Focus and Flower Photography – Part 2

I’ve had conversations with hundreds of flower photographers over the last five years and one comment I hear a lot is, “I don’t like blur – I want my entire image in focus”.  That is a personal choice and there is nothing wrong with it.  While soft and somewhat out-of-focus flower images are in vogue these days, I want to address how to capture a fully, in focus flower, if that’s what you are looking for.

Going back to Part 1 of this discussion, I talked about f/stop and the important role it plays in focus.  So, from that discussion you know that the more you stop down (close the aperture by using a larger aperture number), the greater depth-of-field (or focus) you have. So, technically, you could set your lens aperture to f/16 or f/22 and get the entire flower in focus …. maybe. Your camera would have to be level with the flower and have absolutely no angle at all.

If you are using a macro lens and you are close to the flower, even at f/16, you will get blur.  If you are using a macro lens but stand 3 to 4 feet away, you may get the entire image in focus at f/14 – f/16 but  then your background would be fairly in focus as well.

Another problem you may have with this method is lack of light.  Once you stop down your aperture to f/16 or higher, you will be losing a lot of light, causing you to have a very slow shutter speed.  To counteract slow shutter speed, you can raise your ISO (as long as your camera doesn’t produce noise at higher ISO’s) or you can use a tripod. 

When I know that I am going to hand-paint a flower image in Photoshop, I prefer to have a completely in focus subject so I use either Method 1 or Method 2 to obtain fully in focus flowers.

That said, I have two other methods for attaining an in focus flower.

Method 1: Shoot with a telephoto lens, preferably 70-300 or 75-300 at its widest aperture or fully open aperture (probably f/5.6).  Back up far enough so that your flower fills the frame (try not to cut off petals/leaves) and you should see your background blur.  The result will be flower in focus, background blurred.  If you happen to have an f/2.8 70-200 lens, all the better. Set your aperture to f/2.8 and backup enough to fill the frame with the flower.

Both of these images were shot with my 70-300 lens at f/5.6, handheld.

Method 2: Focus Stacking using a stack of 3 to 7 images. If you have a fairly steady hand, you can hand-hold and focus stack 3-5 images, otherwise, you will need to use a tripod. To begin, set your aperture to a mid-range choice of f/7.1 or f/8 and as you shoot, change the area of focus on your flower by using the focus ring on your camera. Make sure that you capture all the areas of the image in focus. Whether you are hand-holding or using a tripod, this technique works best if you manually focus each capture.

Steps for Focus Stacking: Perfect all the images in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw for white balance and exposure, then bring all images into Photoshop. Click on File/Script, then click on “Load Files Into Stacks”. You need to let Photoshop know that you have the files open and you want to use all the open files to create the stack. Once that port of the process is complete, close all the individual files leaving on the file with the images stacked in layers open.

The next step is to select all the layers in the file, then click on Edit/Auto-Align Layers. Once Photoshop has completed that task, leave the layers selected, then click on Edit/Auto-Blend Layers. Let Photoshop fill in areas with Content Aware Fill (you will be asked if you want that or not when you choose the Auto-Blend option).

And there you have it !!! If the Photoshop Auto-Blend doesn’t work well, it usually means that your camera moved too much from shot to shot and Photoshop can’t work with it.  You can attempt doing it manually if you feel so inclined, but patience will be required.

The Day Lily image (above right) was shot with my 105mm macro at f/8 with a focus stack of 7 images, handheld.

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