Focus Stacking – Everyday Photographer


Focus Stacking, What is it and how difficult?

A review of Helicon Focus software for the everyday photographer. HeliconSoft_logo_text

Helicon Focus is focus stacking software that is user friendly with an intuitive interface. This makes it easy for the average photographer to use.  You’ll get beautiful results at the default settings but it also has the capacity to micro adjust settings, satisfying the most critical professional. This review is directed toward those photographers desiring to increase depth of field and drama in landscapes and other non-macro photographs.

Ever wonder how professional photographers get the detail in their images so sharp, from foreground to background? Most of us are aware that by stopping down the lens as far as possible we obtain a greater depth of field. However, that brings issues of diffraction and distortion into the equation. Focus stacking is an excellent technique for overcoming this.

Most of the literature and software dealing with seemingly complex photographic techniques like focus stacking that I’ve found is directed at professional and advanced photographers. But, what about the average person? I thought I’d provide some info for the rest of us.

Fortunately, HeliconSoft has developed Helicon Focus – focus stacking software that has the effectiveness and detail essential to the most discerning professional, and yet its creative design is easy to use for everyday photographers. Focus stacking is not only useful for macro photography, but also for creating dramatic landscapes.

So, what is focus stacking? Simply put, focus stacking consists of a composite of two or more images of the same subject created with different areas of focus. It’s an extremely effective way to increase depth-of-field. I believe it useful for more than extreme instances as it can improve the end result of many, otherwise bland photos.

Wikipedia — “Focus stacking (also known as focal plane merging and z-stacking or focus blending) is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field (DOF) than any of the individual source images.”

At its simplest, a series of photos are taken of a subject, each with a different focal point ranging from closest to furthest. Then, through the magic of digital processing, the images are blended together with the result being a composite of all that includes pin-sharp focusing throughout the entire image.

Digital Camera World once described a 9-step process for focus stacking using Photoshop. Sounds like a lot of drudgery doesn’t it?

But what if it can be accomplished with a couple of clicks of your mouse? This is where Helicon Focus comes in.

This is how I use Helicon Focus.

Make sure your digital camera is set to manual for both focus and exposure. This gives you the accuracy and control required for the best result when shooting for focus stacking. Instructions on shooting for focus stacking

Helicon Focus supports RAW, 8-bit and 16-bit Tiff, Jpeg files.  I shoot with Sigma cameras and convert files to 16-bit Tiff simply because I like the results with Sigma Photo Pro.

Then it’s on to Helicon Focus where I

  1. Import the images into Helicon Focus
  2. Click on “Render” (I haven’t had reason to change the default settings)

That’s it. I save the resulting file in the format of my choice and I’m done. (Tiff, Jpeg, DNG)

Once the images are imported you have the option for including or excluding each.

When the program has completed rendering the images (very fast processing), you have options for excluding one or more of the imported images and rendering again, retouching, adding text or saving.

The following examples are from my first-time use of Helicon Focus.
This further indicates how easy it is to use for extraordinary results.

Here’s a slide show of the 3 images I used for a Lily photo. Note how each has a different point of focus.

Now, the result after Helicon Focus has rendered all three into one blended image.

Helicon Focus has no limit on the number of images that can be used. The software automatically, and accurately, aligns each, identifies the focal points and blends them together.

Here’s a slideshow of some other, regular images, I’ve done that have been vastly improved by using focus stacking and Helicon Focus. As you’ll see, you have complete control over what is, and what is not, in focus.

Focus stacking with Helicon Focus is not only great for macros but also for ensuring that broader, more expansive images are sharp from close foreground to infinity.

I’m not a fan of proprietary, subscription products, nor of overpriced non-subscription software. HeliconSoft products are reasonably priced, well supported and can be purchased on an unlimited basis. Helicon Focus is user-friendly with an intuitive user interface that is quickly learned and mastered. There’s a multitude of tutorials on the HeliconSoft website as well as a  full help manual in PDF.

This is my initial review of Helicon Focus. The Pro version of Helicon Focus has the capability to create 3-D views of images. I’ll add a review once I’ve had time to properly assess it. There’ll also be a review of HeliconSoft’s product Helicon Remote after I borrow a system that is compatible with it.

For those of you who are using the Adobe products, Helicon Focus smoothly integrates with Lightroom and also has the capability of RAW-in-DNG-out. If you’d like to learn more about Helicon Focus, visit to read a number of other reviews that may be directed more toward the professional or advanced amateur photographer.

Helicon Focus comes with an extensive list of features and performance:

  • Accurate rendition of colors
  • Efficient and easy RAW development
  • State-of-the-art processing algorithms
  • Advanced interpolation options
  • Multi-core processing
  • Stack length is no more a limit
  • 64 bit support
  • Getting the maximum of your processor
  • RAW-in-DNG-out mode
  • Smart retouching
  • Helping grid
  • Scientific scale

Professional Workflow Tools include:

  • Split and enqueue stacksCommand line
  • Smooth integration with Lightroom (Or stand alone)
  • Can be coupled with Helicon Remote
  • Helicon 3d Viewer
  • Creating a micropanorama
  • Batch Processing Capability

For more information and to see breathtaking macro photography using Helicon Focus, visit their website.

Watch for my review on Helicon Remote after I borrow a compatible camera system and try it.


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