Photographing Flowers - Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)

Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)


Photographing Flowers

Flowers may entice more shutterbugs into the magical world of close-up and macro photography than any other subject. Both cultivated and wildflowers offer endless opportunities for producing images with their kaleidoscope of colors and appealing shapes. They are readily available during all seasons of the year. Even during winter when the snow halts the growing season, potted flowers readily thrive indoors where they are easy to photograph using diffused window light, reflectors or flash, and artificial backgrounds made from photo prints or colored matte boards.

Wildflowers are especially fun to discover and photograph. While many species are abundant for long periods of time, other “shy” wildflowers—especially wild orchids—grow in extremely restricted habitats and bloom in small numbers for short periods of time. They are challenging to find because their unique habitat of acid bogs and swamps where many species thrive is often hidden from casual observation. It is such a thrill to finally discover a small colony of Arethusa, Showy Lady’s-slipper, Yellow Lady’s-slipper, Ram’s-head Lady-slipper, Grass-pink, Rose Pogonia, or Calypso orchids. All are incredibly photogenic.

One convenient aspect of wildflower photography is that once you find them, usually they can be found year after year in the same spot at the same time of the year. For example, over the July 4th weekend we know places in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where small colonies of the magnificent Showy Lady’s-slippers thrive. Some wildflowers, however, vary their blooming time. I remember exploring a thriving colony of rarely seen Painted Trilliums in eastern Michigan near Port Huron on Michigan Nature Association property that were blooming in mid-May. When I returned the following year at the same time, the trilliums were still in tight bud. Apparently, a colder than normal spring delayed their blooming time by two weeks!


Tulips make pleasing images and photographing them helps you perfect your close-up photo skills. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/5, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy, Aperture-priority.

Over thirty-five years of doing nature photography as a profession, the common advice we heard was “don’t bother with wildflowers because everyone does them. The market for wildflower images is saturated and you simply can’t sell enough images to make it worth your time and expense.” However, we found images of wildflowers were tremendously profitable and worthy of our time. Besides, we love looking at and photographing flowers. It never mattered if their images earned us a paycheck or not, for we find them fun and challenging to photograph, and so we seek them out. In fact, we have never photographed anything simply to make money. We always follow our passion and photograph what interests us. The income from these efforts is more like a fringe benefit. Perhaps, if you photograph what really interests you, the images are naturally better because you expend more effort and thought to do them well.


Everyone can “sneak” up on a wildflower and most of us have no trouble finding them. Although wildflowers are relatively easy to find and approach, they are not necessarily easy subjects to photograph successfully. Wildflowers and cultivated flowers both demand superb photography technique, a creative eye with a knack for composition, and the ability to find something extra in the flower.

What is something extra? A pristine flower blossom is richly colored and nicely shaped. No tears, dirt, insect bites, or decayed parts mar the blossom. It makes a lovely image—true—but it does not have that something extra that is so vital to a truly fine image. Here’s a short list of flower shots that have something extra.

✵A grasshopper perched on the flower

✵A bumblebee sleeping under the petals

✵Dew or raindrops sprinkled all over the flower

✵A yellow crab spider hiding in the blossom waiting for prey

✵Frost on the flower

✵The red ball of the rising sun behind the flower

✵Complementary colors from other flowers in the foreground or the background


The spider web that is being supported by the Common St. Johnswort is a lovely “something extra” that makes this flower even more appealing. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/15, f/13, ISO 100, Cloudy.

All of these examples provide that added boost that can make a truly compelling flower image.


Let’s describe how not to do it first. Take a 50mm macro lens and shoot handheld on a breezy day in bright sun. Photograph as many blossoms as you can as quickly as possible while using Aperture-priority or the Program shooting mode. You will capture plenty of images this way. Your friends may say your photos are wonderful (they are just being kind or don’t have the eye for quality images), but the quality of the images is dismal. The pictures suffer from severe lack of sharpness (blurs are great at times, but not all of the time), the light is unappealing with too much contrast, the exposures vary from too light to too dark, the background is chaotic and unappealing, and the composition is underwhelming.

