Tips for Depth of Field Control in Macro Photography

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Depth of field is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph, it varies depending on camera type, aperture and focusing distance. If you are into photography you probably already know this and how critical it is when you photograph in macro distances.

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This image was done with a 100mm macro lens with a life-size converter attached, at a distance of 4 inches to the object to achieve this type of magnification. The Depth of Field you see here is impossible to achieve, as there is no way to have the whole ring in focus with this focal length and this distance to the object.

Here are a couple of test shots to show a comparison between an f/8 and an f/32 exposure of this image:

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In this particular image f/8 would give you a very shallow Depth of Field, so if you would like to have more then f/32 would seem to be a better choice, right? But if you take a closer look, you will realize it is just not that easy.

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The magnified image shows you that f/8 has shallow Depth of Field but, because it represents the sweet spot of this lens, it gives you great detail in the focused areas. On the other hand f/32 gives you more Depth of Field, but it lacks detail overall.

This lack of detail is due to diffraction, that is the slight bending of light as it passes around the edge of an object giving the photographed image a soft focus effect. So, sharp focus and deep Depth of Field are impossible to achieve in this image due to optical limitations.

A great work-around for these limitations is Focus Stacking (also known as Focal Plane Merging, Z-Stacking or Focus Blending), which combines images photographed with different focus distances into one final image with a greater Depth of Field.

This technique is only possible if the camera, and all the elements on the image are perfectly still, so the use of a steady tripod is really important.

Another important factor is to shoot, and focus without touching the camera. In this particular image the camera was tethered with a computer and a remote shooting app was used to focus the image.

04

The best way to capture these images is to start by focusing on the closest area first, then keep shooting, making sure you cover all the focusing length (move focus farther away from the camera with each successive shot). Just use the controls of your remote trigger and app to fine-tune the focus for each shot.

The final number of shots depends on how detailed you want your image to be, but keep in mind that the more images you have, the harder it will be to process later on. This particular image was made with a merge of 21 images.

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After the images are captured it’s time to process them. There are a lot of software options on the market for focus stacking; this image was edited with Adobe Photoshop CC. Here are the steps:

  1. Open Photoshop, go on File > Scripts > Load files into a stack
  2. Select all the pictures and turn on “attempt to automatically align layers”
  3. Select all your files in the layer panel on the right side
  4. Go to edit > Auto-Blend Layers and select “stack Images”

You will end up with a stack of layers with associated masks that look something like this:

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Each layer mask reveals the best of each focused part of the image, and they can also be manually adjusted for more controlled results. The final images are usually very impressive and allow you to achieve effects that would be impossible to reach any other way.

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Ivo Guimaraes

is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

  • Eduardo Il Magnifico

    Can I ask which particular remote shooting app you used here? Is it easy to focus using a remote app? Thanks!

  • Paul

    In this example, how did you vary the focal plane? Manually changing focus or moving the camera (on a rail for example).
    I have tried focus stacking using enfuse software and it struggles to cope with the slight perspective/size changes that accompany focus breathing or camera movement. The result is that some edges become distorted.
    Have you ever encountered this and if so how do you overcome it?
    Thanks.

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  • Ronnie Day

    I would be interested to know this too. Great post btw.

    http://www.ronniedayphotography.com

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Hi Eduardo. The app used here was the EOS Utility from Canon tethered with a 5D III.
    The camera was steady and only the focus plane moved.
    Sometimes the edges get distorted like you mentioned and it happens specially with zoom lenses due to the optical elements inside the lens. In this particular image the lens used was a 100mm macro so there was not much distortion.

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Hi Paul.
    The camera was steady and only the focus plane moved.
    Sometimes the edges get distorted like you mentioned and it happens specially with zoom lenses due to the optical elements inside the lens. In this particular image the lens used was a 100mm macro so there was not much distortion.

  • Eduardo Il Magnifico

    Thanks for the info! Great article – I enjoyed it very much!

  • Ronnie Day

    Do you know of an equivalent Nikon app?

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Hi Ronnie. I believe that Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 has the same functions.
    http://www.nikonusa.com/en/Nikon-Products/Product/Imaging-Software/Camera-Control-Pro-2—Full-Version-(Boxed).html

  • Ronnie Day

    Thanks – I’ll check it out. Great blog by the way.

    http://www.ronniedayphotography.com

  • Zlatylev

    I use Helicon Focus. the software corrects for these changes automatically.

  • Zlatylev

    Is there an optical difference depending on whether you change focus, or move the camera?

  • Tim Lowe

    It is too bad that tilt-shift macro lenses are not really available to digital photographers. Nothing increases effective DOF like making the plane of focus run across the surface of the subject.

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  • Jono

    Focus stacking is definitely the route to go if you want fabulous depth of field control! The image below was a series of 11 images stacked using Zerene stacker, Nikon D300, EL Nikkor 50mm reversed on a Nikon bellows, SB 900 diffused flash. To do the actual focus plane movement I mounted the camera/bellows combination onto a modified micro focus movement from a Leitz microscope, and then manually advanced the focus between shots. Post processing was completed in Photoshop.

  • Jono

    Sorry, forgot to clarify advancing the focus. The whole rig (camera/bellows/lens) was moved at the same time on the microscope movement. Very important – I did NOT change the focus using the bellows – this would have changed the magnification.

  • ronald1216

    i cant find macro in my nikon camera

  • Brent Nora

    Macro is a lens feature, not a camera setting!
    I have the AF-S Micro NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8, but there are other ways of achieving macro capabilities which include a prime lens on your camera using a reversing ring or using extension tubes or close-up filters or macro couplers.

  • Brent Nora

    you’d change the composition of the shots with the camera movement and that won’t work for focus stacking algorithms.

  • Brent Nora

    To overcome this I used a smaller aperture, this decreased the focus breathing to a large extent so instead of using f/1.4 I used f/4

  • Brent Nora

    Digitally, ( I smile) the fact that you want such control, you need to get brave with manual control.

    The PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D is the dream lens for this purpose, manually controlling the focal plane angles and such, try it you might like it!

  • Tim Lowe

    Yeah. I don’t really consider a $2000 lens to be “available” to most photographers. For that money I could buy 3 or 4 lenses for a large format camera. And it is still very limited in what it can do. I think it has 6 or 8 deg tilt. And it only tilts in one direction. If it was the only thing I had available, I suppose I would consider it. But it’s really not practical to get camera movements in a 35mm format. Just isn’t.

  • Zlatylev

    Helicon focus explicitly corrects for this.

  • Zlatylev

    Helicon Remote shows what is in focus as you either change focus, or move the camera.

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  • ronald1216

    used to be able t get the flower in my nikon but cant find it anymore other cameras i get can do this and way better. like sony lens. or i use a magnifier works great

  • Awesome article, thanks for this. Will surely try it out 🙂

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