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How I use focus stacking and hdr in landscape photography

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  • How I use focus stacking and hdr in landscape photography

    Focus Stacking (FS) is a well known technique used in macro photography that consists in take several exposures of the same subject each focused on a different plane. The images are then recombined to create a single image with the entire subject in-focus, nice and sharp.
    It is only recently that I learn FS is used sometimes in other kind of photography and I wanted to try to add this aspect in my usual workflow for photographing landscapes.
    My usual setup involve having the camera mounted on a solid tripod and ifor the camera setting I tend to use the lowest ISO possible, a narrow aperture (f/11 to f/16) to achieve a great depth of field, remote shutter or self-timer 2seconds and manual focusing using the live view function of my camera. I usually focus 1/3 into the scene and let the DOF do the rest to try to get the most of the photo in focus. Problem is, it is difficult to get all in focus and nicely sharp because very narrow apertures can degrade the image quality due to light diffraction. Plus, usually most of the lenses out there performs at best when used around f/8.
    So I decided to wet my feet with focus stacking and step out the door looking for some great sunsets. The final result is this:
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    Camera: Canon EOS 50D
    Lens: Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6
    Aperture: f/8
    Focal: 10mm
    Shutter speed: 1/125 (for exposure 0 EV)
    ISO 100
    Tripod and self-timer.
    Bracketing -2, 0, -2 EV

    The Photo and How i took it.
    We are in the old battlefield of Waterloo (Belgium), near the Butt du Lion, an artificial hill with a big statue of a lion on top, to commemorate the the location where William II of the Netherlands was knocked from his horse by a musket ball to the shoulder during the battle. Aside this monument with the adjacent museum, the battlefield is now cover by crops and other cultivations and some secondary (or low) roads circling the fields. I compose this shot in a quite classic way: low point of view, using the cracked road to lead the viewer eyes into the frame, with a big lonely tree at the end of the road as focal point. The sky was quite impressive too, so I kept the horizon a bit lower to have more sky. Some flowers and tall grass on the right of the road add interest to the foreground. I am not a pro, but I think I have here all the classic elements of a good composition.

    The problem with such image is to reproduce the high dynamic range of the scene, so, as usually, I decided to go HDR and bracket -2, 0 +2 EV.

    With this in mind I took 3 series of bracketed exposures the first in focus for the foreground, the second for the central part of the frame and the last for the sky. Total 9 photos. To avoid changing in the readings of the light meter, I shot in manual mode setting a shutter speed for the uncompensated exposure to 1/125.

    How I processed it.
    Once at home I loaded the RAWs in LR 5 and applied the lens profile to all images as well as a cloud white balance to warm the colors. Then I created a default HDR image from each series, with the idea to combine then the three HDR in the final photo. And here I discovered a new problem, something I didn't know before: focus breathing. This is a common problem for most prosumer (and to a less extent pro) lenses and consists in a change of angle of view of the lens when shifting the focus. Practically it was like a zoomed in/out in between the different series of bracketed photos. At this point, software to blend different exposures like Enfuse is a dead end because of the different position of the element in the photos. Manual blending also gets tricky because it require to manually align the images.
    Photomatix PRO to the rescue. Luckily I create my HDR using Photomatix PRO and asking the program to align the frames matching features takes care of properly align the frames. The last (and the trickiest) step is to create a final image with the focus spot on across all the photo. To do this I tell Photomatix I want to manually remove ghosts, i.e. fix elements that moved from one image to the other, but instead to remove ghosts, I use this function to assign to the the foreground, middle ground and background the correspondent areas from the first, second and third source images. The procedure is a bit messy because it requires a bit of jiggling with the selections of the source for the different areas of the final image and you may need to repeat it different times before achieving the wanted results.

    Next, the resulting HDR image is further enhanced in LR (plus Topaz Clarity/Denoise plugins) to create the final image.

    A word of caution.
    I found that FS, if properly done, can create streaking images, but the effect can be tiring for the viewer: we are not used to look at a landscape and to have all in focus, nice and sharp. With some landscapes the "hyperrealism" resulting from FS can make difficult to separate the different plane of the image. If this is the case and you have not taken a "better-safe-than-sorry" sequence with a narrower aperture to have deeper DOF, you can save the day by reducing the clarity and applying a bit of noise reduction with a brush to introduce a bit of softness in the are you want to separate from the rest of the image.

    Feel free to visit my website and my flickr photostream and sets
    Last edited by auggiewren; 08-29-2013, 06:54 PM.

  • #2
    The HDR is, as often seen, extremely overdone. That's fine if that's what you like, but it's not what most people like to see.

    Focus stacking, in a situation like this, is fruitless. You mention f/8, 8mm (how you got to 8mm on a 10-20 lens is beyond me, but hey). Using the hyperfocal technique you end up with a zone of focus from 8" to infinity (focus set to 1'5"). Even changing that to 10mm (which seems more likely) gives a zone of focus from 1' to infinity (focus set to 2'1").

    So a lot more work for no real benefit. The bigger problem here is that by trying to achieve super sharp focus, and then adding the HDR effect, you're effectively shooting yourself in the foot. One of the issues with HDR is that, generally speaking, it tends to induce a certain amount of blur to an image. So you take one step forward and two back.
    I am responsible for what I say; not what you understand.
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    • #3
      Thanks for the feedback. yes, the focal length was 10mm, not 8. For the look of HDR image, this is highly subjective: I was looking for a punchy image, yet without overshoot: I don't see the classical problems of heavy hdr: no halos around the main tree or the tree line, no dark sky or gritty look.
      For the hyperfocal, with f/8 I couldn't get all in focus: the lone tree was always somehow soft when try to get also the foreground in focus.
      Finally, for the blur issue in HDR when present is a bit the price to pay, isn't it?


      • #4
        Originally posted by auggiewren View Post
        Finally, for the blur issue in HDR when present is a bit the price to pay, isn't it?
        The problem is that you're working SO hard to get everything sharp, then blurring it all up again in the HDR. As far as overdoing it: yeah, there are halos on the greenery in the foreground (and darkening around the tree in the distance). It is subjective, but it's also generally frowned-upon to go that far.

        I just think you'd been better off shooting hyperfocal at f/11 and carefully editing it to blend exposures more subtly.
        I am responsible for what I say; not what you understand.
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        500PX | Graphic Design


        • #5
          Thank you for taking the time to write this all out!



          • #6

            Osmosis is 100% correct.................


            • #7
              I have tried HDR before as well. I seemed to overdo the photos most of the time. I guess the true art is not to overdo it and still showing highlighted areas and details in the shadows.


              • #8
                I used the HDR + Focus Stack (in this order) for product photography for advertising, with a standard 18-55 mm lens and I am satisfied with the result.
                Was higher than the final image so that I got with a single exposure.
                The final photo was detailed from start to finish , in shadows and highlights , and its exact colors , just the way the public will find shopping in stores .

                As an anecdote , I felt identified with this " You mention f / 8, 8mm ( how you got to 10-20 on 8mm lens is beyond me, but hey )"; when I imported the final tiff 16 bits untouched without tone mapping to LightRoom and select canon camera option to automatically recognized me as a 10-22 mm lens, the photos were made ​​with a 18-55 mm lens.

                I guess the amount of light and detail information in that file, caused LightRoom confuse the level obtained with photos that commonly obtained with this level of lenses.

                When I have more experience and successes, I will post samples, these photos to me; are certainly the best we got so far, but I see that I missed a lot of details that eventually will be polished.

                I'm still crawling, and soon I will be running .

                Success for All.