FOCUS STACKING FOR CLOSE-UP DEPTH AND DETAIL
We don’t want to scare you off right at the start, but David Leaser told us that if he walks away from focus stacking for a week or so he has to sort of relearn it. He’s super enthusiastic about the close-up focus stacking technique he used to make these photographs but there are, he says, a lot of steps.
The payoff is worth it though, as focus stacking solves the issue of limited depth of field when shooting macro photographs.
David was inspired to try the technique when he returned from the Amazon. He’d been shooting landscapes before turning his attention to “the little ecosystems on the floor of the rainforest.” The problem was capturing all the detail and structure he was seeing in the plants and flowers. “The depth of field wasn’t great enough at any f stop to get all that I wanted in an image,” he says. He returned home, did some research and pretty soon he’d worked out the general method and gathered the gear he needed: a D3X, an AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED, the R1C1 wireless close-up Speedlight system, a Cognisys StackShot, a super-sturdy tripod, and Zerene Stacker software.
The StackShot is a motorised rail device that sits atop the tripod and moves the D3X and its manually focused Micro NIKKOR 60mm towards the subject at chosen, preset intervals. David favours intervals of 0.3 mm because he’s found they work best within the depth-of-field range of the 60 mm lens. The D3X, tethered to his laptop, takes a single image at each interval. With the camera set for Live View David sees exactly what the lens sees and the camera captures on his laptop’s screen.
David does not change the focus of the lens as the StackShot moves. He’s determined to get enough sharp elements in the frames for the software to combine into the final image. David typically takes several dozen shots as the StackShot moves closer and closer to the flower: the software will automatically choose the sharpest parts of each image and combine them into one.
The R1C1 Speedlight fires for each frame. “I set the flash for auto operation and take some test shots before I start,” David says. “I see the results on the laptop and can tell if any adjustments to position or output are needed.” David places Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce flash diffusers on each of the R1C1’s flash heads to soften the light. When the lens comes within three inches of the subject, he’ll add the close-up diffusers that come with the R1C1 kit.
Sometimes, David uses an SB-900 to illuminate areas that may not be covered by the close-up flash. “The close-up system is very focused on the flower,” David says, “but I may need to add more light to a stem, so I’ll use an SB-900 with the diffuser that comes with it or with a LumiQuest softbox, and I’ll fire the SB-900 with the SU-800 wireless commander unit in the camera’s hot shoe.”
David shoots the images as NEF files, and then batch-processes them to TIFF files in Photoshop. This allows him to make any colour or exposure adjustments he feels are necessary. Next he imports the images into Zerene Stacker, and the software makes its selection and combination of sharp sections. The results show remarkable depth, clarity, and detail, and David has made 44x60 canvas prints of images for exhibit and fine art sale.
A ‘last-but-not-least’ essential: flowers worthy of the effort, and capable of eliciting a “wow!” response. David buys his at the Los Angeles flower mart or grows them himself. All the hardware and software mentioned here can be found online by Googling keywords, names, and phrases. You can also find details, guidelines, and tutorials about the focus-stacking technique. But you’re totally on your own when it comes to flower choice.
David readies his focus-stacking setup for close-up photography. The flower photos here were taken with the D3X, AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED, and R1C1 wireless close-up Speedlight system you see on the Cognisys StackShot, which is mounted on a Manfrotto 3251 tripod. The camera's settings were consistent for all the images: 1/60 second, f/16, ISO 100, manual exposure, and Matrix metering. For the image David is making in this photo, he added an SB-900 to shed some light on the flower's stem. Additional important parts of the setup are the little blue Wimberley Plamp (vital for gently holding the flower still). And, at left, the clamp-on halogen desk lamp that David uses to give him lots of light to manually focus the lens. Note the desk lamp is turned off when the shooting starts. © David Leaser