Instead, use a shooting strategy that consistently guarantees quality images. Let’s outline the one we use, but feel free to modify it to fit your budget or shooting style. Our shooting strategy has been modified over the decades as new techniques become available and continues to gradually evolve as we constantly gain experience. Sometimes one of our gifted workshop clients says something that becomes tremendously helpful and leads us down a new path. As full-time photography instructors, we welcome the opportunity to learn from our clients while teaching them—a win-win for everyone.


There is little point traveling to the wildflower meadow when you know the wind is blowing hard and the bright sun is creating too much contrast, unless, of course, you are merely scouting for potential subjects. Plan to visit during calm periods—usually early or late in the day. A bright overcast day, however, can be calm and may offer terrific light all day long. Early morning or late evening red sunshine works well, too. If the sun is shining brightly in the meadow, be aware there is a one- or two-hour period before sunset where the flowers may be illuminated by soft light because trees or perhaps a nearby hill blocks the bright sun.


We dislike this image because the light is far too high in contrast and the badly lit yard in the background is distracting. How do we make this flower look better? Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/200, f/16, ISO 400, Cloudy.


Spend some time looking for the most attractive flower blossom or the best group of flowers. Also, key in on any something extra possibilities. If an insect, water drops, frost, or a “cute” spider happens to be perched on the flower, so much the better. Perhaps a certain blossom is found in a spot where the background is especially attractive or easy to completely blur to remove all distractions.


Let’s move the potted poppy to make it easier to isolate against the sunlit lawn and bring the camera closer to the subject to reduce the amount of background. Finally, a sprinkler adds “rain” to create more interest in the image. Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/160, f/16, ISO 400, Cloudy.


Select a viewpoint (shooting angle) that allows a fine composition of the subject. Consider the foreground and the especially important uncluttered background. Make sure there is a clear shot in the foreground without obstacles being in the way—unless selective focus is desired—and the background is not distracting. Sometimes the direction of the light suggests the best shooting direction. For example, if you plan to highlight the translucent parts of the flower, you must use back light and shoot toward the light. Remember flash can be used easily to create back light any time you want it to.


We use Canon 180mm and Nikon 200mm macro lenses on a tripod nearly 100 percent of the time for photographing single-flower blossoms. As previously stated, the advantages of long focal length lenses are worth repeating. These long lenses have a narrow angle of view for simplifying the background, much more working distance than shorter lenses, and each lens has a built-in tripod collar that balances them better on a tripod and makes vertical images easier to shoot. By the way, some photographers use the terms working distance and focusing distance interchangeably. They are not the same. We consider the working distance to be the distance between the subject and the front of the lens hood. Focusing distance is always a greater distance because it is the distance between the subject and the camera’s sensor when the subject is precisely focused.


Always look for multiple compositions when you find an attractive subject. This backlit close-up of a tulip has pleasing lines and shapes. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/30, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy.


It is effective to isolate a single blossom against others of its kind such as this tulip. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/400, f/8, ISO 200, Cloudy.


Support the camera and lens on a sturdy tripod. The tripod allows the use of all shutter speeds, especially the commonly used ones in the 4 seconds to 1/15 of a second range. The tripod locks in the composition, allowing you to wait for the subject to become motionless if a persistent breeze is challenging you. Since the tripod supports the equipment, the photographer’s hands are conveniently freed up from this duty. Now a flash, reflector, or diffuser can be held in position with one hand. The other hand can trip the shutter using a remote release while simultaneously shading the viewfinder to eliminate the light through the viewfinder problem when using any automatic exposure mode. Shielding the viewfinder isn’t necessary when using Manual exposure.


Study Barbara’s flower technique closely. She is using a small shovel that is pushed into the ground to hold the Plamp that is gently stabilizing the orchid. She trips the shutter using a cable release with her right hand and holds the wireless controlled flash in the proper position with her left hand to photograph the orchid. Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70mm at 58mm, 1/8, f/20, ISO 100, Shade.


