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Focus Stacking - With Macro Examples

David H. Roberts (dhroberts)

Keywords: focusstacking, focus, photoshop, zerene_stacker, helicon_focus, d850, z6, z7, nikkor, z_24_70, f2004d, macro, dhroberts

We all are familiar with the concept of depth of field, which describes the range of distances over which an image is in focus. This is determined by the f-number at which the image is taken, smaller f-numbers (larger lens openings) yielding shallow depths of field, larger ones (smaller openings) yielding greater depths of field. Often we use a shallow depth of field to emphasize our subject; this is especially useful in portraiture. But sometimes we wish a large range of distances to be in focus, and this can often exceed what is possible using a large f-number, even using hyperfocal focusing. In addition, an unavoidable disadvantage of using a very high f-number is that diffraction begins to soften the image, and this cannot be removed completely in post-processing.

Fig 1.  A typical frame from the stack.
Click for an enlargement


There are at least two methods to extend the range of in-focus subject distances that appear in an image. One is to use a tilt-shift lens, an expensive option, and one that requires some practice to use successfully. The other is to take a series of images focused over a range of distance and somehow stitch them together. This latter technique is known as focus stacking, and is the subject of this article. With any Nikon camera and lens, a tripod, computer software, and perhaps some additional reasonably inexpensive equipment, this is easy and fun to do.

The basics of focus stacking are straightforward. A series of images, each focused in a slightly different plane, are combined by specialized software that utilizes the sharpest parts of each image to produce a single image that is in focus over a wide range of distances from the camera.

No matter what technique you use to obtain a series of differently focused images, you will need computer software to stitch them together. In this article I discuss the use of three packages, Photoshop® (CS6), Zerene Stacker® (version 1.04), and HeliconFocus® (version 7.5.1). While this isn't a software review per se, I will touch on the strengths and weakness of these packages as I have used them. The last two programs each have more than one way to combine the images, and I will illustrate output from each.

Focus stacking can be effective in two very different contexts. The first is in taking landscapes, where the photographer wants to keep objects spanning a large range of distances in focus (this is a traditional domain of the tilt-shift lens). The second is in close-up photography, where we want to keep an entire object in focus. In this article I deal only with the latter.


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rick parfitt (open_market) on December 19, 2020

What a great review really appreciate the effort you put into it and I learned a lot thanks

Malcolm Taylor (malcinweston) on October 23, 2019

Thanks for a very helpful review. I have been looking into focus stacking for macro work and this review came at just the right time

User on August 30, 2019

Great software review. Have you had any experience using CamRanger or other add-on to control the focusing process?

Aart Louw (AartPapaya) on August 14, 2019

A most enjoyable and informative article. Although slow, I will still use Ps. After I upgraded my computer (actually I had to buy a new computer). Processing time is a minor inconvenience compared to the cost of an extra program.

Carol Freshley (PhotoSpydie) on July 22, 2019

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Excellent review of focus stacking. I appreciated the review of the three focus stacking processing programs. Thank you.

Thomas Kilroy (Kilroy22) on July 14, 2019

Very well done article. It would be great if we had a 200mm f/4 AFS lens to do stacking with in the Z7 and D850.

User on July 11, 2019

I have had a different experience. I don't consider myself an expert but I have stacked 10s of thousands of images using registered copies of CombineZP, Helicon Focus, Zerene Stacker and Photoshop. While evaluating software it may make a huge difference if you are using a free evaluation copy or a fully functional, registered version. I will keep my comments very short. In the early years of focus stacking I used CombineZP exclusively. It was eclipsed in features by other software but it's back, updated for Windows 10 and may be a very good free option for some. For really serious macro/close-up focus stackers Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker are considered the market leaders with only nuanced differences between them. With fully registered versions I see no obvious weaknesses between them. They both offer lossy and lossless outputs. For example, Zerene can take JPG, TIFF, PNG and PMP and output to either JPG or TIFF as 8 or 16 bit RGB. The color/contrast issue with Zerene raised in the article might be answered by the fact that the program ignores the color space of the imported images so while processing, the image may not appear exactly as the input images but the output image gets saved in the same color space as the original images. Both packages offer excellent retouching features because depending on the subject matter and feature overlaps present, stacking artifacts WILL arise irrespective of the stacking software used. So it may make a difference when comparing different focus stacking software whether it's a trial version or full function version and what options and preferences are set before using it. No serious focus stackers that seek critical, high quality output would consider using Photoshop for macro or close-up stacking but Photoshop does a very good job stacking landscape images. Photoshop also does a great job for minimizing or eliminating stacking artifacts that may remain after running them in Helicon or Zerene mainly through the use of healing and cloning tools.

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on June 25, 2019

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Thanks for sharing your detailed charts and methods. I have photographed dozens of plants using both the 200 F4 micro and 105 f2.8 micro with my D800, stacking using a rail system. I found that using an aperture of F8 or F11 significantly reduces the artefacts as the ‘overlap’ of in-focus areas from frame to frame is much more comprehensive. I also concluded that Helicon is far superior to other options, but that Method B is almost always the best one to use with good in-focus coverage. I used two studio lights and additional reflectors rather than flash as this gave better control of light and dark areas of the image - and also saved a lot of batteries! Geoff

Jose Francisco Fernandez Martinez (fedefran) on June 23, 2019

muy interesante lo expuesto en mi caso aficionado no muy experto en fotomacro empleo Zerene, solamente hago dmap pero se que con pmap se puede mejorar dmap probare Heliconfocus.

Bob Gudramovics (BobG55) on June 21, 2019

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Excellent review. Thanks for taking the time to share your findings. I've been meaning to experiment with focus stacking, you've helped minimize the guess work. Thanks, Bob

Carol Freshley (PhotoSpydie) on June 21, 2019

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Excellent article. Very helpful. I especially appreciated the time you took to present your data. I downloaded the trial for Helicon just three days ago and have been using it for landscapes. Your review has made me a much more informed user.

Bonnie Christensen (BChrisRad) on June 21, 2019

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Thank you David for taking the time to write this informative article. I appreciate your charts for comparison between the three PP programs. Now I need is the time to try focus stacking out.