How To Quickly Focus Stack an Image in Photoshop
Four-image focus stack of sunset in Bishop, California. The foliage in the foreground was just inches away from the camera.
When you take into account all the different ways to get a tack sharp image, it can be quite overwhelming. I’ve been photographing landscapes as a full time photographer for six years now, and have tested just about every method out there. Focus stacking is just one more option, but it is one of my favorites, if the conditions are right.
Focus stacking is a life saver when you have a foreground subject that is very close to the frame, and a background subject that is equally important to the image. This happens quite a bit in landscape photography when using super wide angle lenses! Some will argue that hyperfocal calculations work in these situations too, and while they certainly can, I personally don’t like hassling with the charts and measurements unless I really have to.
Two image focus stack of Lily Lake near Estes Park, Colorado.
One of the most important things you can do out in the field is to inspect your shots instead of just assuming you nailed it. You’ll find articles all over the place making fun of photographers for chimping, but the ability to zoom in on all the tiny details of your shot is a major advantage over the film days.
When I’m taking pictures of a magnificent sunset, I’m working fast and keeping my head on a swivel. When I take a shot, I’ll quickly review it and zoom in all the way on my main subject. Then, I’ll zoom in on the other parts if they need to be sharp as well (sometimes they don’t). If you have a really close foreground subject and it’s tack sharp, but the mountains in the background are just a bit soft; this is a good time to consider focus stacking.
Two image focus stack at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. One for the sand that was less than a foot from the lens, and one for the background.
The best part about focus stacking is that it’s super easy! Just put your camera on a tripod and set your lens to manual focus. I use live view on the back of my camera to zoom in as close to my subject as possible and turn the focus ring on my lens until I see the subject become tack sharp. Once you’ve gotten that shot, scroll around the image and see what is soft in the background. If the mid-ground is soft, turn your focus ring until it’s sharp and take the same picture with the same settings. Then, dial the focus ring for the background and take another shot. That’s it until post processing!
Stacking the Images Together in Photoshop
Final image from the video. Three image focus stack from Zion National Park.
When Focus Stacking Doesn’t Work
In all the images above that had foliage in them, there was virtually no wind at the time I took the shots. The foliage was perfectly still. If the wind is blowing and the leaves are swaying back and forth, focus stacking is going to be a nightmare, and isn’t even worth bothering with in most cases.
It’s also important to note that having the entire image in sharp focus isn’t always the best artistic approach to a scene. Sometimes having your subject sharp and the background soft will do a much better job of drawing the viewer’s eye where you want. It really just depends on the situation.
Focus stacking is just one trick to have in your bag, and this is just one method of doing it. There are also third party programs like Helicon Focus to consider. I personally haven’t used the program but have heard great things about it.
Have anything to add to the article? Let me know in the comments below!