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Mastering Focus Stacking for Stunning Macro Shots

Macro photography is about capturing the smaller world around you. A little adjustment to the aperture and there you are, zooming into the subject to reveal its inherent brilliance. The popularity of macro photography is growing exponentially, thanks to the popular concept of Focus Stacking. Beginners reading this must be wondering what this is all about – and in this article, we will guide you through the ins and outs of what’s involved!

Focus Stacking #5

Read, learn, and we’re sure you will be all excited to implement this beautiful concept in your photography!

What is Focus Stacking?

Focus Stacking is a vital tool in photography that helps you maintain a sharp focus across the entire image, making everything in focus. It is combining or ‘stacking’ a group of similar photos. While focus stacking is a common photography technique, learning the tricks of the trade will help you take your macro photography skills to the next level.

This concept of focus stacking helps you deal with all the challenges that come with macro photography. Problems like lack of depth of field, a drastic reduction in sharpness, lack of light, and softened diffraction make it nearly impossible to use narrow apertures upon it.

Focus Stacking #4

Professional photographers use this technique to portray multiple objects in focus on various focal planes. This combination results in one strikingly sharp image and renders to the photograph a greater depth without any loss of definition. The result is a highly polished yet very real-looking image.

The Two-Part Focus Stacking Process

In brief, there are two main parts to focus stacking:

Image Capture

You need to capture a series of images at different focal points. You need to maintain a consistent focus adjustment with every consecutive shot. In this entire image capturing process, you have to ensure that both – camera and the subject remain in the same position. Only then can you successfully stack up these images in the post-production stage.

Image Rendering

In this stage, you have to compose all the images captured in the previous step into one image. Basically, in this stage, a portion of every picture is cut out and then pieced together to create the final, fully in-focus image. You have the flexibility to decide how many frames you would take to create that one impressive outcome and shoot accordingly in the image capturing stage itself. 

Focus Stacking #3

Where is Focus Stacking Used?

The best part about focus stacking is that one can implement it in any type of photography. However, to put it into practice you need to understand the applications of focus stacking. In the world of photography, people prefer to focus stacking in situations where individual images have a shallow depth of field. Focus stacking helps you bypass limitations brought about by a lower depth of field.

But focus stacking can be easily used in other varied types too – product photography and landscape photography to be specific. The scope of utilizing focus stacking in these types is excellent; the results are mesmerizing!

What Equipment Do You Require for the Focus Stacking Process?

As complex as it looks, you can start with the process of focus stacking with this essential equipment – a mirrorless or DSLR camera, a flash, a tripod, and a bang on editing software bundled with a whole lot of patience and skill!

What Should you Keep in Mind Before you Start Stacking?

  • As you will be clicking a whole lot of multiple images, make sure to charge the camera’s battery. The photos would also require ample space on your memory card.
  • Using a self-timer is better, as it would ensure that every photo which will be stacked later is crystal clear, without any impact of camera shake. 
  • To avoid visible dust specs on your photographs, you should use the sensor-cleaning function. 
  • Have a clear picture in mind; this would help you fix the number of shots you would need to capture to have a successful focus stacking later.

What are the Different Options Available to Stack Photos?

Manually Shifting Focus

Shifting focus manually works amazingly in full-zoom mode. The best part of using this option is that you wouldn’t require any additional equipment except your camera and tripod. A little disadvantage here is that you may have to spend some time cropping images, as lenses change their focal length as you shift focus. However, this all depends on the type of lens you have.

Helicon Tube

This option is suited only for electronically controlled lenses. The Helicon Tube is an extension tube that enables your camera to perform automated and software-controlled stacks. And without any doubt, Helicon is one of the best focus-stacking software producers in the world!

Automated Focusing Railing

One of the best options out there, you can get a perfect stack of images. Every step size is electronically controlled, and there’s minimal manual intervention in this process. All you need is a good macro slider.

Automated Stacking Camera

Isn’t it blissful to have a camera that already has all the features you need right in it! Olympus cameras have a stacking feature, whereas it can be installed in select Canon DSLRs using the Magic Lantern firmware. Automated stacking gives you all the precision you require to pile up those images into one, mesmerizing shot!

Handheld Stacking

This one is the most time and effort consuming process. The advantage of handheld stacking is that you wouldn’t require any additional equipment – you wouldn’t need a tripod either. It makes handheld stacking a preferable option when it comes to shooting subjects that wouldn’t stay still for a long time, for example, insects.

Focus Stacking #2

How to Perform Focus Stacking for Macro Photography

Before we begin, let’s get this clear – focus stacking is a part of post-processing. But the whole process starts with capturing photos which you can stack later using editing software. So the important point to remember here is this: if you mess up the shooting, focus stacking can be a pain-staking and impossible task later.

