BEST FOCUS STACKING SOFTWARE | HELICON FOCUS VS PHOTOSHOP
Focus stacking is an integral part of any still life photographer’s workflow. On occasion you can get away without it, sometimes you may even want a slightly more shallow depth of field. 99% of the time however, focus stacking is essential.
What Is Focus Stacking?
If you’re already familiar with focus stacking and are just looking to hear the comparison between Photoshop and Helicon Focus, skip this section.
Focus stacking is the process of combining multiple exposures to increase your depth of field. In many types of photography, especially portraits, photographers often desire to do the opposite, have a shallow depth of field with a beautiful blurry background. Hence, this concept may sound a little odd at first. When creating imagery for a client, most of the time they want to see their product in focus from the front to the back. Can you imagine a billboard poster in which a large proportion of the product on sale was blurry? No, not really. Consumers want to see what they’re buying, so clients want their products sharp.
The problem of having too shallow a depth of field is especially apparent when photographing small objects. Due to their size, your often very close to the object, using macro lenses. As such, your depth of field is razor thin. You may be thinking, “why can’t I just stop down? Use f16 or f22?”. Good question. Fact is, even using a narrow aperture like f16 or f22, forgetting about diffraction, still won’t get you anywhere near close to having the whole of a ring in focus for example. Focus stacking at this point becomes essential.
Shooting For The Stack
Before we get into the comparison, I want to briefly chat about how to shoot a focus stack. For the most part, it’s easy but there a few things I’d advise everyone do:
- The camera cannot move. As much as is possible, stop the camera moving. When you’re shooting very small subjects (think jewellery) I would even try to stop people walking nearby your set. You’d be amazed by how much impact someone walking past can have.
- When working with strobes leave a little time between each exposure for the lights to fully recycle. If not, one or two shots may be a little underexposed and you’ll end up having to do the stack again. This is especially so if you’re working with cheap lights.
- When you begin using this technique take more shots than you think you need. As time goes on, you’ll become more familiar with the number of images it will take.
So long as you keep those points in mind, you should be fine. When actually taking the photos, make sure you’re in manual focus and carefully turn the focus ring while taking images. Once you’ve covered your whole subject you should have all the shots necessary to create your stack.
Best Focus Stacking Software | Photoshop
One of the best things about focus stacking in Photoshop is that there are no additional costs involved, the feature is built in. For the most part, Photoshop also does a pretty good job. On the flip side, the process is a lot more time consuming as you have to manually do what dedicated focus stacking software automates. In addition, when actually performing the stack Photoshop can be quite sluggish.
When comparing Photoshop to dedicated focus stacking software like Helicon Focus, it also becomes abundantly clear that Photoshop lacks a lot of features. For instance, Helicon Focus gives you multiple stacking options to select which are appropriate for different images. I suppose the easiest way to summarise Photoshop for Focus Stacking is cheap and cheerful. It’s not the best focus stacking software but it gets the job done. What’s more, if one has a decent understanding of Photoshop, you’re given all the focus stacked layers, with masks applied, to tinker with. If you gave it that extra bit of time you could get almost any image to stack well.
In the video above, Aaron Nace from Phlearn takes us through the process of Focus Stacking in Photoshop. As you’ll notice the process is fairly long, you have to get all the images into one document, align them all, and then perform the stack. For many people the time penalty here won’t be a big deal. On the other hand, for those that need to do large numbers of focus stacks every day, the added time will be an issue.
Best Focus Stacking Software | Helicon Focus
As a, paid for, dedicated piece of Focus Stacking software you’d expect Helicon Focus to have more features than Photoshop and to hopefully do a better job. Question is, is it worth the money? Firstly, let’s talk about the differences. Once you’ve exported your images to Helicon, either by using the Lightroom plugin or the Capture One “Edit In” feature, you can create your stack. There are three options to do so, Method’s A, B, and C, each one designed to suit different subjects. In all honesty, I use Method B 99% of the time. If it doesn’t do a great job I tinker with the settings or try one of the other Methods.
Having created your stack, you can then use the Retouching panel to make adjustments if necessary. Thankfully, this is something I rarely have to use as I do find it a little clunky, however, it’s nice to know that there are extra features here for when the stack is not 100% perfect straight away. The options here are a little more complex than Photoshop, giving you yet more possibilities for refinement.
Finally, we can save the image. I won’t dwell here because, let’s face it, this is getting pretty boring now. That said, there is an option to work with, and export, RAW files using Helicon so long as you’re happy working with DNG’s. When this feature was first announced I thought it was great but given my workflow it’s actually something I never use. My main adjustments are done in Capture One, prior to making the stack, I then copy those adjustments to all images, create the stack and head over to photoshop. For those that like to work in a different way, however, this feature could be very useful.
Check out this video from Vadim Chiline over at Epic Mind. Vadim is a great photographer who can often be found teaching for Photigy, an online community and training site for product photographers, find it here. In the video Vadim gives us a rundown of the three different stacking methods in Helicon Focus.
In terms of Helicon Focus’ negative points, there are only two. Firstly, I’m a visual person, I like nice looking and functioning things. For my personal taste, the UI in Helicon seems a little clunky and dated. It doesn’t have the modern look and feel that we’ve become accustomed to with modern software.
Side note – to make Helicon Focus even faster, go to Edit > Preferences and uncheck “show intermediary results during calculation”. I’m not sure why this is turned on in the first place.
The only other negative is price. Photoshop, as mentioned, is free, Helicon Focus is not. For some, that’s where this debate will end. If, however, you are like me and perform thousands of Focus Stacks each year then this isn’t really a big negative.
My Focus Stacking Software Recommendation
So, is Helicon Focus the best Focus Stacking software? Well, Helicon certainly outstrips Photoshop, but Photoshop still does a pretty good job when dealing with simple stacks; landscapes or cityscapes for example. My advice would be to initially use Photoshop, as time goes on you’ll realise whether the focus stacks you’re doing are reaching the limits of Photoshops capability; trust me, it will be very obvious. At that point, download Helicon and give it a try.
There used to be a free trial of Helicon but I can’t seem to find reference to this now. Perhaps you can download it and it will automatically begin in this trial mode. If you’d like to purchase Helicon click here. For more info on Helicon use this link to head over to their site.