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Author Topic: A Good Look at Zerene Stacker  (Read 5107 times)

Michael Erlewine

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A Good Look at Zerene Stacker
« on: April 30, 2010, 07:20:32 PM »

I seldom write software love-letters of any kind. “Zerene Stacker” (ZS) is an exception to my rule because it is an exceptional product! It is an incredible piece of software. I will explain.

There is a variety of stacking software available, some free like CombineZP, some expensive like Adobe Photoshop CS4, and some kind-of-expensive like Helicon Focus. And it seems there is more each month. I have not had time to work extensively with all of this software, but I have played around with a few them and done extensive work with Adobe Photoshop CS4. I am currently engaged with testing Zerene Stacker.

I am embarrassed to tell you that I did thousands of stacks using Photoshop CS4 and mistakenly assumed that all of its artifacts and disappointments were par for the course. I did this because I tried some others (not mentioned here because I did not pursue them) early on and got similar mistakes and artifacts as I did with Photoshop CS4, and thought they all were like this. I then went with Photoshop CS4 mainly because it seamlessly interfaced with Adobe Lightroom, a program I depend on every day.

Not sure why I did not connect with Zerene Stacker earlier, but as mentioned, there were a lot of programs around and I did not test them all. I lived with Photoshop CS4, warts and all.

So it came as a real surprise when I first ran a mid-sized stack (15 or so) on Zerene Stacker and watched two things happen before my eyes. The first was the fact that the program marched through that stack like a knife through butter. With Photoshop CS4, a stack of 6-7 photos could take five minutes, a half hour, an hour, an hour and a half, or all night. I never know which and sometimes Photoshop CS4 would grind away all night and by morning have stacked all the photo layers in something like a round ball, again: for no reason I could figure out. If I ran the stack again, often it would just deal with it correctly.

So to have a good-sized stack handled in a minute or two gave me no time to even run to the bathroom or read a short article. Bam! It was done. As mentioned, that was only half of the surprise.

The other, and larger half, was the fact that the very intricate stack was seemingly perfectly done. Every hair and bristle on the plant stems was preserved and there were no halos, no real artifacts. All I could say as my jaw dropped was “Wow! Where have you been all my focus-stacking life.”

ZS offers two distinct forms of stacking, one (DMap) that follows the general approach of Adobe Photoshop CS4 and (so I am told) all of the other stacking software on the market. It does a good job, but like Photoshop CS4 there are often ‘gotchas’, some of them acceptable, but some not really acceptable to me, and I would probably not be likely to show them to someone else like those of you reading this.

The second method or algorithm (PMax) is apparently original to this software and done by ZS’s author and creator, Rik Littlefield. This stacking method does everything I ever dreamed about and hoped for, with one caveat, and that is that sometimes there is a little more noise and color shift than you want. There are no artifacts like you are used to seeing in Photoshop CS4 and other software, no out-of-focus areas created by the software itself, like halos, etc. - almost never. This in itself is remarkable.

And you can stack your photos deep and still get that incredible gazing-into-the-Grand-Canyon feeling, as everything is in deep focus and has a real sense of space. There is more.

The most mind-bending feature of Zerene Stacker is the re-touching tool for stacks. It works like Lightroom’s adjustment brush, but is even a little sweeter. You position your finished stacked photo on the right, and can shuffle through any sized stack on the left. When you find a stack layer that has the detail (or lack) you are looking for, you just brush over that area on the right and voila, it is seamlessly changed.

This retouching feature makes the very tedious process of masking, etc. alternate layers totally simple and accurate. With Zerene Stacker I can retouch my most interesting stacks or repair ones that otherwise would be lost, putting exactly what I want to see on the surface of my finished stacked photo, like frosting on a cake. I was taken aback at how powerful this feature is, how easy to use, and how absolutely useful it is.

So I am madly stacking away with Zerene Stacker these days, handling each day’s load much faster, and eyeing re-doing all the many thousands of stacks I have accumulated to the present.

I can’t say there are NO compromises with Zerene Stacker, but there seem to be almost none that don’t have workarounds. ZS’s more-or-less flawless stacks (PMax option) tend to accumulate noise more than I would like and some colors shift a tiny bit. The color thing has not bothered me yet and I am sensitive to color, which is why I like APO lenses like the Voigtlander 125 and the Coastal Optics 60mm. The color is ok. And ZS will accept ProPhotoRGB color space, do its thing, and the finished .tiff shows up with the correct color back in Lightroom. Thank goodness for that!

The accumulated noise is more difficult to be happy about, but it does not show up on all photos. Or, put another way, many photos don’t show off the noise. And, as mentioned, ZS offers a second (more traditional) method (DMap option) that does not add noise and does not muck with the colors. It however can cause posterization and some other problems.

The author has a built-in contrast-threshold slider that lets you choose what sections of the photo to not mess with and to just smoothly let flow together. In other words, if there are areas where no detail is present, this option allows you to not-enhance any of what is there, but to leave it alone. It works pretty well and that along with the retouching feature seems a solution to most problems I have come up with so far. Of course I do have a suggestion.

I would like to see the author add a couple of noise reduction options to the suite, and it would be pretty much perfect. It is pretty darn perfect, at least for me, right now and it only costs $89 for a single-user license. When I think of the countless hours I spent waiting for Photoshop CS4 (64-bit, dual-core, etc.) to return my finished stacks, I have to wonder why they cannot do what one individual has done. Thanks Rik Littlefield for Zerene Stacker! I would be interested in other’s comments who have used this program.

Enclosed is a stacked photo I took today using Zerene Stacker.


More photos showing artifacts between Photoshop CS4 and Zerene Stacker
« Last Edit: May 01, 2010, 03:04:58 AM by Michael Erlewine »
Michael Erlewine
Founder:, AMG - All-Movie Guide, All-Music Guide, All-Game Guide, Matrix Software, Classic Posters,,, and other sites.
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