The Best Focus Stacking Software: The Top Software Compared

Editor’s Key Takeaways: Best Focus Stacking Software for Perfect Photos

Focus stacked flower

This blog post delves into the process of focus stacking—merging multiple photos with differing focal points to create sharp, detailed images—and reviews the best focus stacking software of 2024.

  • Luminar Neo: Our top pick for its user-friendly interface and effective focus stacking extension. The software simplifies the focus stacking process into a few clicks, making it ideal for beginners.
  • Adobe Photoshop: Renowned for its comprehensive editing tools, robust focus stacking capabilities, and precision.
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2024: Offers powerful photo editing features combined with reliable focus stacking functions.
  • Helicon: A dedicated focus stacking software known for its efficiency in producing high-quality, stacked images.
  • Zerene Stacker: Praised for its accuracy and detailed output, particularly favored by macro photographers.

Focus stacking significantly enhances image clarity, making it a critical technique for macro and landscape photography. The reviewed software options streamline this process, offering user-friendly interfaces and advanced algorithms to achieve impeccable results.

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DSLR and mirrorless cameras allow a high level of control over our photos. We can change different settings like shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. These cameras are capable of focusing on single objects and utilizing the depth of field.

This is where focus stacking plays an important role. Focus stacking is the process of merging multiple photos with different focal points. In this article, we look at the best focus stacking software, and how the process of focus stacking works.

1. Luminar Neo (Our Pick)

Luminar Neo Focus Stacking Software

luminar neo focus stacking
Luminar Neo Focus Stacking Interface

Luminar Neo is an intuitive photo editing software known for its user-friendly interface and advanced editing tools. One of its standout features is the focus stacking extension, which excels at merging different image stacks effortlessly.

Layout and Usability

Focus stacking in Luminar Neo is designed with ease of use in mind. Here’s a simple guide to get you started:

  1. Import your images into Luminar Neo.
  2. In the Catalog view, navigate to the Extensions panel and select Focus Stacking.
  3. Add your image stack.
  4. Click “Stack” and let the software do the rest.

The process is streamlined into just a few clicks, making it accessible even for beginners. The software handles the alignment and blending of layers automatically, ensuring a hassle-free experience.

Related Review

Focus Stacking Ability and Quality

Luminar Neo’s focus stacking extension is highly effective. It automatically aligns and merges different focal points, producing sharp and detailed final images. The software’s intelligent algorithms handle the intricacies of focus stacking, minimizing artifacts and ghosting.

luminar neo focus stithiching settings

The quality of the final image is impressive, with seamless transitions between different focus areas. Processing time is reasonable, though it can vary depending on the size and number of source images.

best focus stacking software 2 stack
The Focus stacked image using Lumunin Neo, Focus Stacking Extension.

Overall, Luminar Neo’s focus stacking extension offers a perfect balance of simplicity and powerful results, making it a great choice for photographers looking to enhance their macro or landscape photography.

Try Luminar Neo Today

2. Adobe Photoshop (Also Great)

Adobe Photoshop is often considered one of the best photo editing and manipulation software. One thing you might not know is that this software also has an extensive focus stacking feature that utilizes two tools – auto-align and auto-blend layers.

Layout and Usability

To focus stack images, the process is relatively simple. We have outlined the steps below:

  • File > Scripts > Open Stack
  • Edit > Auto-Align Layers
  • Edit > Auto-Blend Layers
  • Merge and adjust

As you can see, the process includes just 4 steps. Firstly, instead of opening each file individually, use the special “open stacks” feature. This combines the source images into one file as separate layers. Next, simply use the Auto-Align layers tool, and then the Auto-blend layers tool. We have included some screenshots of this process below:

Focus Stacking Ability and Quality

The stacking process is straightforward. When combining layers, it is important to consider the alignment. If your layers are not aligned properly, the auto-blend tool will work, but the image will have ghosting.

