Have you ever used Focus Stacking?

Started Oct 5, 2011 | Discussions thread
john_bmth101 Regular Member • Posts: 113
Re: Have you ever used Focus Stacking?

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.

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.


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.


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


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:

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.


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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