Step 1: Adjust Your Camera and Equipment

With your equipment and all the patience, you can start capturing the images. Frame by frame, you have to shoot consecutive shots. For added stability, use a sturdy tripod and turn the self-timer on. Set your shot as ‘normal’ and shoot in manual mode, as this will help you to effortlessly snap the series of images you will require to compile later. It is in your best interest to ensure the images are close to each other, as editing will be a child’s play later.

Unless you have a camera that is in-built with a focus-stacking function, manual focus is essential. A camera with the inbuilt feature will automatically shift the focus, which is a tedious task. Otherwise, you will have to manually shift the focus, trying to keep it as close as possible, with one eye on the position of the subject.

Step 2: Start Shooting

Once you have all the critical parameters in place, you can start shooting your consecutive shots. You can either work your way front to back or vice versa. You should ideally begin capturing images where you want the focus plane to start, further adjusting the focus for every shot in the series. Now the choice is yours here – whether you can wind up the shooting process in three shots or fifty shots. The number of images depends on two factors:

  • The shallowness of the depth of field
  • Expected precision of the outcome

Step 3: Choose the Editing Software

There are many different styles of editing software out there – PICOLAY, CombineZP, Zerene Stacker, Affinity Photos – but the best and most trusted one is Adobe Photoshop CC. Its ready availability and the easy user interface are why most photographers (beginners and pros) prefer using this software.

Step 4: Begin Editing

Sort out all the images you would be using for the process of focus stacking. Using Lightroom, you can select all these raw images which would be a part of the final photograph. After choosing these images, you have to ensure that the key parameters, such as exposure, highlights, and shadows, are uniform across all the raw images. If not, edit them right away so that all the images are consistent in appearance. It makes the process of blending easier.

Step 5: Layer the Raw Images

This step is super easy and fun at the same time. Using the ‘Open in Layers’ option, you have to drag in all the images as layers in a single document. This document is crucial to the next stage.

Step 6: Align and Blend the Images

Now that the challenging part is over, you have to move ahead to alignment. In this stage, you have to ensure that all the images are lined up. Here, you can use Photoshop’s ‘Auto-Align Layers’ tool, as it’s a lot quicker than manual alignment. Using this option, you can work your way through accurate alignment of images, in a proper, perfectly matched sequence.

Next in line is blending these images. You can seamlessly blend in all the pictures with the ‘Auto-Blend Layers’ tool. This option allows you to select the tones, color, and other features which would form a predominant part of the final image.

Step 7: Edit the Image

After a short processing time, you are now one step closer to the final image. In this stage, you may come across some inconsistencies in the layering, blending, and overall editing. But all’s not lost! You still have a chance to rectify all the tiny faults by manually editing. You may have to adjust the color or even crop out the edges of the images. You wouldn’t have to waste much of your time in this step if you followed the earlier mentioned steps to the T!

Step 8: Final Touches to the Final Image

There you go – you can now see your final image on your screen! At this stage, you can crop the image, adjust standard parameters, and give your image a final touch-up. Further, you can export the image to whichever format you want to and save a copy! And we’re done!

Can You Try Focus Stacking With Your Smartphone?

You sure can! All you need is a macro lens attachment to your phone, and you are good to go. Not everyone has a camera, and that shouldn’t stand in the way of you experimenting with focus stacking at all! 

The process stays almost the same, except for the step where you capture images. In the camera, you have to adjust the focus to capture images at different focus planes. However, with a smartphone, you have to merely touch different areas of the screen to capture different images at various focus points. You can stack all these later in less than a minute using Photoshop!

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Final Thoughts on Mastering Focus Stacking

Considering the time and effort, it takes to stack images, quite a lot of people out there prefer not using the focus stacking. But once you’ve tried this fantastic concept, there’s no turning back! Because there is a notable and obvious difference in the quality images of a standard macro shot and a focus-stacked macro shot. Your images will have an extra polished, shiny look.

Focus stacking is a simple trick that can level up your photography and help you stand out from the rest. You can turn a set of images into a stunning shot by investing just a little more time and effort. And let us tell you this, the result is worth all your time and effort!


This guest post was written by Adam Georges, an active member of the imaging community. Since 1981, the Georges Family continues to provide advice on all the major brands and products. To learn more, visit Georges Cameras TV YouTube channel or active blog for more educational content about photography.

