How It Was Shot – Lay Me Down

Lay Me DownI’ll often take shots that are different from my normal work.

While I would recommend to anyone that they concentrate on their chosen genre and their own style, I would also recommend not to limit yourself to only that.

Shoot something different know and again, break some rules, try new techniques. It helps to keep you fresh, keep you learning, keep pushing yourself and it’s fun!

This piece was a combination of wanting to capture some Autumn colors and have a play around with focus stacking.
I shot a number of shots at different focus points and then merged them together using PS.

PS and LR were then used for editing.

I’m sure there are different and better ways to do what I did, this is just my way.
If you know of any other ways or improvements please feel free to comment at the bottom of the page.


What Is Focus Stacking?

The concept of focus stacking is to take a number of shots at different focus points. These are then stacked and merged using software in such a way as to produce a sharp focus throughout the whole shot, a dof that stretches from the nearest object in the scene all the way to infinity.

This can be beneficial over shooting at a very small aperture, especially with cheaper lenses. At smaller apertures of f/22 and smaller, diffraction starts to become noticeable and can soften the image. The dof is wide but the overall image can look a little soft. This is more noticeable with cheaper lenses like my old kit lens.

So, to have an ‘infinite’ dof and an image as sharp as possible,  I decided to shoot at f/8 and focus stack. I know that f/8 is a sweet spot for this lens, before diffraction  starts to take affect.

I know I wanted a wide shot of this to get the scene in and give more of a feeling of ‘being there’. The lens that is almost permanently attached to my camera, the Canon EF-100mm f/2.8 macro, wasn’t going to work for this!
I don’t have what I would class a ‘good’ wide angle lens. Shooting what I usually do there’s never seemed any need for one (that may change soon though as I have had some new ideas!)
However, as a great friend rightly says, it’s not about your gear but what you do with it!


The Shoot

Canon EFS-18-135mmSo, I used the EFS-18-135mm Kit lens that came with my trusty old Canon T3i. It’s by far not the sharpest lens in the box but it can still produce some decent results.
I also had a CPL filter fitted to the lens.

As I would be focus stacking, the light was quite dim under all the trees and I was shooting at f/8, out came the tripod. I set up low to the ground and framed the shot using live view.

Two reasons I used live view…
1. It would be easier to see my focus points for each shot and ensure I had a good series of shots at different but overlapping focus planes for the focus stack.

2. It would mean I wouldn’t have to get into advanced yoga positions to look through the viewfinder!


Canon T3iWith the shot framed and tripod locked I then made sure I was in manual mode and set a good exposure for the overall scene. Manual will ensure that each shot will have the exact same exposure which will make your resulting focus stack painless.
For this shot the settings were f/8, 1/2sec ISO 100. (Always keep ISO as low as you can to help prevent adding unwanted noise)

With exposure set and using AF, I used live view and moved the focus point right down to the bottom of the frame. I didn’t have my remote release with me so I switched to the 2 sec timer for the shutter release in order to help prevent camera shake when releasing the shutter. I could have locked up the mirror too.

I took a shot, moved the focus point up a little, took another and repeated until the focus was at the very top of the frame. The important thing is that you need to have overlapping areas of focus for each shot. Using f/8 gave a decent dof and the total number of shots came out at 7.


Above are the 7 shots for the focus stack.

I always import into LR first. This is mainly because that’s all I use 99% of the time and I know it inside out but also because I use it’s great cataloging features and I would never find anything again without it!

Once in LR I selected the first of the 7 shots and made very basic global adjustments just to increase the contrast and dynamic range a little (RAW’s are always flat)


LR Adjustments 1

At this point I just wanted to get good base shots for the focus stack and not really do any editing above basic contrast adjustments.

I left the WB as shot, I knew I would be warming up the image later, increased the contrast a little, brought the whites up and blacks down. I did not touch clarity, vibrance or saturation at this point.

The only other adjustments in LR at this point were to check the ‘remove chromatic aberration’ checkbox (always done) and to leave sharpening at the default settings.

Once I was happy with these initial adjustments on the first of the 7 shots I applied the exact same adjustments to all 7 shots. This will ensure a smooth transition between the individual layers when it comes to focus stacking.

LR make this very easy. With your initial shot selected, all you have to do is to select all the other shots that you wish to apply the same adjustments to and click ‘Sync’. All 7 images then have the exact same adjustments applied, or the adjustments that you select in the popup box.

Now it was time to perform the focus stacking.


Using Photoshop to Focus Stack

I used PS for the focus stacking and it did a really great job of it, I only needed to edit one mask!

I exported the 7 shots from LR into PS by selecting all 7 shots in LR, right clicking and select ‘Edit In >> Open as Layers in Photoshop..’ You can also use the menu and go to ‘Photo >> Edit In >> Open as Layers in Photoshop…’

This will open a new PS document with each image loaded in as a separate layer.

The next thing was to make sure all the layers were perfectly aligned. This was carried out by selecting all the layers then going to ‘Layer >> Align >> Top Edges’ and then repeating with ‘Layer >> Align >> Left Edges’. All layers are then perfectly aligned to the top and left edges. You can also use ‘Edit >> Auto Align Layers’. This will align the layers using the content of the images and may work better if your camera moved slightly in between shots.