Even when the air is totally still, it doesn’t take much to make the air move enough to cause an unsharp image when using slow shutter speeds of 1/60 of a second or slower. Even moving your arm stirs the air, which can make a motionless flower suddenly begin to sway ever so slightly. Use a plastic electric fence post (about $3), small tripod, or flash stand to support the Plamp, and put it close to the subject. With one end of the Plamp attached to the stand support, attach the other end of the Plamp to the flower stem as close to the blossom as possible, but keep the Plamp out of the image. Be cautious, though, as some flowers have delicate stems that are easily crushed. In that case, there are holes in the Plamp’s flower clamp for the stem to go into to avoid crushing it. With especially delicate flowers, it is highly effective to push the Plamp’s clamp up against the stem to apply some pressure to it without actually gripping the stem. Anyone who damages a flower with a Plamp isn’t using it correctly!


We looked at several individuals before deciding this is the best looking Northern Bog Orchid growing in the roadside ditch. Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/8, f/22, ISO 100, Cloudy, −1 fill-flash.


Set f/18 to obtain adequate depth-of-field, ISO 100 or ISO 200 to avoid digital noise in the image, and manually adjust the shutter speed control to the zero point on the exposure scale that appears in the camera’s viewfinder. Shoot the image and check the RGB histogram to see if any of the color channels are touching the right wall of the histogram. If not, add more light by slowing the shutter speed and shoot new images to view the histogram until it does. If the histogram data is climbing the right wall, it means some highlights may be clipped and highlight detail might be lost. Reduce the exposure by increasing the shutter speed and shoot another image to check the new histogram. Remember, the goal as a RAW shooter is to snuggle the rightmost histogram data up to the right wall and even climb it a tiny bit. For JPEG shooters, make sure the rightmost histogram data stops a little shy of the right wall.


Focus accurately by looking through the viewfinder, or better yet, use Live View and scroll the focusing box over to include the most important part of the subject and magnify that area. Usually an important spot on the front of the flower is selected. Now manually focus the lens. When you shoot the image, the lens stops down to produce more depth-of-field in front of and behind the focus point than you see in the viewfinder or LCD display. This makes the flower look acceptably sharp. If the subject is completely still and will remain so for a minute or two, then the awesome focus stacking technique can produce superb sharpness that completely covers the entire depth in the flower. We will discuss focus stacking shortly.


The frost nicely edges this larkspur on a cold June morning. The yellow sun figure shows precisely where we manually focused the lens using a magnified Live View image. This image is taken in 2010. Today we would use f/11 and shoot a focus stack of images. Canon 7D, 180mm, 1/6, f/16, ISO 100, Cloudy, fill-flash.


Even when the light is thoroughly diffused, some shadows underneath the blossom may still be unacceptably dark. Once you determine the optimum exposure for the ambient light, set the flash compensation control to −1.3 stops. Hold the flash close to the front of the lens, point it directly at the flower, and shoot the image. If the shadow detail looks fine, shoot some additional images. Vary the angle of the flash to the subject slightly to get different lighting effects. If the shadows are too dark, add more light with the flash by setting the flash exposure compensation to put out more light—perhaps −2/3 stop. This will open up the shadows by two-thirds of a stop. If the shadows are too light in the initial exposure, then set less flash exposure compensation (FEC), perhaps −2 stops of light. Continue to adjust the FEC amount until you arrive at the desired shadow density. Be certain that adding light with the flash doesn’t overexpose any flower highlights by monitoring the histogram and the highlight alert!

