Handheld Close-Up Focus Stacking Guide

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Macro and close-up photographers often employ the technique of “focus stacking” to increase the depth of field in their images. While this is often done in a controlled studio environment with a sturdy tripod or support and sometimes the benefit of macro focusing rails, it is possible to use this technique out in the field armed only with a minimal amount of gear. Handheld focus stacking is challenging, fun, and can produce some great results.

Focus stacking virtually extends your depth of field. In the single image (left), the compass has a shallow area of focus, while with stacked images (right), it is in sharp focus from front to back. FUJIFILM X-T3 with FUJIFILM XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 LM OIS lens and FUJIFILM MCEX-11 11mm Extension Tube

What is focus stacking?

Focus stacking is a digital technique that blends and combines images of an object captured at different distances to create a single image that shows the entirety of the subject in focus. When you create close-up images of an object, you might notice that the plane of focus—the area of the image that is in sharp focus—can be very narrow. For instance, if you’re photographing jewelry or an insect, the closest part of the subject might be in focus, but the rest fades quickly into a soft blur. Sometimes you can narrow your aperture to increase your depth of field, but shooting at very narrow apertures can create image softening due to diffraction and, even without diffraction, you may not get sufficient depth of field to render the entire object in sharp focus from front to back.

Focus stacking is done by creating a series of images of an object at slightly different focus depths and then using post-processing software to combine them and digitally render the images together. Our colleague Shawn Steiner has detailed the fairly simple process in this article.

The pointy bow of a wooden boat. FUJIFILM X-T3 with Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens

What are the traditional tools of the trade for focus stacking?

If possible, a steady tripod or alternative support should be used for macro photography. If you are going to employ focus stacking, a macro focusing rail is probably the best additional accessory you can add to your kit because it allows you to make tiny adjustments in subject-to-lens distance and will make your focus stacking process cleaner and easier. I talk more about focusing rails in this article.

Because not all of us can be found with tripods and focusing rails 24/7 while out photographing, there is a technique for allowing photographers to achieve handheld focus stacking for those moments when we are traveling light and come across a tiny subject that would benefit from a greater depth of sharp focus.

I love taking photos of planes. This vintage plane is not my usual subject. FUJIFILM X-T3 with FUJIFILM XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 LM OIS lens and FUJIFILM MCEX-11 11mm Extension Tube

Well, we already know that our trusty tripod and macro focusing rails are in the closet at home, so scratch them off the list. First, check to see if your camera has in-camera focus stacking capabilities. Several recent Panasonic, Olympus, Nikon, Canon, FUJIFILM, and Hasselblad cameras feature in-camera focus stacking modes. This will greatly simplify your process. Barring the luxury of in-body stacking, what are the modern photographer’s optional tools that help make handheld focus stacking easier and more accurate?

1. A digital camera with a high frames-per-second rate will be extremely helpful. Yes, you can manually shoot one image at a time, but you’ll find a “motor drive” better for this process.

2. Image stabilization will also be an aid, especially when shooting at longer focal lengths.

3. Continuous lighting or a very quick cycling strobe will help light your subject.

As we look at the procedures for doing handheld focus stacking, I will circle back to discuss these tools.

Flowers always make great close-up subjects, but they move in the slightest breeze, making them more of a challenge. FUJIFILM X-T3 with Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens

How do we do a handheld focus stack?

The how is easy. What you will find (and what I have discovered) is that it takes a good amount of practice (and a bit of luck) to get good results.

1. Find your subject.

2. Get your body and arms into the most stable position you can muster because you need to become a non-mechanical tripod and focus rail.

I have my left elbow jammed into my thigh to add a bit of stability to my “rig.”
I have my left elbow jammed into my thigh to add a bit of stability to my “rig.”

3. Compose your shot and set your focus on the closest part of your subject.

4. Once the focus is set, you do not want to change the focus of the lens.

a. Autofocus: If you achieved initial focus using autofocus, you can switch to manual focus and avoid touching the focus ring or you can use your camera’s autofocus lock function (usually a button).

b. Manual focus: If you did your initial focus manually, be sure not to change focus.

More detail from the bow of a whaleboat. FUJIFILM X-T3 with Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens

5. Move slightly away from the object so that the plane of focus has fallen off the closest part of your subject.

6. Start making images. If your camera allows continuous shooting, set it at the highest frames-per-second rate. If you don’t have this option, you will start releasing the shutter manually. As you start to capture images move the camera (and/or your arms or body) forward as slowly and as steadily as you can, taking photos as the plane of focus travels through the subject.

7. Once the plane of focus has passed through the subject, stop releasing the shutter.

8. You might have nailed it, but you likely didn’t, so while you are at it, repeat the above steps and do a few more passes on the subject, if possible.

Another beautiful plane with images showing the single shots at near (left) and far (middle) focus plus the multi-image stack with its greater depth of focus (right). FUJIFILM X-T3 with FUJIFILM XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 LM OIS lens and FUJIFILM MCEX-11 11mm Extension Tube

What are some additional tips for a successful handheld stack?

