The Art of Focus Stacking

Do you often find yourself struggling to get images that look perfectly sharp from your toes all the way to infinity? Sometimes the hyper focal distance technique will do the job, but on other days, it simply won’t save you. Are you planning to print large images? Do you use Photoshop to edit your images? Focus Stacking is for you!!

Don’t get me wrong, it can be really interesting to have a completely out of focus foreground as it adds a lot of depth to the scene but if you have let’s say a rock in the lower right corner that is slightly out of focus, it’s not going to look good…it’s going to look as if you made a mistake while shooting.

Focus Stacking can be done both manually or using a software…in this article, I will guide you through all the steps you’ll need to follow in order to get perfectly sharp images. Follow these steps from the moment of capture to your last mouse click behind your computer screen and you will get great results guaranteed!! 

First of all, I highly recommend you to shoot with a specific White Balance setting in order to make sure the color balance won’t shift from one image to the next. It can always be fixed in post processing but why do an extra step if it can be avoided? I personally shoot with a DSLR still…yeah I know, call me a dinosaur as I haven’t done the switch to a mirrorless camera yet! I always shoot in Live View which means with the mirror up. This allows me to magnify what I see on the back lcd screen in order to focus on the closest element of my composition and shoot one image. After the first image is done, I will magnify once more on the screen and focus on an element located a little further and shoot again…and so on until I get images of the furthest elements of my composition. Depending on how close I am from my foreground, I can shoot up to nine different images. Some will say I don’t need that many images and I’ll have to admit that I probably don’t need that many either. We shoot in the digital age which means an extra frame or two won’t hurt anybody and worse case scenario, you can always delete those unused frames when you get home. On the other hand, if you don’t shoot enough and end up missing a frame or two, the Focus Stacking simply won’t be successful and you will have a few elements that aren’t perfectly sharp in your shot.

Now that you’re home after spending a marvelous day photographing some awe inspiring landscape images, it’s now time to go through all those previously captured images and edit them! Let me guide you through my Focus Stacking workflow;

-1st; You will need to do your initial RAW adjustments exactly as you would in any other situation. And then choose all layers you shot for one specific scene, Right Click on your mouse and choose Open as Layers in Photoshop. (Modify in / Open as Layers in Photoshop) It may take a few minutes for them to open depending on what kind of processing power your computer has.

-2nd; The layer order is very important here. Your background layer should always be the image that was focused to the furthest element first. I will explain why later…

-3rd; Make sure to lock your background layer if it isn’t already locked. (Layer / Lock Layer and  choose the option All)

-4th; You will now need to drag four guide lines, one for each side of your canvas.

-5th; The next step is to select all layers and auto align them all together. (Edit / Auto Align Layers). Photoshop should be intelligent enough to see that you desire to do a Focus Stacking so go with the default settings. You won’t need to check any boxes here and you can go with Automatic Mode.

-6th; Now that all images are aligned together, you probably noticed that your canvas exceeds the guide lines you previously dragged around your canvas? This is because Photoshop manipulated your layers in order to align them together. When changing your Focus Distance, it will also slightly affect the Focal Length…this phenomenon is called Focus Breathing. Photoshop has to transform all layers to align them all together.

-7th; You will now need to manually crop the image back to its original state which basically is where you previously dragged some guide lines. Here’s why, the image that exceeds the lines the most is the image that is focused on the closest element to you. This means that every pixel exceeding the guide lines on the upper part of your image will be out of focus. You will need to get rid of those by cropping everything exceeding the guide lines in order to get the best possible results from focus stacking.

-8th; Select all layers and group them together. You should name this group Focus. (Cmd G or Ctrl G on a PC)

-9th; Right click on the group to create a copy of the group and name it BU for Back Up. You should also put a black mask on every layer from this BU group. Unlocking the BU copy of the background can be done by simply clicking on the LOCK. If you are wondering why you just copied the FOCUS group, the reason is simple. Photoshop is good at everything but not great at Focus Stacking. Photoshop will make stacking errors in most cases and by creating a copy of the BU group this will allow you to correct those errors by simply masking in or out elements from the needed layer. 

-10th; Next step will be to auto blend all layers. (Edit / Auto Blend Images) Once again, Photoshop should instantly understand your intention. You should have a check in the Stack Images box as soon as you open the window….if not, just choose Stack Images. You will also have two unchecked boxes at the bottom of this window. You should check the first one as Photoshop will adjust Colors and Tones automatically for every image while stacking. The second box should remain unchecked. I didn’t get good results on most occasions when I checked this one. Press OK and let your device do the Focus Stacking job for you.

-11th; The last step will be to pixel peep in order to find stacking errors…I recommend you navigate on the canvas at 200% magnification and look again and again and again everywhere for blurry spots like the one in the supplied screen shot. It could also be places where Photoshop may have duplicated some elements. If you had some moving elements when you were photographing the scene like humans, Photoshop might have duplicated them… If you find any stacking errors, you’ll just need to recover the detail from the right layer in your BU group!

And that’s it!! You should now have a perfectly sharp image from corner to corner! It is a bit time consuming but the end result will blow you away! You will have to practice in order to learn all those steps but I am sure you will quickly become a master at the Art of Focus Stacking! 😉

DantyArt Photography Banff National Park Canada Alberta Canadian Rockies Lake Mountain Winter Magic Snow Ice Sunrise Lake Minnewanka Blue Orange

3 thoughts on “The Art of Focus Stacking”

  1. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! you’re so throughout. This takes time to explain but you made it look easy. I have been practising landscape photography and I will certainly put your learning lesson into practice.
    Angie (from APAL photo club)

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