You may notice a slight field of view difference between each shot/layer if you look at them individually. As if the focal length was a little greater for the shots that are focused furthest away. This focus breathing and is totally normal. PS will handle it fine when it stacks the shots.

To focus stack the shots, ensure all layers are still selected go to ‘Edit >> Auto Blend Layers’, ensure ‘Stack Images’ is selected and click OK.


Photoshop Auto Blend


PS will then do it’s thing and usually makes a pretty good job at it. Once completed you will see that there is now a mask with each layer. It’s the masks that are masking out the blurred areas and showing the in focus areas of those layers below, thereby giving an image that is in focus throughout.


Photoshop Focus Stack


While PS did do a great job of blending the layers, it’s always worth taking a look at the individual layers one by one to see if any of them need any adjustments to their mask.  At this point I did notice one small section of leaves that were a little blurred that PS did not quite get right but a quick edit of the mask fixed this.

I then merged all the layers of the focus stack down into one layer. Focus stacking complete, it was time to start processing…


Processing in PS Round 1

The first thing that I did was to duplicate the layer and set the copied layer to soft light with an opacity of 32% just to ‘thicken’ up the whole image a little.

I then added a gradient adjustment layer, black to near white. This layer was set to soft light with an opacity of 64% to give a subtle dark to light effect from top to bottom of the image. I wanted the log to keep its exposure so I masked the log out of this adjustment layer.


Photoshop Gradient Fill Mask


This next technique may or may not be a know ‘trick’, it’s something I stumbled upon playing around and liked the effect that it had on the leaves.

I added a new solid white color adjustment layer, rasterized it and then added a difference clouds filter to this layer. This layer was then set to overlay and opacity 84%.
I also masked out the background around the log for this layer so it only effected the foreground and leaves. I felt this added some subtle random patches of light and shade that helped to add some added dimension and depth and seemed to work well on the leaves.


Photoshop Difference Clouds


The top third, background, was looking a little dark to me so I added another difference cloud layer (this one enlarged) set to screen mode at 6% opacity with the lower third of the image and most of the log masked out to slightly lighten that area but in a ‘patchy’ way so as to look more natural.

Thanks to focus stacking doing such a great job of ensuring that all of the scene was in focus, I felt that the small trees and bushes in the distant background were a little too distracting. I therefore decided to add some gaussian blur to this area.
This was achieved by copying the original image layer, moving it to the top of layer stack and then applying the gaussian blur filter to this layer.
The opacity of this layer was then adjusted to give the intensity of blur that I wanted.

Finally I applied a mask to this layer and masked out the foreground, log and trunks of trees in the background.


Photoshop Gaussian Blur


I then created a curves clipping mask for this layer and pulled the mid-tones down a little.
Lastly before going back into LR a new saturation adjustment layer was added set to +11 saturation to slightly boost saturation.


Photoshop Curve


LR Processing Round 1

Back in LR, the only global adjustment was +6 on the WB Temp just to warm up the whole image a little. Next a number of local adjsutments were made. For me, this is where the real fun is!

I added two graduated filters, on either side of the log, perpendicular to the sides of the log and ending at the log with a -.86 exposure adjustment. This has the effect of slightly darkening down the sides as they come in towards the log, leaving more light to draw the eye to the subject, the log and the leaves. Another graduated filter was similarly added at the bottom of the image to help draw the eye up into the image.

I then added some radial filters and adjustment brushes to add some subtle light to select areas to taste.


Lightroom Graduated Filter


At this point the background seemed way to dark and I wanted to see what a slight misty feel would look like, so it was back into PS….


PS Processing Round 2

Back in PS, I started by duplicating the layer and setting the new layer to Linear Dodge at 13% opacity.

To create the ‘misty’ look I added a gradient fill adjustment layer using a transparent to white gradient, with the layer set to Normal and 50% opacity. I then added a graduated mask to this layer so that the misty look did not take effect on the foreground and got more intense towards the background.

I then added a brightness/contrast adjustment layer, boosting the contrast some, to regain some of the lost contrast from adding the previous layer.


Photoshop Mist


To make this look a little more realistic and ‘patchy’, I then added a new blank layer and used a cloud brush across the bottom of the background, masking out the log. This layer was then set to overlay at 76% opacity to blend in and give a very subtly and slightly patchy look to the mist.


Photoshop Patchy Mist


Then back to LR for the finishing touches….


LR Processing Round 2

At this point the image was looking too cool and I really wanted to warm it up and draw the eye to the subject.

I started by adding a graduated filter with a slight exposure drop to the top and bottom and adding a slight vignette, again to help draw the eye to the main subject.
Next, a radial filter with an exposure boost and +59 WB temp was added for the sunlight coming through the trees in the background.

Finally some global adjustments to mainly warm up the image, +4 in WB temp, added a warm tone to the highlights using split toning and a blue matte (which has the effect of bringing out the warm yellow/oranges in the background more and warming up the greens).


Lightroom Completed


As they say, Bob’s your uncle! I had a piece that I was happy with and happy to call finished.

It was a lot of fun doing something a little different. Using PS and playing around with different techniques and ideas. I hope to do so more soon and would recommend every now and again that everyone do something a little different or out of their comfort zone.
That’s where we learn best and there’s lots of fun to be had if you free yourself 🙂




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