Flash is effective for highlighting the flower while darkening its surroundings quite easily. It is a technique that we call main flash. Set the ambient light exposure to be 1 stop underexposed as shown by the histogram where the rightmost data retreats from the right wall by 1 stop of light. Now use positive (usually) flash exposure compensation—perhaps +1 stop—to properly expose the flower. You know when you have it perfect because no blinkies appear in the flower and the rightmost histogram data moves close to the right wall. Now the flash is the main light illuminating the flower and the background is 1 stop darker. To perfectly light the flower, be sure to monitor the histogram’s rightmost data. Through-the-lens flash can be a bit tricky if you try to use the same flash exposure compensation all of the time because the amount that is needed varies greatly as subject reflectance, the size of the subject, metering modes (Spot or Evaluative, for example), and the distance to the background come into play. Just this morning I did some main flash on flowers where I had to use −1 stop flash compensation—and the flash was the main light. Apparently, the distant background caused the flash to emit too much light when a positive flash exposure compensation was set. The flash was trying to light up the background and overexposed the delicate light blossoms in the foreground. I monitored the histogram to arrive at the proper −1 FEC setting.


This garden Dahlia is nicely isolated against the lawn. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/3, f/16, ISO 100, Shade.


While the previous image is satisfactory, completely shadowless light can be boring. This version benefits from using a flash to nicely back light the Dahlia. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/5, f/16, ISO 100, Shade, Canon 600EX flash.

If the ambient light is already sufficiently diffused and doesn’t produce shadows, flash can be easily and quickly used to slightly and pleasingly increase the contrast. Underexpose the ambient light a little—perhaps by two-thirds of a stop—and use flash to produce a highlight and proper exposure on one side of the flower. Try pointing the flash at the rear of the flower to highlight it with light from behind. This is an incredibly effective technique that we use frequently. Using flash offers many creative choices and you’ll get better at seeing the possibilities as you gain experience with its use. For most close-up and macro images, it is desirable to mix flash and ambient light together to avoid the flash look and to produce beautifully illuminated images. We do this for the vast majority of our close-up images.


Shoot as many stunning compositions of the subject as you can. Can the flower be leaned forward or backward to allow another background to be used? Can you select another viewpoint to allow the use of a different foreground or background? Can you add a splash of color to the foreground or background to complement the colors in the flower? Can you use a mister to add water drops to the blossom for added interest? Is the subject still enough to employ focus stacking to achieve maximum sharpness? Did you discover the best blossom that has something extra?


While back light is incredibly effective for all translucent subjects like this lily, it doesn’t work well if the contrast is excessive. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/400, f/16, ISO 400, Shade.


Flash nicely lights the flower while the natural sun back lighting continues to highlight the water drops. Only the addition of adding light with a Canon 600 EX flash is different.

Don’t forget about the light. Does the subject need to be shaded or the light illuminating it diffused to lower the contrast? Should flash be used to fill in the shadows or create shadows? Does the subject stand out more if the ambient light is used as fill light and flash is the main light? Should ambient light be the main light, but flash be used behind the subject to add some backlit highlights? There are always many possibilities besides the obvious ones. As you gain experience, you will learn to see the ways you can modify things and do it quickly.


Have fun and be creative. Barbara set her camera to AutoGain to keep a good exposure and set the camera to multiple exposure. Using the collar on the lens, she focused on the flowers, took a shot, then rotated the lens within the collar and shot another image, and did it again for a total of five shots. Nikon D3, 80-200mm lens at 130mm, 1/60, f/20, ISO 200, Cloudy, Aperture-priority.


Barbara focused on the pink tulip. Once again she used AutoGain and set the camera to multiple exposure. She shot the pink tulip and then zoomed the lens to a longer focal length. She recomposed to keep the pink tulip in about the same spot and shot another and kept this up for several shots. Nikon D3, 200mm, 1/10, f/22, ISO 200, Cloudy, Aperture-priority.


When you finish photographing, always unclamp the Plamp from the subject first. If the Plamp is still attached and you grab the Plamp support, you will surely damage the flower. Grab the tripod and carefully back away from the flower. During the entire photography process, always be aware of delicate plants that may be growing nearby. Be careful to avoid them. While most of us see the blossoms, look for plants that have yet to bloom. Don’t trample them. We all must work to let our native wildflowers go to seed to produce a new generation for future viewers and photographers and to fulfill their role in the natural environment.


