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.
Great article with good info. Only problem was the camera background which made it annoyingly difficult to read the text
August 1, 2013 at 9:40 am
Just ordered my coupler. Cant wait to try attaching my 50mm 1.4g to my 105mm f/2.8
one thing i dont understand though, the 50mm is a G lens, so how do you get the aperture wide open before sticking it on the 105mm ?
August 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm
Good question, I forgot to mention that. In order to get the maximum aperture on your reversed lens, you will need to use a piece of paper to block the metal slider that controls the aperture. Just take a small piece of paper, fold it few times and stick in into the gap that drives the metal slider. Very easy to do.
August 10, 2013 at 11:30 am
Thanks for this post! I’ve been doing purely automatic focus stacking so far, and now I realise that I need to look at the retouching options.
What are your opinions on moving the camera on a rail vs changing the focus? I’ve been doing my focus stacks using MagicLantern, which allows me to keep the camera static on a tripod and take a range of pictures at different focus settings, but I’m not sure whether that introduces distortion.
January 29, 2016 at 2:07 pm
I had poor results with changing the focus on the lens in the past so I’m using a macro rail now and change the focus by adjusting the rail manually. I’ve seen people using custom made macro rails that can be programmed to move automatically but I’m too stupid to build one. I’m using a Manfrotto rail which I tweaked as the scale on the rail is difficult to read. I made my own scale from grid paper and wrapped it around one of the adjustment knobs. Then I attached a needle to it so I can read the scale. I noticed that moving the rail by 1mm each time is enough at f/8+
January 30, 2016 at 4:00 am
Thanks for the reply! When you say you got poor results with focus adjustment, what was the problem? Inaccurate focus, warping of the image, difficulty in stacking the pictures well, or something else?
January 30, 2016 at 3:40 pm
I had problems with focus accuracy mostly as I was adjusting the focus ring manually. Then when I was stacking the images, I got a message in Zerene Stacker saying the images do not have the same intervals. It may not be a problem for you as you are using in-camera software to adjust focus.
January 31, 2016 at 8:52 am
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What was your working distance like with the 105mm with a 50mm attached? I’m thinking of getting the 85mm macro, but I want to make sure my working distance won’t become a problem due to the decreased focal length. Thanks!
January 9, 2017 at 12:33 pm
The working distance I had when mounting a reverse 50mm on 105mm was very short (approx 15-20mm). Since then, I sold my 50mm lens and got a microscope objective lens (Mitutoyo x5 and x10) and use my 105mm + 2x teleconverter as a tube lens. I get much better and sharper results.
January 10, 2017 at 11:26 am
Okay, thanks. Did you have any problems with lighting the subject due to such a close proximity? I assume macro LED ring lights are not possible due to the reversed lens (ie: no filter threads).
Also…just curious to see if you think this setup would work with an 85mm f/3.5 macro by nikon? The normal working distance on a 105mm is 6″ and on the 85mm its 5.5″. I’m worried that the focal point will then become INSIDE the front element… 😦
January 11, 2017 at 4:14 am
I used two speedlights (on the left and other on the right or sometimes one from top and another from left or right) and triggered them remotely with a SU800 commander. In the past I used the built in flash in commander mode to trigger the speedlights but, since you are taking several exposures in progression, the flash often overheats. I could position the strobes close to the subject since they were triggered remotely. Since the working distance was very close, I couldn’t use my regular circular diffuser so I had to think of something else. I used an A4 sheet of paper cut in half which I wrapped around the reversed lens and made it extend beyond the lens forming a tunnel, leaving the bottom of the tunnel open so I could slide in my little tripod with the insect on a thin needle. Then I positioned the two speedlights close to the tunnel diffuser. I hope this makes sense.
As for the 85mm, if you mount the 50mm reversed on it I don’t think the focal point will be insight the 50mm lens. The 50mm has internal focusing so if you look at the back of the lens and move the focus ring, you will notice that the back element goes a little bit inside the body of the lens. Just keep it extended towards the back of the lens.
Another problem I had, which was really annoying, was how to control the aperture of the 50mm reversed lens. This is tricky and what you need to do to get best results is to step down the reversed lens and keep the 105mm or 85mm wide open. Now there is no aperture ring on the 50mm but there is a small metal slider which the camera uses to control aperture. I used a small piece of paper to put the slider in the right position and block it to stay like this. By default, Nikon lenses, when removed from the body, are always wide open. If you use the 50mm reversed wide open you will get really bad results due to aberration and the image will be too soft. So I figured that leaving the slider bang in the middle will get me aperture setting from of refraction or aberration. There are ways to calculate the right aperture for your reversed lens but like I said it’s very difficult to actually set the reversed lens to exact aperture.
