Home Macro Diaries Focus stacking for handheld macro photography

Focus stacking for handheld macro photography

by Güray Dere

There are some nice things about handheld shots. Compared to a tripod shot, the best pictures are not taken by hand, but on a macro trip, it’s the only way to go for bugs in all circumstances. I can shoot and fill my hard disk in a short period of time until my battery or memory card runs out. After processing, I can collect enough raw material for dozens of photos. It’s almost Christmas, but I’m still working on the photos I took in May. Thanks to the hand shot, I’ve taken so many pictures that I’m six months behind in the process.

Whether it’s a handheld shooting or with a tripod, macro shots are rarely made up of a single-frame shot. If we are preparing a large framing with a nice space around it, showing big insects like butterflies or dragonflies, it is possible to shoot a single frame. If the aperture is closed, the depth of field will be sufficient. But as we go into detail, as the magnification increases, we will need 3, 5 or 15 shots.

We don’t need much more photos because we can’t really get 3X-4X magnification handheld. You can predict problems such as vibration, focus, lack of light. In the case of low-magnification, there is rarely a need for 15 frames.

Dung fly

Picnic day
We have a picnic in our garden the day the photo was taken

Flies from the scatophagidae family are called dung fly. They attract attention immediately with their furry appearance and yellow color. I was busy taking pictures of the children in the garden when I noticed the fly in the bushes behind the chair. A few minutes later, when I looked at the same place, I saw the fly still there and said “maybe” and got my Rodagon WA 40mm lens. If we use this lens with a complete set of tubes, the magnification is about 3X. The fly was fully filling the frame.

I don’t usually exceed F11 to avoid losing sharpness. I choose F11 again. The depth of field is still very small, so I’ll need plenty of pictures to use in the focus stack. I have to keep the number of pictures as much as possible, since a stable frame and focus control can’t be done in 3x handheld. And I hold my breath and dive. Diving into a macro shot is like putting your head in the water. I’m holding my breath and sticking my eye in the viewfinder, and I’m trying to get a lot of pictures and finish the job as soon as possible. Insects are not as patient and eager as we are. It’s important to work fast. The fly continues to sit without fear of the flash. I’m lucky. I look at the EXIF information: 23 shots within 40 sec. Now I take a deep breath and relax.

In the case of hand-held focus-stack work, this “head-down” means a single stack array. Because when you bend over again, it’s hard to catch the exact same angle. Photos with a perspective slide will not be merged in focus stacking process. So it’s a good idea to get the whole shooting sequence at once.

If we notice a problem with the sequence after using the LCD screen on the machine or if the number of shots is insufficient, and if the insect is still there, it will have to be done from the beginning. These dives combined with hot weather make you sweat. During the control process, we can breathe a little and try again. But it’s ok, I don’t need to repeat this time. The series looks good. But I can try other angles … And I do. Shooting continues with several different framings. Finally I thank the fly and go to the picnic table.

On the computer

In fact, we can’t find out what we have before we went to the computer. Even if we try hard with dozens of shots, out of focus areas are often encountered. In handheld macro photography, the chance factor plays an important role. We select the amount of photos instinctively during shooting. Now I have 23 photos of the same series.  When I review them, my face laughs. There is no missing focus in critical areas. But the framing differs a lot. So I almost gave up this photo. There are so many photos that I give up and throw away like this. I decide to give it a try this time. After half an hour, I have a series of photos that I cannot combine. I get angry and I  shut down the computer without saving the work.

The next day I decided to write this article. This photo was a good example to illustrate the challenges. So I went back to the computer and started again.

Raw focus stack sequence

RAW-JPEG conversion does not require much intervention. A few sensor dust spots, a little exposure compensation. Then you’ll have to rename the files to sort them from front to back according to the focus position. Focus stacking programs work better this way. It is a distressing job that needs some attention. Some of them are focused on the same area. We need to delete them. I continue choosing the better one and discard the other. At the end of the process, 23 photos fall to 13. Usually half of them goes to the trash. Now I change the file name of all of them. When naming, it doesn’t matter whether we use alphabetic dictionary order or the numerical. The important thing is that the files are sequential.

Stack sequence with JPEG conversion, sorted by sharpness

The most difficult part of the work is the continuously changing frame. The perspective changes when the framing changes. The focus stack programs either fail completely or cut off the others according to a frame it chooses. Photoshop is a bit more successful in these situations. But it’s best to use both programs together and do it manually. No laziness.

We can better understand if we watch the series as animation.


I first combined the compatible frames with Zerene, and then manually moved only the needed regions from the problematic ones using Photoshop. I have to admit it took a while. But it’s a pleasurable process for me to watch something come out while I’m doing it. After all the pieces have been merged, I’m still going to call it “raw.”:

Depth of field combined, but not yet processed

It doesn’t look bad. But there are some problems. In the lower left corner, there are vertical lines created by missing frames under the right leg. Tone transitions are a bit harsh. And the beetle didn’t have a shower this morning, it is pretty dirty! We solve these problems by retouching with Photoshop. We don’t exaggerate, it won’t be nice if we spoil the natural look. If we add a signature, the picture is ready to be shared:

Dung fly
Completed focus stackk

Most of the time I don’t make this much magnification in handheld photography. I work in 0.5X-2X low magnification range. Then it’s a lot easier. Framing problem is not happening much. As the depth of the field is larger, it is possible to quickly combine 3-4 photos.

Good luck 🙂

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