Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking
Creative, Featured Photographers 2

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking & Bracketing with the E-M1 Mark II

How can you shoot compelling Macro Photography quickly and easily? Join us as we sit down with Olympus Trailblazer, Peter Baumgarten, to chat about the new OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera system as well as how you can use Olympus’ Focus Stacking and Focus Bracketing features to create your own stunning Macro shots.

Please note: all images Copyrighted to, and courtesy of, Peter Baumgarten and used with his permission.

Peter Baumgarten

Peter Baumgarten
Olympus Trailblazer
Creative Island Photography

Steve’s Digicams: Hi, Peter. Welcome back to Steve’s Digicams. We met earlier this year to chat about your Frozen Bubbles Winter Photo Project (well worth a re-read if you’re looking for a fun project this winter). What have you been up to in 2016?

Peter Baumgarten: It’s been a busy year, photographically. I’ve been expanding my personal business and my online presence, I’ve led a few photography courses and workshops this year, and I continue to have the pleasure of working with Olympus as one of their Trailblazers. As such, I had the opportunity to be one of the first photographers in the world to work with the new OMD E-M1 Mark II, the incredible new flagship model. It was definitely a highlight of the year.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

Olympus had a terribly exciting year, first with the PEN-F and most recently the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which topped our 2016 Holiday Gift Guide (it’s the best overall camera system you can purchase for under $2,000). How long have you been working with the camera and what are your initial impressions?

I received a pre-production model back in July and have been shooting with it ever since. The physical changes are subtle, but welcomed. With a deeper grip it fits perfectly in my hand and remains well balanced, even with the larger lenses attached. I really like the inclusion of the three new custom settings on the mode dial. I’ve programmed them for the kind of shooting I do and that alone has helped improve my success rate.

The more dramatic changes, however, are on the inside. There are numerous improvements, but I’ll focus on three of the most impressive ones for me. First, is the auto-focusing. There has been a dramatic improvement in the focusing system. With 121 focus points that utilize both contrast and phase detection, speed and accuracy are incredible. The E-M1 Mark II is also achieving lightning-fast shutter speeds with up to 60fps in RAW even when using the electronic shutter. This has been great for action shooting, especially birds in flight. I’ve also been very pleased with the improved noise handling at higher ISO settings. I do a lot of low-light shooting and I really appreciate the cleaner images, even at ISO 6400.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

I hear you’ve been experimenting the Focus Bracketing and Focus Stacking features on the E-M1 Mark II. For those who might not know, what is Focus Bracketing / Stacking and how are they implemented on the E-M1ii? Is this an in-camera feature, or one that requires a separate app? Is it available on any other Olympus models?

Although it can be used in a variety of situations, focus bracketing is primarily used in Macro shooting. Macro lenses have notoriously shallow depths of field, even at smaller apertures. When you engage the focus bracketing feature it takes a user-specified number of shots, with each one focused slightly farther away from the original focus point. Third-party software, like Photoshop or Helicon Focus is then used to blend all of these images together creating a final photograph with much greater depth of field, yet still maintain the beautiful bokeh that helps isolate your subject.

Olympus has taken it one step further, by including built-in focus stacking that makes the process faster and more convenient. In this case, the camera takes 8 images, and stacks them in-camera. If you are shooting RAW you end up with the 8 RAW images, and a final focus-stacked image in jpeg format.

The focus bracketing and stacking were introduced in the E-M5 Mark II and then included in the fourth firmware update for the E-M1, as well as the E-M10 Mark II, and the new PEN-F. I used it a bit with these cameras, but was really interested to see if there were improvements in the E-M1 Mark II. That got me experimenting with the feature.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

Can you shoot hand-held or do you need a tripod?

Although a tripod is recommended, the 5-axis IBIS has allowed me to create some excellent shots completely hand-held. In large part, this will depend on the light conditions, but hand-held is definitely possible.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

How do you approach Focus Bracketing / Focus Stacking for Macro shots? IE, do you set out looking to do either as a project, or is it easy enough to do on the fly when a subject inspires?

In this case, I did take on a photo project to test the bracketing and stacking feature on the E-M1 Mark II. I have always found mushrooms to be rather photogenic and this year we had quite an abundance erupting from the forest floor in September and October. I enjoy macro photography but have always had mixed results given the very limited depth of field you can achieve with a single photograph. During my first excursion to a local wood lot, I was blown away by the results I was getting with the built-in focus stacking. I could see the final stacked image, but still had the RAW files should I want to play with them in Photoshop. I was so impressed that I returned several more times to capture a variety of fungal species.

Now I’ve programmed one of the custom settings on the Mode dial for focus stacking. That way, if I’m hiking through the bush and a macro subject catches my eye it’s a simple turn of the dial and I’m ready to shoot.

