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  • Filip Hrebenda

Ultimate guide to focus stacking

On the internet, you certainly see beautiful landscape photos every day, where everything is completely sharp. There are sharp flowers in the foreground of the scene, and also mountains in the background. Perhaps you've tried it yourself while taking pictures. You set a high aperture and captured your well-thought-out composition. However, the result was very unsatisfactory. A large part of the photo was out of focus, and moreover, due to the high aperture number, an undesirable diffraction effect started to appear in the photograph. So the question is: How do photographers achieve this? How is it possible to have the entire photo sharp? The answer is simple: Focus stacking.

What is focus stacking?

Focus stacking is a technique used in various genres of photography, including landscape photography. Its essence is to capture and subsequently combine multiple shots of the same composition but with different focusing distances. Until recently, it was necessary to manually capture all parts of the focus stacking. However, nowadays camera manufacturers integrate the option for automatic focus stacking into their camera bodies, allowing users to set the focus range and the number of frames for a specific focus stack. If your camera does not have this feature yet, don't despair. In this article, you will learn how to perform focus stacking both automatically and manually.

Photos without and with using focus stacking

Why use focus stacking?

Increased Depth of Field: By combining images with different focus points, focus stacking allows photographers to achieve a greater depth of field than what is possible with a single shot. This is crucial for capturing landscapes with intricate details from foreground to background.

Ultimate guide to focus stacking

Sharpness Across the Frame: Focus stacking ensures that every part of the image, from the closest foreground to the distant background, is tack-sharp. This is particularly advantageous when photographing scenes with elements at varying distances, such as rocks, flowers, or other intricate subjects.

Let's make a comparison. Try holding your hand at a distance of 5 centimeters from your eyes. Can you focus on both your hand and something in the distance at the same time? Of course not. If our human eye can't do it, neither can a lens, which is far less sophisticated.

Ultimate guide to focus stacking flowers

Creative Control: And why do we want the entire scene perfectly focused in landscape photography? Focus stacking provides photographers with greater control over the final image. By selecting specific areas to be in focus, photographers can emphasize key elements and guide the viewer's attention to particular details within the scene. This is the essence of it. Because the photograph will be sharp from the foreground to the background, you can better utilize important elements of your composition, such as leading lines or objects pointing to the main subject.

With focus stacking, you can highlight interesting foreground objects without diminishing the dominance of the main subject. This way, the viewer will know where to look, and at the same time, they will be intrigued by the foreground choice that reflects your creativity. In this way, you can add a "wow factor" to your photograph, setting it apart from many other pictures taken at the same location in the past.

Ultimate guide to focus stacking

How to Capture focus stacking?

So, now you know what focus stacking is and why it is frequently used in landscape photography. However, if you have ever tried the focus stacking technique, you may have encountered several issues. Moving objects were challenging to align in the stacking software, resulting in so-called "ghosts" of moving elements (such as flowers, etc.). You noticed blurred areas around foreground objects after stacking, and so on.

If something similar happened to you, it might have discouraged you from further attempting focus stacking. However, that would be a pity. When done correctly, focus stacking can yield amazing results! But how to capture focus stacking for a satisfactory outcome?

Similar to other photo stacking techniques, focus stacking has its rules that need to be followed to make the subsequent stacking process in software easier:

1. Use a tripod when shooting

Of course, I have often captured focus stacking handheld when a tripod was not available, or I simply didn't have time to set it up. However, shooting focus stacking without a tripod risks making the photo challenging to stack. Why? The software that will stack individual shots into focus stacking overlaps objects in each photo and calculates which areas are sharp and which are not. It then automatically creates masks, allowing you to see the final photo well-focused from foreground to background.

However, if the individual focus stacking shots are taken with any image shift (even just a few centimeters), it will be difficult, sometimes impossible, for the software to align and stack the photo. Even if it does, there will be many different errors, as mentioned before. Therefore, it is much better to use a tripod when shooting to prevent any movement in the scene during the focusing of individual shots.

Not every tripod allows shooting from such a low height to get close enough to foreground objects. Therefore, I prefer tripods without a center column, ones that can be almost completely laid on the ground.

Use your tripod for focus stacking

2. Do not change exposure settings during shooting

This point may seem unnecessary, but it can happen - You're capturing individual focus stacking shots, and suddenly the lighting conditions change. The sun emerges from behind the clouds, and you realize that the last two shots will be overexposed in the sky. So, you simply adjust the exposure settings and continue with focus stacking. Don't do this. The resulting photo would be challenging to stack. If lighting conditions change while you are focus stacking, it's better to start over.

