one foot for each shot. While on our Fuji cameras, the steps can be set as high as 10, our experience is that a step of five (5) is the sweet point. Anything under or over, isn’t as sharp. You’ll need to experiment with your camera brand to find your sweet point. As they say, “Your mileage may vary.”
The settings we use are:
- Interval set to zero (0) when using the electronic shutter and not using a flash
- Interval set to two (2) seconds when using the mechanical shutter without the flash
- Interval to five (5) seconds when using the flash in order to give the flash time to recharge
Learn what your camera’s interval settings allow for time delay between shots. Our Fuji’s can be set from zero to 10 seconds between shots.
General Settings Guide
- Landscapes – Frames 20 / Step 5 / Interval 0 / Aperture f8
- Macro – Frames 300 / Step 5 / Interval 0 / Aperture f8
Focus Stacking Tips
- When using the focus bracketing function, the camera will stop should the lens reach infinity. This means you can set a higher frame count than necessary without a problem.
- Use electronic shutter whenever possible. Electronic shutter eliminates vibrations caused by mechanical moving parts. It also allows you to set the interval to zero (0).
- When shooting macro, before you start your focus bracketing, manually check that the lens is able to focus on the farthest point in the shot that need to be sharp. When using a macro lens it’s unlikely that the farthest desired focus point will be out of focus, but it could be an issue when using extension tubes.
- Manually use focus peaking (should your camera have this feature) to find the closest point of the subject that needs to be in focus as the starting point.
- Use a single shot of one finger to set the beginning of your focus bracketing and a single shot of two fingers to set the end of your focus bracketing. Using this technique reminds you when you import the images where your bracketing begins and ends.
- Use a tripod and turn off image stabilization.
- Practice at home before you try focus bracketing in the field. Shooting a ruler is a great way to learn which apertures, frames, and steps will work best and you can then apply those settings in the field.
Focus Stacking Software
There are several options for focus stacking software. If you prefer to use Adobe Photoshop here’s how:
- Select all of your images in Adobe Lightroom, right click your mouse, in the pop up menu select “Edit In,” and then select “Open as Layers in Photoshop.”
- In Photoshop, select all the layers and then go to Edit in the main menu. Select Auto Align in the pop up menu, then select Edit > Auto Blend.
This method works, but with complex subjects you may find a few stacking artifacts (blurry areas).
Our favorite focus stacking software choice is Helicon Focus, which will work directly from Lightroom. We use Helicon Focus at its default settings, using rendering intent mode B. If you’re interested in trying Helicon Focus, usually you can find Helicon Focus coupons with a Google search.