In-Camera Focus Stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 365 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/6.3, 1/30, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 510 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focusing stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 290 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focusing stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 270 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes @ 115 mm, f/5, 1/160, ISO-400, uncropped out-of-camera jpeg, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focusing stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 285 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes @ 135 mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-400, uncropped out-of-camera jpeg, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS with Kenko extension tube @ 100 mm, f/5, 1/125, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 525 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS with 10mm extension tube, 92mm, f/4, 1/25, ISO-800, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/13, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, cropped to 4308 pixels on the width, subject distance 320 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes @ 142 mm, f/6.3, 1/50, ISO-400, uncropped out-of-camera jpeg, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 371 mm, efov 742 mm, f/12, 1/800, ISO-2500, handheld in-camera focus stacking, cropped to 4750 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.4 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 276 mm, efov 552 mm, f/8, -0,3 EV, 1/1250, ISO-250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 2.8 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/5, ISO-800, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 450 mm

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro with 10 mm extension tube, f/5, 1 second, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/6.3, 1/640, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 13 mm, efov 26 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/7.1, 1/15, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 460 mm

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

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-400, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 1.3 metres

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.

 Technical Note

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes @ 100 mm, f/7.1, 1/30, ISO-400, uncropped out-of-camera jpeg, handheld in-camera focus stacking

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10 thoughts on “In-Camera Focus Stacking”

  1. Hi Thomas
    I have just just purchased a 90 mm macro to pair with my OM1. I intend doing hand held macro. I use in camera focus stacking without flash and have been quite successful. However, I would like to use flash with a diffuser. I was considering the Godox TT 350o which I understand is very consistent up to a burst of 10 flashes. I was wondering if there is anything better re flash quality and burst number.What flash unit would you recommend for macro?

    1. Hi Colin,

      I very seldom use flash for any of my photography… including macro… so I’m not the best person to ask for this type of advice. I do have an Olympus STF-8 dual macro flash which I use on occasion. I’ve never done any burst flash photography. Sorry I could not be more helpful.

      Tom

      1. Thank you for responding Tom. I am very impressed with your portfolio of macro and cannot believe so few are without flash.
        I think I will reconsider my options with regard to flash. I already have an old FL50R which does work but is unpredictable for in focus stacking and must be set in a certain way – in manual SL mode with a recycle time 0.2 sec. Very odd, but that is the only way it will work. I think I will spend a little more time perusing your site to look at your gear/settings etc and see what it is possible to achieve without flash. Happy New Year. Colin

        1. Hi Colin,

          As you review the macro articles/images featured on the website, you’ll see that any images where flash was used will be noted in the EXIF data. I haven’t done an analysis, but I would be surprised if I’ve used flash for even 8-10% of the photographs featured on this website.

          I don’t remember using my wife’s E-M1 Mark III for any macro work… so any of the macro M4/3 images featured would have been taken with an E-M1X and M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro. On occasion I do use extension tubes with this set up. I use a short stool for the majority of my macro photography and view this as an integral part of my macro set-up.

          Some of the earlier articles in the macro category of the website were shot with Nikon 1 gear using extension tubes… so they are more ‘close up’ photography rather than true macro.

          Tom

  2. Tom,
    You list the subject distance in your photos. How do you find this distance? I assume it pops up in macro data using some application.
    Jack

    1. Hi Jack,

      The subject to distance estimates are done by my E-M1X. After I process a RAW file through DxO and the other software I use, I store my files in Windows Explorer. To have subject distance revealed, I right click on a file… then left click on Properties… then left click on Details which reveals the subject distance. My wife’s E-M1 Mark III also provides these subject distance estimates. Not all cameras provide subject distance. For example, this was not available with my Nikon 1 bodies.

      A number of years ago one of our readers provided this information about using some dedicated software. I’ve never used this software so I cannot comment on it firsthand.