Also Read: How to Focus stack in Photoshop

We had great success with the quality of the focus stacking – the tools are intelligent and merge the different focal points seamlessly. The processing time is OK, but this depends on the size of the source images. Larger source images take longer to render.

Try Photoshop for Free

3. ON1 Photo RAW 2024

ON1 Photo RAW 2024 is the latest version of this graphics editing software has many improvements, including performance. It also features an extensive focus stacking process.

Layout and Usability

ON1 Photo RAW 2024 is an excellent program that has an intuitive layout. The focus stacking feature is not immediately noticeable, but it can be found on the right-hand side of the editing toolbar.

ON1 Focus Stacking
ON1 Focus Stacking Interface

As with the other programs, the process is simple and you can change different features of the focus stacking process too.

Related Post: Best Focus Stacking Cameras

Focus Stacking Ability and Quality

Using this program, you can stack multiple images quickly using the following steps:

  • Click the focus icon on the right-hand side
  • Select the source images in the preview pane
  • Change the desired settings and process

The quality of the final result is more than acceptable. If you want the best quality, consider using more than 3 source images, and use a tripod to ensure the compositions are aligned perfectly.

Try ON1 30 Days for Free

4. Helicon – A Dedicated Focus Stacking Program

Helicon is a fantastic, advanced, free-to-try program (but expensive to buy) focus stacking software.

Full functionality for focus stacking is available in the trial, and you can save merged images without watermarks or copyright notices.

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Once you are ready to buy, there are several Helicon Focus price options to choose from. You can buy the lifetime license (with free updates) or a one-year license:

Helicon Focus Lifetime License Cost (prices as of 25 August 2020):

  • Helicon Focus Lite (one-time payment of $115 + VAT)
  • Helicon Focus Pro (one-time payment of $200 + VAT)
  • Helicon Focus Premium (one-time payment of $240 + VAT)

Helicon Focus One-Year License Cost:

  • Helicon Focus Lite ($30 + VAT per year)
  • Helicon Focus Pro ($55 + VAT per year)
  • Helicon Focus Premium ($65 + VAT per year)

Layout and Usability

This program is simple to use and has a no-nonsense approach. The central pane contains previews of the source images, and the final composite when it is finished. The right pane contains details of source images and the controls for the focus stacking process.

Although the basic process is simple, there is a host of advanced controls you can utilize. Helicon uses three different merging methods – weighted average, depth map, and pyramid. Each method merges the images differently and offers varying levels of quality. In addition to this, you can change the smoothing, and radius settings using sliders.

Focus Stacking Ability and Quality

Helicon is considered one of the best focus stacking software programs because it offers a quick and effective process. The following process is used to merge images:

  • Open the files using the main menu
  • Select the correct files to merge in the right pane
  • Select the relative settings (radius and smoothing)
  • Press the render button

Once you have done the above, the program will combine and render the images automatically. Whereas the speed of Photoshop varies, we noticed that process times for Helicon appear consistent. The program renders images quickly and you are presented with a preview of the finished image in a matter of seconds.

The quality of combined images looks superb – don’t be fooled by the preview. When the process is complete, a low-res preview of the image is shown. If you save and open the actual file, you can see the high-resolution version.  

Try Helicon Focus for Free

5. Zerene Stacker – Simple to Use with Great Results

This program is a great alternative to Photoshop and one of the best focus stacking software tools available. Zerene Stacker is available as a trial program – the trial lasts for 30 days. After this, you must purchase a relatively inexpensive license. When using the trial version, a watermark is placed over the final composite image.

Layout and Usability

As with the other programs, Zerene Stacker is user-friendly and easy to use. The interface looks a little dated, but the menus and controls are logically placed. This main interface is split into three panels. First, the central panel shows previews of the files. Next, the top, left-hand panel shows the source image. Finally, the bottom-left panel displays the final merged image.