Anyway, see for yourself. This is my reversed lens set-up with a x2 teleconverter. It’s not perfect but ok for start. As you can see I skipped a few steps with my manual Manfrotto macro rail.
This is Mitutoyo microscope objective. Much sharper and detailed.
Finally, there is a very good website with all the info you need about different setups:
Good luck with your set-up and let me know how it works.
January 11, 2017 at 6:24 am
Wow, those are some amazing shots! I actually bought the 50mm f/1.8D (not G), so I have an aperture ring to avoiding the troubles you mentioned. I’ll give everything a shot next week when I get my lenses, and let you know how it goes. Even if the 85mm isn’t the right chose and the 50mm won’t work…at least I have a good general pupose/portrait lens, and I think the 85mm is better outside a studio environment anyway.
I was looking at those microscopic lenses that you mentioned….they are a butt-ton of money! What magnification did you use/buy for that last image above, and how much did it cost you? Can you find those lenses used anywhere?
January 11, 2017 at 2:08 pm
Oops…okay, I saw your setup when I clicked on that picture. I’m seeing the lowest prices on eBay. Any other suggestions? And last question…what adapter do you need to attach the microscopic lens? Thanks!
January 11, 2017 at 2:15 pm
I now use two Mitutoyo objectives x5 and x10 magnification. I really like them as they are pretty sharp and have a very long working distance of 2cm! I bought them second-hand on American E-Bay for around $350-380 each and my girlfriend brought them so that I didn’t have to pay any import duty. However, it took me a while (3 months) to find these magnifications in good condition since x5 and x10 are the most popular in macro photography. Forget about new ones since they are close to $800! Also, the problem is that most sellers who sell them are not providing any guarantee that they are going to be sharp and clear since most of them have been recovered from damaged microscopes. However, you in most cases you have 10 days to return them.
Thera are also other brands which are cheaper such as Nikon CFI Plan x10 (apparently the sharpest of all) or the so called Nikon metallurgical objectives which I think are replacement objectives. Anyway, I saw a few very cheap ones from China which may be knock-offs but since they are cheap you may get one to see if this kind of photography is for you. Just make sure you get an infinity objective:
To mount such an objective in front of a lens you need an adapter. There are two types: M25 (for Nikon) and M26 (for Mitutoyo) since they have different size of thread. All of these adapters attach to the front of a 58 size lens so then you need to use step up/down adapter rings to match the size of your lens.
Finally, to get the best result and sharpest image you need to use a 200mm lens (may be a zoom lens) as a tube lens since these objectives are infinity focused. This can be expensive due to the fact that 200mm on any lens doesn’t come cheap. I use the 105mm + x2 teleconverter which gives me more than 200mm but it’s fine. I also saw people using Sigma and Tamron zoom lenses extended to the max 200mm and it also works. Another alternative is to use the infinity focused microscope lens with the inexpensive Raynox macro lens as a tube lens mounted on a bellows. This is probably the cheapest option but quite bulky.
Anyway, if you are thinking of trying extreme macro, I would suggest to start with x5 magnification and then move to x10. Other more powerful objectives such as x20 and x40 are extremely difficult to handle.
Have fun with your set-up.
January 11, 2017 at 3:18 pm
Okay, thanks for the great information. I’m currently in China working, and am trying to pick up everything that I need to get started during my next home visit to the USA. It’s crazy expensive to have anything shipped to China!. I’ve done a good amount of macro, but never more than 1:1…..And, never any stacking (I’ve watched some youtube videos on how to do that in lightroom).
I’m probably going to have to wait on the microscopic lens until then next-next home visit, since these are a lot of things to buy at one time. I looked at what you did with the 2x TC and a 105mm macro lens, with the reversed 50mm lens, and I think I can get that all set up for about $600 (I found some good deals with used equipment from B&H).
I bought the 50mm for $90 and found an old Nikon 2x TC for $60. Now it’s either the 105mm macro which is around $550-650 used, or the 85mm f/3.5 macro which is around $350-$400 used. I just realized right now that you were using a 105mm on your FX…..I have a DX sensor (D7200), so I should be fine with an 85mm (=127mm), adding the 2x TC……right? …Regarding the working distance.
Ha…thanks again for all your input!
January 12, 2017 at 7:22 pm
No worries. That’s funny because I’m also based in Suzhou, China.
Try the reversed lens setup first to see if you like this kind of photography as it’s far more challenging than 1:1 macro, in my opinion. Once you master it, then you can move on to microscope objectives. I’m not sure if a 85mm + 2x TC will work as a tube lens on DX sensor to achieve 200mm focal length. I think I read somewhere that the focal length of a lens is always the same on DX and FX sensor but on DX you get a different field of view and the image is zoomed in as if it was taken with a lens of a grater focal length but the actual focal length of a lens is unchanged. With microscope objectives you really want to get 200mm. I’m not sure if that’s correct though so you will need to do more research.