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Why I Use Stacking Instead of an ND Filter for Long Exposure Photos

Why I Use Stacking Instead of an ND Filter for Long Exposure Photos

Why I Use Stacking Instead of an ND Filter for Long Exposure Photos 1

In this article, I’ll share a technique that I learned many years ago and that I still use occasionally. You can use it for removing people from a scene, but in this case, I will be using it to mimic one of a neutral density (ND) filter’s main purposes: longer exposure.

There are disadvantages to using an ND filter for longer exposures.

First, if the camera has moved or if something happens in front of the camera, those changes will often be permanently saved in the resulting photo.

A second problem is the noise that’s introduced when shooting longer exposures. Yes, higher-end cameras and sensors can help you avoid some of the noise, but even on those cameras, using image stacking instead of a single ND filtered exposure can help you achieve cleaner results.

To create the following photograph, I first captured 247 separate photos:

Why I Use Stacking Instead of an ND Filter for Long Exposure Photos 2

I then stacked the photos in Photoshop after making simple adjustments to my raw files.

Here’s what you do:

1. In Photoshop, under the File menu, go to Scripts, then Load Files Into Stack.

2. If you have opened your files from Camera Raw, click on Add Open Files. If you have tiffs, then hit Browse. Make sure you check the boxes to automatically align source images and to create a Smart Object after loading the layers.

3. After Photoshop does its magic of aligning, go to the Layer menu, select Smart Objects, then hit Stack Mode. Choose Median or Mean. You have to make your choice based on what works best with your work.

Note: If you’re stacking large numbers of files, you may need a computer powerful enough to handle this kind of task.

Why I Use Stacking Instead of an ND Filter for Long Exposure Photos 3
Making basic adjustments across the individual photos before stacking them.

So instead of using an ND filter for longer exposures, you can capture a longer cumulative exposure time across multiple photos and then stack them for a combined longer exposure.

The main advantage of this technique is the control you get when you have so many frames to choose from and work with.

For example, if someone walked in front of your camera during the shoot, you can easily delete the frames that have the person in them.

If your photo contains moving subjects such as trees, those objects would be blurred with a long exposure shot through an ND filter. But if you have a large number of photos captured with shorter exposure times, you could bring back detail and sharpness to things like trees and skies if you’d like to.

But one of the biggest advantages of using this technique for me is the fact that it allows me to do minimal retouching.

Say you captured the same lightning photograph seen above, except you used an ND filter and one long exposure. If there were more flashes of lightning than you wanted, you’d have to remove those lightning strikes in post-production. If a boat in the water stayed too long in the same place, you may be forced to remove the light from that boat in post-production if you want a clean river.

These types of things would ordinarily force you to clone and retouch your final photos.

By using stacking for long exposure photos, I am able to avoid all of that. I only choose the frames that I want in my final photo, and I did not need to do any retouching whatsoever aside from my usual color correction and dodging/burning.

I’ve been using this stacking technique for my long exposure look for a long time now due to the increased control it gives me.


About the author: Alexander Light is a photographer focused on street, travel, and landscapes. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Astrophotography Stacking & Image Retouching Is Now Available In Affinity Photo

Astrophotography Stacking & Image Retouching Is Now Available In Affinity Photo

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Rosette Nebula SHO |
 

Version 1.9 of Affinity Photo launched earlier this year in February and introduced an array of useful and powerful improvements, from linked layer functionality to better organisation for LUTs, OpenCL hardware acceleration for Windows and long-awaited saveable workspaces.

 

Introducing Astrophotography Stacking In Affinity

Flame And Horsehead Nebula HaRGB |
Flame And Horsehead Nebula HaRGB

 

One of the more esoteric additions was the introduction of a new ‘Persona’ (or workspace) for astrophotography stacking. This functionality is not commonly found in image editors –  instead, it has always been the domain of dedicated astrophotography software, which can vary in price from free to several hundred dollars.

In this regard, Affinity Photo is relatively unique: it can perform the entire postproduction workflow required for professional-level astrophotography, all in 32-bit linear precision. The workflow is not complex either – if anything, the straightforward nature of the entire process may seem contradictory to expectations at first!

 

Astrophotography Stacking In An Inexpensive Photo Editor

Vela Supernova Remnant HaOIIIRGB |
Vela Supernova Remnant HaOIIIRGB

 

To understand the significance of having this functionality in a low-cost image editing application, we should consider the complexity of the stacking workflow and its requirements. We stack multiple exposures of the same subject to increase SNR (signal to noise ratio) – essentially, to reject noise and other artefacts from the final exposure, which allows you to pull through more meaningful detail of the actual night sky objects.

Depending on the subject and its brightness, long exposures – sometimes in excess of five or even ten minutes – are usually required to reveal enough detail, and with longer exposures comes increased noise levels and greater risk of visual artefacts like star trailing, light pollution and light trails from aircraft flying overhead. These all produce challenges during both the stacking and editing process that the software must be able to tackle.

