If you want to know all about focus bracketing, then this article is for you.
I’m going to share with you everything you need to know to start doing effortless focus bracketing–so you can create images that look perfectly sharp (from front to back!).
And, best of all, you’ll discover a focus bracketing technique that works with subjects of all kinds, from macro to landscape and everything in between.
Let’s get started.
What Is Focus Bracketing?
Focus bracketing is a technique that allows you to create images with maximum depth of field.
In other words, with focusing bracketing, you can produce images that are sharp across the frame–from the nearest foreground element to the most distant background element.
Without focus bracketing, this is often impossible, especially if you’re shooting a very deep scene.
Because your camera and lens is restricted by a minimum aperture, which means that you can only create an image with a set amount in focus, and no more.
Plus, as you get more and more in focus, you start to run into a problem called diffraction, which causes significant blur in your images.
Hence, focus bracketing is often the best option.
Now, I’ll cover the steps involved in focus bracketing a bit later on.
But the basic idea is that you capture several images, all focused on different parts of a scene.
Then you blend them together using a post-processing program, so that you get one composite image where everything is sharp.
When Should You Focus Bracket Your Images?
You’re probably wondering:
When do I actually need to use focus bracketing in my images?
For instance, if I want to capture a sharp portrait, do I need focus bracketing?
How about if I want to take a street photo?
Well, here’s the answer:
You don’t need focus bracketing in most situations.
In fact, you definitely don’t want to use it for any normal portraits. And you’re not going to want to use it for most street photography, either.
Focus bracketing is a slow, deliberate process. And it’s a process you should only use when you’re dealing with extreme depth in your scene, or if you’re shooting at high magnifications.
In other words:
There are basically two main times when you’d use focus bracketing:
First, when you’re photographing deep landscapes. If you’re trying to capture a shot of distant mountains, but with some nice flowers in the foreground, very near to your lens, then you’ll need to focus bracket.
(If you’re photographing a normal landscape, on the other hand–just mountains in the distance, with no foreground flowers–then you won’t need focus bracketing. Your lens will be able to handle that just fine.)
Second, you should use focus bracketing when you’re photographing macro subjects up close, and you want them to be sharp throughout.
I’m not talking about ‘soft-focus’ macro photos, where the subject is only slightly in focus, like this:
I’m talking about a different type of macro photography, where you get everything sharp, from front to back, like this:
That’s when you’ll need to focus bracket.
Focus Bracketing Versus Focus Stacking
If you’ve researched focus bracketing before, you may have come across another term:
So what’s the difference between focus stacking and focus bracketing?
Technically speaking, focus bracketing is the act of capturing photos with different points of focus.
Whereas focus stacking is the act of blending those images together into a single composite.
So whenever you hear about focus bracketing, think taking photos.
And whenever you hear about focus stacking, think editing photos.
Some photographers do use the term focus stacking to refer to the entire process of bracketing and stacking.
So watch out for that.
Related Post: How to Focus Stack in Photoshop
The Equipment You Need for Focus Bracketing
Focus bracketing doesn’t require much equipment.
You need a camera.
And a tripod.
If you’re really desperate, you can focus bracket while handholding, and ditch the tripod completely.
But I don’t recommend this, because you want each focus bracketed image to be carefully aligned with the previous shot.
So, if possible, use a tripod.
Note that it doesn’t actually have to be a stable tripod. A cheap tripod will do the job just fine–because you’re not capturing a long exposure photo in windy conditions.
All you’re doing is keeping several shots more or less aligned over a period of a few seconds.
A Step-By-Step Focus Bracketing Workflow
Now it’s time to get into it:
The nitty-gritty of focus bracketing.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Set Up Your Camera on a Tripod and Compose the Shot
If you don’t have a tripod, make sure to keep your hands as stable as possible. Try leaning up against a wall, getting down on the ground, or putting your elbows on a table.
Step 2: Set Your Lens to Focus Manually
Your lens should have a switch on the barrel that allows you to do this quickly and easily.
Personally, I think manual focusing is the best way to focus stack, and it’s what I generally do.
However, if you hate manual focusing, or if your lens doesn’t support it, you can instead switch your camera to its AF-S autofocus mode (also known as Single-Shot AF). If you’re going to use autofocus, you’re also going to need to switch your AF area mode to single-point, so that you’re able to easily select your point of focus via your camera buttons.
By the way, focus stacking with autofocus is made far easier if you have a camera with a touchscreen. That way, you can simply tap to focus, and you don’t have to worry about shifting your point of focus via the buttons after every shot.
Step 3: Focus on the Nearest Object in Your Composition, and Take Your First Shot
The first photo you take should have the front object in focus.
It doesn’t matter if the rest of the photo is out of focus–in fact, it often will be!
Just nail this first shot, with a sharp front object.
If you’re using manual focus, make sure you carefully twist your lens’s focus ring until the front object appears ultra-sharp.
