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Processing Focus Stacks

Processing Focus Stacks

with Canon DPP 4.8.30 for windows and Helicon Focus 6.7.1

It has been a long and painful process, but slowly I am improving my skills at computers. I can now predict I will be super at it should I live to 150! I can even teach a little bit about how I process the images. I don’t spend a lot of time working on each image, so I hope that doesn’t show too much. But, for others out there who are brutalized by computers from time to time, there is hope for you. If I can do this at all, anybody can do it.

This is the processed image and stacked with Helicon Focus! Notice how the flash lit up the rocks in the middle and right side of the foreground to simulate the dawn sun on the Tetons.

These four smaller images are the four images that make up the stack to get the ultimate in depth of field. I have been stacking landscapes and close-up images for about ten years now. My opinion is it is the most powerful new photo technique to come along in my career, except for digital photography itself.

I find Canon’s own free software called Digital Photo Professional (my current version is 4.8.30) works well for processing the RAW files produced in Canon cameras. Many pros now use this software for initial RAW file processing, and then use other software for special things. Canon’s software is not designed for JPEGs, but some things (cropping, color adjustment, and sharpening for example) are still possible with a JPEG.

Let’s start with a four-shot focus stack of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. It was a clear day with no clouds in the sky to work into the composition, so I thought adding more foreground landscape would show the tetons in better context with the wetlands the mountains create from "catching" winter snow that melts months later. Since I wanted the river dominant in the scene, I moved very close to it to make it appear even more expansive that it is. This produced an extreme depth of field to cover in a single shot because my foreground is close - only a couple feet away. No problem, though, as stacking the scene is quick and easy to do and covers unlimited depth of field.

How did I Stack it?

First, I had to determine the exposure. I set f/8 for the sharpness the lens provides, ISO 100 to use the native ISO of my Canon 5D Mark IV for less noise and other artifacts, and 1/200th second proved to be the optimum exposure for the RAW only files I was shooting. At that setting, the very first blinkies appeared in the lightest rocks. There weren’t many, but a few. I normally adjust my exposure to produce the first blinkies because I know the blinking areas are not overexposed in the RAW file, just getting close to it. By the way, the foreground was quite dark, so I fired a Canon 600 speedlite to light the foreground with a 1/2 CTO gel on the flash head to color the light more yellow and make the foreground rocks warmer in tone.

Now to Stack

My camera is set to both manual exposure and manual focusing. I don’t see as well as I once did, especially now that I need eye surgery, so I did it the easy way once again. I activated Live View to see the scene before me on the camera’s LCD. Then I put the focusing box on the closest spot where I want sharp focus, the nearest stones in the foreground, and magnified the image by 10x. Now I can easily see when that spot is in sharp focus. Once that is achieved, I quickly stick my hand in front of the lens and take an out of focus image of my hand. I have lots of those, anyone need one? Then I shoot the first image of the stack. Without bothering to decide what spot should be focused on next, I merely turn my Canon lens counterclockwise from behind the camera a tiny amount, and shoot another image, I keep up this sequence until my focus scale finally gets to infinity. Once there, I photograph my hand one more time to mark the end of the stack. Therefore, my stack of images to be combined with stacking software is found between the two images of my hand.

When I download my images to an external hard drive with the aid of my computer using Canon’s software. I create Folders. For all the images I shoot at the Grand Tetons, I make a folder called, guess what? Sure, I label it Grand Tetons. Then, in this folder I make sub-folders by right clicking on the folder. My first set of images to stack would be labeled 01. Another stack would be 02, 03, 04, …… and so on. So, lets process the four images of this scene that I happened to put in Folder 07 under the Grand Tetons folder. I open Canon’s DPP4 software program and that lets me search my computer and any attached storage devices like the external hard drive I downloaded the image to.

Canon’s DPP4 software program is certainly not nearly as complex as Photoshop, so it means even I have a chance at working with it. I don’t do a lot to the image as I always strive to shoot the best possible image in-camera, but all images benefit from some processing. So here are the basic steps I do. If you know of a better way with this software, please let me know as I still have much to learn.

This is a four shot focus stack of an Indiana lake. I began the focus on the plants in the foreground, and gradually focused further away until I captured infinity focus in the fourth image of the stack.

Open Digital Photo Professional

Click on File

Find the images you wish to process and stack in the folders where you put them. Select all the images in the stack and drag them to another subfolder (perhaps 07).

Now open Folder 07 to view all the images in the stack.

Double Click on any image in the stack to process it.

Click on View

Click on Edit Image (I have no idea why this is under View.)

Clicking on Edit Image brings up your processing options and tools. Since DPP4 is beyond the scope of this article, just know the main things I do to the image are:

  • Darken highlights

  • Brighten shadows (these first two reduce the contrast)

  • Increase sharpness

  • Color adjustment

  • Crop tool (I nearly always crop a little and this tool enables cropping.)

  • Stamp tool (if a blemish needs to be removed)

When the Image satisfies you, do this.

Click on File

Click on Save

Done with processing this image in DPP4! That wasn’t so painful was it? But, that is only one of the four images in this example. How about the others?

While still in DPP4, be sure to highlight the image just processed and saved. And make sure you refresh your computer.

Click on Edit

Click on Copy Recipe

Now highlight the other three images in this stack that were not processed

Click: Edit

Click: Paste Recipe

Click: File

Click: Save

Now Select all four images that should be processed identically.

Click: File

Click: Batch Process


For the Internet, I have been told the longest side at 2048 pixels works fine and makes the other shorter side (unless cropped as a square) proportional, so I do that and the new image is saved as a JPEG.

Click: Execute

Now Launch Helicon Focus

Click: File

Click: Open Images

Find the images in the folder you put them in. In this example, I look for Grand Tetons, and then the subfolder under that called 07.

Select all four JPEGS of the scene that were processed and reduced to 2048 on the long side.

Click: Open (Helicon opens these images and it does not take long as these are now JPEGs.)

Click: Render (usually I use option B for processing, but you may prefer option A or C for some images. When learning, just try all three ways and decide if you see a difference, and, if so, which one you like.)

Click: Save

This gives you the opportunity to rename the file this will be saved, so I might call it Schwabacher's landing 4 web. This scene is at Schwabacher's landing, 4 is the number of images in the stack, and web means it has been resized for optimum web use.

Click: Save

Click: OK

Done! I am now ready to post the processed and focus stacked image

How long does this take? I can do all of this in less than five minutes, so you will soon be able to do it faster. It is fun to do and so effective!

Several shots were taken to focus stack these rock patterns at White Pocket in northern Arizona!

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