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Physics always seems to get in the way of photography. The physics here refers to the fact that when photographers get closer to a subject, the depth of field gets shallower and shallower. Unfortunately, if you need more depth of field, stopping down can’t always get you where you want to be, especially when diffraction can compromise on image quality at extremely small apertures. Focus stacking can really save the day, allowing photographers to create images with everything they need being tack sharp. And, thanks to modern image editing software like Adobe Lightroom 6 and Photoshop CC, it hasn’t been easier.
So how do you do it?
First things first: you are going to need a camera and a tripod, and the sturdier the tripod, the better. Any changes can make blending and aligning these images much more difficult. Once you have your subject set up you are going to want your camera in all-manual mode, since any fluctuations here can be a pain for you later. This means manual ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, as well as manually controlled focus.
Choosing your aperture is likely going to be the most important here because it determines how many images you will need to take and the overall quality of the resulting picture. I generally aim for my lens’s sweet spot for sharpness and work from there but, if you want to take a few photos as possible, a smaller aperture may be best.
Once all of that is worked out, the process is fairly simple. Working from front-to-back (or vice versa) you take an image where you want the plane of focus to start and keep moving back until you reach where you want the focus to end. This can take as little as three shots or even up to the hundreds, depending on how precise you need the final product to be and how shallow your depth of field is during shooting.
Now that you have the raw files, it is time for the fun.
I am running Adobe Photoshop CS6, but the CC versions of the software operate in almost the exact same manner, so you should have no problem following along.
Step 1: Using either Bridge/Camera Raw (my method) or Lightroom, find all of the raw images you will use to create the final photograph. Once you have them, you should make your raw edits to exposure, shadows, highlights, etc. The main thing to watch out for here is that everything remains the same for each image; otherwise, the later blending steps could have issues.
Step 2: Now that you have all of your images in Bridge or Lightroom and they are ready for Photoshop, you should use a fun trick to pull them in as layers in a single document. For Bridge, this is found in Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers. In Lightroom, it is under Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.
Step 3: Now that the hard part is done, there are a couple of super-simple tools to get the effect we are after. First, use Photoshop’s Auto-Align Layers tool to make sure everything is clean. Then, use the Auto-Blend Layers tool right after.
Step 4: Almost like magic, you should have a pretty spectacular image to work from right now. It is possible that certain layers don’t quite blend correctly on occasion and require manual masking/erasing but, for the most part, you should have a very workable image.
Step 5: Make your final edits and adjustments at this point, working as you normally would. Make sure any issues in the unimportant areas of the image are cleaned up.
As long as you are careful and organized, this should be a very simple and easy trick to use in your photography. It may not be needed all the time, but having this in your back pocket can help you save a difficult shot without compromising on image quality.