Macro Set-up for Focus Stacking
I have been fascinated by Macro ever since I started digital photography, partly because it takes you to places you wouldn’t normally go and shows you things that you wouldn’t normally see. After my first successful attempts at Macro Photography, I spent a great deal of time reading a lot about it and experimenting with different set-ups, in order to see how close I can get using the equipment available on the market and keeping the post-processing relatively simple. During that quest the word that was constantly coming up is ‘focus stacking’ and, as most Macro photographers would agree, in order to achieve very good results you will need to learn how to stack exposures at some point of your Macro exploration. This post will describe different kinds of Macro set-ups I have personally tested and discuss both their pros and cons. Finally, I will describe a set-up I’m currently using, which produces images you can see below.
Firstly, I have to say that you don’t really have to invest a lot of money in extra equipment in order to achieve good results. All you need to get is a true Macro lens, which is capable of 1:1 magnification. This kind of magnification is usually enough for all aspiring Macro photographers and this is exactly how I started my Macro adventure. Just remember that once you decide to buy the lens, get the one with a decent focal length such as the 105mm. I have already written about this but this is quite an important factor to take into consideration when buying a Macro lens. These lenses are usually more expensive than their shorter focal length counterparts, but the extra money you pay is definitely worth it. The longer focal length will give you a better working distance (the minimum distance between the lens and the object you are photographing). This will allow you to lit your subject sufficiently and you will also be able to experiment with external sources of light.
Once you buy and start using your first Macro lens, at some point you will probably want to get closer. There are several ways of doing that and next I will discuss some of the set-ups I personally tested.
The first and more traditional way, which probably achieves the most extreme magnification levels, are the Macro bellows. Even though some photographers are still using the bellows, I’m not going to write a lot about this set-up as I personally found it the most cumbersome and challenging of all. First of all, bellows do not include any electrical parts and do not transfer any information from the lens to the camera. There are several connectors made for older Nikon and Canon film cameras, but I couldn’t find any for the newer DSLR cameras. This means that your lens will have to be equipped with an aperture ring, so that you can adjust the aperture manually. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Macro lenses that have the manual aperture ring anymore. I have read somewhere that there is a way around that but it just makes the whole process more complicated and time-consuming. In conclusion, these are the reasons why I completely abandoned the idea of shooting with Macro bellows.
Another way of getting closer to your subject are extension tubes for Macro photography. Think of them as an upgraded and more compact version of the Macro bellows as the principle behind both is the same (distancing the lens from the camera sensor in order to achieve grater magnification). I’ve already written about them in detail and here I will only summarise the most important points. There are many brands available on the market including brand and generic names. Once you decide to buy a set of tubes, invest a bit more and buy the ones that transfer the data from your lens to your camera through electronic components. If you get cheap and simple extension tubes, you will have the same problems as with using Macro bellows and the whole process will become extremely frustrating. Again, the tubes come in different focal lengths allowing for different magnification levels and I suppose the Macro exploration stops here for most serious photographers.
If, after experimenting with extension tubes, you still want to get closer than the reversed lens set-up is an ideal solution. After testing the previous set-ups myself, I eventually decided to use the reversed lens set-up pictured below.
Obviously, the greatest disadvantage of this set-up is the cost as you will need to buy another lens. However, as you can see in the picture, I chose a very bright 50mm prime lens, which is excellent for portraits and low light situations. Eventually, I spent more money but I also gained a lens that has several other uses.
Now lets discuss this set-up in more details. The reason why I decided to use it is that it combines all the possibilities of the previously discussed set-ups. It not only offers the greatest magnification, maintaining a realistic working space, but it also allows you to change the magnification level just like the extension tubes. Once you mount the reversed lens on your Macro lens, via an inexpensive Macro coupler, you can then turn your Macro focus ring and achieve different magnification levels, without the need to take your lens off the body as in the case of extension tubes. There are many Macro couplers available on the Internet and all you need to pay attention to is the right diameter of your Macro and reversed lens.
So far I have discussed different Macro set-ups but the main focus of this post was on the lens and the accessories. Whether you decide to use the tubes or the reversed lens, you will need to learn how to stack your images in order to achieve the best result. The problem with Macro Photography is that the closer you get the more shallow the DOP (Depth of Field) becomes. This may not be such a big issue when you are only shooting with a Macro lens at 1:1 magnification but once you go beyond that level, only a small part of the image is in focus. The aperture does not completely solve this problem either. For example when you are shooting with a Macro lens with all three tubes attached, even aperture ranging from f/8-10 does not guarantee that the entire subject will be in focus. This becomes even more problematic when using a reversed lens. Of course you may argue that it isn’t always necessary to get the entire frame in focus and photographers often experiment with the DOF in order to create different effects. Yes that is true with 1:1 magnification level but, believe me, once you go beyond that and get really close, it is very difficult to get a substantial area of your frame in focus. This is the reason why focus stacking is so important in Macro Photography. Finally, you might have also noticed that I’m using a Macro rail in order to capture the images. This isn’t always necessary and you may capture the images handheld, however the rail literally makes the whole process as easy as turning a knob. When using a Macro rail, just make sure that each time you take a picture you move the rail maintaining the same intervals between each shots. For exmple if you moved the rail by 0.5mm between images 1 and 2 then move it by 0.5mm between images 2 and 3.
