Focus Stacking Software


Introduction to Macro Photography


Lesson Info

Focus Stacking Software

So follow along with me, my friends, as we do a focus stack example. So I basically just select all of those, I shift click all of those images, I right mouse click, and then I choose Edit In, oops, Edit In, Open as Layers in Photoshop Okay, pow. Now it takes those 9 or 12 images, however many I ended up taking, and stacks them into layers on the right-hand side. You'll see on the right-hand side of Photoshop, it's actually making a layer of each image; and what we're going to do is we're going to align those images. You notice it was windy when I took that shot. The flower was actually moving around a little bit. Well, this algorithm in Photoshop is so good that it'll actually line up all the pictures so they're perfectly front to back, lined front to back. So over here on the right side, I'm gonna take all of those layers and shift click just like that so all the layers are selected; and now I'm going to go up to Edit, Auto Align Layers. And Photoshop is so good that I typically just...

choose Auto. Okay, so I just choose the Auto setting. All the other ones, if you have problems with the alignment, sometimes picking a different alignment method will help; but for this example, I already know this because I already checked it out, Auto works great. Auto doesn't always work great, but in this case it does. Okay, so we wait for the spinning wheel of happiness; and now all of those layers are aligned. And I'm not gonna do this, but if I go through and I click off each layer to see the one behind it, you'll see that the flower has been positioned properly in each of those images. So then the next thing that we're gonna do is we go back and we make sure we have all of those, all of those layers selected, so shift click top to bottom; and we go Edit, Auto Blend Layers. Photoshop is smart. Well, I'll say the programmers who wrote Photoshop are really smart people; and they understand that what we're doing now is we're doing an image stack versus a panorama merge. So I just pick Stack Images, and sometimes you can choose Content Aware Fill, the transparent errors. You know, after you move all of these things around, sometimes you got these negative spaces with no information in them. I don't do that typically, and then I would hit Okay. I'm not gonna hit Okay because it's gonna take a long time to churn through this. I'm just gonna pretend that I hit Okay and then show you the result, all right. Trust me on this. So, normally I would hit Okay; and depending on your image size, this could take anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes. You know, shooting with that D850 is like 45 megapixels. Those are massive files; and if you have or 100 images in the stack, it could take forever. In this case, I did it before class so I could show you the result. So here's the result, and I know it's not like this ooh-ah moment; but what we have is really incredible in that the front of the flower to the back of the flower stem is in clear, crystal clear focus and the background is blurry. I still have this kind of separation effect, which is fantastic; but I was, through image stacking, able to get the depth of field I needed for my subject. That's pretty cool; that's pretty cool. And the more you shoot macro, the more you'll realize the power of focus stacking. I sound like a movie, the power of focus stacking. So, any questions on that focus stacking approach or method? When you, when you first took the shots, like, how did you change the focus point on the flower? When I first took the shot, how did I change the focus point; well. From front to back. From front to back. So because I shot this sequence with my D850, I focused on the front; and that's where you start out that sequence. You focus on the front, and then you say I want 10 shots or 15 shots or 20 shots; and then the camera, every time it takes a picture, it automatically goes boop, a little bit father focus, boop, a little bit farther, little farther, little farther. So it automatically does it. But I'm gonna use your question to segue to another technique where you don't, maybe, have that D850 and that software. So I'm gonna come back and show you another technique. But go ahead and ask your question. So this starts with taking photos of flowers outdoors. I've tried taking, my last few times I've tried, I've just gotten ruined because it was, it wasn't even super windy, it wasn't stormy. It was just breezy, but the flowers were going like this all over the frame; and I wanted to do focus stacking too, but the shapes are just so, like, there's not even doing that because they're, like, on the opposite sides of the frame. And I'm just wondering if you have any tips for controlling the breeze when you're out so your day doesn't get ruined. There's something called a plamp, a plant clamp. If you search online and search for the plamp, you're gonna see this little thing. And what it does is it fastens to your tripod leg, and then it's got a clamp on the other end; and you can put that clamp around the stem of the plant to keep it from blowing in the breeze. And it's literally something very similar to this. It's called the plamp, okay; so that's one method. But the best method of all is to wait until the wind stops because even using the plamp, the top of the flower's sitting there