OLYMPUS GLOBAL >

OM-D E-M1 Ver. 4.0

Utilising Focus Stacking and Focus Bracketing in Insect Photography
with professional photographer, Kazuo Unno

Portrait basics entail shooting at the widest aperture value on a bright lens, while keeping the subject clear and sharp, and nicely defocusing the background.  However, when shooting very small subjects such as insects, macro shooting is used and the depth of field becomes extremely shallow.  For example, when using a 60mm macro lens and shooting at the closest focusing distance, focusing is only accurate within a range of 0.5 mm.  You then stop down the aperture, but even doing so does not let you capture a photo that is in focus to the edges.  Capturing a subject about 1cm in length from head to tail in perfect focus is a feat that all insect photographers wish to accomplish.

The forerunners in photography tried a number of different things, and came up with the most popular method: focus stacking.  Focus stacking is a method where multiple photos are captured at slightly different focal positions, and then only the areas in focus are merged to form a single image.  Because the smaller the subject the narrower the range of focus becomes, some subjects require a great amount of time and hundreds of photos.  This method is very taxing, and not effective for living subjects such as insects.

By keeping the aperture set to f/8 or above I was able to obtain greater depth of field and challenge myself to capture a composite focus shot of a living insect with just a few shots.  The Stylus TG-3 and TG-4 Tough cameras come equipped with a Focus Stacking Mode which automatically composites shots taken at different focal positions.  This feature made these cameras indispensable tools for me, but I also wanted the even better image quality provided by a 60mm macro lens.

What I ended up doing is use the TG-3 and TG-4 to shoot focus stacking images of small insects, and a 60mm macro lens to capture multiple images of large insects which I would later composite into a single photo.  So many times I wondered how convenient it would be to have a camera capable of focus compositing that I could attach a 60mm macro lens to.  I mean, it takes a minimum of 3 minutes to capture 100 focus shifted photos of a praying mantis.  Because the mantis won't stay still for that long, it forces you to reduce the number of shots.

KAZUO UNNO

But now the OM-D E-M1 Ver. 4.0 Firmware Upgrade, with focus stacking and focus bracketing, has been released.  I had the pleasure of testing the new firmware for about a month.Once I started using the new firmware, shooting was so much fun that I couldn't concentrate on my work for a month.

From the menu, turn Bracketing on, select Focus Bracketing Mode, and set the number of shots and focus steps.  Focus steps are available from 1 to 10, and up to 999 shots can be set, which is quite impressive.  A focus step refers to the amount of focus movement where 1 is the smallest setting.  When shooting at the widest aperture value, I would recommend using focus step 1 or 2.

First I tried shooting a static specimen.  I used focus bracketing to capture the face of a Malagasy jewel beetle at the studio.  Shooting time was significantly reduced when compared with my traditional method.  This is a very convenient function when you have to shoot a large number of specimen photos.  However, unlike focus stacking, focus bracketing does not automatically composite images on the camera, so you need to use third-party software to do so.

+

Standard Settings
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6, Focus step 1, 150 shots

Lens used

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro

When using focus bracketing, the subject size and camera angle determines what settings will get good results.  Although this is not always the case, when shooting near actual magnification with the focus step set to 1, it will take over 100 shots with a 60mm macro lens shooting at the widest aperture to capture a fully in-focus shot of an insect about 1 cm in length.  Next, I tried shooting a live insect against a white background.  Because live insects move, 100 shots are necessary, making it particularly difficult.  When shooting a small insect of about 1 to 2 cm in length, focus step can be set to 2 or 3 if the insect isn't moving, and about 50 to 70 shots produce good results.  An aperture setting of f/5.6 or f/8 is perfect.

+

Standard Settings
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6, Focus step 2, 70 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

Next, I attempted focus stacking shooting outdoors.  I decided to capture a dragonfly, first.  I tried the OM-D E-M1 Ver. 4.0's Focus Stacking Mode that automatically composites multiple images of different focus points.  Dragonflies sitting on stones actually don't move much, so they make good subjects.  I shot this with a 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom lens.  A focus step setting of 3 seems to be good.  Keeping the background defocused, the dragonfly stands out in the photo.

+

Standard Settings
Focal length: 420mm (35mm equivalent), f/6.3

+

Focus Stacking
Focal length: 420mm (35mm equivalent), f/6.3, Focus step 3

Lens used

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150MM F2.8 PRO

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 1.4x Teleconverter MC-14

I again changed to Focus Bracketing Mode, and used a macro lens and tripod to shoot a tree frog and a silver-studded blue in the thicket.  Because you won't capture a good shot if the insect moves or the wind blows, a focus step setting of 4 is probably best.  It is best to stop down the aperture as much as possible and capture less shots.  An antlion larva, which often lives on a mossy rock, has amazing persistence, waiting patiently, without moving, for a chance to catch a meal.  It is amazing how it actually covers its own back with moss to be completely camouflaged.  Because this insect barely moves, focus bracketing is the right choice.  When zooming in close on a larval insect smaller than 1 cm, because the surface of the rock is rough, you must use focus compositing to capture a shot that is completely in focus.  With the camera stabilised on a tripod, and the aperture set to f/5.6, I took 50 shots each at focus steps 1 and 2.  Although 50 shots were not enough on focus step 1,  50 shots on step 2 proved sufficient for a beautiful composite photo.

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/8, Focus step 3, 14 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/8, Focus step 4, 18 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/4, Focus step 1, 60 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

Focus stacking and focus bracketing are also useful for photos of plants.  Shooting water droplets on leaves is also macro photography, so the settings are the same as for insects.  Up to now, I never thought of shooting in any direction other than directly from above to capture a fully focused shot of leaves with dewdrops that stretch into the background.  Because you can also shoot from an angle when using Focus Stacking Mode or Focus Bracketing Mode, you can capture the background reflected in the water droplets.

+

Standard Settings
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

+

Focus Bracketing
Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6, Focus step 6, 7 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

+

Focal length: 120mm (35mm equivalent), f/5.6, Focus step 4, 20 shots
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro)

Macro shooting is where Focus Stacking Mode and Focus Bracketing Mode really shine.  However, I also discovered that these features can be used to capture images keeping both background and foreground in focus.  Use OM-D E-M1 Ver. 4.0 with Focus Stacking Mode and Focus Bracketing Mode, choose a subject, and you may discover creative photos that you've never imagined before.

+

Standard Settings
Focal length: 124mm (35mm equivalent), f/3.2
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150MM F2.8 PRO)

+

Focus Stacking
Focal length: 124mm (35mm equivalent), f/3.2, Focus step 1
(M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150MM F2.8 PRO)

Equipment Details

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150MM F2.8 PRO

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 1.4x Teleconverter MC-14