However, your DX sensor will offer you even grater magnification with the reversed lens setup than an FX sensor. I often use the 1.2 and 1.5 crop modes on my camera for grater magnification. Also, you could use some inexpensive extension tubes instead of a teleconverter. However, a teleconverter will multiply the magnification level of your 1:1 macro lens and is much shorter than extension tubes. You can also use it in the field when shooting 1:1 macro. So for example when I use my 105mm + x2 TC in the field, I get 2:1. If I wanted to get than with extension tubes, they would have to be as long as my lens. Anyway, your 1:1 macro lens + x2 TC + reversed lens on a DX camera should give you more than 3:1.
The camera and lens setup is one thing. You will also need to use a good macro stacking rail and stacking software. WeMacro, a company based in Shanghai, sell quite a decent macro stacking rail and it’s way cheaper that the popular and extremely expensive Cognisys Stackshot. I’m quite happy with my rail and you can control it with a smartphone/tablet via bluetooth. You can buy it on TaoBao. Another reason why I like it is that the app offers many customisable settings like the number of shutter releases and the delay between them. This, coupled with your camera’s mirror-up mode, allows you to completely eliminate camera shake. So my typical workflow is this: Cycle initiated remotely with app – one second delay – shutter 1st release to put the mirror up – one second delay to disperse camera shake caused by the mirror – shutter 2nd release to capture the image – rail moves 1 step – 1 second delay to disperse shake caused by rail – repeat cycle.
Alternatively, you could use a manual stacking rail such as Manfrotto or Novoflex but they make the whole process more time consuming and it’s much easier to skip steps when using them.
Finally, the most popular dedicated stacking software: Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus. I never used Lightroom but Photoshop also stacks images well. I sometimes use it to stack smaller sequences if Zerene produces weird ghosting and other anomalies. Stacking images well is a whole different story.
And then, there are also things you need to know about how to prepare insect specimens for stacking since extreme macro is mostly done with dead insects. I have seen few images with 3-5:1 magnification done on live insects but that’s extremely difficult and usually requires a special temperature changer to keep the bugs still.
Anyway, give it all a try and let me know how how you manage. Do you share your photos anywhere (Flickr, 500px etc)?
January 13, 2017 at 3:07 am
That’s a bunch of great info! So I got pretty much all my gear now. Have scrapped the tele component, cuz I got one, and stacking it with the 105mm+reversed 50mm gave me some crazy blurry images. It’s almost certainly due to me not being able to control the camera shake, so I’ll need some practice. I’m visiting my parents in the US for a month, and they have wood floors, so it’s literally impossible to control the camera/subject movement. So, I think for now i’ll stick with the 105mm macro+reversed 50mm 1.8D. This setup has given me some pretty awesome magnification….much more than I’ve gotten previously.
I also upgraded my camera since I’m back in the US (D7000->D7200), so I’m hoping I’ll have some more options when it comes to cropping (an extra 8MP to work with).
Yeah, for focus stacking I’m using the manfrotto rail that you have pictured above, and the lightroom/photoshop stacking process (I watched some YouTube videos on how to do it). I’m going to purchase a couple of the Wimberley Plamp II ‘s to hold some LED lights for lighting and holding the subject….I think it’ll be the most versatile and cheapest way (I don’t want to have to buy new strobes right now). I used one of those cheap LED flashlights and I think it might be sufficient if I have 2 of them with a daylight balanced bulb for in the room where I’m shooting (I have a spare room in my house).
That’s awesome that I can get some stuff via Taobao, since it cost a ridiculous amount of money to get things shipped from the US to China. After I get a feel for things with what I got, I’ll check out that electronic macro stacking rail.
No, I don’t post my pics yet, but I suppose I should. I’ll let you know how things go.
January 21, 2017 at 6:22 pm
I was wondering which teleconverter you are using. You seem to have gotten pretty good results. I got a used Tamron 2x teleconverter for $20 on B&H, but the results are not of acceptable sharpness. …..Like not even close. I saw another 2x teleconverter for like $300. Would this one make a significan difference? I’m new to the use of these things. The 105mm macro + 50mm f/1.8D has been producing some pretty cool images, but the extra reach you can get with the tele 2x makes a big difference. Let me know what you think.
February 25, 2017 at 8:24 am
I’m using a geniune Nikon Tc-20 EIII teleconverter. It’s pretty sharp and doubles your focal length (and macro magnification). Some people say that teleconverters affect image quality but when I compare two images side by side (with and without TC) I can’r really tell the difference.
February 25, 2017 at 11:10 am