wiggling in the breeze. And for this class, when I was taking pictures to prepare for this class, I was out there one evening; it was less than a week ago, and the same thing, the wind's blowing. And I'm like grrr creative (mumbles)'s in a couple of days, what am I gonna do? I'm like, okay, just go to bed and wake up tomorrow, shoot it in the morning; that's the probably the best answer. Yeah, your question. So how do focus stack for insects and bugs, like they'll be moving around? Good, his question, how do you focus stack for insects and bugs. The, A, dead bugs. (laughter) I'm just speaking from experience. B, capture the bug, put it in the fridge or the freezer, cool it down; and it'll become very lethargic and then you can work with it. C, oh, I had a really good C; I had it, it was a really good one. You had another question that, ask your, I'm sure the third method will come back. So by doing, like, by capturing dead bug or putting it in freezer, don't we destroy the eye and other parts? The eye? Yeah, like. You don't freeze it all the way. You just kind of, it's like. Sedate it? Yeah, sedate it with coldness; yeah, exactly. It's like not dead just almost dead, right. So that's really probably the best way. Oh, C, I just remembered C. C is on a really cool fall or winter morning, if you go out early in the morning, you can find bugs and they'll be covered in dew on flowers and grasses. That's a fantastic time to do this because a lot of the things, the grasshoppers, and the flies and the bees, they'll just be so lethargic and they're coated with dew. They can't fly anyways. They're kind of your captive audience. So, those are three good methods. Yeah? We have a question about how to focus stack if you're gonna shoot a long necklace and you wanted the whole thing in focus. Super! Well, let me show, that's a great; that's a perfect segue to the next thing I wanna show, sweet. Well, let's say I've got, I don't have a long necklace here; but I have some really cool costume jewelry, all right. So I got this ring, and with a longer lens like my 85 here, I'm not gonna be able to focus from the front and get the focus from the front to back in one photo. Basically I'm gonna need to do something like focus stacking. So let's see here as I change up my camera setup. I'm gonna use this device here, and this is called a focus rail. I bought this on, and it's made by a company I have never heard of before. It's a Chinese import, and I bought this for $12.99, okay. So, its purpose is, let's aim this towards the camera. Let me, I'll move it over here so I think that camera can see it a little better. So what it does is it moves, it allows you to move your camera left and right; and then it allows you to move your camera forward and backward, just like that. Pretty cool. This is a very low cost unit. I gotta tell you, and it's not built well. It's all plastic and it uses what's called a rack and pinion movement method and it's very imprecise. Contrast that with something like a company called Really Right Stuff. They make some incredible focusing rails, but they're not $15; they're like $300 per focusing rail, and I have an image of that later in my presentation. But this, this method here is how I would focus kind of down the length of a thing. In this case, I've got this really beautiful purple felt. I've got this awesome diamond-esque ring, and I'm gonna show you how to focus down the length of that ring. So I set my camera up on my $15, or $12 macro focusing rail; and you can see it's kind of wobbly. And you get what you pay for in this world; but if you're just starting out, it's not a bad way to go. Twelve bucks gets you a lot of mileage. I made one of these out of a shop vise for one my, for this last book that I made. So you can, as long as you've got something that kind of moves forward and backward, that'll work for this idea, okay. And, let's see, I'm gonna set, I'm gonna do this; let's do this one. This will be up front, this light up front; and then this light I'll do off the back side. So my portrait techniques, you know, for your portrait photography; all of that pertains to macro work. All the cool lighting stuff that you do as a photographer, you can apply to macro. It's just on a much smaller scale. Right on; so that's gonna be my, what we'll call my hair light, and this'll be my key. That's also my name, Mikey; sorry. You should see what goes on in my brain, or maybe you shouldn't. All right, cool; oh, so this is a 85, right? So my working distance is quite a bit farther back. I actually have to move this a little bit farther away. Okay, focus there. One of the neat things about macro photography, it may be neat, it may not be neat; but it just, it's so mental. So much of this is you're thinking and you're processing and you're accessing and working hard at it. It just, I like the process. I think anyone who's technically-minded really enjoys macro photography. Okay, so now I'm just gonna take a test shot; let's see what we get. Oh, hey, I have a remote; not too bad actually. Pretty good lighting overall, decent. I'm gonna use my plamp, this thing here; and I'm actually gonna use it to hold up a little reflector card. I've got a little white reflector card here, a little plastic card like that; that'll work great, and then just use this to hold it up and give me, oops, give me some fill light. Like this. Cool. All right, take one