I wrote focus stacking with my Fuji gear over two years ago. When I wrote that post in February 2021, I had a Fuji X-T2 body and two lenses, the Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR and Fujinon XF27mmF2.8. Both are very versatile lenses, but neither is a macro lens. At that time, I rented a Fujinon XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR and tried to focus bracketing and focus stacking using just the Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR. I decided to add the Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR to my kit. Somewhere between the winter and fall of 2021, I made a different decision.
Last fall, I bought a Fujifilm MCEX-16 macro extension tube. Considering how soon it followed my initial musings about acquiring the Fujinon XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR lens, the exact reasoning behind that purchase is a bit foggy now. It's quite possible I decided that spending a whopping $1,199 on a brand-new lens wasn’t my first choice. Maybe my inner self gently saying, "Hey, you probably won't be using this lens all that much". Looking back at how frequently I've used the MCEX-16, my inner self was onto something!
You know, even though I had plans to dive deeper into macro photography during the pandemic, I've only had the chance to take my MCEX-16 out for a spin a handful of times, just six. But you know what? Compared to $1,199, the $129 price tag feels well worth it. Sure, a twinge of guilt nags me for not using the MCEX-16 more, but it's certainly less than if I had splurged on the XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR. And guess what? Yesterday, I found several opportunities to brush off the MCEX-16's cobwebs. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities to come.
The tiny but amazing Lepanthes telipogoniflora orchid in my forest terrarium (the one I set up wabi-kusa style!) has gifted me a fresh new flower bud. It hasn't unfurled completely yet, but its very presence is a clear shout-out that my loving care for the terrarium is paying off, and boy, am I stoked!
I wanted to freeze this moment of victory in a photograph. The Lepanthes telipogoniflora orchid is a petite little thing, and its flowers aren't exactly billboard size either; when in full bloom, I expect the flower to be about 6-12mm wide. So I knew I needed to capture a detailed image to do justice to this little wonder.
That's when my brain lit up like a lightbulb, "Hey, why not whip out your extension tube and show off your focus bracketing skills?" So, without wasting a moment, that's exactly what I did.
Focus bracketing and focus stacking are both techniques used in photography to achieve a greater depth of field.
Focus bracketing involves capturing multiple images of the same subject, each with a slightly different focus point. The photographer adjusts the focus manually or uses autofocus at different distances, creating a series of images with different areas in focus.
Focus stacking involves using specialised software to select the sharpest areas from each captured frame, then blending them together, taking the in-focus portions from each image and creating a composite image that is entirely sharp from foreground to background. This technique is particularly useful in macro photography or any situation where achieving a deep depth of field is challenging. The result is typically a single image with an extended depth of field.
To capture the delicate beauty of the Lepanthes telipogoniflora orchid, I used my Fuji X-T3 and attached my trusty Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR lens and added the MCEX-16 extension tube. Ensuring stability, I mounted the camera onto my reliable Manfrotto tripod. I zoomed out to 55mm, set my focus point using autofocus, and switched the camera to manual focus.
Using the convenient focus peaking and focus check features of the X-T3, I set my focus point on the tip of the orchid's miniature flower. Initially, I opted for focus bracketing 60 frames with a one-step size and one-second intervals between exposures. Why 60 images?
I wanted to experiment with different compositions and ensure good depth of field overlap between each frame to prevent any unwanted blurring. By capturing a series of focal points with a step size of one, I could create a properly stacked image encompassing everything from the front of the flower bud to the moss in the background.
I had worked with JPEG images in my previous attempts at focus stacking using Photoshop. However, this time, I desired a higher resolution and the flexibility to post-process the stacked image. I decided to export the RAW (RAF) files as TIFF and import them as layers in Photoshop. Unfortunately, I encountered some challenges along the way.
I don't know what caused the issue, but the auto-alignment process never completed when I opened the TIFF files as layers in Adobe Photoshop v24.5. Despite attempting multiple times, I couldn't achieve the desired results. Naturally, I felt disappointed by this setback and knew I had to change my approach.
Before Photoshop introduced the focus stacking feature, I relied on specialised software called Zerene Stacker for my focus stacking needs. Zerene Stacker is designed to help photographers achieve greater depth of field by combining multiple images with different focus points into a single composite image that is sharp from front to back.
Zerene Stacker offers advanced algorithms and features that help align and blend the images precisely, resulting in high-quality focus-stacked images. It provides options for automatic alignment and stacking and manual control for fine-tuning the stacking process. The software offers various tools for retouching and optimising the final stacked image, such as dust and artefact removal and output options for different file formats.
Zerene Stacker is a valuable tool for overcoming macro photography's limited depth of field. It allowed me to open the series of TIFF images I exported and seamlessly merge them to create a final image with extensive sharpness throughout the subject. The fact that I could process a series of 60 TIFF images, each with a resolution of 26 megapixels, in under five minutes highlights the software's speed and performance.
I noticed that even though the resulting image looked pretty sharp, the depth of field wasn't quite what I wanted. I decided to make some adjustments. I recomposed my shot and tweaked the focus bracket settings to capture 60 images, with each step being two units apart. The results turned out much better this time around.
One important point is that frames can be set to a higher number than necessary. If the lens reaches infinity during the bracketing process, it will automatically stop, ensuring no additional frames are taken unnecessarily.
When considering the "Steps," think of it as the amount the focus shifts between each frame. This becomes particularly crucial when dealing with a shallow depth of field, as achieving a convincing stack requires a significant overlap in focus. Therefore, when shooting macro photography, it is advisable to use a smaller step number. The range of steps recommended is usually between 1 and 5, which is believed to correspond to 20% to 100% of the depth of field of a single frame. However, there is currently no official documentation from Fujifilm that confirms this.
In terms of the interval setting, adjusting it can be beneficial in specific situations. I typically use a tripod when doing macro photography. But if you are concerned about camera shake, increasing the interval between frames can help mitigate that issue. Allowing more time between shots reduces the likelihood of introducing camera shake.
After taking my initial set of photographs of the flower bud, I exercised some patience and waited for a few weeks. And my patience paid off. As I went about my routine maintenance of the forest terrarium, I noticed that the flower had finally blossomed; its delicate petals unfolded. This tiny flower measures just over 1mm in diameter, showcasing nature's intricate beauty on a miniature scale. I intend to cherish and savour its presence for as long as it graces my terrarium.