3. “More is more”

The saying "Less is more" does not apply to focus stacking; here, it's "more is more." In what sense? When I started with focus stacking, I often found myself excited about the outcome, only to discover at home that I hadn't focused on some parts of the scene. This is a frustrating realization. Therefore, when shooting, take more shots to ensure that every part of the scene will be in focus in the final photograph. With an ideal landscape aperture of f8 - f14, 4 to 6 shots will likely be sufficient.

4. Speed is crucial

Another important factor in achieving quality focus stacking is speed, especially when dealing with moving objects like flowers or grass. As described in the first point, focus stacking will be challenging if all objects in the photo are not in the same position. This applies to flowers and other prominent foreground objects, which are often affected by wind. However, you can influence how quickly you capture individual focus stacking shots. The faster you do it, the higher the chance that moving objects will be in the same place. Sometimes, waiting for a moment when the wind momentarily stops can be the right time to perform focus stacking - and the faster you capture each shot, the better.

Focus stacking of moving objects in foreground

These are some basic rules to follow to ensure the effectiveness of your focus stacking. However, how to apply these rules in practice depends on whether your camera has an automatic focus stacking feature or not. Therefore, in the following lines, I'll explain both procedures.

If Your Camera Has Automatic Focus Bracketing

If your camera offers the option to enable automatic focus bracketing, you'll have it a bit easier. You just need to set it up correctly on your camera.

1. Settings:

In your camera menu, you'll likely find these settings under the name "Focus Bracket Settings."

Focus stacking sony

The first crucial setting is "Focus Bracket Order," which influences how the camera will focus during shooting. I recommend choosing the option "0 - +."

Sony focus bracketing

Another important setting is "Smoothing interval," which determines how quickly the camera will capture individual shots in the focus stacking sequence. I recommend setting it to "Shortest" since you want to capture shots quickly, especially for moving objects.

You'll find another setting directly in the shooting menu under "Drive Mode," where you select the shooting mode (Single shot, Continual shooting, etc.). When you switch to Focus Bracketing, the camera will offer two more important settings. The first is "Step Width," which influences the focus range. If you want the entire scene in focus, set it to "Wide."

The second setting is the number of shots the camera should take during focus stacking. I usually set it to 10 shots, ensuring that I have a well-focused scene with an aperture of f8 or higher. It's worth noting that the lower the aperture value, the more shots you may need to set. Most cameras with automatic focus bracketing have a built-in feature where the camera will capture only the necessary number of shots, regardless of how many you set. Therefore, for lower aperture values (f7.1 and below), I prefer selecting 20 shots and letting the camera determine the actual number needed. (Tested with Sony A7RV)

Sony focus bracketing

2. Shooting:

First, find a suitable composition. Once you've chosen one, set up your tripod and securely attach your camera to it to prevent any movement. Then, in the camera's Drive Mode, select Focus Bracketing. Set your autofocus to a selected point and focus on the closest point you have in your scene. In case the wind is blowing, causing movement in the foreground objects, wait for a moment when they stop moving. Then, press the shutter button, and the camera will take care of the rest for you.

If Your Camera Doesn't Have Automatic Focus Stacking

In case your camera doesn't offer the option of automatic focus stacking, your task will be somewhat more complex, but not impossible. I used to shoot focus stacking manually until recently, and it's not overly complicated.

Settings and Shooting:

The most crucial setting is, of course, the focusing type. Essentially, whether you use manual or automatic focusing doesn't matter much; both can be used comfortably. When shooting static foreground objects, I prefer using autofocus with a point that I gradually move to the areas I want to focus on using the camera's joystick for each shot. I start by focusing on the closest object and then move the focusing point to an object a bit farther away. I repeat this process for 5 or more shots until I reach the farthest point in the scene.

However, when shooting moving objects like flowers, it's more practical to set Manual Focus. In this case, I securely mount the camera on a tripod to prevent movement. I set Manual Focus, continuous shooting at a moderate speed, and use the focusing wheel to focus on the nearest possible point, waiting for the right moment.

TIP: When there is a lull in the wind and the moving objects come to a stop, that's the right time to start shooting. At that moment, I hold down the shutter button and turn the focusing wheel together. This allows me to capture all the focus stacking shots within two to three seconds, before the foreground object starts moving again.

Thanks to this trick, you can achieve quality focus stacking even if your camera doesn't have automatic focus stacking.

Ultimate guide to manual focus stacking

So now you know what focus stacking is and how to use it in practice. I hope this article helps elevate your creativity to a higher level by employing the focus stacking technique. However, capturing focus stacking is only half the work. It's equally crucial to stack it correctly. But don't worry! We've described how to effectively process such photos in the article "Focus stacking in Photoshop".

You can try out these and other techniques with the assistance of our professional guides directly in the field at the most beautiful locations on the planet! Join us on one of our upcoming photo tours (Just click to image to get more info):

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