While we enjoy the wildlife and gorgeous natural views at our Idaho mountain home, living on a fairly steep mountain slope means the air is seldom completely still. Cooling air tends to flow down the hillside, gently quivering our flowers. At times we can find completely still air by putting our potted flowers on the downhill side of our huge garage. The building blocks the flowing air. Sometimes this works perfectly and sometimes it does not. Not wishing to allow our flower photography on our property to be at the mercy of the weather, we decided to find a way to shoot close-up images anytime we want. It became crucial to find a way to effortlessly stop all breezes and modify the light.

We routinely use our small greenhouse to photograph potted flowers and other close-up subjects. When the door and all of the windows are closed, the air is completely still. White sheets completely diffuse the light producing an ideal environment for photography that is especially suited to focus stacking techniques. We use photos of out of focus natural scenes as backgrounds in the greenhouse, although at times, it is possible to open one of the windows or the door to use the forest or meadow behind it as the background. We have only had a greenhouse for a couple of years, but wished we had used them sooner.



Focus stacking software programs such as the hugely popular Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker allow the capture of unlimited depth-of-field when the subject is perfectly still and remains still over a minute or two, the time needed to shoot the series of images. It is incredibly useful in close-up photography for mushrooms, flowers, frogs, berries, insects, water drops, and most other subjects. Although not the focus (pun intended) of this book, it is becoming widely used in landscape photography, too.

As you know, even at f/22, when you are photographing at the higher magnifications, the depth-of-field is very shallow and may only extend over a fraction of an inch. If the depth of the flower is 1 inch, there is no way to sharply focus every portion of the flower because the depth-of-field is simply too shallow, even at f/22. However, focus stacking allows you to sharply focus everything. It seems like magic, especially to photographers who have struggled with the limitations imposed by inadequate depth-of-field over the years. Now the impossible is easily possible. Shoot a series of images where the focus is varied a small amount in each image. Every part of the subject must be in sharp focus in at least one of the images. Load the entire set of images into a software program. When you run the program, it selects the most sharply focused parts of each image and combines them to produce a final image where everything appears in sharp focus!


Select the Appropriate Subject

Since many images (often twenty or more) must be shot to cover the focus between the front and the back portions of the subject, it is crucial that the subject remain completely still. A motionless flower, dew-laden dragonfly, mushroom, and frog all work. A flower wiggling in the breeze or a caterpillar slowly crawling up a plant stem doesn’t work.

Use Manual Exposure

The exposure must not change while shooting the sequence of images. Automatic exposure modes may change the exposure as you change the focus from shot to shot. Therefore, use Manual exposure to lock in the exposure. If you must shoot twenty images—for example—make sure the light doesn’t change during this process. If it does, reshoot the series of images when the light remains steady. Determine the optimum Manual exposure in the usual way. To refresh your memory, use the histogram to guide you and set the exposure to make the histogram’s rightmost data snuggle up to the right wall of the histogram if shooting RAW. If shooting JPEGs, then let the rightmost data approach the histogram’s right wall, but not touch it.

Use f/11 Depth-of-field

Throughout this book, when maximum depth-of-field has been sought we have suggested you use f/16, f/18, and f/20. We encourage you to avoid stopping down any more than f/20 because the optical problem of diffraction becomes too detrimental with such small apertures, especially with lenses shorter than 200mm. Remember, diffraction is what happens to light as it passes through a tiny hole. Due to the wave nature of light, it bends or diffracts when light grazes an object. Diffraction happens at all apertures, but it is especially noticeable and therefore deleterious at tiny apertures, such as f/22 and f/32, because a high percentage of the light passing through the tiny hole is diffracted. Using f/16 to f/20 is a happy compromise between getting the maximum depth-of-field while still avoiding much of the diffraction problem—though not all of it.

