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Author Topic: THE EYES HAVE IT  (Read 619 times)

Michael Erlewine

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« on: November 03, 2018, 01:47:48 am »


I get philosophical about photography and taking photos. It is deeply wedded to my meditation practices and has very much become a practice in itself. Quite a bit of the photography I do involves what is called “Focus stacking,” which consists of taking many layers of a flower or a subject, each with a sharp focus at a slightly different distance and combing them into a single image. The result is an image that appears to have more depth of field (everything is in focus) than traditional photography.

Focus stacking is often said to appear to give us more depth-of-field (DOF), which can be true if we always move from front to back of the image when we are stacking. That’s something beginners latch on to. However, it is so much more than just putting everything more in focus.

By stacking focus, we can also have areas of the image in sharp focus, even if they are in the front, back, or middle of the image. And what I find most useful is that by stacking focus I can use very fast lenses (well-corrected) that are also sharp wide open to paint blocks or whole areas of an image in focus.

In general and traditionally, fast-focus lenses are used when we want a razor-thin depth of field with one slice in sharp focus and the rest in bokeh of one sort or another. However, by using fast, well-corrected, and sharp lenses we can (as mentioned) paint focus where we want and leave the rest to go to bokeh, which fast lenses are famous for.

By breaking away (taking a break) from the traditional one-point/one-plane of focus, the eye of the beholder is not automatically prompted or drawn to a pinpoint or plane in the image. Instead, the eye is free to roam around and assume whatever view pleases. It is kind of a new experience!

This is what I find so liberating about stacking focus, the freedom of the eye to direct itself. It is also, IMO, why stacked images have been said to be a little psychedelic. We are used to having our eye being led by the focus plane and its points in the image and not used to having our eyes point things out for themselves. It can be an adventure.

And there are lots of ways to stack. There are long 25-30 and very long (160) and “scientific” (hundreds) of layers, but there are also what I call short stacks. A short stack might be from 3 to 7 or so layers and photos are not taken in serial sequence from front to back. Instead, you can just make a stack out of points of interest. For example, you have a subject with five flowers. You might take a shot of each flower focusing at the very center of each and stack those. You end up with a photo with five very sharp flowers and the rest just blends in. It is very easy to do.

Or, you might take a shot of the whole scene with the lens wide open and get a field of bokeh. Then take a few shots of individual flowers at an aperture with more depth of field and stack the bunch. This type of collage-stack may require more retouching to bring the different layers together.

Stacking, like DVDs and CDS, is a digital sampling technique, where by definition some data is lost while the data you want to keep is highlighted. There are many methods, but each has a specific result. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For example, I don’t like most HDR photos, but I do like a well punctuated stack.

So, if we think of focus stacking as just having everything in focus, I (jokingly say) “Why not just take a picture.” I look at stacking more as if each photo is an impression of what I see or the world as I would like to see it (or sometimes do). Ming Thein is my favorite photographer, but my work is nothing like his (not that I could do what he does!). I kind of paint with light and like images where parts of the image are stacked and in sharp focus or micro-contrast, while other parts are bokeh or extreme dreamy bokeh. Examples of what I like can be found here that speak louder than words.

At one time or another I have bought all the major software that stacks focus and tried the free-ware too. For my purposes, Zerene Stacker is my software of choice. It offers two major approaches to stacking, that if combined can produce images that I like. They are called PMax and DMap. Briefly, DMap protects color and PMax protects detail. I always use Dmap first because to me “Color is King,” and then I fill-in by retouching with PMax. I find the retouching features of Zerene Stacker to be more profoundly useful than other brands, IMO.

Retouching is an art as I see it. So, I don’t avoid retouching, but work to become skilled in it. I also have tried focus-rail auto-stacking, but don’t use it often, not to mention every of kind of focus rail. A lot depends on how you stack. The very best way to stack images for modern stacking software to handle (and avoid artifacts) is on the view camera by moving the rear standard. The second best method is by turning a helicoid on the lens or a lens barrel, and the worst (relatively speaking) way is to use a focus rail. I pay attention to that.

I also experiment constantly. In fact, I consider all my photography as experiments, rather than finished pieces. I have shot many hundreds of thousands of images and have yet to print out a single one. And never have I put a printed image on the walls of my home. To me, photography is not a vocation, but a passion. Although I am getting decent results these days, the process of photography has always been more important to me than the results. Perfecting the process perfects the results, IMO. In other words, the place we are going is how we travel. That idea.

[Photo taken by me.]

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