There’s also the requirement of being able to calibrate the image frames before they are stacked together. This is achieved using a variety of calibration frames, which are often shot during the imaging session, although with temperature-controlled sensors and mounted telescope systems this is not always necessary.

 

The Stacking Process In Affinity Explained

Stack Persona (alpha) |
Stack Persona (alpha)

 

The stacking process is easy in Affinity Photo: the light (image) frames and calibration frames are loaded into separate file lists within the Astrophotography Stack Persona, and you can configure various stacking options such as the clipping threshold, which is useful for rejecting aircraft light trails and other inconsistent pixel information. You then click the Stack button, and once the images have stacked you will see the final tone-stretched result. If you need to modify any settings, you can do so and click the Stack button again (with significantly reduced processing time) – each time you do this, a new layer will be placed into the Stacked Images panel at the bottom right.

Once you are happy with the result, you can click Apply and each stacked image is brought through as a layer into your main document’s layer stack. Levels and Curves adjustment layers are also provided by default which perform the initial tone stretching – you can tweak this further if required.

Stack Persona (white Fill) |
Stack Persona (White Fill)

 

For monochrome imaging, where narrowband or broadband filters are used to capture different wavelengths of light, you would typically stack each data set separately, then copy the final pixel layers into one document and blend them together. Layers may need to be aligned, which can be achieved by selecting them all and using Arrange>Align Layers by Stars.

From this point, it’s a fascinating editing process whose complexity can vary depending on the requirements of the subject. Light pollution can be tackled with the dedicated Remove Background filter, found in the Filters>Astrophotography menu. You can single-click to set sample points within the image and easily remove gradients from the background sky detail.

 

Remove Background |
Remove Background
 

The software also has a comprehensive set of masking and selection options too, so you can easily make selections of star detail or background detail, then apply adjustments and live non-destructive filters. For example, you can use a Minimum Blur live filter to reduce the intensity of stars in the image or use an HSL adjustment to reduce background luminosity whilst boosting deep-sky object detail.

Since Affinity Photo also supports macros (recordable operations that can be played back instantly), you can speed up any techniques you find yourself using frequently, such as creating luminosity masks, applying your own tone stretching or even setting up blending of the initial monochrome data layers to produce the full-colour composition.

Another technical advantage to highlight is the ability to complete the entire workflow in 32-bit precision. With the exception of Median Blur (and therefore also Dust & Scratches), all adjustments, tools and filters are available for you to use in 32-bit. This cuts out the requirement of merging or flattening then converting to 16-bit in order to continue editing, and allows you to take advantage of processing entirely in a linear colour space from start to finish, as well as making use of the extra precision.

 

Orion Nebula HaOIII |
Orion Nebula HaOIII

 

Astrophotography, much like regular photography, can quickly become an expensive hobby or profession. Therefore, in some ways, you may argue that an extra few hundred dollars spent on dedicated astrophotography software is hardly worth quibbling over rather than investing a smaller amount into a more general image editing application. However, even if budget is not a concern, Affinity Photo offers a streamlined and straightforward workflow, especially if you are used to other layer-based image editing software. It’s ideal for newcomers to the genre, but also offers several notable advantages to seasoned astrophotographers as well, particularly for non-destructive workflows.

 

Even More Affinity Photo Astrophotography Tutorials

For anyone interested in exploring Affinity Photo’s astrophotography capabilities, we have a plethora of tutorial videos covering the subject available both on our website and YouTube.

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A Guide To When To Use Focus Stacking and How To Do It

A Guide To When To Use Focus Stacking and How To Do It

Landscape photography often demands extreme depth of field, where everything from the nearest flowers to the farthest mountains need to be in focus and as sharp as possible. Often, this exceeds the laws of physics for a single shot, meaning you will need to resort to blending multiple images, known as focus stacking. This excellent video tutorial discusses when you should use it and how to do it. 

Coming to you from Landscape Photography iQ with Tom Mackie, this helpful video tutorial will show you when and how to use focus stacking for sharper images. The idea of focus stacking comes from the need for images that are sharp from front to back and the limitations of physics. Of course, to increase depth of field, you can simply close down the aperture, but at a certain point, you will start to run into issues with diffraction. And often, if you have a foreground element fairly close to the camera that you want to keep sharp along with everything to infinity, you will run into this issue. Focus stacking involves simply taking the same image at different focal points, then blending the different versions in post to ensure maximum sharpness across the entire frame. It is not a particularly difficult or time-intensive method. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Mackie. 

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