Handheld Macro Focus Stacking

Over the past number of months I’ve had a few Olympus camera owners ask if I had tried the in-camera focus stacking feature of my OM-D E-M1X. Yesterday I visited the Royal Botanical Gardens (RGB) in Burlington Ontario and did some handheld macro focus stacking test images.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-640, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 295 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

When doing focus stacking the usual approach is to use a tripod. This helps ensure that the series of photographs captured are well aligned and will merge nicely in post processing.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-200, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 370 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

When using some Olympus cameras photographers have the option to do focus stacking in-camera. Parameters vary by camera in terms of how many frames can be selected for a focus stacking image run. The in-camera output is in jpeg format. All of the individual photographs that go into making the finished in-camera focus stacked jpeg file are written to the memory card and saved (both jpeg and RAW files if desired). This allows a photographer to do their own image merging with RAW files in post if desired.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-1600, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 265 mm, out of camera jpeg

As regular readers will know, when I test a camera feature for the first time I often push things as far as I can with my gear. So, rather than test the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking by using a tripod, I decided to do it handheld. I’ve had very good results using the E-M1X’s Handheld Hi Res Mode with macro photography. To crank my test up a bit further I thought it would be an interesting challenge to shoot macro subjects using the in-camera focus stacking feature.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-400, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 255 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

In terms of challenging my own skill level, I decided to use the maximum number of focus stacking frames allowed by my E-M1X which is 15. In order to maintain a soft background I set my M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens to its wide open aperture. Then, I looked for some subject matter at the RGB to photograph.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-1600, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 270 mm, out of camera jpeg

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get any ‘keeper’ images during this handheld macro focus stacking test… but I was willing to give it a whirl. I don’t typically shoot jpegs for any specific use which is the main reason why it took me so long to use the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking capability.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-1250, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 560 mm, out of camera jpeg

As you can see in the image above I did get some noticeable artifacts in some of my in-camera focus stacked images. These are most prevalent around thin, lightly coloured details against darker backgrounds. For the most part these artifacts were minimal and caused by my handheld technique. There’s no doubt in my mind that when the Olympus in-camera focus stacking feature is used in conjunction with a tripod that the results would be excellent.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-640, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 290 mm, out of camera jpeg

My best results when creating these test images happened when I was able to stabilize myself against a solid surface. In these cases the results that my E-M1X produced were surprisingly good.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-640, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 515 mm, out of camera jpeg

I often joke with associates that I’m allergic to tripods… yeah I do hate using them! For me to be able to successfully capture handheld macro focus stacking images in-camera is another unique capability my E-M1X delivers.

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

Many people criticize the size and weight of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X. What they don’t appreciate is how stable and secure it feels to hold and use this camera. It really shines with this kind of handheld macro photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-400, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 225 mm, out of camera jpeg

Rather than pigeon-hole the E-M1X as a “sports and wildlife” camera photographers should be viewing it as an all-round image creating tool. For anyone who is interested in handheld macro photography the E-M1X, used with the M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens, is simply superb. The combination of the Olympus in-camera focus stacking and the IBIS performance of the E-M1X expands the realm of what is possible with handheld macro photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-400, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 200 mm, out of camera jpeg

Since I never shoot in jpeg for any ‘serious’ work I have no credible experience working with jpegs in post. I’m sure photographers who have good skills working with jpegs in post would be able to improve on the out-of-camera results shown in this article. They would also be adept at setting up their cameras to produce better quality jpegs. This is something else with which I have no practical experience.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-200, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 275 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

When capturing handheld macro images my first preference would be to use the E-M1X’s Handheld Hi Res Mode. In poor light, my choice would be using the Olympus STF-8 Twin Macro Flash. Now, I have another interesting option by capturing handheld macro focus stacking images. Last choice for macro photography would be to shoot standard resolution macro images without the use of a flash.

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

During my two hour visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens I was able to capture several dozen useable photographs.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-1250, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 195 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

I used a focus differential setting of 5 for most of the images in this article. I also used a setting of 3 for some subject matter. Determining the number of shots and the focus differential to use is a matter of trial and error. Done often enough this becomes ‘experience’.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-100, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 225 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

I enjoyed creating these test images far more than I anticipated. During my two hour visit I only got an error message that my focus stacking attempt failed about a half dozen times. Error messages typically occur when there is too much movement during the focus stacking attempt.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-320, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 505 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

Being able to use an aperture of f/2.8 while still achieving sufficient depth of field through the use of focus stacking, adds another dimension to macro photography.  Being able to accomplish that handheld could be a game changer for some photographers.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-200, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 275 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

The image above is one of my favourites from my test at the Royal Botanical Gardens. I’ll be doing more experimentation with this feature so I can add it to my list of everyday photographic capabilities available with my Olympus gear.

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/2.8, 1/250, ISO-320, handheld focus stacking used, subject distance 580 mm, out-of-camera jpeg

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