Sunday, March 6, 2011

Focus Stacking Tip

First Solitary Bee of 2011
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
After a long four month break from photography I’m finally getting back into the saddle, and in my limited free time I’ve also started perusing macro related forums. I think it’s great that there are a lot of new shooters getting into the discipline, but it seems a lot of them are having trouble with focus stacking their images. So I thought I’d give you my best tip to make the technique easier to use:

Don’t focus stack.

Right about now the focus stacking community is getting ready to burn me at a stake, but before you light the match hear me out. Macro photography is one of the toughest photographic disciplines to get into and it has, without a doubt, one of the highest learning curves. Mastering focus is tough enough, but with focus stacking you have to nail it several times for what’s going to be a single frame. I’m seeing too many new shooters trying to learn macro only to get frustrated and quit because they are under the false impression that you have to focus stack. I blame the experienced photographers who are still pushing absolute image sharpness as the only measuring stick for a good macro photo.


I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with focus stacking, or that you shouldn’t use it –it’s just one technique of many and anyone can learn how to do it. But what I am saying is that composition, lighting, and story telling (the aspects that separate a snapshot from a photograph) are infinitely more important than getting a razor sharp image or more depth. I don’t focus stack, not because there is anything wrong with stacking but because I simply don’t think it’s necessary. Instead of taking multiple frames for a single image I’d rather spend what little time the critters give me to look for different compositions.

If you’re new to macro then learn how to properly compose and focus a single frame before you take up focus stacking, and be patient with yourself. Don’t get frustrated and quit!


lauriek said...

"the focus stacking community is getting ready to burn me at a stake"

Not at all, I think that's good advice. If novices are trying to focus stack live bugs before they can take great single shots then they are getting way ahead of themselves and will likely only end up quitting from frustration. Even as a quite experienced macro shooter I have rarely managed to stack live wild bugs successfully...

gmazza said...

I agree with Laurie, I shoot most live ones and try to anchieve a single frame image every time I find a subject. I only stack live insects to counter very specific scenarios, and rarely more than 2 or 3 pictures for a stack. For capture of live healthy ones that's it.

Unknown said...

Well said! Patience is key. I don't use focus stacking either.

Chris said...

I fully agree with your article. I hardly ever manage to get something to focus stack hand held. Most times I have done stacking are still insects on a rail.

Definitely agree that getting the shots in focus at first is the key. And hey using DOF creatively is another part of the art!

Paul Murphy said...

Hi John,
I've recently armed myself with an MPE 65mm and living in the UK am waiting patiently for the bugs to emerge. I too have been pondering the focus stacking issue and not really relishing either the additional cost or extra hassle of focus stacking. I'm grateful for your down to earth advice.
I'm not going to bother with it for the time being.
BTW I'm using a 270 EX for flash on a custom built adjustable bracket and it seems to work OK. The refresh rate is a little slow though. Paul.

AimishBlog said...

couldn't agree more..
just like you said, trying to focus stack before learning to shot macro properly is the wrong way to go..
I too enjoy figuring out how to get the best results in one shot using the d.o.f creatively and turning it into an advantage and not a disadvantage.
just another tool that needs to be used appropriately and not as a default..

naadodi said...

A great article, John !!!I am always disturbed when I see pictures of dead insects being shot 174 times to make a stake. There is no creativity or art in staked images; they can be used for anatomy classes !!!
Thanks for the write-up !!!