How to Focus Stack Images

For most people who just want to have some fun with their photography and have another ‘trick up their sleeve’ focus stacking can be an interesting technique to explore. To put this article in proper context, I’ve never used focus stacking for any of my client work, and I don’t profess to be an expert at the technique…but I have experimented with it. The following image is a quick focus stacking example I put together for this article. It was composed from 11 separate exposures. It’s far from perfect, but it does represent a typical result that most hobbyists can easily achieve.

Image Stack

Focus stacking is a technique that can be beneficial when a photographer wants to extend the apparent depth-of-field of an image, and also wants to avoid the loss of image sharpness that can result from the effects of diffraction when using an increased f-stop. Focus stacking is most commonly used with macro and landscape photography where it may be critical that the image is pin-sharp from the top to the bottom of the frame. Obviously for focus stacking to work your subject must be stationary.

When used for macro photography and done at a professional level, focus stacking is a precise and exacting process that can require very specialized equipment like an automated focus stacking macro rail and would need to be done in a highly controlled studio setting. It also takes considerable skill and experience, both behind the camera and in post processing.

For us mere mortals, having a good tripod and head, a decent camera and macro lens, and software like CS6 is enough to do some basic macro focus stacking and have a lot of fun.

1) Capturing your set of images

If you’re using focus stacking to extend the apparent depth-of-field with a landscape scene you may only have to take three exposures, each focused on different parts of the scene….foreground, mid-ground, and background.

On the other hand, if you’re putting together a macro image of a fairly wide/deep object and using a full frame camera, you may have to take 20 exposures or more to get everything in the scene captured in focus by at least one of your shots. There’s no magic to this…it’s more of a trial and error process, and after we’ve made enough mistakes at it…we eventually call it ‘experience’.

You will need a good, stable tripod and a solid ball head or pistol grip to try and ensure no movement of your camera between shots. Using the shutter delay setting on your camera or a shutter release is recommended. If you’re shooting with a DSLR using the ‘Mup’ (mirror up) setting is also recommended to avoid camera shake caused by mirror movement.

You will need to capture a sufficient range of exposures to ensure that all surfaces of your macro subject are in focus on at least one of your shots. Some people set their camera for a particular f-stop like f/5.6 or f/8 where their lens may be at its maximum sharpness, then manually focus on different parts of their macro subject without moving their camera or tripod. Other folks like to focus on fewer areas of their subject, but take multiple shots from those specific focus points at different apertures…say f/5.6, f/8 and f/11. If your camera has the capability to focus from the rear touch screen you can simply touch various points on the image to reset focus and get your set of exposures in that manner.

NOTE: when doing macro focus stacking you should expect that CS6 may leave some unwanted artifacts around the outside edges of your finished, composite image so it’s important to allow some cropping room with your original set of images.

It is important to try and ensure that you’ve taken exposures all around the outside edges of your macro subject and at various points on the inside of your composition otherwise you could end up with some soft, out-of-focus areas in your composite image.

Finished Image

I took a total of 13 exposures with my D800 at f/8 to make the focus stacked image above. If you look closely you will see that I missed a few leaves on the tree which are visible in this stacked focus sample. As it is often said…patience is a virtue!

2) Processing your images

Many photo processing software products have an image stacking capability. Since I’ve only used CS6 for focus stacking I’ll run down the basic work flow for you.

  1. Open up CS6 and click on ‘File’, scroll down to ‘Automate’, click on ‘Photomerge’:
    Step 1
  2. When the Photomerge box opens remove the tick on the ‘Blend images together’ box:
    Step 2
  3. Click on ‘Browse’ and select your set of images. You can use either RAW or jpegs. Don’t mix them. Once you have selected your images, click on ‘OK’:
    Step 3
  4. The files will now appear in the Photomerge box. Highlight all of them by clicking on the first image, then holding down the shift key and clicking on the last image, then click ‘OK’:
    Step 4 Photoshop
    You will then see the images starting to load on the right hand side of your CS6 screen:
    Step 4
  5. Once they have all loaded, select all of the images listed on the right hand side by clicking on the top image, hold down the shift key, then click on the last image in the list:
    Step 5
  6. Click on ‘Edit’, scroll down to ‘Auto-Align Layers’ and click on it, make sure the ‘Auto’ setting is selected, then click ‘OK’:
    Step 6
  7. CS6 will now align all of your images for you:
    Step 7
  8. Click on ‘Edit’ again, scroll down to ‘Auto-Blend Layers’, make sure ‘Stacked Images’ and ‘Seamless Tones and Colours’ are selected, then click ‘OK’. CS6 will now blend all of the images together for you:
    Step 8
    Step 8b
  9. Click on ‘Layer’, then click on ‘Flatten Image’:
    Step 9
  10. Now you can work on the file with other CS6 adjustments before saving your final output:
    Step 10

Here is the first photo of a series that I took at f/8 with my D800 using my Nikkor 105mm Micro f/2.8 lens. You can see that much of the image is out of focus.

First f/8

Now compare that image above with the following focus stacked one and you’ll see the advantages of using focus stacking for macro work.

Finished Image

We’d love to hear about your experiences with focus stacking and some of the techniques that you have used in your work, as well as see some of your samples!

Article and all images Copyright 2014, Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.


Avatar of Thomas Stirr About Thomas Stirr

Thomas Stirr is an author, executive coach, and photographer/videographer based in Grimsby Ontario Canada. He specializes in industrial photography, safety and corporate videos. His work also includes landscape and nature photography, and experimentation with photo art. To follow Thomas, please visit his website and his YouTube channel

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Anthony

    Thank you, Thomas and Nasim. This is a perfect example of why this website is so special and valuable!!!

