100-400 Handheld Focus Stacking

This article features a selection of photographs that illustrate M.Zuiko 100-400 mm handheld focus stacking capability with the OM-D E-M1X and the M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter.

After viewing Peter Baumgartner’s presentation during World Photography Day I was inspired to try out my E-M1X’s focus stacking technology again. It has been well over a year since I last used this feature.

Rather than use a conservative approach, I decided to take my own advice to push myself and my camera gear. Shooting with a shorter focal length lens would have been much easier, but I decided to go for it. All of the photographs in this article were captured handheld using an E-M1X fitted with an  M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

There were a number of handheld focus stacking considerations that I needed to keep in mind.

  • I hadn’t used the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking technology for over a year, so I was definitely out of practise.
  • Although it was a fairly calm day there was still a slight breeze to consider in terms of subject movement and shutter release timing,
  • Given the long equivalent fields-of-view I was using, I needed to choose an appropriate shutter speed for effective handheld shooting of these integrated image runs.
  • To achieve good subject separation I had to be selective when choosing blossoms and foliage, as well as backgrounds, to use in my images.
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I used shooting angles that allowed me to position blossoms against monochromatic backgrounds. To my eye this created some pleasing compositions. This approach also allowed me to  examine image details and discern how well the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking performed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-320, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

Early on, I did miss a number of handheld focus stacking opportunities as I misjudged the amount of subject motion the breeze would cause. Or, I simply did not time my shutter release properly to shoot during small breaks in subject motion.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 235 mm, efov 470 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I had to concentrate on feeling the breeze against the back of my neck (i.e. the absence of feeling it) to help determine the best time to capture my handheld focus stacking image runs. I couldn’t rely on visual cues from subject blossoms as there is a lag between the breeze abating and subject movement.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-320, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

Once I became attuned to using my sense of touch as part of my technique, my shutter release timing became much more accurate. If there is too much subject or camera motion the E-M1X is sometimes unable to successfully combine photographs with its in-camera focus stacking technology. When this happens the camera provides an error message.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I looked for image opportunities that would showcase fine details, as with the photograph above. As you can see from the EXIF data, I also used exposure compensation to get as close as possible to my desired exposure. The output of the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking is a jpeg, which limits opportunities in post.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I have my camera set to capture RAW + jpeg so I do have the opportunity to combine those RAW files in post with some third party software.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 521 mm, efov 1042 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-160, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I shot for about an hour at the Grimsby Wetlands and I was quite pleased with the results I was able to achieve. They actually motivated me to want to relearn how to use my focus stacking software. The photograph above is one of my favourites from my 100-400 handheld focus stacking session.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 346 mm, efov 692 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

My E-M1X’s IBIS performed fantastically. As long as I properly timed my shutter release given the breeze, I had very few situations where focus stacking failed. I had the in-lens stabilization on my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 turned off… as I usually do.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 308 mm, efov 616 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

It was critical to use a very soft and smooth finger motion when triggering my shutter release. Most of the handheld focus stacking failures I experienced were due to errors with my technique.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-320, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

Following Peter Baumgarten’s suggestion in his World Photography Day presentation I set my focus stacking for 8 images with a focus differential of 3. This seemed to work quite well.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 321 mm, efov 642 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

I called it a day by about 11 AM and returned home, not bothering to even look at my photographs as I had some other priorities to address.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-6400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI

The next morning I got up early and went into my backyard to capture a few more handheld focus stacking images with the same camera/lens set-up… as you can see with the photograph above.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-6400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI

The only difference was that I had much less light with which to work. Wanting to push myself a bit further than the previous day, I captured all of my photographs with my lens/teleconverter combination fully extended to 560 mm (efov 1120 mm). I also dropped my shutter speed down to 1/500. This allowed me to create all of my images at either ISO-5000 or ISO-6400. I used Topaz Denoise AI to deal with noise on these backyard out-of-camera jpegs.

Here are some of the 100-400 handheld focus stacking images I created in my backyard. If anyone tells you that it is impossible to create shallow depth-of-field with M4/3… or achieve good subject separation, just ignore them. Some people are misinformed when it comes to M4/3 equipment. Arguing with them about reality isn’t typically going to change their misconceptions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-5000, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-6400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI

I missed my framing a bit with the above photograph. One needs to remain conscious of the black outline showing the jpeg crop when using the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking. Since the RAW files do not have the same in-camera crop I could produce a better framed result in post.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-5000, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/500, ISO-6400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection, noise reduction using Topaz Denoise AI

I really had a blast creating these handheld focus stacking images with my E-M1X, M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5.-6,2 IS and M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter. You can bet that I’ll be using the in-camera focus stacking feature a lot more in the future. For as much as I hate doing work in post… I will be relearning how to use my image stacking software so I can take full advantage of the related RAW file potential.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

On occasion I’m asked if I’d ever go back to using full frame gear. My answer is always the same, “No.”

When I look at these images and truly appreciate how easily I was able to create them handheld, it confirms why full frame gear just doesn’t work for me. I thrive on the creative freedom, innovative technology, and options my Olympus kit provides.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images are out-of-camera jpegs displayed as full frame captures without any cropping. Minor corrections were done in the Nik Collection and some images had Topaz Denoise AI applied to them as noted in the EXIF data. This is the 1,061st article published on this website since its original inception.

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8 thoughts on “100-400 Handheld Focus Stacking”

  1. Tom,
    Could you please explain your rationale for turning off the lens stabilization for your focus stacking exercise and for other photographic situations?
    Jack

    1. Hi Jack,

      I did quite a bit of testing when I first received my M.Zuiko 100-400 and determined that the IBIS in my E-M1X was more effective than the in-lens stabilization of the 100-400. The IBIS on the E-M1X is rated for up to 7-stopes while the in-lens stabilization is rated at 3 stops.

      I found that when the in-lens stabilization was engaged it was a bit erratic and took some time to settle down. The IBIS in my E-M1X was more stable and achieved this state faster. The only time that I ever use the in-lens stabilization is when I’m shooting a slow shutter speeds under 1/30th of a second.

      When using teleconverters some stabilization performance is lost. 1 stop with the MC-14 and 2 stops with the MC-20.

      Tom

        1. Hi Jack,

          Other folks may have a different experience than I did based on their gear and handholding technique. IBIS performance does vary by camera model which is another factor to consider. I think owners of the M.Zuiko 100-400 should do their own testing to see what works best for them.

          Tom

  2. Tom, for a camera to create a burst of automatically stepped focus frames must it receive absolute focus distance in the lens EXIF, and if only Olympus does this won’t this preclude such technology in all other currant camera systems, none of which seem to communicate absolute focus distance?

    1. Hi Richard,

      I have no idea how the in-camera focus stacking function works from a technical standpoint. The distance to subject estimate generated by my E-M1X is just that… an estimate. So, I don’t know how this may, or may not, be used with in-camera focus stacking. When I use the in-camera focus stack function the distance to subject is not shown on my final focus stacked jpeg file in the EXIF data.

      I suspect that in-camera focus-stacking may have more to do with IBIS performance and some kind of image processing algorithm in the camera’s firmware. The in-camera focus stacked file is a jpeg which includes a crop. The crop likely allows the camera’s firmware to allow for horizontal/vertical camera movements as well as slight differences in absolute focusing distances to subject.

      Tom

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