If any of your readers want a bit more information on this project they can check out my blog post on focus stacking.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

Have you tested the new M.Zuiko 12-100mm f4 IS PRO for Focus Bracketing and Stacking? Its ability to focus close is extraordinary.

Unfortunately, no. With its incredible focal range, and a close focusing distance of only 1.5 cm, I can’t wait to use this lens. It could become the workhorse of my camera bag.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Bracketing

Focus Bracketing

What other lenses do you use for Focus Bracketing and Focus Stacking? Do you have a favorite?

I started out my experimentation with the 60mm macro and loved the results. Since then I’ve used the 12-40mm PRO, the 40-150mm PRO and the 7-14mm PRO. My favorite is still the 60mm, but I do like how the 7-14 allows me to shoot close, and still provide greater visual context with its ultra-wide view.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

What are some tips you’d give other photographers trying Focus Bracketing / Stacking to capture Macro photos the first time?

Definitely start out with the focus stacking feature as opposed to bracketing. Even if you just use it to create a test shot, the overall results are quite impressive and it’s a great way to get your feet wet with the whole concept of stacked images.

Don’t expect perfect results every time especially if using slower shutter speeds like I was in a heavily canopied forest. Camera movement, subject movement, or rapid changes in light will cause a focus stacking error.

Shoot wide open if possible to keep that great defocused background. By isolating your subject you can really make the image pop.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

Any recommendations on how to approach sweetening the final Macro shots in Adobe Lightroom (or the equivalent)?

Once I became comfortable with focus stacking, I started doing more focus bracketing. Here I could take 30 or 40 shots of my subject and then use Photoshop to do the stacking. Of course, you don’t have to use all of the images from the sequence. I would regularly pick and choose only the best from the set and then stack them in Photoshop.

Prior to the actual stacking, I use Lightroom to do some fine adjustments, like adding a slight S-curve to improve contrast. I would then apply these adjustments to all of the shots and import them into Photoshop to be stacked and for any final adjustments.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Stacking

Focus Stacking

What other OM-D E-M1 Mark II features should new owners try out when they get their eager hands on these cameras on (according to Amazon.com) December 12?

Perhaps the most impressive feature on the E-M1 Mark II is Pro Capture – the ability of the camera to capture a set of images and buffer these prior to the shutter release being fully depressed. This allows you to capture that split-second shot that happens so fast you might otherwise miss it. I’ve been using it with some of my wildlife shooting and have had some great results. I know that Tracie Maglosky, one of our Olympus Visionaries, is using it quite successfully with her portrait photography as well. When people’s facial expressions can change in an instant, Pro Capture can dramatically improve the odds of getting the perfect shot.

The one piece of advice I might give is, don’t hesitate to push this camera to its limits. You may find that it exceeds your expectations in many areas. It certainly exceeded mine.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Bracketing

Focus Bracketing

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today! Any upcoming photo projects or news we should know about?

Thanks for letting me share a bit about my experiences with the new E-M1 Mark II, and specifically focus bracketing and stacking. Over the next few weeks I am traveling to the west coast of British Columbia for some photography and when I get back I will be planning my first winter photography workshop that I will be hosting in January.

Macro Unleashed: Focus Bracketing

Focus Bracketing

 

Palmer here again. Thanks to the folks at Olympus for facilitating this interview. If you’d like to see more of Peter’s work, please visit him at CreativeIslandPhoto.com. If you’re interested in pre-ordering the stunning OM-D E-M1 Mark II, you can do so here at Amazon.com. AND AND AND… if you get a chance to try out Focus Stacking or Focus Bracketing while shooting your own Macro masterpieces, we’d love to see them in our Photo of the Day Contest or on our Facebook page. Cheers!

You Might Also Like

2 Comments

  • Martin Hollands says: November 30, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    Wow, I can’t thank you enough for the insight in this. I have struggled with it, but will definitely redouble my efforts now I have seen what you have been able to achieve. Something for me to do in 2017 .

    Reply
  • Rob Skillin says: March 3, 2017 at 12:31 am

    I use focus stacking with the 60mm macro on an E-M1, and although it has the potential to work well, Olympus has dropped the ball in their manner of implementing it. They make it necessary to select a “focus differential” – a number between 1 and 10 – which determines the size of the “steps” between each shot in the stack. First of all, this selection is buried deep in the complex menu, making it impractical to adjust in a field situation. Second, it’s impossible to know what the optimal setting is for a given combination of focal length, focal distance and aperture, since Olympus gives absolutely no hints on how to determine it. Of course, the camera could figure this out automatically, and make the setting on its own, but its not currently programmed to do it. Such a shame that the superlative hardware is hamstrung by inadequate software.

    Reply
  • Leave a reply