Have you ever used Focus Stacking?

Started Oct 5, 2011 | Discussions
kombizz0
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Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
Oct 5, 2011

I read a short article about Focus Stacking assistant for EOS cameras.

http://www.circuitsathome.com/camera-control/focus-stacking-assistant-for-eos-cameras
Then I google it and found this article.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_stacking

I have never worked with this method during my macro photography in the period of film cameras.

I wonder have you ever used this? If so, how do you use it? Also I wonder what would be the advantage of this method over other methods (if there are any)?
Thanks
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I was born and brought up in Iran, a beautiful country full of history.
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WT Jones
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It works
In reply to kombizz0, Oct 5, 2011

One of the cool things about digital. Focus stacking gives you a range of DOF on close up & macro shots otherwise unobtainable. It allows you to shoot at lower f stops like f/8 or f11 to avoid diffraction softening you would get at f22 or f/32 on digital cameras these days.

You do have to have some overlap on your series of images to avoid streaks of out of focus parts running through your subject. I sometimes on wider shots will do two or maybe three shots hand held and stack them in CS-5, but I usually use a tripod for best results.

If you blend two or three shots you can do it manually in layers. it is a bit tedious, but can be done.

For automated stacking. Photoshop CS-5 has a great layer alignment tool and a excellent stack tool. I think it works better than Helicon Focus software myself. However Helicon works too. but always seem to get some ghosting with Helicon. There are a couple of other programs out there as well, their names escape me.

Here is a stacked mushroom probably four or five shots(I forget) hand held. laying on the ground & carefully focusing a 100 macro lens while trying to maintain some semblance of alignment

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fly1
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to kombizz0, Oct 5, 2011

Hi there,

I'm awaiting the arrival of some extension tubes and have been looking at buying some software,
Found 3 so far, bet there is many more,
1. Combine ZP
http://www.hadleyweb.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/CZP/News.htm
It is free but I had trouble working the program

2. Helicon Focus
http://www.heliconsoft.com/heliconfocus.html
Found it worked OK, easy to use, there is a 30 day free trial

3. Zerene Stacker
http://www.zerenesystems.com/cms/stacker

For me at least, worked the best, has a great editing option which will take me some time to grasp but IMHO, this was the best program, also 30 day trial

Does not have the flash screen graphics as Helicon but where "looks" fail, it makes up for it in the options and performance

Now, I know nothing about focus stackers and I'm just doing the research,
At this stage, I'm leaning towards Zerene Stacker

Will be interesting to see what other experienced guys are using
Regards,
Gary

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KEVZPHOTOS
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Re: I do it all the time.
In reply to kombizz0, Oct 6, 2011
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john_bmth101
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to kombizz0, Oct 9, 2011

I think focus stacked shots are the hardest to get but produce the best results of all macro shots. This is why I like macro. A shot of a tiny buy that is in sharp focus front to back is an achievement because it meant you took the time and care to get several or many shots that line up. On technique I will say its possible to get hand held stacks but to do this properly you really need a focusing rail. Check out John Hallmans work (using Zerene) to see why stacking is awesome.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnhallmen/6062855548/in/photostream

For focus stacking programs I have been doing a comparison of the main 3 for macs for the past month. Stacking various different sets I have taken, here are my findings.

Photoshop CS5

This provides a two step process 1) Align layers 2) Blend layers. The align does what it says and does a pretty good job it corrects for both lateral and angular shifts (small ones). The blend option works differently than Helicon and Zerene stacker which combine and merge the images in rather more complex ways. Photoshops blends simply creates layer masks which display the in focus areas of the image by hiding or revealing parts of each aligned image. This actually means that for small stacks of say 5-10 the results are very good and reliable as you won't get strange artefacts like noise of haloing because it is only showing or hiding parts of the image.

The downsides of this method are firstly that it is very slow. CS5 will strain to align and stack more than 10 images. To do a 28 image stack I need to restart my 2.2ghz Quad Core 8gb RAM Sandybridge Mac (seriously powerful), and only run photoshop. It then takes 20-30mins to complete. The other downside is that editing the layer masks is very tricky as you have to find the source image you want to use for a given area (you have to do this by scrolling through the photos outside photoshop) and then paint each layer mask above the desired layer to get it to appear. Or as I do copy the desired layer to the top of the layer window and then create a new layer mask only showing the desired area. Again cumbersome and hard work. A good tip is if you want to edit the mask (and you will) deselect the consistent colour option(or something like that) when blending as it will add colours that aren't in the original making retouching impossible.

Summary:

The results are good for stacks of 10-20. But editing is frustrating and you won't get the fine detail in complex hair hair structures that Zerene provides.

Helicon Focus

This provides good alignment and blending. It is also very fast in comparison with Photoshop. It produces good results right out of the box and if you don't want to do more than press a button is probably the best option for large stacks. There is a dedicated editing option unlike Photoshop which makes the process easier. However it simply allows you to select the source layer and draw the in focus area over the destination. This generally means you have to play a lot with the sliders to ensure the edges and colours con't clash too badly. Its ok but I'm not crazy about it.

Summary:

Good results for stacks of any size. Its fast and you have access to a proper retouching tool.

