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Helicon Focus focus stacking part 3

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Helicon Focus review – pt. 3

#3 stacked macro photography

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Part 3 of Keith’s Helicon Focus review looks at stacked macro photography, where extreme detail is needed

This series of reviews looks at different aspects of stacking – part 1 looked at focus stepping, whilst part 2 looked at stepping the camera, manually or with a motorised unit.

Keith uses Helicon Focus to stack multiple images for some of our specialist photography work. The stacking allows for increased depth of field and is particularly useful for close-up and macro photography.

All of Keith’s Macro related articles and reviews are listed in their own category in the dropdown menu to the right.

pen-nib and micro chips

Demo software is available from HeliconSoft

Stacking for macro – detail at small scales

In part 2 of this review I looked at moving the camera to produce the set of images to stack. I’ll continue with a look at photographing much smaller items than the disk drive in the last part.  I’ll also look at using Helicon Remote to control the camera movement for my EOS RP. This 26MP mirrorless camera is not yet supported directly in Helicon Remote.

Although such photography is perfectly possible with a manual slide rail, the need to potentially take over a hundred images makes some degree of automation much more desirable.

The Stackshot rail I showed in part 2 can easily be used for multiple shots with steps measured in microns.  I’ll typically use a lens like the Canon MP-E65, a specialist macro lens offering from 1x to 5x magnification.

For the first example I’m going to take a photo of a fountain pen nib, but with two very small integrated circuits sitting on it.


I’m using the same lighting setup as before (pt.2), with the two small softboxes on the flexible arms. The camera is the 50MP Canon 5Ds

The MP-E65mm F2.8 1x – 5x Macro just lets you set the magnification ratio, giving a fixed plane of focus at some point in front of the lens.


I’m using it at just over 1x magnification giving a view (at the plane of focus) of just under 24mm x 36mm (the size of the sensor of the camera).

I use a special lens hood for the MP-E65, since with lights quite close to the lens, it’s very easy to get glare.


You can read off the working distance (W.D.) from the lens.


Here’s my fountain pen – those two dark shaped on the nib are the integrated circuits I want to show.


Lighting adjustment

Whilst the shots above are all using the continuous light panels, I need to use just the flash for the actual images to stack.

This is partly to limit movement (see this discussed later with the RP), but also to control reflections.

Reflections enhance the metallic look of the nib, but can cause problems for stacking.

Whilst experience helps, at this scale you just need to experiment to see how different positions and light modifiers (white and black cardboard pieces) will contribute to the look of the image.


This is one reason I usually advocate continuous lighting systems when teaching the basics of product photography at companies. Live view and instant feedback are much easier to experiment and learn with at larger scales.

At this magnification, depth of field is extremely thin.

This is the view wide open (f/2.8) at the close point for the stack.


At my working aperture of f/5.6 the DOF is still very thin, but that’s why I’m stacking.


For setup purposes, I’m using the continuous lighting – hence the  exposure setting of nearly a second.


The far point shows dust on the soft grip of the pen.

Setting the stack depth

I’ve decided that 50 shots should give me enough overlap.


After taking the photos, I open them in Helicon Focus.

Here’s the depth map being built up (Method B). Note the slight haloing around the grip – this is often an issue whn the background is not in focus at all. This is visible in examples in both previous reviews, and tells me that I’m likely to need to do some cleaning up of the stacked result.


Looking at the result, I see some background issues, especially near the shiny tip.


I can clone out the background problems, but look closely at the nib behind the chip.


For some of our commercial work I’ll increase the number of shots and do quite a lot of cloning to adjust images. It depends on what the client wants (and the budget).

For this example, I decide to cut out the pen (with a few pixels feathering of the selection). Adding this to a black background gives a nice low key feel to the image, but with the nib and gold contacts nicely detailed.

See a print of this image in my PermaJet metallic gloss review


A credit card

Another example shows the use of a relatively short stack, making use of the blur in front and beyond the stacked area.

Chips and credit card

The first and last photos of the stack are shot at much smaller aperture. This reduces the visibility of the ‘band of sharpness’ in the image. The reflections show where the two lights were positioned.