1. Practice makes perfect. This technique is fun and, in some senses, easy, but to get consistently good results you need to practice, practice, practice. Start indoors with static objects and work on your camera holding and body position so that you can create a semi-stable support for your rig.

2. The more frames per second (FPS), the better. Most digital cameras these days have blistering frame rates when shooting still images. Compared to the days of film, these stratospheric frame rates—even the ones found on entry-level cameras—are a great advantage for handheld focus stacking.

3. If your camera features an electronic shutter, take advantage of it. This will minimize internal shake and permit the fastest shutter speeds for image capture.

4. Image stabilization can help. When working at higher magnifications, the more stability you can have, the better.

5. While high-magnification macro lenses can make for amazing macro photos, remember that you are doing this handheld, so even the tiniest movements can get your lens way off target. This is where practice and experience will come into play. I don’t recommend starting with a 1:1 macro lens when a 1:2 might be friendlier to your first rounds of fun. Or, if you have a 1:1 lens, just move farther away from your subject and don’t go for maximum magnification.

Single shot (left) and stacked images (right) of a seashell. FUJIFILM X-T3 with FUJIFILM XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 LM OIS lens and FUJIFILM MCEX-11 11mm Extension Tube

6. Similarly, I tried handheld focus stacking with a 200mm macro lens on an APS-C camera. At an equivalent focal length of 350mm, it was a challenge just to keep the subject in the frame as I moved my focus plane through the scene. Moderate focal lengths might be best for early practice.

7. Aperture and shutter speed are at your discretion. You will want a shutter speed fast enough to avoid blur from camera shake. Regarding aperture, the whole point of stacking is to increase your depth of field artificially, so you need not step down to a tiny aperture. Opening your lens all the way is an option, but you’ll want to take more photos as you move the focus plane through the subject to compensate. A midrange aperture might be the best balance of both.

8. Macro lenses can throw shade (literally) on close-up subjects. Supplemental lighting can help light your subject, allow higher shutter speeds for less camera shake blur, and help get better results. The recycle time on most strobes cannot keep up with today’s high FPS cameras, so continuous lighting might be your best option.

You’ll want your photo browser to look like this, with many images taken for every stacking “pass.” Note the images that bracket the series of images.You'll want your photo browser to look like this, with many images taken for every stacking “pass.” Note the images that bracket the series of images.

9. Shoot multiple frames and, if your subject didn’t fly or crawl away, shoot multiple stacks in the hopes you will get good results on one series.

10. In-between “passes,” you might want to take a full-white shot (overexposed) or full-black photo (underexposed) so that when you open the images in a photo browser, there is a visual indicator of when you started a new series of images.

11. Focus stacking done well in a controlled environment generally yields very good images right out of the post-processing “box.” With handheld stacking, you might have to do some advanced layer masking in your software to get the cleanest results. Don’t let that deter you…I don’t have those skills either!

The bitter end of a line. Again, we see the single shots at near (left) and far (middle) focus plus the multi-image stack with its much greater depth of focus (right). FUJIFILM X-T3 with Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens

 

When you’re out in the field and traveling light, keep an eye out for tiny scenes that you can best capture with an expanded depth and employ these techniques! Handheld focus stacking is challenging and fun and you might just get some awesome images! Do you have questions on the technique or your own tips for how to do it? Ask questions and share tips in the Comments section, below.

4 Comments

Great article! I got absolutely hooked on focus stacking early on in my adventure back into photography that started less than a year ago! I don’t solely do it in my macro work now, but for a while I did...it’s a lot of fun to do but also a lot of work, especially hamdheld. I found having a tripod but no rail worked best for me, changing focus with the camera - but that could have been because my rail was horrible 😂 Either way, I love the results it brings! So worth it if you’ve got the right subject and want that ‘totally in focus’ look. I change up my approach depending on my perspective, and so I’ve used it a bit less lately, but next time I rent the actual macro instead of using the adapter, I’m going to have to get out there and do it again. The problem I had sometimes was that I stacked too far and had things in focus past the subject.

Hi Russ,

Thanks for the kind words on the article!

There are some great rails out on the market now...and macro lenses. What system are you shooting?

And, you are correct, you really can't beat the results you get from stacking!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Why not change focus instead of moving the camera?  One of my cameras (Panasonic GX85) has focus stacking and I presume it must adjusting the focus. 

Other cameras I have (e.g. Nikon D750) don't have the feature and I've yet to try it but wanted to.

Hi JAMES,

Great question! I have a semi-fuzzy answer for you...

In focus stacking, you can do either method, but each one presents a different challenge for stacking. Changing the camera position without changing focus changes the viewpoint (ever so slightly) and the camera-to-subject distance. Changing focus changes the magnification of the subject. Either way, you are altering variables.

Macro focus rails are commonly used in focus stacking...suggesting (subtly?) that you want to move the camera and not change focus. But, you might find success with either method.

When handheld, at high magnifications, I am guessing that the act of turning a focus ring while trying to hold the camera relatively still will introduce a lot of unwanted movement in the frame, but there are no rules saying that you can't give it a try!

And, yes, my guess is that the in-camera systems accomplish stacking by changing focus and processing internally.

Let me know if one method has more success than the other and thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

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