Focus stacking is not a new technique, but it is one that I recently took a deep-dive into as I try and find ways to keep the photography going while staying closer to home. This is episode 153 of The Great Outdoors Photography Podcast for October 30, 2022.
A few ways of looking at it...
When I originally dreamed up of doing an episode on focus stacking I wrote this post. I’ve decided to leave it there as a separate post and in this one we’ll have all the standard podcast stuffs AND we’ll be looking at a deep focus stack.
So if you’re listening to the show, I’ll be covering both blog posts, the one on basic focus stacking and this one where we look at deep focus with hundreds of frames stacked together.
Watch the whole process!
I put a video together too of this deep focus stack. Thanks for listening AND watching 🙂
Setting the Stage
I had just received the Canon RF 100 Macro lens, but it took me weeks to get it opened. I finally broke it free of its box and took it out to the back pasture where we have a swampy area with a variety of grasses and cattails. I initially started looking for your basic macro type shots like this one.
Hunting around in the world of macro is so fun and illuminating. When I saw this drop I knew I’d have some awesome effects going on as I looked through it to the grasses below. But I wanted more and I decided to try out the idea of focus stacking.
A variety of life is everywhere on the farm, and various insects and arachnids are certainly in abundance. I had hoped I’d find one of our many Northwest Tree Frogs. They’re everywhere and I can always hear them when I’m down by the marsh. But this time it was insects and spiders like this one under a blade of grass. There were several smaller bugs caught in her web and I did my best not to startle her. Since she was having a meal I was able to do just about whatever I wanted and I was ignored.
The first stack
I probably should call this “The first stack using Canon’s Focus Bracketing feature.” I did a focus stack where I moved the lens manually, but I ended up not liking it. Besides, it’s very tedious moving the lens’ focus ring for each shot. Especially when the tripod is on soft ground out in the marsh. Any little bit of movement would take the frames out of alignment.
So I got this shot. I didn’t keep the separate frames in Lightroom as I’m unsure what I would do with them. I don’t plan to use this as an example in the future, it’s done purely for learning and figuring out the process for myself.
Testing Focus Bracketing
Canon has a feature on the R5 and other cameras that’s called Focus Bracketing. It’s simple to set up and use. On the R5 it’s found on the “Shoot5” menu page. (The red menu items, #5)
You can either enable it or disable it. Enabling it turns it on until you go in and turn it off. Sometimes there’s some features that are only turned on once and you have to re-enable it each time. This isn’t one of those, thankfully.
The next option is to select how many shots you want to make of this series of focus bracketed shots. I initially tested things out with just 20 shots.
The next option is “Focus Increment.” This one is not very descriptive. Your options here are from 1 to 10, a “narrow” and a “wide” setting respectively. But what does that mean? That’s where testing comes in to play.
The final option is Exposure smoothing. The camera doesn’t offer an explanation on this one either so for this test I left it disabled. I’ll need to do further testing to see exactly what this does, but from the sounds of it I want to leave it off.
More on "Focus Increment"
This focus increment is what I really wanted to understand. So with this subject I decided to do 20 shots and I would start at focus increment 5 and go down to focus increment 1. If you want to see those results specifically, watch the YouTube video posted above. I show you exactly how far in this particular scene the increment adjusts the focus bracketing.
In short, a smaller increment moves the focus less and gets you less of a deep focus with the same number of frames. But more testing is needed to test out exactly what increment is needed for various Depths-of-Field. If I wasn’t using a macro lens I’m sure I could get away with something in the 4–7 range of the focus increment. But with the extremely shallow DOF of macro, a setting of 1 or 2 seemed to be necessary.
That first shot was child’s play. I wanted to really have some fun and get hundreds of shots for a single frame. Something that would be impossible to show with a single frame due to the extreme Depth-of-Field exhibited. So I found this grass with all the dew still on it. And I was hooked. The challenge was to set it up without causing all the water to drop off.
I then set the camera to do 120 frames. When it records the frames it will start at wherever you have the focus set and then it steps back into the frame. 120 wasn’t enough, so I just hit the shutter button again and had it continue on to a total of 240 frames. I did it a few times, but at this rate I’d easily fill up a card in just a few minutes. I am recording in raw after all.
Making the Stack
Helicon Focus makes things real easy. And I go through some of the details in the previous blog post I had mentioned and in the YouTube video associated with this post too.
In short, I used the Lightroom plugin they provide to send all the raw data to Helicon Focus. I’m then able to perform the focus stack and save a raw DNG file of that work back into Lightroom. It went a lot faster than I initially anticipated. With 240 images I expected it to take at least 30 minutes for the whole process to happen, but it was only about 5 or 6 minutes and that includes looking at various stack options in Helicon Focus.
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For Learning Purposes Only
I’m not gonna pretend to be proud of this image. Other than this post and other learning examples you won’t see me talking about this image. The problems are many but I’m actually glad I failed at making a great image, because the next time I’m out there I’ll know what I did wrong (and maybe you, too, can learn from my mistakes 🙂 )
- I don’t like how the water drops fade off in the upper right corner. When I was putting the image together I was sure I’d love the fall off. But this is too harsh and it ruins the composition. I’d be much happier if I had it all in focus. But this is something I didn’t “see” when I was setting up the shot.
- I darkened the background for effect because the background was too distracting. It wasn’t bad, but in a macro shot like this I ended up getting too much in focus due to the extreme nature of the focus stack. It started out fine, but it got a bit more in focus where some shapes are generally discernible.
- The focus fall off on the lower portion of the image isn’t too great either. And the grass leaf that extends upwards from the lower left corner, it’s not completely in focus. These are little details that need to be considered when shooting. Basic fix? Over shoot and pare it down later if needed.
- The Focus Bracketing feature is brilliant. I love it and will always use it going forward for my focus stacked images.
- The details that are rendered are simply amazing! 45MP and focus stacking and keeping the raw data throughout the process is wonderful to have.
- I had a blast out there shooting and processing. Everything about this was F-U-N.
My ultimate goal:
I want to create a series of images that are massive prints but they are of the tiny world. I now have a 44″ printer and to make massive images of the hidden world around us has long been a dream of mine. And now I’ll be able to make it a reality.
Today's Dose of Inspiration
If you are faithful in little things you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.
—Luke 16:10, NLT
If your pictures are not good enough then you’re not close enough.
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