“There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams
Focus stacking is an intermediate technique used in the field and in post to capture landscape images with incredible sharpness that you could not attain in a single image. It is typically used to create maximum sharpness when shooting with wide-angle lenses extremely close to the subject in the foreground. Sometimes within a couple inches from the bottom of the frame, even the smallest apertures would not physically be able to capture sharp images from front to back.
This is not a tutorial on how to focus stack in the field or in Photoshop. These are some tips and tricks for those who are new to focus stacking or have yet to find consistent success with the skill.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams
1. Get close to the foreground. Using a wide-angle lens to emphasize the foreground is the main reason to focus stack. Make the flower, rock, roots, or whatever prominent in your frame.
2. Use a larger aperture. Focus stacking lets you capture sharper images avoiding diffraction. Being able to shoot at f/5.6 or f/8 can help you maintain much higher sharpness than would otherwise be possible with just one shot.
3. Use a tripod. A tripod is entirely necessary to keep the framing and composition consistent while shooting.
4. Shoot with a higher ISO. If your foreground is moving a lot increase the ISO and shutter speed to freeze the action. A little more noise in the image is forgivable if you can keep everything sharp.
5. Don’t focus stack! If the conditions aren’t favorable for a focus stack, don’t. If you don’t want to put the time in post processing it together it probably isn’t worth taking your time in the field. Take a good image of the composition and move on to the next shot.
6. Shoot with a smaller aperture when really close to your foreground. This can also happen when things are layered in the foreground. If there isn’t enough depth of field in the foreground with layered objects it can create issues with sharpness in the focus stack. The bokeh (blurry bits) of objects in the foreground can impact the areas around them. A weird halo will appear and make more work for you in post. Shoot with a high enough aperture to have the depth of field to properly cover the foreground and then the background. I will regularly shoot at f/13-f/16 to get enough sharpness in the foreground in these circumstances.
7. Auto-Align the photos in Photoshop before blending them. While you may be able to just blend the images together, it is not always possible. Even if your tripod didn’t move, the elements in your lens did. Many times, the lens will actually focus breathe, causing a slight change in the frame that may occasionally cause issues in the blend with object not aligning properly.
8. Buy a sturdier tripod, or weigh down your tripod. If anything is moving it will create problems for you. If your tripod is moving around even a little bit it can make your keeper rate go way down.
9. Take more images. If you have an error in one focus stack or if things are moving around in the wind take a handful of shots. This way you have more options in post-production to blend images together.
10. Practice! Don’t give up on focus stacking your images. Once you master this skill it will help you not only create sharper shots, but it will also make you better with the gear you use and being stronger in your post production. This and many other techniques in landscape photography will make you a better photographer in the long run!