Shooting anything up close requires incredible patience and extreme precision. If your close-up photography isn’t sharp then you’re not only wasting pictures, but you’ve wasted hours of your time. In this in-depth tutorial we’ll show you how to use one of the most amazing Photoshop effects macro and close-up photographers can use: focus stacking.
Below we’ll show you step-by-step how to focus stack and extend depth of field when shooting close-up by shifting your point of focus in multiple images, which you’ll later stitch together so you can produce images that are sharp throughout the frame.
One of the best things about close-up photography is the wonderful softness that results from working with such a shallow depth of field.
Even at the smallest apertures the plane of focus will stretch to a couple of centimetres at most, and anything outside this range will fall off into beautiful bokeh.
At times, however, this can be a problem –especially if you’d like a completely sharp subject. Stopping down the aperture will increase depth of field, but sometimes this simply isn’t enough to achieve sharpness across the subject from front to back.
The solution: fix the camera to a tripod and shoot several frames, each with a small shift in focus, then use Photoshop to combine the sharp areas to create a single pin-sharp image.
We’ll begin with a series of shots of a flower, captured with tiny incremental shifts in focus. We’ll make global adjustments to all the images at once in Camera Raw, then combine the sharp parts using the Auto-Blend command in Photoshop CS.
Macro subjects usually look best against clean uncluttered backgrounds, but this isn’t always easy to achieve when searching for the best angle.
We’ll neaten up our finished flower by creating a new colour co-ordinated background, then use the Clone tool to remove a few messy areas. Finally, we’ll utilise the High Pass filter for a great sharpening technique that works wonders on edges.
How to create a focus stacking effect: steps 1-9
Focus stacking step 01 Open in Camera Raw
Copy your start files into a folder on your hard drive, then open Adobe Bridge and go to the folder. Highlight the first image, then hold Shift and click the last one to select them all. Right-click over them and choose Open in Adobe Camera Raw to open the whole batch.
Focus stacking step 02 Remove the sensor mark
Click Select All at the top left. Now any changes will affect all the images. First let’s deal with the sensor mark on the left. Grab the Spot Removal tool from the Tools palette, set Type to Heal and Opacity to 100%, then drag a small circle over the mark to remove it.
Focus stacking step 03 Improve the tones
Click the Zoom tool to make the panels visible on the right, then go to the Basic panel. Work your way down through the sliders. Set Temperature to 5200, Tint to +10, Contrast to -23, Highlights to -28, Shadows to +16, Whites to +8, Blacks to -13 and Vibrance to +32.
Focus stacking step 04 Save as JPEGs
Merging raw files can take time, so to save a bit of processing power we’ll save our set of images as JPEGs. To do this, click the Save Images button at the bottom right. Set Destination to Save in Same Location, Format to JPEG, Quality to 12, and then Save.
SEE MORE: How to process raw images the right way
Focus stacking step 05 Open as a layered file
Click Done to exit Camera Raw and go back to Bridge. Click one of the newly-created JPEGs, then hold Cmd/Ctrl and click on the rest of the JPEGs to select. Go to Tools>Photoshop>Load Files Into Photoshop Layers to open all images in one document.
Focus stacking step 06 Align the layers
Once the file has loaded into Photoshop, go to Window>Layers to access the Layers palette, then hold Shift and click on the bottom layer to highlight them all. Next go to Edit>Auto-Align Layers. By default the command is set to Auto, which is fine, so hit OK.
Focus stacking step 07 Crop the edges
Once the Auto-Align command has finished, the elements on each layer will be aligned, but the edges of the frame will look messy. Grab the Crop tool, right-click and choose Unconstrained, then drag across the image to crop off the unwanted messy edges.
Focus stacking step 08 Duplicate and blend
Ensure all layers are still selected, then drag them to the Create New Layer icon to copy all five. Next, go to Edit>Auto-Blend Layers, make sure Stack Images and Seamless Tones and Colours are selected, then hit OK. Photoshop will seek out and blend the sharp parts.
Focus stacking step 09 Merge and rename
Once the Auto-Blend Command has finished, hit Cmd/Ctrl+E to merge the top five highlighted layers into one single layer. Double-click the layer name and rename it ‘sharp’. Zoom in close and you’ll notice a few messy edges where the blend hasn’t quite worked.
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