Bracketed Focus Stacking

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Today’s Question: If I manually bracket three images using Exposure Compensation (such as meter, +2 stops, -2 stops) and I also adjust the focus point to a different position in the frame for each set of bracketed exposures to achieve a focus stack, how can I successfully blend the images in Lightroom or Photoshop or with DxO plugins to achieve both purposes?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When you both bracket the exposures and capture for focus stacking at the same time, I recommend creating the focus-stacked images first, and then combine the results in to the final HDR (high dynamic range) images.

More Detail: It is generally possible to create an HDR with focus-stacking in either order. In other words, you could create the HDR images for each bracketed shot in the stack, or focus stack the images for each exposure of the HDR. However, I would favor creating the focus stacked images before assembling the HDR.

The reason for this is that in general I find focus stacking to be a process that is much less tolerant of small errors. In other words, it is generally more difficult to create a high-quality focus stack than it is to create a high-quality HDR image.

So, I would create the focus stacks for each exposure that will be used for the HDR image. In this case, with a “dark”, “medium”, and “bright” image for each focus setting, you’ll need to create a focus-stacked image for each of those three. So you would take all of the images exposed at minus two stops and create a focus stack of those, and then repeat the process for the even exposure and for the “plus two” exposure.

I recommend using Helicon Focus from Helicon Software (https://www.heliconsoft.com) to assemble the focus-stacked images. You can then use your preferred HDR software to assemble the stacked images into the final HDR. For this purpose I recommend Aurora HDR (https://timgrey.me/hdrtrial), though there are obviously other solutions available, including Lightroom and Photoshop.