What is Focus Stacking?

Posted: 10 years ago Last updated: 10 years ago

Focus stacking put simply is taking a number of pictures of the subject, while moving the plane of focus for each shot but changing the framing of the shot as little as possible. Then software is used to combine the in focus sections of the images you shot to obtain a composite image with more of the subject in focus than you could with a single shot.

Why not just stop down the aperture?

You soon realise this is not an option when you start to shoot at extreme magnification - at 10:1 and more, even stopping down to F22 will not generally get you enough DOF for more than a very flat subject - three dimensional subjects like small insect faces are too deep for one shot to get everything in focus.

The main reason though is that at proper macro magnification (1:1 and beyond) stopping down a lens will soon start to cause diffraction. The more magnification, the sooner this starts to degrade your photographs.

Here's an example, even resized down for web, the diffraction blur is obvious in this shot of a tortoise beetle, shot at F11 and around 3-4:1 magnification. I'm not talking about the lower part of the image where the rear of the subject is going out of focus, that is simply demonstating that F11 does not give enough DOF to get the whole subject in focus, I'm talking about the general resolution of the in focus section of the image.













If the loss of resolution isn't obvious in that shot alone, compare the detail to the following stack of the same bug (admittedly the other side of it), a composite of 47 images shot at f4.0;

The reason diffraction starts to become a problem is that the aperture you set on the lens actually appears to become smaller from the camera's point of view as you add extension between the camera and the lens. This is known as the effective aperture.

The formula is:

Effective Aperture = Marked Aperture x (Focal Length + Total Extension) / Focal Length

As an example, with a 20mm bellows lens and 200mm of bellows extension for 10:1 magnification, the lens is set to f8.0 then:

Effective Aperture = 8 x (20 + 200) / 20 = f88

An effective aperture of f88 is very small, and is enough to cause diffraction on any modern camera (well any camera with less than medium-large format sized film/sensor.)

If the lens can open up to say f2.0 then the numbers are quite different:-

Effective Aperture = 2 x (20 + 200) / 20 = f22.

An aperture of f22 is still just into diffraction territory on smaller sensor DSLRs like my Olympus, and APS sized sensors, but only to a small degree. This lens would be quite usable for stacking on a DSLR at f2.0 but at f8.0 will produce a seriously degraded image. (At this extension/magnification).


Okay that sounds interesting, so how do I do it??

Well, there are two ways of doing this - Method 1 in the field with live bugs; you can try to get a small number of shots closely framed, the first with the eyes of the bug in focus, then move forward by 1-2mm and grab another shot with the wings/torso in focus. In my experience, 2 or 3 shot stacks of wild bugs can be done but longer stacks rarely work well. Here is a short tutorial from the master of hand held focus stacking.

Method 2 is the way I make my bug portraits. It involves killing the bugs and shooting them in an indoor studio, with completely controlled lighting, and a mechanism to shift the camera or the subject on an extremely small scale to adjust focus. This latter method is what I will focus on in these articles.

Here is an example 2 frame animated gif showing a focus stacked shot of a tiny insect (a very small gnat, around 2mm long) compared to a single slice from the stack. Shot with a Nikon 10x microscope objective with a fixed aperture, roughly equivalent to a 15mm/f1.6 camera lens*. The full stack is 103 images deep.

Note I picked the slice from the stack which had the front of the eye in focus to make the slice look as good as possible!

* Microscope objectives have apertures markes as NA (Numeric Aperture). The way to work out the equivalent f-stop aperture for an objective marked in this way is F-stop = 1/(2xNA). So for an objective with an NA of 0.3, F = 1/(2x0.3) = 1/0.6 = 1.667, so f1.6/1.7


There are 8 comments so far.

buddy icon Lauri
105 months ago
(Pending moderation)
118 months ago
Dave, sorry for the huge delay in reply!

In the early days I simply experimented with focus steps until I worked out the optimal steps for various lens/magnifications, eventually if you keep using the same lenses it becomes second nature.

Method 1 is in the wild with live bugs, for me it rarely works. Method 2 is in indoor studio/stacking rig with dead bugs. Most of my work is in the second category.
128 months ago
I assume from your very informative article, that you manually focus the lens. How do you determine the incremental focus points for each of the 103 deep stacked images? You also mention 2 to 3 shot stacks are more effective, and more rarely work. What do you mean in context with 103 deep stacked images mentioned later...Method 2: second paragraph?

I am interested in making my photographs more impactful.

Thank you in advance for your advice.

128 months ago
Laurie, when I was a student, I had to examine lots of lots fruit flies to sort out mutations. Thing was, it was necessary to really SEE each fly for maybe a minute at a time and yet not kill it (so the "good" ones could be bred).

How to do that? Easy! They were placed in an environment with high CO2 levels. They could be kept in that conked-out state for many minutes while they and their cohort was examined. Immobile, still alive!

Steve Hanzek
172 months ago
Laurie, thank you for all your articles on stacking. They are very informative and well written. I hope to give it a shot one of these days...
Your images are super!
Peter Atwood
172 months ago
Laurie, you have done some amazing work here. I've been getting into photography lately and hanging on one of the well known boards looking at a lot of pictures. I've seen some spectacular stuff, even seen some stacking work. But you've really captured some incredible detail in your shots and it measures up to just about anyone. Keep up the great work!
172 months ago
I understand your point of view. However you should understand, these deep stacks are simply not possible without completely immobilising the insect. There is no practical alternative. These images would be impossible without the technique.
172 months ago
You have some incredible pictures. Thank you for sharing. However, I do not think one should kill something in order to photograph it, even a bug. I think this also devalues the image/work you put into it as it is clearly simpler to photograph a dead insect than a live one. I hope you consider a new approach. I do appreciate your honesty in your technique.
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