Using Perfect Layers for focus stacking an image

(Note…This is a pretty long tutorial so bare with me on this one! I was not paid nor did I receive anything to write this tutorial. I simply use OnOne products in my workflow and wanted to share how I use Perfect layers 2 and Lightroom to make focus stacked images. At the very bottom of the post is the final, layered image with my lightroom edits!)

* You can find me over on G+ here!

I am sure as photographers that we have all struggled at some point with the age-old dilemma of how to get our entire image in focus and sharp from foreground to background. There are times when I am out shooting where I see compositions with nice, strong foregrounds that I want sharp from front all the way to the back but have stopped myself from making the images because in my mind I know that focusing on the foreground throws the background way out of focus. It can be frustrating to see in your mind the final image and not be able to realize it in reality. fortunately there is a way to combat this problem and it is called focus stacking.

Now there are many posts and tutorials written on this subject online so I won’t go into an in-depth explanation but focus stacking is simply taking a series of images at several focus points from the front of the image to the back and combining them with software to get a really sharp image all the way through. This tutorial will focus on using OnOne Software’s Perfect Layers 2 for blending the images together and getting a nice, sharp final composite. I have spent the past several months learning and perfecting the technique for my own work and now that I am feeling more confident with it I wanted to share my process.

Before we get into the actual process I wanted to share some things I have learned for anyone who is new to focus stacking and is looking to take some of the guesswork out of the shooting and layering process. A little prep work when shooting your images goes a long way towards a strong, final image and to keep you from pulling your hair out when you are blending the layers together.

1. From my own experimentation compositions with moving subjects such as trees on a windy day can be very, very difficult to blend. Starting out I would look for static images with not much movement or try using high shutter speeds to counteract any wind.

2. Look for strong foregrounds but remember to scan the composition in your view finder and don’t forget about the background! It will be sharp as well so you want it to make sense and be appealing in your image.

3. Be creative in your near to far relationships and train yourself to look for interesting compositions such as getting low to the ground with a wide-angle lens.

4. Important if you are just beginning is to find compositions where you can shoot with the same exposure settings in every image in your series. You can blend images taken at different exposure settings however blending is a little more technical and you need Photoshop’s adjustment layers feature to blend your layers into one composite. For this tutorial I wanted to keep it simple and basic.

5. Use those focus points properly! Line them up with the fore, middle and background. work slowly and see how the focus changes from point to point through the image and adjust where needed. My Canon 7d has 19 focus points however in my effort to keep the stack of images manageable I shoot anywhere from 2 to 6 images. Sometimes you will have images with some softness at the corners but to me this is ok because I want to concentrate on my main subject, (The foreground) and the sharpness from front to back.

6. Practice! Practice! Practice! It took me close to a year of shooting to get the kind of compositions I was looking for and to properly learn the blending process. I think the main thing is to have strong compositions and to work slowly. It won’t happen overnight but eventually it will click!

7. Remember to always inspect your blends at 100%! Fine tuning really is the key here in the transition areas from one image to another. It’s very difficult to look at these areas at anything other than actual pixel size and you may miss an area if you have the image fit to screen.

8. You can do the focusing manually But I choose to use auto focus and my focus points. The Canon 7d has 19 points and generally I do not use them all. The real trick is the placement of the points in your composition which does tack a bit of trial and error. I want a strong foreground but on my 17-40mm lens I can’t have the background be too far away otherwise the image would still be blurry a bit. Even in my example while the sharpness is good in the extreme background distance there is a tiny bit of blur. These compositions take a good deal of time so be patient.

The images I am going to use are four images I shot hiking in the Smugglers Notch area. The road which is Route 108 goes over into the town of Stowe and at the top is a fantastic view of the backside of Mount Mansfield. My intention with these was to use them as a motion blur piece in the final image however first I wanted to blend the series with the road lines very sharp in the first 3/4’s of the image. Note that I will do all of my image edits after I combine the images and I skipped focus points when shooting. There was enough overlap that I only shot at every other focus point in the center column. To illustrate how focusing on the foreground blurs out the background I am showing a cropped view here of each images background as a I move through each shot and different focus point. You can see how the background becomes sharper as I shoot the sequence.

First capture- Here you can see a very blurry background. Uggg, I wouldn’t even print this!

Capture two- Getting better but still blurry.

Third Capture – Almost there. Things are looking up for our sharpness!

Fourth capture – Now we have it! The background is at an acceptable sharpness level and what I was looking for. And yes that is yours truly!

