Focus Stacking in Landscape Photography

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The creative use of depth of field is one of the first things we learn as photographers. To some it was an epiphany to learn that we can choose which aspects of our image are in focus – from the smallest portion to the largest landscape. We know that if we choose a small aperture, everything from several feet in front of us out to the horizon is in focus. Conversely, a large aperture will bring everything several inches to several feet in front of us in focus.

But what if we want to have everything from several inches all the way to the horizon in focus? We can’t accomplish this using any single aperture. But we can accomplish this using something called “focus stacking”.

Focus stacking combines several images, taken at various focus lengths, and merges them in a post-processing program such as Photoshop. It is a popular technique used in macro photography, but is also very effective in landscape photography. For the purposes of this demonstration, I am using my Canon 7D fitted with my 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. Post processing will be conducted in Adobe Photoshop CS6.

Click on any image to see a larger version.

1. Fit the camera with your widest lens, and set it on a tripod adjusted low to the ground, or even on the ground itself depending on your composition.

2. Using aperture priority, choose a small aperture (f/16-f/22).

3. Choose the ISO appropriate for the conditions.

4. Zoom the lens to achieve the desired angle – in this example I used the widest angle possible.

5. Frame the shot – sometimes it helps to turn on the live view feature of your camera, if it has it, rather than crawl around on the ground trying to see through the viewfinder. Arrange the composition of the photo so that it has interesting foreground AND background aspects.

6. Set your camera to MANUAL focus.

7. Turn the focus ring to the shortest focusing distance – typically indicated by “macro” on the focus indicator on the lens, or the smallest number. Don’t fear if your lens doesn’t have a focus indicator window. Just turn the focus ring clockwise (as the lens points away from you) until it stops.

8. Take your first shot. Then carefully nudge the focus ring counter-clockwise to a slightly further focusing distance, and take another shot. Make sure you don’t jar the camera and change the framing.

9. Nudge the ring again, and take another shot.

10. Keep doing this until you’ve taken shots at different focus distances from macro all the way to infinity. Taking a lot of shots ensures that there are no “gaps” in the focus when merging the photos during post processing. You may not need or use all of them, but it’s better to have a larger selection to choose from.

You should now have a collection of shots, each of which having a different horizontal section in sharp focus. Slight overlapping of the bands is great – it will ensure the final merged photo will be in sharp focus.

Notice this first shot, straight out of the camera. The foreground, at the bottom of the photo, is in sharp focus. The background is blurred.

Now notice the last shot, also straight out of the camera. The foreground is blurred, and the background is sharp.

I took a series of eight photographs at staggered focus distances to ensure that I had the overlap I needed to result in a final merged photo with a large depth of focus. Now that the hard part is done, the only thing left to do is to merge the photos in Photoshop.

1. Open all of the files in Photoshop. I saved my photos as .jpg first, but you can also open the straight RAW files. I chose to use five of the eight photos that I took.

2. Next go to File… Scripts and choose “Load Files Into Stack”. Click on “Add Open Files” and you will see all of your open files listed in the box. Next, click on the box for “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images”. This will help align all of the features in the individual photos. Click on OK.

3. Notice that all of the photos have been added to the Layers panel as individual layers. Make all of the layers active by clicking on the top layer thumbnail, holding down the shift key and clicking on the bottom layer thumbnail.

4. Now go to Edit… Auto Blend Layers. Choose the Stack Images option, ensure the “Seamless Tones and Colors” box is checked, and click on OK.

Photoshop will blend the images together and open the final image as a new file.

As you can see, everything from the foreground to the background is in focus. Note that there are some slightly blurred edges, which occurred when the program blended areas to align the images. I simply crop a bit, sharpen the image to my liking, and here is the final result:

That’s all there is to it! The next time you’re presented with a landscape and want to capture it in full detail, give this technique a try.

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  • Dennis

    Fascinating! Something I will have to try. Could prove to be quite useful without resorting to my ultrawide or fisheye lenses.