- Like HDR images, focus stacking involves combining several images with different focal points to create a sharp looking result
- Photography enthusiasts may have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, and most of them are achieved with the help of specialized photography software
- If you're considering embracing photography as a hobby, you'll need a trustworthy camera in order to get started
- Interested in photography? Then make sure to check out our dedicated camera section
Every photographer knows the importance of an image that shows all the details of a captured scene. This becomes particularly difficult while taking close-range shots (macro photography) using a camera.
If you have come across some impossible looking macro photography work for product placement, you would be wondering how did it happen?
This particular trick is called Focus Stacking. Focus Stacking is a process of using multiple images of the same object with different focus points and merging them into one single image to get an extremely sharp image with everything in focus.
The concept of Focus Stacking is like magic in the hands of a photographer, and Focus Stacking software is the wand that you need to get it done.
Now if you are looking around for the best wand a.k.a. Focus Stacking software, we have a made the search easier for you.
In this article, we take a look at the best free and paid software for focus stacking to help you showcase every inch of your image in details to your audience.
Best free and paid software for Focus Stacking
Adobe Photoshop is a very powerful app that can be used in a variety of fields, from game-character designs to car models creations, and beyond.
Its versatility is well known across the globe, and it also allows you to create beautifully deep and clear Focus Stacking images.
The incredibly diverse and powerful tools contained in this software will allow people with minimal image editing skills to produce incredible results.
The best feature that can be applied in Focus Stacking is the ability to control the depth of the blur for the underling images, and also customize how the layering is performed.
Here are some other key features found in Adobe Photoshop:
- Raster-based image editing and splicing that produces professional results
- Easy to use and customizable interface that allows the fast-changing of tools and properties
- Wide range of presets that include patterns, swatches, layers, and styles
- Transform Warp that gives you the power to easily divide images with a customizable grid
- Content-Aware Fill that can help you simplify the process of cutting and splicing images
- Almost unlimited amount of photo effects and filters
- Price – Free
Let’s begin the list with the best free focus stacking software CombineZP.
CombineZP is free software that is designed to manage, process and organize digital images that are identical in dimension.
One interesting bit about CombineZP is that it was originally developed to be used with Microscopes; however, the software is reasonably capable of handling focus stacking as well.
The software is fairly easy to use for basic focus stacking task. However, for advanced users, you can tweak the advanced menu to get more out of the software.
CombineZP is easy for basic stuff and may feel daunting for some advanced uses; however, there are a good number of tutorials from the likes of Lord V explaining the use of CombineZP.
After launching CombineZP, you either jump into the editing board and start stacking your images or reach through the instructions for different use cases provided in the software. You can access the instructions from Help > CombineZP help.
CombineZP does not offer too many options like its premium counterparts, but it is an excellent tool for increasing Depth-of-field in your macro shots and if you don’t want to spend a fortune buying a premium software for basic Focus Stacking work.
- Price – Free
PICOLAY is another freeware portable software for focus stacking. Similar to CombineZP, PICOLAY was also developed to work with the microscope; however, the software is capable of image processing, slide shows, animated gif images, focus stacking, etc.
PICOLAY can be installed on your hard drive or USB flash drive and use it on any computer as it does not require installation. If you prefer installation, PICOLAY also offers an installer on the official website.
Using the software does require some getting used to – although there aren’t too many features to explore, it still warrants some time to give good results.
You can add multiple images of the same size and dimension from the same folder. To edit the images, you can use Enhance feature to tweak light and color contrast, color saturation, rotate and flip and other properties of an image.
You can also use the Mouse tools that offer Paintbrush, blur, clean background, clone and more tools for image enhancement.
After loading the images, run the program to get a stacked image. The final result can be saved in multiple formats including bitmap, jpeg, png, and gif format.
- Price – Free trial /Starts at Focus Lite $30 a year – $115 Lifetime license
Helicon Focus is a focus stacking software that allows you to create eye-catching images using multiple images taken at different focus distances and stacking them together.
Helicon Focus is a premium tool and comes in 3 versions. You can use the demo version of the tool for evaluation. Being a premium tool, Helicon Focus offers tons of features for pro users.
