Focus Stacking: A Primer

The Final Result

With all the advancements lately in the photography world, the ability to perform tasks like focus stacking has been off-shored to built in algorithms in specialized cameras, in post production software (i.e. Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Helicon Focus, and a host of others that have now flooded the market.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for making things easier, and improving ones workflow, but I do still ascribe to the theory of learning certain fundamentals and essentials for building your photography skills both in composition, and just to understand the mechanics of photography. With that in mind, I’d like to devote a bit of time to discuss the task of focus stacking.

Focus Stacking Versus HDR

First off, focus stacking is used mostly in genres like macro photography, where intricate detail is needed across a range wider than what the aperture will allow for during composition.  The principle is much like the layered approach to HDR imagery – where you stack layers of images with different compositions on top of each other and blend the right portions through the entire image.

Where focus stacking differs from HDR is the types of images that you are layering.  In HDR images, you are overlaying images with different exposure values over one another.  In focus stacking, you are not changing the exposure values, rather just the point of focus.  As depth of field drops off both in front of and behind your focusing point, the subject will blur.  While this may be an appreciated blurring technique in some cases, in other cases, getting different depths of field from different focusing points can make for a tack sharp macro throughout the range of the subject.

As is most often the case, explaining a photography concept is best done with images, so let’s take a look at an example.  For easy demonstration, I took a white cordless phone and placed it on a black background.  This way color issues are kept to a minimum…

First Focus Point

Notice on the first focusing point, the sharpest point is right near the front?  It also quickly drops off into the background as I was shooting at f2.8  The low aperture number means I will have a very shallow depth of field, which is what is causing the blurred background.  To bring the rest of it into focus, I need to “stack” more shots that have a different point of focus.  So, let’s add another few to the composite:

Second Focus Point

Third Focus Point

Fourth Focus Point

Fifth Focus Point

The end result from stacking all these together can be accomplished by any one of a number of methods ranging from the most time-consuming of doing it manually inside Lightroom or Photoshop, and the most efficient one of using 3rd party software.  While several options do exist, the one that has become pretty much the industry standard is that of Helicon Focus!  Their quality of processing is, bar none, among the best I’ve seen.

In the meantime, here’s the result of an image that has been focus-stacked:

The Final Result

It’s a quick edit, and done with only having focus-stacked 5 images.  If I wanted a really detailed depth of field on something more important than a cordless phone from circa 1990’s, I’d likely have taken at least 10-15 images and massaged them through Helicon Focus more carefully.

For a behind-the-scenes footage video, stop over to the Facebook page!  (Be sure to “like” it and share a comment while you are there…)

If you really want to go hip deep into focus stacking and macro photography, there’s a great book by Julian Cremona called Extreme Close Up Photography and Focus Stacking available on Amazon.  Good read, and really takes this subject to the Nth degree!

Masking in Lightroom

Adirondack Dock

This post was written a while ago, but the concept is still one that many people aren’t aware of – essentially that you can perform masking in Adobe Lightroom.  Keep reading to learn how!

Often when  I talk to people about their work flow one big question and the need to do some pixel based editing in Photoshop, one of the questions that often comes up is “Why can’t I do X in Lightroom?”

Read more

EXIF Data Explained

Lightroom Interface

Did you know that your images contain a whole host of information that you may not even be seeing?  The header information in your photos contain something called EXIF data.  While most of us know how to get things like our shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and perhaps even the camera body, there’s so much more that can be pulled in with the right software.

That software is a plugin that Jeffrey Friedl makes called Metadata EXIF Viewer, which you can download for free from his website at the link provided.  It’s based on an EXIF tool Perl script from Phil Harvey, which he links to here.  It’s just like any other Lightroom plugin as far as installation goes – download the compressed file,decompress, and then copy the folder to where ever you save plugins for Lightroom and you’re set.

Then, after installation, highlight the image you want to get extended info for, and click on File, Plugin Manager Extras, and select the plugin:

Lightroom Interface

Once a short CGI script runs (that’s the Perl program for you programming types), you’ll be presented with a laundry list of more info than you likely ever wanted to know about your photos.  All this, just from the header info!  Check it out:

Like I said, a veritable fountain of info…and this is just from one photo!  The question of course becomes one of “What do I do with all of this?”  Excellent question!  In the interests of full disclosure, more data isn’t always a good thing, and for many of the fields, there’s often no data reported.  Nevertheless, there are times (albeit not everyday occurences), where being able to access everything can be helpful.

Take a minute to stop over at Jeffrey’s website and try the plugin.  (If you want to register it, you do need to make a donation of at least one penny, otherwise it’s free to use for 30 days.  I gave $2.00)

Got your own neat little add-ons, plugins, or tools that you use in your workflow too?  Feel free to sound off with your input in the comment section!  Until next time, happy shooting!