13 min. to read
You may have seen a similar effect in product photography, landscape, or macro shots. The application of photo stacking technology is broad, and it can make your photos much more expressive when everything is sharp. Let's explore how to do this step-by-step.
We don't usually think about it in everyday life, but our eyes constantly focus on the objects we are looking at. That is why you always see everything in focus. However, your cam just captures the moment, which means there can only be one focus point. Unfortunately, while shooting, you cannot crank such a hocus pocus to capture the sharpest foreground, middle ground, and background at once. That`s why we use focus stacking to make images as sharp as possible.
In some genres, like reportage or street photography, you don't need these tricks because the depth of field is usually sufficient if you close the aperture. In addition, you are unlikely to use a camera with a focal length of less than 35 mm for reporting.
However, focus-stacked is very common in product photography, as the client often wants to focus on several details simultaneously with one shot. This is also used extensively in genre photography, for example, to create a cinematic image that could tell a multi-layered story by focusing on different points.
To do this, you need to shoot a series of images in the same lighting conditions and from the same angle but with different focus points. Then you'll stack these images together in Photoshop, thus obtaining the maximum depth of field.
By the way, you may have noticed what people usually say about stacking images in Lightroom. But we suppose you know that this software does not allow you to work with layer masks. In order not to confuse you, we will jump ahead a bit and explain what role Lightroom plays in this process.
So, as we said, you need composite multiple images with different focuses. But everything else should be the same: exposure, angle, etc. That's why we need Lightroom. This program allows you to process images in batches, ensuring maximum realism of the final image.
To hack physics and achieve an incredible depth of field, we edit images. This process is not as complicated as it may seem (in general, photo processing, even in Photoshop, is easier than we think; there are many articles on our blog proving this). What is difficult is to properly prepare the source photos we will be working with.
First and foremost, you need a tripod. Since you will overlay one photo on top of another, all objects must be in the same place. If you make a mistake at this stage, you will fail.
In addition, we recommend releasing the shutter remotely (for example, from a phone). If you are shooting at a slow shutter speed, a slight vibration will occur when you press the button, which may change the framing slightly. It is essential that the first photo and all subsequent ones are taken from the same angle, down to thousandths of a degree.
Don't rely on autofocus. If you are shooting a still life and using a macro lens, it feels even more: due to the shallow depth of field, you must set up very carefully. That is, manual focus is your only option.
Since we have already touched on this issue, we’ll say immediately that the exposure pair and ISO value also need to be set manually. The fact is that the camera does not perfectly read the light that hits the matrix. Even dust falling on the lens can change the automatic exposure setting. Therefore, we advise you to do everything manually. We think it's more enjoyable when you control the frame.
Since you are taking photos that you want to stack later, you must know how to properly set the exposure and sensitivity.
Shutter speed does not affect focus in any way, so we must focus on the aperture in the first place. We insist that this is not aperture priority shooting but manual adjustment, but we will pay more attention to the aperture.
The first thing that comes to mind is to start closing the camera aperture. But when it is already closed “to the stop”, the objects of the foreground or background are still not sharp. How to be? You need to find the hyperfocal distance for the first photo to achieve the best result.
Let's remember what practical values the depth of field depends on and how a photographer can influence it.
From the focal length of the lens. The shorter it is, the greater the depth of field.
From focus distance. As the distance increases, the depth of field also increases.
From the aperture value. The wider the relative aperture, the shallower the depth of field.
Hyperfocal distance is the distance at which the focus will be the maximum possible depth of field, namely from half this distance to infinity. There is a unique formula for calculating this value, but now I will not delve into it (otherwise, you will read this for a very long time). Let me just say that it`s quite simple to find it on the Web. One more easy way is using special mobile apps that allow you to quickly calculate the hyperfocal distance for your lens.
So fix these settings for the first photo. Further, we will only turn the focus ring, and leave the aperture value the same.
The light sensitivity of the camera is better to set the minimum. This will significantly reduce the noise in your photos, and if you don't have enough light, just slow down your shutter speed as you are shooting on a tripod.
NB! Shutter speed matters if you're shooting in natural light. Even a minute delay can affect the amount of light that hits the matrix, as the Sun constantly changes its position. Keep this in mind when you set your exposure.
Well, it's simple. You have the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed you need. Now change the focus point to capture everything you need in sharpness.
Don't be afraid to take a lot of pictures. If you superimpose two equally sharp images on top of each other, nothing terrible will happen. It’s better to play it safe and take more shots to ensure everything will be satisfactory.
Once you have all the photos you want to stack, it's time to edit them. Now I will tell you how to stack images in Lightroom / Photoshop.
We have already said that the stacking process itself is straightforward. Now you will see that this is indeed the case.
First, upload your photos to Lightroom. Using the Grid view, select the ones to add up. Choose any image and edit it the way you like. Then select the rest of the photos and click Auto Sync to apply the same changes to them. And that's all! Lightroom stacking is over. Next, you need to work in Photoshop.
For the focus stack in Lightroom, on the taskbar, select "Photo → Edit → Open as Layers in Photoshop". This process may take some time as you are opening many layers at once. Wait a bit.
The Auto-Align Layers feature will correct imperfections such as "lens breathing" (minimal change in focal length when focusing that you have no control over). Before changing, check if the "Auto" option is set in the settings window.
Select "Edit → Auto-Blend Layers". When the dialog box opens, you can activate photo stacking here. Apply this setting and enjoy the result.
As you can see, the process of focus stacking in Lightroom and Photoshop is very simple. It is much more difficult to properly set up the camera and take the photos themselves. This is something that really takes effort and an understanding of how it works. But we hope that by following our guide, you will be able to do it without error. In the end, no matter how specific this technology is, there is nothing complicated about it.
We would also like to take this opportunity to recommend an alternative software for photo stacking in Lightroom. This is Luminar Neo, into which you can also easily upload an edited pack of photos from Lightroom.
Luminar Neo allows you to carry out all the same manipulations as Photoshop, but most of the manual operations are performed automatically, thanks to artificial intelligence. This still requires your hard work to get a decent result, but this is not about correcting photographic flaws but about creative editing.
The program also provides templates and tools that can be a great starting point for your experiments. Despite the AI and the ability to apply presets, you still have complete control over how your photos will look.
Luminar Neo is not only an excellent assistant but also a source of inspiration because the possibilities of this program and its ease of use (which is much easier than PS) awaken my imagination for creative experiments. Maybe it will inspire you too!