Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fun with Focus Stacking

Cover image for my 2017 mini-calendar
comprising 25 exposures combined

When I set out to create this year's mini-calendar I didn't know exactly what I wanted to shoot, but I knew whatever it was would be small, because I had been waiting for an excuse to experiment with focus stacking, and this was it. Here was my chance to make some whimsical macro and close-up art. All that was required was the acquisition of some software -- I chose Helicon Focus, which, as they explain on their website, "selects focused areas from multiple source images and combines them into one perfectly focused image," -- and a sliding rail on which to mount my camera to facilitate taking a perfectly aligned series of pictures focused at progressively closer points. 

The first image I envisioned, and the one that became the calendar cover shot, was of a marble which would act sort of as its own fisheye lens. The two biggest challenges with this shot were 1) finding a clear marble, harder than you'd think now that schools don't allow these formerly (way back in my day) ubiquitous toys, and 2) dealing with the fact that not only did the bouquet of flowers placed behind the marble show up, as planned, but so did everything else around the bouquet -- everything! I couldn't even use the lighting I'd wanted to because the light itself was clearly reflected in the marble. Problem 1 was solved by rifling through my son's toys -- I knew I'd seen a clear marble in there somewhere -- and Problem 2 was solved by using available light and basically moving pieces of fabric around until everything that appeared in the marble worked.

The next challenge was aligning the capabilities of the software with my creative vision. Without really understanding how the software worked, I thought I might create something even more visually interesting by not only adjusting the focus in each exposure but also repositioning the bouquet of flowers for each exposure, thereby creating a kind of collage of flowers inside the marble instead of a straight image of them. Upon running the software, however, I realized when to my great surprise I got this

Screwed up attempt at focus stacking

that the software clearly relies upon perfectly repeated and properly aligned copies of all the elements in the overall image. So, so much for the collage idea. And, although I hadn't wanted, or anticipated needing to do much in the way of Photoshop work, no matter how much I adjusted the camera angle, a large portion of the marble was taken up by a reflection the dark bowl of the spoon,

The marble sitting right down in the spoon didn't work.

so I had to raise the marble out of the bowl by inserting a piece of Fun Tak underneath it, and this required retouching to remove it. (Note the limited depth of field in the image above, pre-focus-stacked.)

Fun Tak holding up the marble had to be retouched out.

None of the other calendar shots required as much fussing around as the marble shot did. 

The inspiration for this shot of a fly fishing lure was my fishing crazed son's growing collection of flies. Some of them are absolutely tiny. Big shout out to Drift Outfitters and Fly Shop, the ultimate resource for anglers, surprisingly within walking distance of the studio.

I collected the grasses by the alley outside and set this up in studio.

My husband brought me a few of these miniature clothes pegs he collected on an Austrian Airlines flight. They came with the evening meal to facilitate attaching the dinner napkin to a person's shirt. I used one to hang a small cluster of berries (I found in another alley nearby) on a tiny clothesline I fashioned in studio.

The miniature clothes peg is only about an inch long.

My son's gem collection provide me with the subject matter for this shot, along with a tiny matt I wove out of flowers and grasses and pieces of ribbon and wool. The matt worked as a background for this shot, thankfully, because I just couldn't make it work on its own as I'd originally planned.

The label for this crystal was lost so I don't know what it is, but I knew it would make a good picture.
My tiny hand woven matt.

Final thought: although I have long leaned towards a more selective focus aesthetic, I found it fun and refreshing to create sharper than naturally possible images of small objects using this new (for me) technique.

To see all my 2017 calendar images (and to see them bigger) click here.

And if you'd like me to create some sharp, close-up work for you, drop me a line at

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