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Photoshop

Focus Stacking and Blending in Adobe Bridge and Photoshop: A How To Guide

By Matthew Saville on December 31st 2014

In this video, we’re going to give a quick tutorial on how to use Photoshop’s Auto-Align and Auto-Blend features.  We’ll be taking images captured in RAW from Nikon’s new D750 and a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, processing them in Adobe Bridge CC using the SLR Lounge Preset system which just became available for Bridge / ACR, and then blending them quickly and effortlessly in Photoshop.  The goal here is to create an extremely sharp image that includes detail at a very close distance (just a few inches from the lens), all the way to near-infinity.  Watch the video below, or keep scrolling down for a brief written outline.

Focus Stacking For Maximum Depth of Field

The Original Raw Frames

As you can see in the 100% crops below, none of the images captured include perfect focus:

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Even at f/13 on a 14mm lens, obtaining a sharp horizon / infinity and a sharp anemone at ~6-10″ away is not possible.

I could stop down to f/22, and maybe just barely pull it off, but the overall image would start to get a little softer anyway due to diffraction, thus making the point almost moot.

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When focusing to get optimal sharpness on the closest subjects, the horizon gets too blurry.

Shooting Technique For Focus Stacking

By slowly racking focus from infinity to ~10″, I have a set of 4 images that offer me perfect sharpness throughout the entire image area.

The increments that you rack focus at can vary depending on your focal length, aperture, sensor size, and desired result.  Sometimes you’ll need to create many more than just 3-4 images (especially if your lens is not as wide as 14mm!).  I highly recommend performing your own tests with your own favorite landscape lenses!

After preliminary post-production on the raw images in Adobe Bridge, we bring them into Photoshop, and layer them all together by simply cutting and pasting the last three images onto the first one. Next, don’t touch anything!  Just go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers.

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I usually leave it on “Automatic”, and sometimes I try it with Geometric Distortion turned on, sometimes off.  I did it with it on in the tutorial video, but tried it again with it turned off and I liked the results better!  Each scenario can be different, so when in doubt, see what both look like.

The next step is again to not touch anything, and just go to Edit > Auto-Blend Layers.

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This process has really been perfected in the latest versions of Photoshop CC, and I’m continually impressed with how well it can work!  Be sure to select “Seamless Tones and Colors” if it is un-checked.

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The results should look like this, with layer masks that reveal only the sharpest areas of the image, from the horizon to the foreground.  Sometimes, areas of clear sky will get a little wonky, so zoom in and check those out for telltale errors in alignment.  Ideally though, your tones should all match perfectly so there shouldn’t be any visible “seams” whatsoever.

Since the process is so easy and automated, once I check the layer masks for errors, (usually on hard edges), I’ll just flatten the image to save space on my computer, and save it as a LZW TIF file, or a PSD file.  If you save your files as TIF, you’ll be able to re-edit them a little bit in Adobe Camera Raw, which comes in handy for me personally. (Anyone who uses Lightroom exclusively can save in either format, as LR is able to handle both).

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Nikon D750, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
Dynamic Range: Single Exposure
Focus: Four-Image Focus Rack
Post-Production: Adobe Bridge CC / Camera Raw,
Vivid Base Foundation Preset & Dynamic Range +++
Minor Final Adjustments

The SLR Lounge Preset System – For Adobe Bridge and Adobe Lightroom

Our Lightroom Preset System V6 for Adobe Lightroom 5 has been met with incredibly positive response, and now it is finally available for Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw!  Like the SLR Lounge Preset System v5.1, these new Camera Raw Presets are compatible with both Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) and CS6, but not CS5 or older.

[Click Here to Buy]

These presets are used in Adobe Bridge, and the Camera Raw interface of Adobe Photoshop.

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bruce Korb

    You mentioned problems with the sky that you need to check. OK, how about problems with a flower? The issue seems to be that PS doesn’t quite know what to do when the colors at different focal distances are not crisply distinct. So, with a flower, PS often takes a cloudy, out-of-focus petal image and blends it with in focus petals. The result is very, very unnatural looking. And you cannot just paint out the blur and paint in the sharp using the generated masks. The images themselves have been “tweaked” so that the colors blend. (Turn off the masks and look at each resulting image. You can tell where the masks are based on the tweaking of the image.)

