Focus Stacking Tutorial – A Quick and Easy Walkthrough to Get Started

Focus Stacking Tutorial

Have you ever wondered how photographers get those tack sharp, incredibly detailed photos? The ones with the perfect depth of field, but also have exactly what you would want to see in focus, in focus. The truth is, it’s not as hard as you may think! This technique is also a great tool to add to your skills of macro shooting and processing. This focus stacking tutorial is meant to be quick and easy to understand so you can immediately start trying this technique no matter what skill level your photography is at.

Take a look at the image of the rose with the slider below. You can see my single exposure on the left slide and my stacked image on the right. Moving the slider back and forth allows you to see the difference of a single image versus 4 stacked images. By adding just 3 additional images, I was able to add quite a bit more of sharp detail to my rose here. You can see the dew drops with much more detail in the stacked image. Let’s walk through the process now.

Preparing Your Images in the Field

The idea behind focus stacking is to be able to create an image and expand your in focus spots beyond just the single point or plane that one image is capable of. This is especially useful for macro photography, but can even be used in landscapes, nightscapes with a foreground and sky, and more. Let’s keep this simple and explain how this works. Now, let’s pretend we have a rose with 4 pedals. The goal would be to take 4 shots. One shot of each pedal with the sharpest point of each frame focused on that particular pedal. In the end, we want one photo that has all 4 pedals in focus in our entire composition/frame.

As far as the actual focusing, there are a few ways to achieve your focal points. Visualize your result!

Manually: If you are savvy with your lenses and prefer manual focus, by all means, use this method. Make sure you cover all the area you want to take shape and take too many shots if anything, you can eliminate them later if needed.

Auto Focus: Use your focal points! Moreover, even use the viewfinder to make the points. On most DSLRs, you can move your focal points with the arrow keys on the camera. This is an excellent way to keep track of where, in your shot, you have taken a shot of each focal point.

Whatever method you decide, make sure you are using a tripod. This will ensure sharp photographs and allow you to take your time as well. Next up is the post processing of the focus stacking tutorial.

Getting Started in Post

First, let’s select your images. As far as editing each image before stacking, I usually keep my edits basic as this point. Lens correction should be done in the beginning to each image being used. I want the images all looking good and very similar. Most of the time I will even edit one out of the stack in Lightroom, and then sync/paste those exact setting to the rest in my stack to ensure they all have the same look and feel.

As mentioned above, I used 4 total. 3 – 6 images will cover a lot of depth of field, especially on close up subjects like flowers, leaves, and similar sized object like that. Take note: You can do several more images. These images might be like the ones you have seen of insect heads that have extensive details on every point of the bug. For for the latter, we are keeping it simple.

For this focus stacking tutorial our goal is to get our images to Photoshop.

  • Using Lightroom: (assuming the most current version) you highlight each image you want to use, and then right click any one of them (as they are all selected) and the menu pops up immediately to show you a few options. You will select Edit In > Open As Layers in Photoshop…
  • Using Bridge: Locate your images to use within the finder of Bridge, and select them. Now at the menu up top select Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers…
  • Using Photoshop (and a folder on your hard drive): From Photoshop, go up to the menus and choose File > Script > Load Files into Stack…

All 3 methods will get you to the same beginning point inside of Photoshop! You will end up with one single document and each image you choose will be on its own layer inside of Photoshop. For example, if you selected 4 images to start with, you will have 4 layers.

After You Stack Your Photos

It’s all downhill from here! Your next step will be to select all layers. You can do this by clicking on your top layer and then holding shift and clicking on the bottom layer. This will select the top layer, the bottom, and everything in between. Now head up to the top menu and go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers…

When the box prompts you, make sure Auto is selected. There are a few Lens Correction options, that I do not select, as both vignetting and distortion should have been handled in preparing the images for stacking. Click OK.

Auto Align Layers Prompt Box

Your images were mostly likely very close to aligned, but this will ensure it and prepare us for the next quick step of this focus stacking tutorial.

Now you can immediately head back up to the menu and select Edit > Auto-Blend Layers… Another similar prompt box comes up. Choose your blend method. For stacking, we will always choose Stack Images. Below you have 2 checkboxes with the options of Seamless Tones and Colors, and Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas. Let’s check both and hit OK.

If you ever do this and notice strange artifacts, you can try unchecking these options and run this step again, with a simple Undo. I do find that this process is pretty consistent though with great results. This step takes a little bit of computer processing, so give it a few seconds or longer depending on the size of your images and computer power.

Auto Blend Layers Prompt Box
Progress Creating Layer Masks
Be patient while this step completes!

Let's Finish Up

Your layers should look similar to this after completing with each layer having a mask generated.
Your layers should look similar to this after completing with each layer having a mask generated.

That’s it! Pretty easy right?  This is also the point which you can do you final image adjustments. Let me explain what you now see in your layers panels. The top layer was generated from the previous step. It’s the “final” image. Below that, you will see your original images. Each one now has a mask, with the sharpest points of each image used to create the top (merged) layer. When looking at the masks, remember black conceals and white revels. The masked images will be equal to the top layer generate, just all together and merged.

You can use the eye icon to view one layer at a time and see exactly what parts of each layer are being used and not used.

Focus Stacking Tutorial with Final Edits
My final image after stacking with a crop and some contrast adjustments.

Now that you finished this focus stacking tutorial, you can see that this method makes it fairly easy for anyone with Photoshop to try. Give it a shot next time you have a great macro subject. Are you a fan of detailed shots? Why not head over to my Macro Gallery!