Several years ago, I made an effort to focus stack a few images manually. I had read an article by George Lepp in which he spoke to staking images for improved depth of field and thought it might give me an image I desired. I gathered up half a dozen images and loaded them into photoshop. The next several hours were spent trying to figure out how to get only what I wanted from each image. Eventually I gave up.
Some years passed and I learned of improvements that would allow me to stack images using photoshop with automated alignment and blending. The results were easy to acheive and often quite good. With a little TLC I was able to get an image that was quite acceptable. This has been my go-to method for the recent past and I dabble in it whenever I am shooting flowers or macro, and on rare occassions a broad landscape.
With my recent switch to Olympus, I decided to give the “in camera focus stacking” a try. I quickly found it to be fun but also a bit frustrating. When the images would stack, it was nice to be able to get a view of what I had captured in the moment. However, when it didn’t acheive a stack, I was left with numerous images that were simmilar to the other images on my card and I was not sure how to differentiate when up loading them. I also found that the resultant stacked image was cropped and a jpeg.
All of this brought me back to rethinking my stacking process. I am loving the focus bracketing feature and the stacking does give me a window into what is possible. However, I am still finding photoshop to be providing a better stack than the camera does.
But, why photoshop? There are so many other options. I read a little and decided to give Helicon Focus a try. My initial sense is that the overall interface is not as polished as photoshop but is rather easy to use and is quick. The resulting image appears to be slightly improved over the photoshop image but not always. The following three images will provide a comparison:
This initial image is the in-camera stack. You will note that there is softness in the petle edges and a double edge in some areas. It is also cropped in comparison to the raw file or other stacks.
This second image was stacked in photoshop. It is distincly sharper throughout the flower while retaining the soft background when compared to the in-camera image. It doesn’t have any double image areas and the entire frame is available.
This third image was the same raw files run through Helicon Focus. The resulting image shows the same brilliant stacking but appears to have cropped a very slight amount of the image out. This is most evident when one looks close at the base of the stem and sees a slight piece of out of focus leaf in the photoshop image that is missing from the Helicon image.
When inspected closely the Photoshop stack shows small areas of imperfect blending. The areas would be easily corrected with cloning but it would take some work.
In a similar close inspection of the Helicon Focus image no out of focus halo exists. It is a near perfect stack.
on a second set of images things did not goe quite so well. In both Photoshop and Helicon Focus the end result was a relatively good looking image that fell apart on close inspection. The fine texture of the petals became confused. This set of images was one that was completely unable to stack in-camera. I suspect the slightly gusty wind may have shifted things around just enough to make everything problematic. (Since the problem was universal I have only uploaded the photoshop stack.)
At first blush, not a bad image
On close inspection, some real problems.
In the final analysis, all of these systems are amazing advancements over trying to stack manually. The very idea of stacking in-camera is rather mindblowing. In the end, however, it seems to still fall short (under these circumstances) and using software to stack remains a better alternative.
Is it worth paying for Helicon Focus? Is Photoshop sufficient? The answer to those questions proably depends on who you are and what your end use is. If I were only going to use my images for posting to social media, I would say that the Photoshop stack was plenty good. However, since i want more, since I want to print and to sell, I want to have the fine details stacked well at close inspection. For this, I feel, Helicon may well be the way to go.
What are your thoughts? Do you have a different software you prefer? I would love to hear your story.
Until then, happy shooting.