2023 was a watershed year for me as I fully embraced handheld in-camera focus stacking technology as essential for my photography. This article shares some of my favourite focus stacked images from 2023 along with some commentary about the practical use of handheld in-camera focus stacking.
I ‘ve been experimenting with my E-M1X’s in-camera focusing stacking technology for a few years now. I must admit that when I first dabbled with in-camera focus stacking I had a bit of “RAW snobbery”. I thought that out-of-camera jpegs would not provide a high enough level of quality so I almost always processed RAW files into finished images. Since the output from my E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking function is a jpeg, I didn’t initially pay nearly enough attention to the potential of this technology.
What made 2023 different for me was that I pushed my experimentation much further than I had in the past. I used this technology with a broader selection of lenses and subject matter, as well as pushing my handheld shutter speeds lower.
All of this helped me expand… and better define… my personal limits of what is possible with handheld in-camera focus stacking. Having said that… I also know that there is still a lot more that I can do with this technology as I continue to push the envelope.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
In-camera focus stacking has become my ‘go to’ technology when doing macro photography of flowers. The image above is a good example of an underexposure technique that I call emerging from darkness. I purposely look for flower buds that are in very harsh, bright light and up against a dark background.
I then underexpose by several stops, and typically go for an exposure that is a bit darker than I actually want on the blossom. This helps ensure that the background in the images is black, or very close to it. The out-of-camera jpeg can usually be brought back to where I want it by using the white and black sliders, and with some dodging and burning as needed.
After a good amount of experimentation I determined that my handheld in-camera focus stacking standard settings would be a focus stack of 10 images, using a focus differential of 4. Depending on the depth-of-field needed I adjust my aperture accordingly. I find that this is a much easier technique for me to use, rather than constantly changing the number of images in my stack, or adjusting the focus differential setting.
What I absolutely love about the image above is the amount of fine water droplet details on the stem of the flower. I used the articulating rear screen on my E-M1X to get the exact framing that I wanted for this image.
As is the case with every photograph, it is important to pay attention to the background in a macro composition. Quite often I look for a pleasing background then change my physical position and shooting angle trying to get a subject blossom framed against that background.
Handheld in-camera focus stacking gives me far more flexibility than using a tripod as I can quickly position my camera in an almost infinite number of physical positions. It took some time to get the blossom above framed against the yellow/red/orange background. I chose this blossom as I really liked the insect infestation on the bud.
I always try to get the maximum number of pixels I can on my subject and avoid cropping whenever I can. When using in-camera focus stacking about 7% of the image area is lost around the edges of the composition. My E-M1X does provide a thin black outline box that shows precisely where the crop will occur. This can be difficult to see at times, which can make precise handheld compositions a bit of a challenge.
When doing these types of precise compositions with in-camera focus stacking, I’ve found that it is extremely helpful to give my AF joystick a quick nudge. This activates the grid of 121 auto focusing points which is very close in size to the cropped box guide. I then use the auto-focusing grid to double check my composition, then gently depress my shutter release to capture my focus stacked image.
I did quite a bit of experimenting in 2023 with various lenses and attachments when doing handheld in-camera focus stacking. For example, I used the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom with 10mm and 16mm Kenko extension tubes stacked together to capture the lily image above. When using this type of set-up it is important to make sure that a fast enough shutter speed is used, given the overall focal length and magnification utilized.
I’ve also successfully used the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS with extension tubes for flower photography. Some photographers who don’t do enough macro photography to justify investing in a dedicated macro lens, may find that using extension tubes with a zoom lens with in-camera focus stacking is a good solution.
As long as I time my shutter release properly it is possible to use in-camera focus stacking with other subject matter like the water snakes in the above photograph. This image was captured handheld through a glass enclosure using the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS with a 10mm extension tube and in-camera focusing stacking technology. I waited for a moment when both snakes were motionless and neither one was sampling the air with their tongues.
When using in-camera focusing stacking it is important to remember that the choice of AF point location in a composition is critical. Depending on the number of frames in the stack, the camera will capture a few frames in front of the AF point location, then continue with a larger number of frames behind that AF point location. The general rule of thumb I use is 30/70.