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When using this program, you can’t really make a mistake – it’s straightforward to use, and self-explanatory. In addition to this, loading times are fast, and the whole program works seamlessly.   

Focus Stacking Ability and Quality

The focus stacking process is simple. Furthermore, the end quality of the merged images looks great. Zerene Stacker has a range of useful features allowing you to boost the quality of the image, and automatically align the source files. The following is the basic process:

  • File > Open Images
  • Select the images required for focus stacking
  • Stack > Choose a stacking option

There is nothing more to this process – to select images and merge them takes mere minutes. The rendering process is fast and efficient. We like that this program auto-aligns the source images – this process appears to be efficient and works to a high degree of accuracy. You also get the option to use an automatic retouching process two which improves the basic quality of the finished image.

Try Zerene Stacker

Utilize the Best Focus Stacking Software for Greater Control in Your Photos

Why not experiment with this useful technique today?

Focus stacking is a great process to learn.

  • Firstly, it expands your knowledge of the depth of field, aperture, and focus.
  • Secondly, it helps build your compositional skills, and eye for detail.

Using one of the best focus stacking software programs listed above, you can put this technique into practice.

If you have any experience using focus stacking or know of any other software, leave a comment and share your thoughts!

What Is Focus Stacking?

When it comes to focus stacking, your primary goal is to produce an image that’s got multiple objects in focus. Focus stacking involves combining multiple photos with different focal points.

Let’s look at an example – the three photos below show the same composition. However, if we look at the detail, each photo has a different focal point:

  • 1st Photo – Focused on the front cactus
  • 2nd Photo – Focused on the right-hand cactus
  • 3rd Photo – Focused on the left-hand Bonsai Tree

Using focus stacking, you could combine these three photos together so that each plant was in-focus. You can utilize advanced focus stacking software that intelligently masks the different focal points, and merges them together to create a high-quality image. Focus stacking can also be used to combine different aperture shots of the same object together, too.

Why Use Focus Stacking?

So, why would you use the best focus stacking software? Surely, you could just form the above photo of the three plants using a smaller aperture of f/22, for example? This would achieve the same result, right? Technically yes, but we have to consider the fine details. Shooting at a small aperture of f/22 may not provide the same level of detail or sharpness as a photo at f/4.0.

Whilst smaller apertures are fantastic for landscape photography, larger apertures are more appropriate for shooting single objects. The large aperture allows you to create a beautifully out-of-focus background or even a bokeh effect. Essentially, using focus stacking, you can get an image with a stunning blurred background, whilst focusing clearly on individual objects too. The following are some benefits of using focus stacking:

  • Improved control over depth of field
  • Greater detail on single objects
  • Maintain a desirable out-of-focus background

As you can see, there are several advantages of using focus stacking – it opens up a host of possibilities, and provides photographers with greater control.

About the Author
Paul Skidmore

A seasoned content creator at PhotoWorkout, Paul merges his love for traveling and photography to craft insightful articles. With a solid grasp of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, he enjoys testing new photo software, apps, and gear. His background in web development further enriches his photography endeavors.
Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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24 thoughts on “The Best Focus Stacking Software: The Top Software Compared”

  1. Hi,

    Stacking images is one factor, the collation of such images (focus bracketing) another.
    It’s 2 years since this great article, will you consider an update? tx

  2. How do they compare when you’re stacking several hundred images as you might in high-end macro work? I have several photo friends who do this with computer-controlled motorized Cognisys rails to make the individual images. Sometimes the depth of field can be measured in microns. They both swear that Zyrene is the only way to go for this kind of work.

  3. I use Affinity for a couple of months now, (used all Photoshop versions previously untill the monthly paid versions). Focusstacking with Aff goes well, I make close ups with 105mm macro lens, f4.5, and shoot 90 pictures on 20mm total dof.
    These 90 are split up in 9×10 stacks and the 9 stacks are focus stacked again into 1.
    It takes half a day doing this. But its worth it. Btw I use a NISI focus rail which is absolutely the only way to do it my way. NISI NM180 its called, not vry expensive and works perfect. Watch – he does a fine job testing things!

