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The Best Focus Stacking Software: The Top Software Compared

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.

Helicon Focus
Helicon Focus Our Pick
Helicon Focus is simple to use and has a no-nonsense approach. At $30 + VAT for the yearly license it is also more affordable than Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop
Adobe Photoshop Also Great
The photo stacking tools in Photoshop are intelligent and merge the different focal points seamlessly together.
Zerene Stacker
Zerene Stacker
Zerene Stacker is user-friendly and easy to use. The interface looks a little dated, but the menus and controls are logically placed.
ON1 Photo RAW 2020
ON1 Photo RAW 2020
ON1 is a full image management and editing software. Since the 2019 edition you can create hyper-focused photos using the new focus stacking tool.

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 using focus stacking – it opens up a host of possibilities, and provides photographers with greater control. In the below sections, we look at the best focus stacking software including:

  1. Helicon
  2. Photoshop
  3. Zerene Stacker
  4. ON1 Photo Raw

1. Helicon – A Dedicated Focus Stacking Program (Our Pick)

Helicon is a fantastic, free-to-try program with an advanced focus stacking process.

To get started you can download the 30-day trial, which is available for free. Full functionality for focus stacking is available in the trial and you can save merged images without watermarks or copyright notices.

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 one-year license:

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

Helicon Focus One-Year License Cost:

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 is free, but also 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

2. Adobe Photoshop (Also Great for Focus Stacking)

Adobe Photoshop is often considered one of the best photo editing and manipulation softwares. 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

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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.

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. 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 license that is relatively inexpensive. 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 imaged. 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 – its 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

4. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 – Advanced Focus Stacking Control

Finally, we have ON1 Photo RAW 2020. The latest version of this graphics editing software has many improvements, including performance. ON1 Photo RAW 2020 also features an extensive focus stacking process.

Layout and Usability

ON1 Photo RAW 2020 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. As with the other programs, the process is simple and you can change different features of the focus stacking process too.

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.

Free ON1 Trial

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 improves 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!

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

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  3. 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. 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.

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

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