      “Create a folder anywhere on your system; named, say, “ExifToolGUI”
      Download .ZIP file from here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/78rffzxdoultrnr/AAAeL0FnqZEbaDJYOn2GpU5ha… and simply unZIP its contents into your new folder.
      Double-click on ExifToolGUI.exe to start the application – it will open by default to your Users folder.
      1) BEFORE you navigate to a folder containing your images, change the drop-down at the top from “Show ALL Files” to one of the other options (else it will include .dop/sidecar files and will look rather messy)
      2) Navigate to a folder containing your .ORF files… They’ll then be listed in the centre panel.
      3) Select any image/.ORF file and its EXIF data will appear on the RHS.

      Note:
      – You may occasionally see a pop-up with a message something like “List index out of bounds” – – Just click OK and ignore (The app is a bit “flakey” !!)
      – Also, it can get quite busy before it properly shuts-down .. just let it do its thing!”

      Tom

  3. Hi,
    I remember that once you explained how helpfull it was for you to use a quite big camera body like the E-M1X to get a good stabilisation for slow shutter speed. For smaller Olympus camera body (like the E-M1 II) would you recommend to add a battery grip to get similar results??
    Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Denis,

      Whether you need a grip or not depends on your handheld skills and how slow you want your shutter speed to be. I have large hands and I simply can’t hold my wife’s E-M1 Mark III as still as I can my E-M1X even though both cameras are rated for the same number of IBIS stops. I’m about 1 to 1.5 stops better with my E-M1X with a horizontal image, and more than that with a vertical composition. I’ve never used her camera with a grip so I don’t know if I would be any better with a grip or not when using her camera.

      If you can rent a grip for a couple of days, or use a friend’s camera with/without a grip that may help you decide to make the investment or not. It may not matter what brand and format that the camera is that you try out with/without a grip. The issue really boils down to whether your ability to handhold at slower shutter speeds is enhanced by using a grip or not. If you find that an add-on grip helps you with a different format/brand of camera… it likely would be the case with your Olympus gear as well.

      I’ve never used an add-on grip so I have no first hand experience that I can share with you. With the E-M1X the shooting experience is identical whether a horizontal or vertical composition is done in terms of the placement of controls and the shutter release button.

      Sorry that I can’t be more helpful, but I try to refrain from telling readers that they should, or shouldn’t buy something. After all… it’s your money not mine. Using an add on grip before you make an investment is certainly worth trying out.

      Tom

  4. I would like to have seen more about the point of focus as you did in that one instance. Is it similar to what you would do with a single shot or is it different because of the stack.
    Thanks for all you do for small format photographers.

    1. Hi James,

      The position of the focusing point is usually different than it would be with a non-stacked image. One of the reasons that I use a 10 image stack is that I find it easier to visualize my depth-of-field broken down into 10 slices. When I place an AF point I visualize about 30% of the sharpness in the image being in front of that point, and 70% behind it. A standard capture is about 50/50 in terms of the amount of depth-of-field in front and behind the AF point. I adjust my aperture to increase the overall distance between the first area that is in focus in the image to the last area. With macro images the choice of aperture can be more important than the precise position of the AF point.

      Estimating depth-of-field in a composition is one of the most difficult things that we face as photographers as a range of factors come into play… lens focal length, aperture, focusing distance to subject and the distance between the subject and the background. Then the creative intent of a photographer with a particular image comes into play as well. Perhaps comparing images 9 and 10 may be helpful. With image 9 I would have focused on the eye of the snake closest to my lens. It was an easy choice given that the subjects were parallel to the focal plane of my sensor.

      In the case of image 9 I didn’t necessarily want all of the foreground to be in focus as it could have distracted from the subject snakes so I shot my M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS wide open. As you can see in image 9 the body of one of the snakes is blurred in the bottom right corner. If I would have wanted that corner to also be in focus I likely would have stopped my aperture down to f/5.6 and moved my AF to the point where the lower snake’s jaw hinge is located.

      I’ve spent many hours sitting on my short stool and experimenting with macro subjects using in-camera focus stacking. Capturing successive images of the same subject using the same AF point, while making incremental changes with aperture, is one of the best ways I know to learn how a particular lens performs. Then, redoing the exercise by maintaining the identical aperture (usually shooting wide open) but moving a single AF point from the closest subject point in a composition out to the furthest point is also very instructive. If you do some experimentation using these two exercises I think you will develop a very good sense of where to place your AF point and what aperture to use in specific circumstances.

      I hope this has helped…

      Tom

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