And if you’re using autofocus, place your AF point over the nearest object, then half-press the shutter button to lock focus.
Before fully depressing the shutter button for the first shot.
Step 4: Shift Your Point of Focus
Now it’s time to do the focus bracketing–where you shift your point of focus throughout the scene while taking photos.
So identify a point behind your main subject, around halfway into the scene, and focus on that.
Then capture it.
Next, identify a point even farther into the scene, focus on it, and capture it.
And finally, focus at the very back of the scene, and capture that!
Note that there’s no set number of photos you need for optimal focus bracketing. It depends a lot on your scene; if you’re shooting at very high magnifications, you may need literally hundreds of images.
But generally speaking, three to five images should be enough, especially if you’re photographing landscapes.
Step 5: Stack Your Bracketed Images in Post-Processing
Once you have your set of bracketed images, it’s time to combine them.
For this, you’re going to need a post-processing program that offers focus stacking capabilities.
Photoshop is a good option for beginners, and does a good job of handling basic focus stacking (e.g., 3 composited images). But if you want something that can deal with more advanced focus stacking, such as five images or more, it’s a good idea to grab dedicated stacking software such as Helicon Focus.
Anyways, go ahead and open up your images in your chosen focus-stacking software.
(This part is generally very easy, because the programs will do most of the work for you!)
Once you’ve finished stacking your images, magnify the result and take a quick look for imperfections.
Even the best post-processing software isn’t perfect, which is why you may need to do a bit of retouching with a Clone-Stamp tool or a Healing brush.
Common Focus Bracketing Pitfalls
When focus bracketing your images, there are a few common issues you’ll want to be aware of.
First, you need to ensure your camera moves as little as possible between shots.
The more movement you get, the harder it’ll be for your post-processing program to align the images later–and this can mess up the stacking process.
That’s why I always recommend you focus bracket with a tripod. And, if you don’t have a tripod on hand, stay as still as possible to keep your images aligned.
Second, you need to ensure there’s as little movement in the scene as possible.
If your scene is full of moving subjects, you’re going to end up with a ghosting effect, where the subjects appear in several parts of the photo.
This generally looks very unnatural, and so is best avoided.
Does this mean you should avoid focus bracketing any scene that has even a slight amount of movement?
Definitely not. It’s possible to deal with movement with focus bracketing, especially if you’re willing to do a bit of extra retouching in post-processing.
But I don’t recommend trying to focus stack, say, an image of an airplane flying across the sky.
It’s just not going to turn out well.
Third, the more complex your scene, the more difficult it’ll be for your software to handle.
If you have a scene with lots of elements that move from near to far at random intervals throughout, you may run into problems.
As I said above, focus stacking software is good, but it’s not perfect. So the harder the scene is to focus stack, the worse the result will be.
Bear in mind that most scenes are pretty easy to handle; for instance, focus stacking three shots of a beach landscape will generally go well.
It’s when you’re dealing with complex images that transition from near to far all over the place that things start to fall apart.
Make sure that you take an adequate number of images for focus stacking.
If you’re shooting a very deep scene, spend the extra time and take five shots instead of three.
Or if you’re doing a complex macro photo, go for nine shots, or fifteen, or thirty.
Don’t skimp on the number of shots.
Because too few shots will mean that all the shots are worthless. After all, you won’t want an image that only has a soft midground!
Focus Bracketing: Conclusion
Focus bracketing is a very useful technique, one that can often ensure you get the gorgeous photos you’ve dreamed of taking.
But you have to be careful!
It’s easy to mess up focus stacking, and end up with a worthless set of photos.
So just make sure you follow the steps I’ve laid out for you.
That way, everything will turn out great.
Focus bracketing is a technique that allows you to maximize depth of field by taking several images with different points of focus. You merge the images together using software, and you end up with single photo that’s sharp throughout (from front to back!).
I highly recommend it! Technically, you can focus bracket without a tripod, but you’re going to struggle a lot to keep each successive image aligned. For the best results, you really should use a tripod–otherwise, your focus stacking software may fail to give you a realistic final image.
I recommend focus bracketing if you’re photographing a very deep landscape, with elements in the distant background as well as near to your lens. You should also focus bracket if you’re doing macro photography where you want to keep everything sharp (as opposed to soft-focus macro photography for artistic effect).
To focus stack, you’ll need a program that offers some sort of focusing-specific compositing algorithm. Fortunately, Adobe Photoshop CC offers this as part of its toolkit. However, if you want to do more complex focus-stacking projects, I recommend taking a look at dedicated stacking options such as Helicon Focus.
That depends on the amount of depth in your scene. For most landscape scenes, three images will be enough–but, if you want to include a very close foreground object, you may need to increase this number accordingly. For macro scenes, I recommend starting at around five shots. Unfortunately, thanks to the high magnifications that macro photography requires, you’ll often need to take ten or more images; err on the side of more images, because there’s nothing wrong with taking too many!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.