Landscapes can be such an intricate place full of the smallest details that you would never want your audience to miss out on, but quite often they do. I think we can all agree that the most important piece of any image is composition, but I believe focus and depth-of-field is in a close second place. These two elements are vital to directing your audiences eye to or throughout a specific place in your image. One of the biggest mistakes that I made early on in my career as a landscape photographer is the misunderstanding of the depth-of-field & aperture relationship. My understanding was that as my aperture gets larger, I obtained a greater and sharper depth-of-field. So essentially my mind was thinking two things: F16 is more depth than F8, which was true., but my other thought was completely wrong. I thought that if I shot my landscapes at the highest aperture, say F22, my foreground to background would be take sharp due to the large depth-of-field. This was completely wrong for two reasons. First, if I’m focusing on a foreground only a few inches in front of my lens, and still wanted the background to be in focus, there is no aperture large enough perfectly create that scene. Secondly, there is actually a point on lenses that after a certain aperture, say F16, the sharpness actually starts to become softer. Ouch, right? So, what is the solution. Focus stacking is. So let’s talk about what focus stacking is, how to shoot a focus stack in the field, and how to put together the images in Lightroom and Photoshop.
What is focus stacking?
Focus stacking is a method in which you take several images of a scene via tripod and change your focus point throughout the set of images from the closest foreground to the furthest background. You then take these images into post processing and utilize tools within Lightroom and Photoshop to seamlessly stitch the images together and mask out any pixels that are “out of focus.” This technique results in a perfectly tack sharp image from your closest foreground to furthest background.
When do you use focus stacking?
Not every scene warrants the use of a focus stack. Sometimes having a depth-of-field that goes from soft to sharp is a create technique to draw your audiences eye to one specific area. My general rule of thumb for when I use a focus stack is this. When I am shooting extremely low to the ground (say two feet or lower) or when I’m using an element in my image to either frame or lead my audiences eye somewhere, and I want to make sure that that element is in focus as well as my subject, that’s when I use focus stacking. Essentially think about your image before you create it. Take a look at all the details within your frame and decide what you want to be perfectly sharp and what you feel you are okay with being a bit softer. It is important to note though that focus stacking is really only beneficial when you have a subject relatively close (say a few feet) and a distant background that you want to be sharp.
How do you shoot a focus stack?
The technique is simple to achieve, but involves a bit of patience and caution.
Step 1: Find your composition that you want, and compose your image on a tripod.
Step 2: Make sure any filters are in place
Step 3: Capture a test shot with the settings you wish to have for your image, I would recommend an aperture between F11 and F16.
Step 4: Focus (I use manual focus) on the point closest point to your lens. The reason I recommend starting with the closest point is although you won’t be moving your camera during your shooting, you will notice that your frame will get a bit wider the further you focus. If you compose with the furthest point focused, you may end up in a predicament as you focus closer with your composition being a bit tighter than you want.
Step 5: After you are focused on the closest part of your image (that you want in focus), take your first image. (Tip: I recommend using a cable release to trigger your shutter. This helps with not moving your camera around.)
Step 6: Move your focus point a bit further away and take your next shot. Repeat this step until you are focused on your furthest point. Be careful not to change your composition or shake your camera during these steps.
Step 7: Review your images and make sure you captured what you want!
Step 8: Celebrate and repeat
Shooting a focus stack while out in the field is quite simple, you just need to remember to do it! Some of the newer Nikon cameras have built in focus stacking. The Nikon D850, Z7 and Z6 all have this feature. Now, the camera does not put the images together for you, but you can set up a function to have it shoot a stack and automatically change the focus for you, which is super nice.
Putting the images together in post:
Once you are back home and ready to put your stack together, here’s how to do it! You will need Lightroom & Photoshop for this process. Don’t be intimidated, it’s a quick and easy process to do!