Zerene

Lets open with this. Its the best. It doesn't have a flashy interface and you do have to understand a little to use it effectively but the results and retouching are the best of the three. Zerene is fast and capable for large stacks just like Helicon but where it differs is in its algorithms and retouching. The algorithms are DMap and PMax. Basically DMap = smooth with no noise but misses some details, PMax gets every detail but is grainy in smooth areas and noisy. So without any knowledge of the program you would look at both outputs and decide they are both flawed in different ways and use Helicon instead. But wait, go to the site and watch this video:
http://www.zerenesystems.com/cms/stacker/docs/videotutorials/retouching001/index

You use DMap as a base which is nice and smooth. Then paint in the PMax details using the fantastic editor. You can also paint in details from other layers. Here again Zerene hides its awesomeness as the editor works entirely by shortcut keys, watch the video and be amazed how simple it is compared with Helicon. Also without needing to adjust any sliders the retouching brush seems to effortlessly blend the colours and tones of the images.

Summary:

The best results of the 3, sharp detail and smooth backgrounds. Also by far the best and most intuitive retouching tool (you need to watch the video, all controls are by shortcut keys).

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DavePlugh
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to john_bmth101, Oct 9, 2011

I've tried Photoshop's (CS5) and don't like it at all. Haven't tried Zerene or Helicon Focus so can't comment. I use CombineZP. Its free but it takes a bit of practice until you figure out how to use it. Photos on Flickr that are tagged with 'combinezp' can be found here...

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/combinezp/Recent

Dave

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Carey Brown
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to kombizz0, Oct 12, 2011

I've played with stacking using Photoshop CS4 and CS5 and had no problems. Here are some examples:
http://www.pbase.com/careysb/dofstack

One thing I found is that you want to start with a shot focused closer than you might expect and end with one focused out a little further than you might expect. In addition, leave a little extra margin around your subject so that you can crop it a little after stacking.
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Gpruitt54
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to DavePlugh, Jun 8, 2013

DavePlugh wrote:

I've tried Photoshop's (CS5) and don't like it at all. Haven't tried Zerene or Helicon Focus so can't comment. I use CombineZP. Its free but it takes a bit of practice until you figure out how to use it. Photos on Flickr that are tagged with 'combinezp' can be found here...

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/combinezp/Recent

Dave

I've been trying to image stack with Photoshop CS3.  All the menu items are there, but no stacking happens, at all!

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Robin Casady
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Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?
In reply to Gpruitt54, Jun 10, 2013

Gpruitt54 wrote:

DavePlugh wrote:

I've tried Photoshop's (CS5) and don't like it at all. Haven't tried Zerene or Helicon Focus so can't comment. I use CombineZP. Its free but it takes a bit of practice until you figure out how to use it. Photos on Flickr that are tagged with 'combinezp' can be found here...

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/combinezp/Recent

Dave

I've been trying to image stack with Photoshop CS3.  All the menu items are there, but no stacking happens, at all!

I went from CS2 to CS5 and then CS6 so I don't have experience with CS3. However, stacking did improve between CS2 and 6. Even so, I find Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus do a better job than CS6 in most cases.

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rdardas
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Re: It works
In reply to WT Jones, Jun 12, 2013

I too believe PS6 produces better results than Helicon and Zerene. My guess is that they use the same engine as for panoramas, which is really good for aligning the images. In my hands Zerene comes close to PS.

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SteB
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In reply to kombizz0, Jun 12, 2013

kombizz0 wrote:

I read a short article about Focus Stacking assistant for EOS cameras.

http://www.circuitsathome.com/camera-control/focus-stacking-assistant-for-eos-cameras
Then I google it and found this article.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_stacking

I have never worked with this method during my macro photography in the period of film cameras.

I wonder have you ever used this? If so, how do you use it? Also I wonder what would be the advantage of this method over other methods (if there are any)?
Thanks
--
I was born and brought up in Iran, a beautiful country full of history.
http://www.kombizz.com/

I have had a bit of a love hate relationship with focus stacking. For illustrative purposes it is superb as it allows small things to be all in focus, which previously was only possible with a Scanning Electron Microscope. Also in the hands of a superb macro photographer like John Hallmen it can produce superb images.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnhallmen/

However, I also think it tends to get over-used now. For simple photographs it distorts perception, and I've found that many non-macro photographers wrongly assume the subject is much bigger than it really is, as we are use to the DOF getting shallower as the subject gets smaller. It is also time consuming at times, especially dealing with difficult stacks and artifacts. Another limitation is that you can only really use it on perfectly still subjects. So It is impossible to capture behaviour with it.

In other words it is a great tool, but it is probably best not to become too fixated on it, unless you are using it for a particular purpose. I am just giving a different perspective as most are helpful answers about using the method. However, I noticed you asked about the advantages of this method. I still think there are advantages to single shot macro photographs. Pictorially they can be more pleasing. Whilst most photographers, including me can get a bit fixated by image quality and sharpness, this is not the be and end all of what makes a good photograph.

I have used focus stacking for a 6-7 years, but now I tend to just take a few extra shots in case I want a bit more in focus.

A female Araneus quadratus in her web

For instance I took this in 2009. It was technically difficult because I kept having to wait for it to be perfectly still as the slightest movement due to a micro breeze destroys sharpness and makes stacking difficult. However, you also get no sense of scale. These are about the size of a pea.

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NancyP
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Thanks for the comparative review of stacking programs
In reply to john_bmth101, Jun 12, 2013

Have you used the motorized rail system Cognisys StackShot?

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NancyP

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