1. The first thing I want to do is chose my images for the blend and export from lightroom into a folder on my computer. I save my images as TIFF’s at 300ppi and label them in the order I shot them in. This is all preference but I want to know and be precise about the order of the images to avoid confusion. You could also save them as PSD files as well. I prefer to do all of my edits to the final composite versus editing each image individually. This way everything will be seamless and the process will be quicker.

2. Open Perfect Layers and click File ► Open… and when the dialog box pops up choose your files where ever they are in your computer. To make things as easy as possible I only work on two images at a time which in this case will be two images out of a total of four so I will select only the first two images in my stack. After I finish blending the first two layers I then merge those two and import the next layer in the stack.

3. Here in this image is the layers palette with my first two images. What you want to do first is copy each layer so you can work on the copy and not the original. When you click on each layer it gets highlighted in blue and down below the layers you can see the copy button. Once I copy each layer I move the originals and put them at the bottom of the stack. Next to each layer is a small circle icon which means that the layer is visible. After I move the originals to the bottom I will click on the icon and when it disappears the layer is hidden. I do this so I can quickly look over and see the layers I am working on..I won’t be working on the originals so it isn’t necessary to have them visible. Note that the copy layers will have a number after them as you can see here.

The copied layers in the layers palette.

4. If you left click and hold over a layer in your palette you can change its order in the stack. Here I have reversed the order from step three and placed my first image which has a really nice, sharp foreground on the top of the stack. I like to work from foreground to background and in the order I shot my images. This is what makes sense to me but you could work the other way if you wanted to. On your screen this means that I am working form the bottom of the image upwards to the background.

Here I moved my sharp foreground image to the top of the stack.

5. In this image I am inspecting the image at 100% to see where the sharpness ends in my first foreground image. This is important as it gives me an idea of where the blending will take place between the first and second image. You can see on the thumbnail image in the layers palette precisely where the transition is…Just like in lightroom you get a small box around the area of the image you are zoomed into. Now that I know right where to use my masking brush the fun can start in the next step! Important to remember here that you want the mask to be on this top layer which you want highlighted in blue like it is below. If the layer under the top layer was highlighted you would be painting in the third layer which is under the second sharp  layer! Confused? Don’t be…Just remember that you are only working on the top two layers and that is why I hid the bottom two originals so I can quickly see I only have two layers to work with.

Looking at the image at 100% to see where the transition is between where the sharpness ends and the blur begins.

6. Once I have identified where my transition is I can begin to blend the two images together. I want to give everyone a few words of caution here…This image is a fairly straightforward example of focus stacking with a static image that is not moving with two images at the same exposure levels. I am using it here as an easier example and guide to get people thinking about this process and to not fear it. I have tried much harder composites with images taken at different exposures and focus stacking can become difficult depending on the composition.

Click View ►Fit to screen and after the image zoom to 100% choose your masking brush from the left hand side tool bar. Once you choose your masking brush at the bottom of the tools bar is an i inside of a circle. When you click on that icon your masking brush info box will come up with brush size, feather, opacity, etc. I like to work with this info box on-screen because most of the time I will be changing these settings from time to time and I don’t want to have to constantly open up the info box. I use a large brush setting with a pretty good amount of feather. I don’t use a hard edge on my brush because I think the transitions from image to image are too harsh. A nice soft edge will make the sharp parts of each image blend in together more seamlessly.

In the image below you can see the info box and how I have my brush set up. You will need to experiment to see what settings work best for you. The brush appears as two circles…One inside the other. The inner circle represents the amount of feather to your brush and you will see it change as you move the feather slider. It’s very handy to see and it help a lot if you are a more visual learner and need to see the feather.

The masking brush info box with my brush settings.

7. With my brush set I now using a combination of painting in and painting out merge the two layers together. There is no secret formula here….I paint in the layer under the top one which if you remember is the first image I took of the really sharp foreground. With my large brush I gradually paint down the image to where the two areas of sharpness will merge. At this point I then fine tune my painting until I get the two images and the seam between them just how I want them. You will know if you haven’t quite got the blend yet because there will be areas of blur showing. This is where the fine tuning comes in. Because of the composition and how my camera was pointing there are areas in the image that are sharp and areas on the edges that are blurry. I wanted the lines in the road leading to where I was standing to be sharp so I worried more about getting those areas just right. Just make sure to roam around the image where you want them to merge with the hand tool ( In the left toolbar it’s the icon that looks just like a hand!) and using your brush paint in and paint out where you see fit.