  4. There are two very interesting alternativs:
    – Specially for CANON DSLR: free of charge, excellent Canon’s own DPP
    ` I’ve gotten very good results by means of Affinity Photo

  5. I use Corel Paintshop Pro, not Adobe Photoshop, and my camera is a Pentax, will Helicon Focus work. I always shot RAW files .PEF for Pentax

  6. Can any of these applications deal with source images that aren’t perfectly aligned via a still tripod? I have a use case where the camera may necessarily take successive pictures with the camera very slightly offset by a small amount. A smart enough application would recognize this and align the pictures.

  7. Affinity photo, stacks as good as Zerene, and Affinity Photo is also more than capable of editing images and when the software is on special offer it’s only around £25.00

  8. I have just started playing around with Open camera on my android phone to take the focus stack images then process it in Affinity photo since I got it on sale. Worked well on my first attempt with a tripod. Tried without tripod to see if I could get away with it but was not good. Open camera is free which is great but I will probably make a donation if I start using it a lot.

  9. I’ve just used both Helicon and Photoshop for the same job, with large flat areas that had little detail. Helicon was orders of magnitude better than Photoshop, which had patches of blurry detail here and there.

    1. photoworkout author

      Thanks for your feedback and recommending Helicon for focus stacking work. Being a dedicated focus stacking software, we have moved Helicon to #1.

  10. clearly Paul the author has not used any of these products! the bonsai test he set up is very simplistic and doesnt represent real life focus blending applications that many people use. FS is a complex process and many such as photoshop produce artifacts. the best ive used is helicon but this needs a lot of sdjustment of parameters to get clean accurate results. dont expect to be able to FS any set of shots for blending. in many cases it just doest work.

    1. photoworkout author

      Hi Phil, Paul has been testing all of the mentioned software options. We will do some more testing and collect feedback to better understand if Photoshop or Helicon should be ranked as “the best”.
      Both are strong contenders. And since both Helicon and Photoshop have free trials we recommend trying both before buying.

  11. William Steinagel

    I work with On1 Photo RAW 2020 on a regular basis and have 2 main issues with the focus stacking, 1 it has a limit of 14 photos and, 2 it leaves artifacts many times around the edge or even in the middle.

      1. Three months later, and the madness noted above by Mr. Bill continues! This page still says:
        “Helicon is considered one of the best focus stacking software programs *because it is free*… It’s a hoax I tell ya, a HOAX!! 😉
        (also — IMEO, Zerene blows away Photoshop, not even close.)

        1. photoworkout author

          Ok, fixed that sentence as well. Still, we feel Helicon Focus is a good buy, or free try ;-).
          Zerene is a software designed specifically for macro photographers and considering the price (the professional edition costing $289 USD) it better “blows away” Photoshop.
          Thanks for the feedback. We will work on a new updated considering price points and use cases.

  12. I am researching focus stacking and related software. I am looking for very good quality free versions. I have had a very bad experience with paying on line and my bank account.

    1. photoworkout author
      Editorial Team

      Hi Allan,
      There is CombineZP and Picolay which are free options, but they look a bit dated. You may want to give them a try.
      Most software applications including the ones listed here have free trials so you can use them for free for 30 days. If you don’t feel comfortable using your bank or card details to make payments online you can sign up for a Paypal account which will provide you with a buyer protection plan (meaning you get your money back for 30 days if the product/license does not get delivered).

    2. Hi Allan,

      I can’t recommend CombineZP, because it’s dated and not updated anymore and has several limits in file format and bit depth. Picolay is the only complete free app for focus stacking I recommend.
      But I also suggest to take a look at Affinity Photo 2. It’s about 79 €, but no subscription and it’s results in stacking are as good as Helicon or Zerene, although there are no adjustment options or modes.