Using the EOS RP

I’ve a Canon EOS RP full frame mirrorless camera that I use as a backup for the 5Ds and for experimenting.

It is however not supported by the photo taking part of Helicon Remote.

Here it is attached to the stackshot rail.


The MP-E65 has a detachable tripod mounting foot.


Here’s how much the MP-E65 extends at full (x5) magnification.


In setting up the RP I’ve connected the shutter release port of the stackshot (phono/RCA socket) to the RP remote release socket (2.5mm stereo jack).

Canon remote releaseIf you’re making a lead, connect the centre wire of the phono plug to the tip of the jack and the outer wire of the photo to the body of the jack.

See more about this in my article about using the Zenith Photosniper 300mm lens with a Canon100 D.

The input has a ‘half press’ signal as well, but that’s no use here.

The shutter control output can be connected to a wide variety of camera shutter release mechanisms, wired and wireless.

After experimenting I found it best to connect up the Stackshot and start up Helicon Remote first. Then I connected the camera and used EOS Utility to control the camera, with liveview. Make sure that as you step the Stackshot, EOS Utility view changes on your screen. If the view doesn’t update it signifies there may be a conflict somewhere between software.

The usual stackshot control functions are there – just no camera stuff.


Here’s the view on my other monitor showing the liveview camera setup.


A simple stack of 21 photos is quick to stitch as JPEGs.

Here’s the depth map (and usual ‘confusion’ in the out of focus background).


Stacking problems?

I tried several stacking methods, but a quick look at the detail in the image shows camera shake.


The setup is more than robust enough for the 1/13th second exposure.

It turns out that the stackshot was firing the shutter immediately the rail had been moved. My 4 second delay set in the HR Stackshot preferences was fine for Helicon Remote firing the shutter, but not the direct connection. Setting a 2 second shutter delay in EOS Utility fixed this – no more vibration.


A new stack of 39 shots.

This almost fixed it, apart from the stackshot rail returning to its start position after the last shot. The shutter fired during the return motion.

The simple fix for this – add an extra unwanted shot at the end of the stack.


Note the sharper image, but you can still get soft parts where repair or more fine tuning of stacking parameters will be needed.

The whole image (~1:1 ‘lifesize’) showing a 1/4″ to 3/4″ tripod adapter (it’s 1/4″ inside).


Other cameras – Panasonic S1R

In part of my review of the Panasonic S1R I looked at using the camera’s high resolution mode for obtaining ~187MP multi exposure shots.

Here’s the camera on the stackshot rail, whilst testing the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2X Ultra-Macro APO lens [review]


In the example I controlled the camera from the Panasonic Lumix Tether software, but the camera isn’t supported in Helicon Remote. The Stackshot rail was controlled using Helicon Remote (you can program it directly).

The chip inside an 8255 PIO integrated circuit.  [click to enlarge]


This image is over 4k pixels square and used the stackshot for positioning the camera in 187MP multi-shot mode.

I don’t have the S1R here any more for detailed experiments, but I’d note that in normal mode you could set up a shutter release in the same way I did for the EOS RP. One issue I noted at the time was the lack of flash triggering with multi shot exposures, necessitating strong lighting. With 187MP images and multiple deep macro images you will quickly find how much movement/vibration there is in your house/studio.

More experimentation

Macro and close-up photography is something I enjoy as a technical and artistic challenge.

Many of our commercial clients have initially approached us with  “I don’t know if this can be done, but…”

Personally I’ve no real interest in the macro staples of flowers and insects, but even if it’s just the basic focus stepping techniques outlined in Part 1 of the review, why not have a go?

For more detailed close-up and macro work, capturing a sharp image is the first challenge. However I’d suggest that creating an interesting photo is where the real skill will be needed.

There is a lot of interesting small detail out there – oh and a lot of dust too.

<Part 1Part 2 — |

Training – in normal times we offer bespoke UK on-site training for product photography for companies, which can include macro photography. See our training services for more info.

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