more shot and see if I'm liking the exposure. Yeah, oh, did you see the difference between those two? Here's the before and the after. So cool, that helps separate it from the background. And, overall, I think the exposure needs to be a little bit brighter; so what I'm gonna do is I'm just gonna move my ISO up to, I'm gonna move my ISO one stop up. I was shooting ISO 400; now I'm gonna shot ISO 800. Take another shot. Okay, more better; I'm liking that, all right. So now to the question from the internet, and that is how do you focus down the length of this thing? Well, you're gonna use this focus rail; and you're gonna physically move the camera forward. So you're gonna take a picture, move the camera forward; take a picture, move it forward. How much? I don't know. You're gonna experiment with it. This rack and pinion system is kind of clumsy, but this other one from Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises makes it; they're a screw drive system and much more precise. So, you know, one full revolution is probably accurate enough; whereas, this one is like, yeah, fiddly. So take that one picture, move it forward a little bit. Oh, man, and as I do that, inside of my view finder, it's like (mumbles); it's like wobbling all around. This is where you're really gonna need to use that auto align in Photoshop when you do the focus stacking. So you can see I'm just guessing, and the truth is it doesn't really matter that much how far you go forward; you just want the, what was in focus the last time to overlap a little with what in focus this time. In other words, you don't wanna have a whole band, one photo that has a whole band that's out of focus because the software will flip out. Flipping out. Okay, so that's, you get the general idea, right? That's shooting that with the focus rail. Another option for those two questions is to just literally move the focus on the lens. Take a picture, focus backwards a little bit; take another picture, focus backwards a little bit. Both of them can achieve the same end result. And without getting into too much detail, I caution you because sometimes moving the camera changes the perspective, right? So if you're shooting with like a 60 millimeter lens, moving the camera in closer can like bring that background and wrap it more around and so the software can sometimes have a hard time aligning that. Whereas, just rotating the lens might be a better option, or rotating the focus on the lens. So, again, fiddle it; you gotta mess with it. You gotta practice with it. So just to summarize the focus stacking, you take a sequence of shots, you focus down the length of that object, you know, from the very front all the way to the back but really no further, and then you use the software to merge, just like I showed you. And then just a reminder, if you guys buy the class or if you're here this week, you're gonna get that PDF for the step-by-step instructions for how to do that focus stacking. This is the product from Really Right Stuff. Really, it's one of the best products out there in the market. This is two linear focus slides, but they're mounted 90 degrees opposite; so you can move the camera left and right, and you can move the camera forward and backward. Why would you go left and right? Well, you can do macro panoramas. One of my favorite photographers, his name is George Lepp; and he's done some amazing, fantastic macro panoramas of butterfly wings. Oh, and they're stunning; and you can blow them up the size of a wall. They're really fantastic. So, he uses this kind of left to right slider adjustment to do that. And then the software; well, I just showed you the focus stacking software. Adobe Photoshop works great; I bet most of you in the room and most of you watching at home probably have access to Photoshop. I'm using Photoshop CC; I don't know if Photoshop Elements has it, but I know Photoshop CC has it. And then the other two soft, these other two companies are great. Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker, excellent software; but it's a standalone. They're designed to just, just do focus stacking. And they're probably better than Photoshop because they have a lot of other settings and operations that you can do manually.

Class Description

Learn how to unlock the fantastic world of macro photography. Instructor Mike Hagen details the gear, techniques, and software you’ll need to capture extreme detail in everything from flowers to insects to jewelry. Create larger than life images with intricate detail using methods that Mike clearly demonstrates in this class.


Amy Vaughn

Good class, but I want more. CreativeLive, please get Mike Hagen to come back to do a full 1-2 day macro class. I'd love to see a deeper exploration of all his macro gear, diy toys, demos of Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker, and maybe showing live examples beyond flowers like bugs, abstracts and shooting through water.

ESther IGlich

A good intro course.I learned a lot in a short period of time, but really this class needs to be longer. It felt rushed. Would have liked to seen more on lighting specifically. However given the time Mike had to work in he did a great job and I enjoyed his insights.


I appreciated Mike's suggestions for DIY macro equipment. There is a lot of money you could save with those ideas alone. Great class and I agree ​it would be great to see more!