One of the most popular techniques in landscape photography is “Focus Stacking”. The purpose of focus stacking is to get the sharpest point of focus possible from top to bottom and corner to corner. If you’re already familiar with manual mode and basic photo editing, you will find focus stacking fun and easy to learn. Your shooting habits will not change much if you are experienced using a tripod and a shutter release.
The technique consists of taking a series of photographs, within the same frame, but varying the point of focus. The final images are then joined in post editing. The art of focus stacking takes quite a bit of practice but is relatively easy to learn, depending on one’s photography and post editing skills as mentioned earlier. Though quite more of an elaborate procedure than single image photographs, once understood, you will have a powerful tool to enjoy and use creatively in your landscape photography.
On many occasions, when putting a composition together, we can find a foreground of great interest within a short distance from our camera. This attractive foreground may be only a few inches away from your lens. As an example, this foreground could be a group of flowers, plants or boulders. If we focus on our foreground, no matter how narrow we set our lens aperture, the background in our photo, and perhaps even our middle ground, will inevitably be out of focus. Furthermore, the foreground of interest may be in movement due to wind or water, thus perhaps requiring a fast shutter speed for tack sharpness, whilst maybe requiring a slower shutter speed for the middle ground or background to obtain, let’s say, a silky water effect or smoothed out clouds.
Focus stacking will not only allow us to focus on various points, but we will also reach the optimal shutter speed and aperture required for each image in the stack series.
To apply this technique, a series of photographs are taken within the same frame where the focus point in each is moved to a different distance, thus achieving that the entire landscape scene is in focus. As many photographs with a different focus distance can be taken as needed to complete the entire scope of the landscape. Sometimes as little as two images are required: an image with the foreground in focus and another where the background is in focus. A good practice is to always start your captures from background to foreground (top to bottom on your view finder) or vice versa. Always check for sharpness after each photograph has been taken before proceeding to the next and do take very special care in not moving the position of the camera throughout the process, as it is a delicate procedure and will simplify post editing significantly.
What do we need to create a focus stacked image?
· A camera that can be used in manual mode (ever so essential).
· A lens on your camera (obviously)
· A sturdy tripod (very important)
· A remote shutter release (optional), alternatively you can always set the timer on the camera to a few seconds. Most modern DSLRs offer shutter release on the touch screen, so this combined with a two second timer does very good for me.
· Editing software such as Camera Raw and Photoshop (absolutely necessary)
· A constructive, creative, meticulous and patient person (most important)
Tips for applying the focus stacking technique:
· Adjust to the same exposure on every image of your focus stack. So that there are no variations in exposure, my advice is to shoot manually, so the exposure remains constant throughout every image. We do not want under-exposed nor over-exposed images in the focus stack group. This is especially true with landscape photography where light conditions can change quickly.
· Set your white balance. Another solid piece of advice is to set the white balance so that the camera does not apply unwanted automatic adjustments in the event of a possible change in light.
· Keep your camera still. To achieve focus stacking with precision, it is of utmost importance that your camera is set on a sturdy tripod and that the position of the camera remains the same throughout the raw creation of the focus stack series. If the camera or tripod is moved, the elements in your composition will not be positioned the same in each image within the final frame. Photoshop does have image alignment functions in the scripts section, but keeping the closest aligned composition throughout our raw images is the best practice and guarantees a solid end result.
· Shoot in RAW format. RAW format will allow you to make parallel adjustments and corrections to your set of “focus stack” images in the “Camera Raw” post production tool before stacking in Photoshop: temperature, tint, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, detail, color correction, spot removal, optics, geometry and so much more.