I wanted the body and head of the snake to be in focus in the photograph above… but I also wanted the snake’s body to drop out of focus fairly quickly past its eye. To accomplish this I used a wide open aperture of f/2.8 and positioned a single, small AF point near the fourth row of scales visible in the bottom right corner of the image. The snake in the image above was photographed using an M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens, shooting through a glass enclosure.
The lens I use most often with in-camera focus stacking is the M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro. My next most favourite lens to use with this technology is the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8… often with extension tubes. You’ll notice that the photograph above was created using an aperture of f/6.3. This aperture adjustment was made based on the large size of the subject blossom.
Even quite long focal length lenses can be used with in-camera focus stacking. The frog image above was captured handheld using an M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS zoom fitted with the M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter. As is typical for me, the photograph above was captured while I was sitting on a short stool.
Using in-camera focus stacking can come in handy in a variety of photographic situations. If you check the EXIF data for the image above you’ll see that I used a focal length of 276 mm with an aperture of f/8, from a focusing distance of 2.8 metres. This combination of settings and focusing distance would generate depth-of-field of 0.02 metres… or less than one inch.
You can see that the two water lilies in the photograph are quite large flowers, both of which are in focus. I was able to accomplish this by using in-camera focus stacking with an aperture of f/8. I often need to remind myself that in-camera focus stacking is not just for macro photography.
When practicing handheld technique with slower shutter speeds and in-camera focus stacking, it can be helpful to use a static subject with sharply defined edges. I begin this type of practice with an easy-to-use shutter speed than progressively decrease my shutter speed until I reach the point that I’m unable to create any sharp images. Often a shutter speed about 2 to 3 stops faster than that would be a reasonably reliable one to use.
Using the technique described above, I was able to capture the handheld in-camera focus stacked frog image above at 1 second. This included the use of a 10mm extension tube. A reasonably reliable shutter speed for me to confidently replicate the image above would be about 1/3 to 1/4 second.
Earlier this year I began experimenting with In-camera focusing stacking when shooting landscape images. As you can see above, this technology can help a photographer retain light by using an open aperture like f/2.8, and still create their required deep depth-of-field.
For those of us that use smaller sensor cameras like Olympus/OM System M4/3, in-camera focus stacking technology can help us maximize the available dynamic range with our cameras. Learning to leverage the technology in our cameras helps us squeeze every ounce of imaging performance from them.
While the output from my E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking is a jpeg, the technology does generate a complete set of corresponding RAW files should a photographer want to do their own stacking in post.
Thankfully, the self-induced limitations brought on by my “RAW snobbery” are behind me. Using out-of-camera jpegs has reinforced how critical it is to capture my images ‘right in camera’. It has also led to me doing more experimentation with jpegs in post
Embracing handheld in-camera focus stacking technology as essential for my photography has opened up significant photographic potential. An example of that is the turtle image above. This was captured handheld in a very busy exhibit hall with the turtle in a glass enclosure, situated 1.3 metres away. I had to time my shutter release in between the numerous people walking in front of me, and blocking my view of the turtle.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from out-of-camera jpegs generated by in-camera focus stacking. This is the 1,341 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.
How you can help keep this site advertising free
My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to support my work, you can purchase an eBook, or make a donation through PayPal. Both are most appreciated.
The Finding Visual Expression eBook is designed to provide readers with some photographic inspiration and composition ideas. The Little Camera That Could details our extensive experience using the Nikon 1 system. Our eBooks also include a number of travel photography publications including Images of Ireland, New Zealand Tip-to-Tip, Desert & Mountain Memories, Images of Greece, and Nova Scotia Photography Tour. We also have a business leadership parable… Balancing Eggs.
Donations support this website…
If you click on the Donate button below you will find that there are three donation options: $7.50, $10.00 and $20.00. All are in Canadian funds. Plus, you can choose a different amount if you want. You can also increase your donation amount to help offset our costs associated with accepting your donation through PayPal. An ongoing, monthly contribution to support our work can also be done through the PayPal Donate button below.
You can make your donation through your PayPal account, or by using a number of credit card options.
Word of mouth is the best form of endorsement. If you like our website please let your friends and associates know about our work. Linking to this site or to specific articles is allowed with proper acknowledgement. Reproducing articles, or any of the images contained in them, on another website or in any social media posting is a Copyright infringement.
Article and images are Copyright 2023 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!