    • 4
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Anthony,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I’m happy you found the article useful.

      Tom

  2. 2
    ) Phillip M Jones

    I’m glad to know finally what Focus stacking. In Nikonians group I posted a Picture I took with D3000 Camera and at least one person accused me of Focus stacking. I had to explain I didn’t even know what it was.

    Wish I could post here a Sample.

    • 5
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Phillip,

      The same thing has happened to me on occasion where people have thought that I must have used focus stacking to achieve a particular depth-of-field look to some images. Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Tom

  3. 3
    ) ZEESHAN MITRA

    A precise and informative article, thus a excellent article. I have tried focus stacking and got some acceptable images and yes skill,patience specialised equipment is required but for me the process mentioned in your article is apt. I am content with the images I got though not of professional quality but I am content with it. Thank you for a wonderful article

    • 6
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Zeeshan,

      Thanks very much for your kind words…much appreciated. Like you, I don’t own any specialized equipment but I have found this simplified technique does work quite well and can produce acceptable results.

      Tom

  4. 7
    ) chandrasekaran

    Thank u sir very use full Tip

    • 8
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi chandrasekaran,

      Glad you found it useful!

      Tom

  5. 9
    ) Catalin

    Great article. Thank you for the idea.

    • 10
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Catalin,

      Always a pleasure to share an idea with readers….

      Tom

  6. 11
    ) Brad

    Another way to get a good series of pictures for focus stacking (popular for super macro stacking) is to use a fixed focus point and a focus rail tripod head. This allows you to move the focus point along the Z axis in small, controlled increments. With a solid tripod, it can be a very reliable way to capture all of the data you need for a good focus stack. I’ve seen some things about hardcore stacking rigs (for scientific work) that are motorized to automate the process.

  7. 13
    ) Vivek

    Many many thanks for this article. I got something to do differently other than the regular photography. I’ll do many experiments with these all tips from you. Hope, I’ll upload soon to get more tips from you. Thanks once again. And yes, am going to spread it into my photography friend circle.

    • 17
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Vivek,

      I’m sure you’ll have some fun with this technique. Let us know how it goes….

      Tom

  8. 14
    ) Paul Hildebrandt

    Is there a way to process files for focus-stacking using PS Elements 12 for Mac? If so, how does that process differ from CS6?

    • 16
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Paul,

      Unfortunately I cannot answer your question since I have never used PS Elements, nor have I ever used a Mac. Perhaps some other PL readers can comment….

      Tom

    • 26
      ) Marc Henry

      Yes it can be done..and almost as easily as in full blown Photoshop. I won’t be held hostage by them, I believe for 99.5% of photographers Elements and Lightroom are all you will ever need.

      http://www.elementsvillage.com/forums/showthread.php?t=77567

      Google is your friend.

      • 29
        ) Thomas Stirr

        Hi Marc,

        Thanks for adding your insights…much appreciated.

        Tom

  9. 15
    ) Grammar Police

    Replace the multiple uses of “try and” with the proper “try to” and that would be an excellent article.

    • 19
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Grammar Police,

      Thanks for the suggestion. There are always ways that each of us can try to improve.

      Tom

    • 23
      ) Guest

      Really?

  10. 18
    ) youcantryreachingme

    Um, have I got this right? “Seamless tones and colours” is the only step that actually specifies which portions of which images you want to keep in your final version? There is no manual selecting using some sort of marquee tool? (I don’t have that software but am trying to follow the logic/process)

    • 20
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hello youcantryreachingme,

      The “seamless tones and colours” setting enables CS6 to smooth out any noticeable seams and colour differences between the various images during the blending process.

      Tom

  11. 21
    ) Hung Vietnam

    Such a great article ! You have enlightened my mind how focus stacking is ! TFS !

    • 22
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hello Hung Vietnam,

      Glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful.

      Tom

  12. 24
    ) Charles

    Tom: You can invoke the same process from Bridge. Select the files and then choose Tools, Photoshop, Load Files Into Photoshop Layers. After the files load, select them all and then proceed to Auto Align & Auto Blend as spelled out in the article.

    Charles

    • 25
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the additional information….always great when readers share their knowledge.

      Tom

  13. 27
    ) Jose Carlos

    Great tip; I wonder if is it possible to achieve on CS5?

    • 28
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hello Jose Carlos,

      I would assume that if the same controls are in CS5 it should operate the same way. I never used CS5 so I can’t specifically comment on it.

      Tom

      • 33
        ) Jose Carlos

        Thank you for your answer! I will try on CS5

  14. 30
    ) Charles

    Adobe started focus stacking with CS4. It worked but was somewhat primitive. Not suggested at all if you have near range elements crossing in front of background (think tree branches). CS5 was better. CS6 better still. CC current version is the best yet from Adobe. Despite the improvements this remains a hit or miss proposition. Most often unwanted artifacts occur along the edges separating focal zones. For intricate scenes I’ve had better luck when increasing the number of focal slices and using shallower apertures.

    The commands have been the same throughout.

    • 31
      ) Thomas Stirr

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks very much for your suggestions on focus stacking with Adobe software. This will help readers get better results if they have not tried this technique in the past.

      Tom

    • 34
      ) Thomas

      I have CS5 and find it unsatisfactory for focus stacking. Just too many odd artifacts. Not sure about the performance of CC, but Zerene Stacker works very well and is not unduly expensive.

      • 35
        ) Thomas Stirr

        Hi Thomas,

        Thanks for the tip about Zerene Stacker….always great to get some suggestions from Photography Life readers.

        Tom

  15. 32
    ) tyan

    Thanks for sharing ! I think the first four or five steps could just use File–>scripts–> load files into stack to solve. I don’t know if it is right :)

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