The typical lens delivers the sharpest images when the lens is stopped down 2 to 3 stops from the wide-open aperture. If you have a 200mm f/4 macro lens, then f/8 to f/11 are superbly sharp apertures to use with that lens. Since running a stack of images through Helicon Focus, Zerene Stacker, or another focus stacking software program provides maximum sharpness for the subject, it is not necessary to use f/16 to f/20.


The frost on the Purple Coneflower is a pleasing bonus. At this magnification, it is impossible to get every part of the flower sharp unless one uses a wonderful relatively new technique called focus stacking. This final image is a result of combining twenty-three images with Helicon Focus. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm, 1/2, f/11, ISO 100, Shade.


The focus is on the closest part of the blossom at the bottom of the image. This is the first image in the stack of twenty-three images.


This is the last image in the stack where only the furthest part of the flower is in focus. Remember, in addition to the three images shown here, twenty other images are in the stack. Each image is focused on a slightly different part of the flower. Using a focus rail, or manually changing the focus on the lens, start at the front of the subject and keep changing the focus in tiny increments until the rear of the subject is finally in focus. Then combine the images into one with tremendous depth-of-field. It is easier to do than it sounds!

The image will be sharper if you select f/11, shoot a series of images (called a stack) that cover the area you wish to render perfectly sharp and then combine all of these images with the software to produce an ultra-sharp image.


This is image #8 in the focus stack. The middle of the blossom is focused and both the front and rear of the flower remain out of focus.


Use Manual Focus

Do not use autofocus. The focus must be controlled manually and adjusted from one shot to the next in very small increments. Begin by focusing on the closest spot where sharp focus is desired and shoot the image. Then focus a tiny bit farther into the subject and shoot another image by turning the focus ring on the lens a wee bit until you see the focus change a little. Keep doing this until the furthest spot where sharp focus is desirable is achieved and shoot this final image. In most cases in close-up photography, every part of the subject should be in sharp focus, but not the background. Landscape photographers often want everything from the near foreground to the distant background in sharp focus, so they might need to focus on the background. We find it works best to focus on the closest point where sharp focus is desirable and shoot our way to the rear of the subject because it is easier to see if the closest point is in sharp focus. Some may prefer to do the opposite and shoot the stack by focusing on the rear of the subject and shoot their way to the front of the subject. Either way works!

Turning the Focusing Ring

Focus on the closest part of the image that must be in sharp focus. Shoot the image. Turn the focusing ring the correct direction to focus the lens at a slightly greater distance and shoot another image. Do the focusing gently to avoid jarring the camera and tripod too much. Remember to keep the focusing increment small between shots. Turn the focus ring just enough to see the focus shift slightly past the previous image. Continue this process until the last shot taken is focused precisely on the part of the image that is furthest away where sharp focus is desired. To find these focus stacks quickly, it is wise to photograph your hand (doesn’t need to be in focus) to mark the beginning and end of the stack of images. While it is easy to notice a set of images that are destined for focus stacking if you shoot only one series, it is much easier to find the end points when you shoot several series of images in a row by marking the end points with out-of-focus images of your hand. Obviously, all images between the two images of your hand are meant to be part of one focus stack.

Focus Rail

Another way to easily adjust the focus in small increments is to use a focus rail. This is a device that attaches to the tripod and then the camera is attached to it. The focus rail can be moved forward and backward over a span of several inches, depending on the model, in very tiny increments. When shooting a focus stack, simply adjust the focus rail in small increments to enable you to shoot a stack of images that cover every portion of the subject where sharp focus is desired. Some focus rails allow you to shift the camera from side to side, though this isn’t useful when actually shooting the focused stack of images. Of course, side-to-side movement can initially help you obtain a desirable composition. However, we have little trouble setting the exact composition desired by adjusting the ball head that supports the focusing rail and the camera. Compose the image while setting the focusing rail close to the beginning of its focusing range. Focus on the closest spot in the image where sharp focus is desired.


