Handheld Focus Stacked Macro Butterfly Images

During a recent visit to the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory I concentrated on capturing some handheld focus stacked macro butterfly images, using an Olympus E-M1X and the M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens. This article features a selection of handheld focus stacked macro butterfly images and discusses some practical considerations when using this Olympus in-camera feature.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-320, subject distance 265 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

When deciding to use the in-camera focus stacking feature handheld with macro subject matter, it is important to consider lighting, composition, subject movement, and photographer handheld skill level.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-1000, subject distance 235 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

As we would expect, photographs with lighter backgrounds and those shot at lower ISO values are less affected by noise. This is important to keep in mind since the output from the Olympus in-camera focus stacking feature is a jpeg. I am hopeful that future OM-D E-M1X firmware updates will allow for the creation of a blended RAW file when the focus stacking function is used.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/250, ISO-1600, subject distance 210 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

When photographing butterflies it is important to select individual subjects that are sitting completely motionless. Even slight movements with antennae or the proboscis can make a focus stacking image unuseable for many photographers.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-3200, subject distance 260 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

You can see some slight antennae movement in the photograph above.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/320, ISO-5000, subject distance 235 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

If you examine the image above you’ll see some slight artifacts on the outside edge of the proboscis. These were caused by slight movement while the focus stacking image capturing process was underway.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 185 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

As photographers we all have our individual tolerance for noise. The image above was captured at ISO-6400. If you choose to use in-camera focusing stacking with your Olympus camera you will likely need to do some work in post with your jpeg output.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/320, ISO-3200, subject distance 200 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

We can see a very unusual dual butterfly composition. I moved in very close to the subject butterflies to capture this handheld focus stacked image. Although I am very pleased with the overall composition and its visual impact, the very noticeable artifacts around the butterfly’s antennae basically kill this image. If I wouldn’t have been working on in-camera focus stacking photographs for this article, I would have chosen to capture the image above using the E-M1X’s Handheld Hi Res Mode instead.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/320, ISO-3200, subject distance 245 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

When I captured my first image of this pair of butterflies, I was aware that the extreme close up, coupled with my level of handheld skill, may result in some artifacts appearing in the final in-camera focus stacked jpeg image. So, I pulled back a bit and captured a second image illustrated above. You can see that this change in shooting position really helped to reduce the risk of artifacts appearing.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-3200, subject distance 260 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Even with some of the challenges presented by the final output being a jpeg file, the Olympus in-camera focus stacking function is capable of producing some quite pleasing images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 235 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Individual photographers will need to decide for themselves whether using higher ISO values result in accepted image quality or not.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-5000, subject distance 240 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

From the perspective of simply having a lot of creative fun, the in-camera focus stacking feature is a great function with which to experiment.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/250, ISO-2000, subject distance 200 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Every photographer makes decisions about how they want to create a photograph and their related camera settings. These are based on their specific photographic objectives, image quality expectations and their personal skill set. The Olympus in-camera focus stacking feature is another innovative tool that they have at their disposal.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-4000, subject distance 280 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

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4 thoughts on “Handheld Focus Stacked Macro Butterfly Images”

  1. Hi Tom,

    I’m not at all keen on using a tripod either. I did so for the tests outlined above only so that I would have consistent results between the separate sets – – but, the shots I took where I processed the images in Affinity and compared with the result from in-camera stacking were hand-held … with stacking using Affinity producing the better result.

    To ensure this was an exact comparison, I shot a focus-stacked set with the Focus Stacking option set to ON, which results in the in-camera stacking process producing a merged JPG. Then I took the individual RAW images (that were used by the in-camera stacking process) and “developed” them using DxO PhotoLab and passed them on, as 16-bit TIF files, to Affinity for merging into a stacked JPG (thereby emulating the in-camera process).

    Comparing the 2 JPGs; the result from Affinity contained more detail, and without the “artifacts” visible in the OoC version.(To be fair about this; these artifacts were not immediately obvious when examining the OoC JPG on its own – but, when quickly flipping back & forwards between the 2 JPGs they became quite obvious – so that I could not then “un-see” them).

    Also, the Affinity version was not cropped.

    For these benefits, including ability to apply processing such as PhotoLab’s PRIME noise reduction to the RAW images *before* they’re merged, I reckon I’ll use this method in preference to the in-camera stacking option (which I have no ability to influence).

    John – TKA

    1. Hi John,

      I also found that some of the in-camera focus stacked images had artifacts in them. I found these were often caused by subject movement, or by me not using a fast enough shutter speed. I find that using Handheld Hi Res often gives me better results for macro work, even at high ISO values. I agree with you that being able to work with RAW files prior to merging makes a significant difference.

      Tom

  2. Hi Tom,
    Inspired by your amazing butterfly examples, above, I set-out today to test Focus Bracketing on my OM-D E-M1 iii – and I made some interesting discoveries (as a new OM-D user).

    I found I got better results from stacking the images in PC software (using Affinity – compared with the OoC JPG produced from the camera). I suspect this is, at least partly, because I was able to examine the images before handing them over to the focus stacking software and thereby eliminate any images where focus was completely outside the area of interest – whereas, the in-camera process would have included some images where all of the subject was of-of-focus; this being the likely cause of artifacts (in the OoC JPG version) that were not in the from-Affinity result.

    Another advantage of not using in-camera stacking is that Affinity does not impose any crop on the resulting image.

    I have a 1 meter ruler which I laid on a bench, in good light. I put my E-M1 on a tripod (so that I would get consistent results from my testing), and I shot 7 sets of focus bracketing; with differentials of 10, 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – – taking 10 shots for each set, and with Focus Stacking turned OFF.

    My initial shot was focused on the 80cm mark – my field of view was from the 88cm mark (closest to the camera) out to 64cm.

    My first surprise was that with each shot focus moved incrementally further away from the 80cm starting point. This surprised me because I thought I had read in the manual that focus is moved incrementally forwards AND backwards from the starting point. A check of the manual confirmed this to be true when Focus Stacking option is turned ON – – but not if it’s turned OFF (Curious !!)

    So the lesson for me here is that (since I will be leaving this setting OFF) I should focus at the front-most point of the subject; knowing the camera will focus incrementally further AWAY from this starting point with each shot.

    As expected, the first shot of each set was exactly the same; all focused on the 80cm mark. Subsequent focus points were different, according to the differential I was using.

    Interestingly (as a general, but very useful, rule-of-thumb), I was able to see that focus moved between each subsequent shot by ~ 1/2 the differential in cms. That is, for a differential of 10, the focus point between each shot moved away in steps of 5cms … down to 1cm increments for a differential of 2.

    (As I write this, I’m wondering if that handy rule-of-thumb changes with distance from subject and/or with different lens settings?? I’ll have to check that out !)

    Regards, John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to share the results of your testing and providing readers with details of your approach! In situations where a photographer has time to set up with a tripod and do multiple exposures with different focusing points I think it certainly makes sense that working with RAW files in post would produce better results. The subject matter would need to be static as well for best results.

      To me, the Olympus in-camera focus stacking capability is something that is of significant value in situations where a photographer does not have a tripod with them, and the photographic opportunity is fleeting and where increased depth-of-field is desired.

      In the case of the butterfly examples in my article, it would have been extremely difficult to capture those images with a tripod as the subjects are only stationary for small time periods. By the time that a photographer completed their set-up for the image(s) the butterfly would have likely been long gone.

      Tom

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