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

NIKON D800 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 50, 1/25, f/8.0

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

NIKON D800 @ 105mm, ISO 400, 10/400, f/8.0

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

NIKON D800 @ 105mm, ISO 400, 10/400, f/8.0

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

NIKON D800 @ 105mm, ISO 400, 10/400, f/8.0

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.


    • 1.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 2:46 am

      Hi Anthony,

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


  1. 2) Phillip M Jones
    June 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    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.

    • 2.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 2:49 am

      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.


    June 13, 2014 at 12:26 am

    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

    • 3.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 2:54 am

      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.


  3. 4) chandrasekaran
    June 13, 2014 at 4:12 am

    Thank u sir very use full Tip

    • 4.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 4:41 am

      Hi chandrasekaran,

      Glad you found it useful!


  4. 5) Catalin
    June 13, 2014 at 5:56 am

    Great article. Thank you for the idea.

    • 5.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 6:23 am

      Hi Catalin,

      Always a pleasure to share an idea with readers….


  5. 6) Brad
    June 13, 2014 at 8:17 am

    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.

  6. 7) Vivek
    June 13, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    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.

    • 7.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      Hi Vivek,

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


  7. 8) Paul Hildebrandt
    June 13, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    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?

    • 8.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 13, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      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….


    • 8.2) Marc Henry
      June 15, 2014 at 5:40 am

      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.

      Google is your friend.

      • 8.2.1) Thomas Stirr
        June 15, 2014 at 12:06 pm

        Hi Marc,

        Thanks for adding your insights…much appreciated.


  8. 9) Grammar Police
    June 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm

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

    • 9.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 14, 2014 at 3:52 am

      Hi Grammar Police,

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


    • 9.2) Guest
      June 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm


  9. 10) youcantryreachingme
    June 13, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    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)

    • 10.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 14, 2014 at 4:13 am

      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.


  10. 11) Hung Vietnam
    June 14, 2014 at 8:58 am

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

    • 11.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 14, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Hello Hung Vietnam,

      Glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful.


  11. 12) Charles
    June 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    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.


    • 12.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 14, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Hi Charles,

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


  12. 13) Jose Carlos
    June 15, 2014 at 9:19 am

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

    • 13.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 15, 2014 at 12:05 pm

      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.


      • 13.1.1) Jose Carlos
        June 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm

        Thank you for your answer! I will try on CS5

  13. 14) Charles
    June 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    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.

    • 14.1) Thomas Stirr
      June 16, 2014 at 6:38 am

      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.


    • 14.2) Thomas
      July 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      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.

      • 14.2.1) Thomas Stirr
        July 2, 2014 at 8:15 pm

        Hi Thomas,

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


  14. 15) tyan
    June 16, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    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 :)

  15. 16) ra
    November 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    very simple instructions. worked just great.

    • 16.1) Thomas Stirr
      November 15, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Hello ra,

      Glad it worked out for you!


  16. 17) Brenda
    December 15, 2014 at 4:58 am

    Hi Tom, thank you for such well written and detailed instructions. I have just started to learn stacking macro and have been told that my results are not stacked because they still show EXIF information. I am using PS cc14 and am wondering if this software does show EXIF information whereas not all software does, e.g. Zerene. Also, is it necessary to highlight the images in the photomerge box or just those you wish to delete? Thanks in advance.

    • December 15, 2014 at 8:18 am

      Hi Brenda,
      I don’t use PScc14 so I don’t know how the process works with that particular version. The easiest way to check to see if your focus stacking worked is to examine the finished image to see if it is all in focus when compared to your input images. If it is then I wouldn’t worry about the EXIF data.

      • 17.1.1) Brenda
        December 16, 2014 at 7:42 am

        Thanks, yes it does work well.

  17. 18) Gery Revandra
    December 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    hi Tom, great article & thank you for writing this article ..

    but, i’ve question … does focus stacking technique can be applied into star trails at night ??! ..

    • December 24, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Hi Gery,
      I suppose if you took a number of images over time of individual star trails you could combine them. The challenge would be the change in position of the stationary stars and how the software would deal with them, as well as the changing angles between those stationary points as the earth revolved. The software would need to be able to recognize all of those stationary points so it could anchor the combined images on them which it may find difficult to do. I’ve never taken any images like this so I can comment from an experiential standpoint.

      • 18.1.1) Gery Revandra
        December 24, 2014 at 10:16 pm

        hi Tom, thanks for your reply …

        Merry Christmas …

        regards from Indonesia.

  18. 19) Andrew Zimmerman
    January 15, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Great article. Glad to see it was easy to do!

  19. January 29, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    trying to shoot eyewear, don’t have any lens that has the dof to get the earpiece with the lens … focus stacking has too many aberrations along the line of the earpiece to be useful

    • February 2, 2015 at 4:38 am

      Hi Gregory,
      You may need to take a much wider assortment of shots to get a long, straight line like the arm on a pair of glasses to render nicely using focus stacking. I did focus stacking with a cast metal highway truck model that was about 16 inches long and I needed to take almost 40 separate images to get it to look right.

  20. 21) Ant West
    February 9, 2015 at 3:29 am

    Thank you! This is the best tutorial I’ve found on the topic! Worked like a dream with my first attempt at stacking 17 shots of a butterfly :)

    • February 9, 2015 at 6:27 am

      Hi Ant,
      That is fantastic – I’m glad that it worked well for you!

  21. 22) aravind
    May 21, 2015 at 6:08 am

    really an masterpiece dude

    • May 21, 2015 at 6:23 am

      Hi aravind,
      Glad you enjoyed it!

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