Barbara sprayed Rain-X on a pane of glass and then wiped it off. Rain-X is sold at auto supply stores because it is used on windshields to make water bead up. Then she sprayed tiny drops of water on the glass which promptly beaded up and put a rose underneath the glass. She manually focused on the rose reflection in the water drops using a magnified live image and a Kirk focusing rail. Nikon D4, 200mm, 5 seconds, f/22, ISO 100, Sunny.

Shoot the image. Now turn the control on the focusing rail to make the camera move slightly (perhaps a millimeter or two) closer to the subject and shoot another image. Continue this process until the spot farthest away in the image where sharp focus is desired is captured. Using the focusing rail does change the perspective slightly because the camera moves closer or farther away from the subject. The software is able to compensate for these slight changes. However, focus stacking software can handle huge numbers of images—even more than fifty. The number of images that must be shot varies greatly. Larger subjects with a lot of depth require more images to be shot and so do subjects shot at higher magnifications.


Move the images off the camera’s memory card and download them to your computer’s hard drive or an external hard drive (our preference). Select the images that make up a specific stack and transfer them to a folder that is titled Focus Stacks.


Using Helicon Focus

Open the Helicon Focus software program and open up File. Now press Load Project and a window opens up to allow this to be done. Look at the window on the right side of the screen that lets you find the images you wish to merge. When the file with the appropriate images is opened, check each image that you want to include in the stack. If you check one by mistake, simply uncheck it by clicking on the check box again.


When all of the images are checked that you wish to include, press the Run button. The program begins to merge the images together. Depending on the number of images in the stack, the amount of time will take a minute or up to several minutes. When all of the images are merged, the final result will appear. You will be amazed by the amount of overall sharpness in the subject! Focus stacking is much better, in most cases, than stopping the lens down to the f/22-f/32 range for three important reasons:

1.Since you can use an aperture of f/8 or f/11, the image will be inherently sharper as these apertures are typically the sharpest ones on the lens because optical defects that are most problematic when shooting wide open or stopped down are minimized, though not completely eliminated, at the intermediate apertures of f/8 and f/11.

2.Every portion of the subject can be recorded in sharp focus. Using any aperture in a single image always means some parts of the subject with depth are less sharp than others, unless the subject is completely flat and the camera’s sensor is perfectly parallel to the subject.

3.Shooting sets of images at f/11 to cover the subject still allows the background to be completely out of focus, which minimizes or eliminates background distractions. This is much better than stopping the lens down to f/22, which tends to reveal more background distractions.

Zerene Stacker

This is another outstanding focus stacking software program. It is especially effective at handling large sets of images. Tutorials describing how to use it are available on their web site.

Using stacking software to maximize the sharpness is an awesome new tool for all photographers and is especially useful in close-up and macro photography. Go to the web sites of the companies that offer stacking software and download their free trial software. The web sites for Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker are listed in the Resources section of this book. You’ll find that running a focus stack of images is quite easy to do. Even I was able to do it shortly after I downloaded the free trial version of Helicon Focus, and I am not the most computer literate person.


Sharply recording all parts of a subject has been desirable since the beginning of photography and impossible to achieve most of the time, especially for subjects that have significant depth and require magnification around one half life-size and greater. Stopping the lens down to f/22 or f/32 still won’t sharply record all portions of a tulip, rose, frog, lizard, mushroom, or dewy dragonfly. When photographing at magnifications greater than 1/10 life-size, depth-of-field quickly becomes too small to fully cover the subject. Plus, keep in mind that the only area that is truly sharp is exactly where the lens is focused, areas of the subject that are only millimeters in front of or behind the plane of sharp focus are actually not quite as sharp, though they may look sharp to us due to the limitations of our vision. And remember that small apertures (f/22 to f/32 especially) lose sharpness because a high percentage of the light passing through a small hole is diffracted.