The two merged images with the masking brush and the layer mask visible on the right hand side in the layers palette.

As you can see in this image over in the layers palette on the top most layer is my mask and where I have painted in the parts of the layer underneath. The black here is hiding those parts of the top layer making those same parts of the layer underneath visible. Remember we are working from the bottom up and I wanted to add in the top three-quarters of the second layer to the bottom quarter of the first. This image here shows the two sharp parts of both images are now merged together into one! Trust me this was all confusing for me as well but once you start to play around with Perfect Layers and focus stacked images you will get the hang of it and everything I am saying will make more sense.

8. Now that our two layers are merged together I have one more step before I can import the next layer. While the images are merged they are still two separate layers so I need to merge them into one layer as I am happy and finished with the blending. Go to Layers ►Merge layers, Making sure that the top layer is highlighted in blue. This will merge only the two top visible layers into one. The next thing I do is go to File►Add layer(s) from file… and import the next layer in the stack.

9. In this next image I have added my third layer and just like the other two I copy it, add it to the top of the stack, move the original down to the bottom and hide that layer. Just as before I want to check my newest layer to see where the transition from sharp to blurry is and make note of where that is in the image. When I am zoomed in at 100% I can look over in the layers palette and see the small box that is my area of zoom within the thumbnail image. I can now blend my third image into the merged bottom two and continue the same way for each layer after until all of my layers have been blended in. Once you get the process above down for the first two layers it is simply a matter of repeating it for each next layer and fine tuning your blend with the masking brush.

My added third image capture and the transition area to blend with the layer below.

10. The next two images will show my final two images as they are merged into the first two layers. Following the steps above I get to this point with my third layer and if you look in the layers palette you can see how it is blended into the first two…

The third layer fit to screen. This image shows the full blended first three layers and the layers palette with the top layer and it’s blend into the bottom layers. Now we have sharpness through 3/4’s of the image and I can add in the final layer making our blend complete!

My final image added to the stack with myself and the background rendered sharp. By taking multiple captures and blending the image is sharp all the way through. The blending gives a much different feel to this image…It would have looked pretty blah if I had done this with only one capture.

11. My final task is to export this file as one blended image so that I can do my final editing in Lightroom. Remember that I blended these images as shot without any editing and I can now add in fine tuning with clarity ,sharpness, etc. In Perfect Layers if you choose File►Save as the program will only save your image as a PSD file. To save our image as a TIFF composite you have to choose Export (Just like Lightroom), and when the dialogue box pops up here you can name the file and choose to save as a TIFF or as a JPEG. In this case I am going to continue working on the image so I always will save as a TIFF file. When you choose export the program will automatically create the composite and save all as one completed image so from here you do not have to merge the layers. You can also at this stage choose to save the image as a layered PSD file so you can work on the image again in the future will all of your layers intact.

In closing I can say that this technique is not the easiest to master and I do not always get it right. I have shot plenty of these types of shots but come up empty when processing. It really is all about practice and patience. If you stick with it you will eventually start getting the focus stacks that you envision!

And drumroll please….The final image with lightroom edits ready for the world to see!

Four image focus stacked composite. This will be the final version with all of my Lightroom edits! Route 108 in Smugglers Notch, Vermont in the Green Mountain National Forest.


12 thoughts on “Using Perfect Layers for focus stacking an image

  1. Brilliant – a post that is instantly bookmarked for future reference. I recently bought the OnOne suite and have yet to get to grips with most of it. This, I am certain wil come in very useful. Thanks for all the time and effort you’ve put into this.

  2. yeah, this is called cheating. Many photographers knwo their technique and can do without SW tricks. Good tutorial though. Bravo.

  3. […] Using Perfect Layers for focus stacking an image – this is a technique that has fascinated me personally for quite some time.  This requires a fairly complex series of procedures to achieve great results and this tutorial by Andy Gimino takes us in-depth into the practice.  This is a highly detailed and comprehensive guide to getting you started with this genre of imagery. […]

  4. Fantastic write-up Andy! I had been wondering how you were actually accomplishing this. BTW, I don’t think this could be considered ‘cheating’ any more than ‘HDR’ could be. All tools are valid and have their place in the craft. The true craftsman knows when and how to use them to their full potential. Again, outstanding job!

  5. This is an awesome tutorial Andy. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. I’ve now bookmarked it so I can come back and follow step by step. Awesome final image too. And no I don’t think this is cheating either.

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