    So to the question: is there a way to fix it? How do you get a stacked image of a flower or anything else that has similar colors at different focal depths?

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  2. Graham Curran

    Excellent tutorial.

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  3. Basit Zargar

    Great Job !

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  4. Andrew Sebrell

    Is this exact same process available to those of us using Photoshop Elements (v12). I’m familiar with some of these steps but not all of them. Thanks for the tutorial.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Andrew,

      That will depend on if PSE has those two functions, auto-align and auto-blend. Look for them in the same place as I demo’d in photoshop, and let us know if you see them!

      PSE does have layer masking capabilities, that much I know for sure.

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    • Andrew Sebrell

      Thanks Matthew. They’re slightly different, but available in PSE. Now I’ll have to give your tips a go. Thanks for the tutorials again.

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  5. Peter Nord

    Is this the same as or different from, selecting the images in Bridge, then clicking Photomerge from the Tools menu?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Peter,

      That method is for creating panoramas, actually. It is critical to use the “auto-align” feature first, when stacking images that are a focus bracket, not a panorama.

      Does that help answer your question?

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    • Peter Nord

      Ok, I Matthew, tried it. You were right, different from. Got out the kid’s nesting dolls. Put three in a column. Camera on tripod, focused on near, middle, far using the 85mm that was on the camera. Dolls maybe 8 inches apart. Photomerge produced an image with but one doll in focus. Followed the instructions in the article , in Auto-Align-Layers – Photoshop produced a message that said: Warning: Could not detect camera metadata. Use the “File > Scripts > Load images into Stack…. (I’m using the latest CC version) Although I did copy and pasting, rather than cutting and pasting. Put the images in a stack. and the article’s focus bracketing method worked fine as it should. Then I got a little experimental. I tried it without auto-align, just went right to auto-blend. Guess what happened? All three in focus. You got to try it to see what happens. There’s a little focus breathing with my 85mm, but not much. Auto-align makes a small fix. If I skip auto-align, auto-blend makes a slightly different image, but if I hadn’t seen the first, I might not have noticed the difference. You gotta try it now that you made me try it. Obviously better to use auto-align. I guess the result depends on the object/subject distances and focus breathing character of the lens. And I learned Photoshop likes meta data for auto-align.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Good job on getting a lot more in depth, Peter! I always am forced to keep these types of tutorials “short and sweet” as they say, but you’ve discovered just how rules are meant to be broken, indeed.

      I’m not sure how to resolve that issue with the metadata, unfortunately; but I don’t think reading the Exif should have any relation to the ability to align images. I might be wrong, maybe it does utilize distance data transmitted by the lens, and certain lenses don’t contain / retain that data. Hmm.

      I must admit, I really only ever use this trick with wide angle shots, I haven’t yet needed to use it with telephoto lenses. I’ll be sure to share my findings if I do go down that road, though!

      =Matt=

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    • Peter Nord

      PS needed the meta data for vignette removal and/or distortion control. I just didn’t type in the whole message. Not auto-align as I noticed when I tried it again. Now I guess the thing to try is to see how much focus breathing can be tolerated.

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  6. Stan Rogers

    It just occurred to me why the focus mask is a separate selection tool in Ps CC now — they made it work properly for this first, then just added a user tool to get at it. (In older versions, it wasn’t too bad, but you usually had to change the mask a bit in at least one layer in the stack to get rid of a small patch of softness.) I really must spend more time with that tool.

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    • Matthew Saville

      So far I haven’t used this technique for much other than focus stacking for ultra-wide and moderately wide-angle lenses, but all I can say is that it seems to work flawlessly almost every time, without any need for extra tweaking!

      Color me impressed…

      =Matt=

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  7. Steven Pellegrino

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve heard about stacking for a while, but hadn’t explored it. I’m going to get out this week, take some shots and try this.

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  8. Brandon Dewey

    Thank you for the tips, Im going to try this next time I’m out and about.

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  9. Thorsten Ott

    Very nice tutorial and beautiful image!

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  10. Greg Silver

    Fantastic tutorial! Seen this type of thing done on astrophotography and results look amazing.

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  11. David Hall

    Very interesting technique.

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