Stack Your Focus

By Roger (30 Jan 2014)

While I have Mark's light tent set up, let's talk about making some close-up, or macro, photographs.

Just so you know, the technical definition of macro photography is one in which the size of the subject on the sensor is life size or greater. Most people today use the term to mean any photograph at a very close range, whether a macro lens is used or not. I wouldn't nitpick a close-up that isn't really macro, but you should know the correct meaning.

Besides the obvious attraction of photographing very small slices of life, many photographers love the very shallow depth of field inherent with macro photography. Depending on your lens' focal length and selected aperture, the acceptable area of focus can be as small as a couple of millimeters. You can use this to drive the viewers eye to your subject; the rest of the photo will be lost in bokeh.

With a macro lens, even a weed can look nice.

With a macro lens, even a weed can look nice.

But when you want to have everything in focus, you'll have to resort to a post-processing technique called focus stacking. This technique is nothing fancy, but you'll need a photo-editing software, like Photoshop, to make it work.

I start by stealing my wife's sculpture of Neu Schwanstein and putting it inside the light tent. The light tent helps give me nice even lighting. You can see the castle is about eight inches from front to rear.


When I focus on the front gate with my Nikon 105mm Micro lens, set at f8, you can see that only about half an inch is in focus. The front of the sculpture is way too soft, and the back is completely lost in the bokeh.

With a macro lens, your depth of field will be very narrow.

With a macro lens, your depth of field will be very narrow.

To keep everything consistent, I put the camera on a tripod and use manual mode on both the camera and lens. In any of the auto modes, the camera will calculate its settings every time you depress the button and may give you different solutions each time. That isn't what you want. You can use the camera's first solution as your starting point for exposure. Just read the back of your camera; switch to manual; and dial in the settings.

With your lens in manual, you will make a series of photos, moving the focus through the subject a fraction at a time. I usually do this from front to rear and then rear to front. Make sure you rack through the entire range. You may want to turn on Live View, so you can track your progress on the rear LCD. It is easier to see the minute differences in focus on each photo when you're looking at the LCD.. Now, import the photos into Lightroom; make any adjustments you want to the first image; and synchronize those settings across all your photos. Consistency, remember?

Getting the photos into Photoshop, is easy. Highlight all your images in the series; right-click on them; and choose “Open as Layers in Photoshop.” It may take some time, depending on the file size and number of images, but you'll get one Photoshop file, with each of your images on a separate layer.

Highlight every layer and choose “Edit>Auto-Align Layers.” Even with the camera on a tripod, you may have had some movement. Next, (with all layers still selected) choose “Edit>Auto-Blend Layers>Stack Images.” Make sure you check the box that says “Seamless Tones and Colors.” Photoshop will create masks for each layer, revealing only the portions that are in sharp focus. Something like this.

Photoshop will create the complex masks.  You don't want to try this manually.

Photoshop will create the complex masks.  You don't want to try this manually.

From here, I flatten the image and make any touch-ups I want and save the image.  You don't have to flatten the image if you're a stickler for non-destructive editing, but your final file size is going to be ridiculously large. Voila! You have the entire subject in focus. I threw in a background color that I took from the image, so there was a little less white and cropped it.

Final image, composed of stacked layers.

Final image, composed of stacked layers.

Like the compositing I showed last week, this is not a very complex technique and can yield a photo that isn't possible with one photograph. Take your time and get all the different focus points before you move the camera. This one took 20 images and still isn't perfect when you zoom in to 300%. If this was more than just a demonstration, I would do another round. Have fun.

Capturing the 4th of July

Around this time every year, I start thinking about fireworks displays.  I love seeing the lights and hearing the booms, followed by the oohs and aahs of the crowds.  As a photographer getting good photos of fireworks can be a challenge.  It takes a little planning, a little technique, and some equipment. First, let’s start with the equipment.  Fireworks require a long exposure, which means to get a crisp shot; you have to have a good tripod.  There is no getting around it, good tripods are expensive.  You might as well pay for a quality one upfront; because if you buy a cheap one, you will be unhappy and eventually have to spend the money anyway.   It is also very helpful to have a remote shutter release.  Either a cable or remote will work as long as it allows you to do long exposures.

It also helps to have a small flashlight with you so you can see the settings on your camera in the dark.   You will want a decent zoom as well, one which allows manual focusing.  I like my 70-200 or my 18-200.  The fireworks can cover a good bit of the sky and for the finale shots you will want to cover a pretty wide field of view.

Second is the planning.  You need to know where the fireworks are going to go.  Sounds pretty basic, but getting set up early in a good spot with a clear line of sight will help make your pictures crisper.  You don’t want people walking in front of your lens or bashing into it.  Take lots of water because, unfortunately, drinking a lot of other traditional 4th of July adult beverages isn’t good for steady image composition.

Finally the techniques - you will have to shoot in Manual mode.  Yep, the auto features will really not help you out here.  The good news is that you only have to set the aperture once.  Setting it to f/11 will allow you to have the entire image in focus.   I push my ISO up to around 640 as well. With my Nikon D300, above 640 you start seeing visible digital noise.  With newer models, you can push it up to well above ISO 1600.  

You have to adjust your shutter speed to “bulb.” The shutter will remain open as long as you have the shutter release pressed.  Use of a cable is critical here, because your fingers will make the camera shake.  Aim the camera in the general vicinity of where the main explosions are going to occur.  Begin shooting when you hear the projectiles go off and keep the shutter open until the shell fully develops.  Sometimes that is 30 seconds, sometimes it is 10 seconds.  The only way to tell if you got what you wanted is to look at your image in the viewfinder.   For the finale, you can shorten the time to 1-2 seconds, because of all the light.    Initially you might miss the tops of the shell bursts.  Don’t worry; just keep adjusting your tripod.  Generally they will settle into roughly the same location in the sky.   The longer you keep the shutter open, the more trails you will get, which can lead to some interesting effects.

Have fun, be safe, and have a great July 4th.