So, what is ‘focus stacking’? I’ve already written a post about Focus Stacking in Photoshop but recently I started using Zerene Stacker to stack my images. So just to summarise, focus stacking requires you to capture several images, each having a different part of the image in focus and then combining these images into one image with all the areas in focus. Zerene Stacker is available for Windows, Mac and Linux and is really easy to use. Whether you use Photoshop or Zerene Stacker, the process of capturing the images is essentially the same. In order to stack your photos into one picture, you need to capture several images with different parts of the frame in focus. Like I said, you can do it handheld or you can use a macro rail. The rail makes it easy to align and stack the images, since all of them are composed in the same way. When shooting handheld, you have to be careful to compose the pictures in the same way. If this is still not clear, read my post on Focus Stacking in Photoshop for sample images.
Once you have your images ready, launch Zerene Stacker. Then, simply drag-and-drop all your images onto the Input Files area.
Next, go to Stack and select Align & Stack All (Both). This will start the stacking process and produce two output images stacked with two different methods.
Once the stacking is over, the output images will appear in the Output Images area below the Input Images. Usually the software produces great results but you can also retouch your images manually. Simply go to Edit and select Start Retouching.
Retouching in Zerene Stacker works pretty much the same as the cloning tool in Photoshop. The output image will appear in the window on the right and the source image will appear in the window on the left. Of course you can change the source images all the time and clone different parts of them onto the source image. Also, you can scale both windows in order to fine-tune even the tiniest details. Once you are happy with the result, go to Edit and select Commit Retouching.
Finally, to save the output image, highlight it and go to File and select Save Output Image(s).
Remember that post-processing is also an important part of this kind of photography. In order to improve the quality of your image, increase the sharpness, clarity, saturation and work on the curves.
This almost brings us to the end of this post. However, before I go, I would like to mention several challenges you should be aware of if you chose to adopt the Macro set-up I’m currently using. Firstly, you need to realise that with such magnification levels, even the slightest movement can affect your images. Therefore, it is very useful to use a tripod and a Macro rail. However, sometimes even this isn’t enough as the mirror of your camera can also generate camera shake when flipping. That’s why it’s important to shoot with the Mirror-up mode enabled and trigger the shutter with a remote. Secondly, light is also very important and you need to make sure you lit your subject properly. Since you will be shooting with an f/8 aperture, there won’t be much light getting into the lens. Therefore, it is very important that you shoot outside on a sunny day and take advantage of the available light as much as you can. If you are using a tripod, the Macro rail and a remote, the set-up should be stable enough to lower the shutter speed to 1/50s, provided there isn’t much wind and/or you are shooting indoor. If you are shooting outside with a slight wind, you will need to increase your shutter speed to at least 1/150s and use a speedlight or two. However, I always try to use the available light and only fill the dark areas with the speedlight. Finally, it is almost impossible to capture several images for focus stacking on moving insects. That’s why many photographers do that in the early morning, when the temperature is still quite low as the insects tend to be immobile in order to save energy. I have seen photographers capable of capturing several handheld images for focus stacking which is very difficult. I have also seen people with macro rails on a tripod early in the morning capturing natural light exposures for macro stacking without any additional light using extendable arms attached to the tripod in order to fix the object in position and prevent the wind from moving it. Unfortunately, I’m not an early bird so I often capture the insects, put them in a fridge for a few minutes and then capture the images when they are not moving. Since the insects are not moving, I have more time to set up lights as I’m shooting indoors. In the past I used to use the Nikon R1C1 wireless system but now I’m only using it when shooting outside. When indoors, I use two SB-900 speedlights which I can position wherever I want. You have to hurry up though as, once their temperature goes back to normal, they come back to life and fly away.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this post and will try Macro photography yourself soon. If you are interested in exploring the basics of Macro photography and this post sounds too technical to you, you may want to read my previous posts: Macro Photography for Beginners and Advancing your Macro Photography.
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Disclaimer: No insects were harmed while taking these photographs. They all came back to life and flew away when I finished photographing them.