In the discussion on lenses, we talk about how tilt and shift lenses can change the plane of focus to coincide with the most important plane of the subject. The subject plane does not have to be parallel to the plane of the camera’s imaging sensor. This capability does offer huge advantages at times, but it still does not let you record every part of a subject in sharp focus. Consider a field of flowers on a completely still afternoon with absolutely no breeze, and tilt the lens to make the plane of focus perfectly align with the plane of the flower blossoms across the field. Shifting the plane of focus by tilting the lens down makes it easier to sharply record the blossoms, but most subjects have other planes that should be sharp as well. Shifting the plane of focus on the field of flowers makes the blossoms sharper, but the vertical stems become less sharp because they are standing at close to right angles to the plane of focus. Wildflower photographers are willing to accept flower stems that are somewhat out of focus if the blossoms are sharp. Still, some portions of the subject remain soft.

This same field of flowers can be sharply photographed using the focus stacking technique. Of course, the flowers must be motionless for this to work perfectly. If you are being challenged with a steady breeze, the tilt-shift lens remains the best option by far because it allows you to align the focusing plane with the plane of the blossoms and a single image does the trick. A faster shutter speed helps to arrest slight movement caused by a light breeze because it isn’t necessary to stop down as much—f/11 instead of f/22—for sharp results.

Photo stacking techniques are the only way to truly render everything sharp in the image. When you properly shoot a series of images of a still subject, every part of the subject, no matter how many planes exist in the subject, is rendered sharp. Only recently has photo stacking become widely known. Your authors heard of it a few years ago, but we did not look at it seriously until a few of our always brilliant workshop clients showed us their results during our 2012 Michigan summer workshops. Although we have taught these macro and landscape workshops since 1987, they showed us an entirely new way of doing things and created stunning images that we had thought impossible. We immediately began shooting sets of images to be combined and downloaded the software during the winter when we had time to work with it. The results were spectacular! We are now able to capture exquisite detail and sharpness everywhere in the subject, a feat previously not possible. The new digital tools that provide a way to do things that were never thought possible continue to open up new ways of seeing and capturing images.

Photo stacking software offers endless opportunities, if only we can see the possibilities. These opportunities multiply quickly, especially when you combine it with a couple of other magnificent digital tools—HDR and panoramic images. Imagine a close-up scene of a dense colony of mushrooms growing along a foot-long section of a decaying woodland log. Perhaps it takes five overlapping images—a panorama—to fully capture the entire row of mushrooms because they are depth-of-field hogs. Can you envision the opportunity of shooting five different overlapping images to make a panorama with many images in a single stack that are all focused slightly differently? Run each set of images through photo stacking software. Then take the final result of each set of stacked images and stitch them together with panoramic software. Now you have captured the entire group of perfectly sharp mushrooms in a long horizontal image. Should there be a lot of contrast in the mushroom image—perhaps dark green moss on the log and white caps on the mushrooms—it might be necessary to shoot sets of images where the exposure varies to capture detail in all portions of the image to use with high dynamic range software (HDR) such as Photomatix Pro. It is possible to use HDR, panoramas, and photo stacking techniques together to make a single image. HDR handles the contrast problem, pan techniques let you capture a wide or tall subject, and focus stacking lets you achieve maximum sharpness. The possibilities and opportunities are endless. It is a whole new world for the close-up specialist!


Bergamot is a small flower with a wonderful pattern (about 1x) in the middle of the blossom. Nikon D300, 200mm and close-up lens, 1/4, f/22, ISO 200, Shade, fill-flash.

Flowers are a delight to photograph and new technology has made capturing the exquisite colors and shapes of flowers far easier to do. Superb results will soon be yours if you have mastered the technology and have the patience to put it into practice. Enjoy your flower explorations!


Weidemeyer’s Admiral rests on a blossom in our garden. Nikon D4, 200mm, 1/5, f/20, ISO 200, Sun, Aperture-priority, fill-flash.