Even when you’re photographing distant landscapes with wide-angle lenses, you may notice that the image doesn’t look as sharp as you thought it would. Or perhaps some objects are tack sharp, but as you look farther into the foreground or background, it loses some of that detail. One solution is to use a technique known as focus stacking to ensure your images are as sharp as possible throughout the entire image.
What Is Focus Stacking?
A popular technique for macro and product photography, focus stacking is a technique in which multiple images are captured using different focusing distances, and then all the sharpest parts of each exposure are composited together to make a single image that appears to be in perfect focus from front to back. It is something we have covered specifically for macro photographers already.
“all the sharpest parts of each exposure are composited together to make a single image”
Since it is most commonly used for close-up images where getting enough depth of field is a legitimate challenge, it might be weird to consider using the same technique for landscapes. After all, landscape photography is associated with using lenses and aperture settings that naturally capture deep depth of field. However, this isn’t a perfect solution.
Disadvantages of single exposure:
- Smaller apertures can introduce diffraction (slight softening of entire image)
- Close foreground objects and far backgrounds might not both be in focus
- Limited control over exposure for different parts of scene
- May force use of certain settings or to accept slightly compromised image
Focus stacking can help correct many of these issues.
Advantages of focus stacking:
- Can use ideal exposure for different parts of scene
- Lenses can be set to optimal aperture for maximum sharpness
- Allows easier use of different lenses, such as telephotos and fast primes
- Capture all main objects in perfect focus (foreground object, main area, sky/background)
- Ensures overall sharper focus
There is one distinct disadvantage to focus stacking, however, and that is the additional work during the shoot and in post that will need to be done. It is also possible to mess up the images during the shoot and not be able to properly process them. That is why we will walk you through these steps.
How to Use It for Landscape Photography
As always, the first step is to plan and find a landscape you want to photograph. I can’t help too much there—I’ll just assume you found the perfect spot and are ready to shoot. Now that you have your composition all ready, making sure not to forget a nice foreground, you are ready to go. Just make sure your camera is on a tripod because that will make the entire process go smoothly in Photoshop, and better still, use a remote shutter release to further lessen camera shake. You will also want to work quickly. Moving on.
Step 1: Take Test Photos
If you have your shot ready to go, you may as well snap a few images. Who knows, maybe you don’t need to worry about focus stacking and your first shot is already what you wanted. Regardless, you’ll want to snap a photo, so you have a full-res image to examine on the back of your camera and check out where and how much you’ll need to do.
You are looking for a few things:
- What parts of the image draw the eye and are they sharp?
- Could any parts of the image benefit from compositing?
- How shallow is the depth of field?
If the main couple parts of the image are perfectly sharp but maybe some of the very foreground grass or background sky is slightly softer, it might be very usable already. There’s no need to do more if the key parts are solid.
Next, you’ll want to see if anything might benefit from compositing. For example, you might want to do a long exposure on the sky but a shorter exposure to freeze any plants in the foreground. In this case, since focus stacking already requires compositing, you may as well do both at once. Focus on the sky for the long exposure and then focus on the foreground for the shorter take.
Finally, if you are seeing shallow depth of field, you’ll want to know how much, since this will help you decide how many shots to take. If a third of the image is in focus, then you’ll likely want to take at least three separate images for your final composite. Three is a safe place to start if you don’t know and have decent depth of field.
Step 2: Check your Settings (Go All Manual)
You’ll want/need to move quickly here, especially if you are shooting during a fast-moving golden hour. With the camera set up and composition ready, you’ll need to check your settings. Primarily, once you have the exposure set, you’ll want to set everything to manual. You want as much consistency as possible between your images for exposure because it will make the blending easier later on.
Next, you’ll need to check focus. Manual is the safe way to go; however, some cameras offer a focus-stacking mode that you might want to use instead, because that will do a better job than many people will be able to do with their eyes and hands. Many of us will have to rely on our own judgment and I would say to do some practice takes when possible.
When you are ready, meaning when your camera is set, tripod is steady, and you know how many exposures you want to take, you should be ready to move quick. Get the focus set to either the front-most point or the back—depends on personal preference.
Finally, we always recommend shooting in raw instead of JPEG. You can also just shoot both if you don’t have an issue with that.
“we always recommend shooting in raw”
If you want to try to mix exposures to get sharper images in some portions, or realize long exposures in certain situations, I recommend doing some practice runs with regular composites. We will save that for another article to keep things simple here.
Step 3: Take Your Photos!
Ideally, to ensure the sharpest imagery, you’ll want to eliminate all shake and camera movement. This means that using a tripod and a remote trigger is the best practice. Second best is to use a delay—two seconds will probably work for most, unless you are using long exposures.
Quick tip: If you are taking multiple series of images in a row, it might help to take a black frame with the lens cap on so when you import the files you can quickly see where one series ends and the next begins.
So, just start shooting. Take an image, adjust the focus, take another image, adjust the focus, etc.
When you have finished your series and pack up and return home, you can tackle the next step.
Step 4: Import and Perform Raw Adjustments
When you are at your computer you can import the files into your raw editing software of choice. We are going to walk through using Bridge/Lightroom and Photoshop, although there are alternatives that will work.
Identify your series of images in Bridge/Lightroom. You’ll want to apply uniform adjustments to exposure/white balance/etc. to make the blending work well. I’d keep the changes fairly basic since you can do more later.
Step 5: Bring into Photoshop and Blend
Then, you’ll want to select all the images and prepare to open in Photoshop. Luckily, there is a great menu option to do exactly what you need.
- In Bridge, head to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers
- In Lightroom, under Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop
Once it loads up in Photoshop—it might take a minute, depending on your computer’s power and the resolution and number of images—you can perform the task of blending.
- Use the Auto-Align Layers tool. This corrects for focus breathing and small movements.
- Then use the Auto-Blend Layers tool. Set blending and everything to auto and let it do its job.
Be prepared for it to take some time. Then look at the results! If you are lucky and had good technique, you are basically done. Just apply your usual edits to the image and it is ready to print or publish. If it didn’t work, you’ll have to tweak the masks on each layer, adding and subtracting as needed. If your first attempt isn’t perfect it’s entirely possible you didn’t take enough images to account for depth of field shifts. It’s going to be a learning experience.
As you can see it worked quite well! I even took another photo with more sky to get a bit more sky in the final take.
Focus stacking is an incredible tool for landscape photography and, while you might not need it all the time, having it as an option can help you create more technically sound imagery.
Do you have any tips for focus stacking? Have you used it before or have questions on how to do it still? Be sure to stop by the Comments, below, and ask any questions or leave your own advice!