The latest version of the software comes with Run Benchmark tool that allows you to evaluate your hardware performance and Folder Monitor features to assess and process the stack automatically once all the images of the stack are loaded.
The software processes the images with 16-bit precision to preserve all the hues and details offering an excellent rendition of colors. It is also capable of handling RAW files and offers adjustable development tools along with built-in and manufacturer’s codec to satisfy even the most demanding users.
Some of the notable features offered by Helicon Focus include RAW-in-DNG out mode, smart retouching, helping grid, scientific scale to add a scale bar to the resulting, image and more.
Helicon Focus is capable of rendering hundreds of high-resolution images to create a stack without requiring top of the line hardware for image processing.
Professional workflow tools in the software allow you to split and enqueue stacks, use the command line to streamline workflow, smooth integration with Lightroom and bunch of add-ons including Helicon remote for capturing images remotely.
Helicon 3D viewer helps in the reconstruction of the natural 3D view of the short subject and the ability to create a micro panorama using short captured with your microscope or DSLR and stitch them together to create a panorama image.
Helicon Focus offers a professional grade tool with all the nuts and bolts allowing the photographer to take their focus stacking game a stack higher. However, Helicon Focus offers more than one version of the tool, and for average users, the Lite version is more than enough.
- Price – Free 30 days full trial / perpetual license starts at $89 personal edition
Zerene Stacker is a premium focus stacking software designed for macro photography to create rich-in-detail images using the focus stacking technique.
As mentioned earlier, Zerene Stacker is a premium product and comes in four versions. The cheapest of all is the student version, and the license is valid until your graduate from the accredited institute so you need to purchase the personal or pro version to continue the use.
Other versions are directed at users who do casual photography or professionals using it for commercial use. All the license except Student edition is perpetual and comes with unlimited free upgrades.
Zerene Stacker is optimized to create high-quality images in less time using the Focus Stacking technique. It also offers unlimited stack dept from 2 frames to 1000 frames, can handle large images up to 200 megapixels, full control of all stacking parameters, automatic alignment and scale correction, advanced stacking algorithms and a full set of retouching tools.
For Lightroom users, Zerene Stacker offers an optional Lightroom plugin making the integration process simpler. You can also generate stereo and 3D rocking animations from a single stack of images irrespective of the difficulty of the subjects.
From Hasselblad to Nikon, the software is compatible with images taken on all kind of digital cameras. It also supports multiple methods of focusing including camera and subject movements.
It is also a multiple-platform software, so you can use it on Windows, MacOS and Linux computers. While the software is fully compatible with both 32-bit and 64-bit machines, the 32-bit is limited by the resources and won’t be able to take full advantage of the software.
- Price – Free trial / $49.99
Affinity Photos is a premium image editing software that also comes with the Focus Stacking feature. When compared to Photoshop, the process of focus stacking feels a lot easier on Affinity Photos.
To use the focus stacking feature, open Affinity Photos, click on File > New Focus Merge. Now select all the images that you want to use and click OK.
That’s it. The software will do the rest of the job and automatically complete the process of focus stacking using all the given images while showing its progress on the screen.
If the final results have any error, you can edit the layers to correct the mistakes. Affinity Photo does an excellent job of focus stacking provided that the images are of sufficient quality to create a perfect stack.
In addition, Affinity Photos also offers features like Raw editing, HDR merge, Panorama stitching, professional retouching, batch processing, PSD editing, digital painting, 360-degree image editing, multi-layered composition and more.
Affinity Photos is a multi-purpose premium image editing software with a built-in Focus stacking feature and is an excellent choice if you want a software with straightforward focus stacking elements along with standard image editing features.
- Price – Free trial / Premium
If you have access to Photoshop, then you don’t need any other software for focus stacking. Unlike Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus, Photoshop is not specific to stacking hence may feel underwhelming for professional stacking work.
However, Photoshop is the industry standard when it comes to best image editing software, so you can do more than just focus stacking. There are tons of tutorials online on how to use Focus stacking in Photoshop, so check it out.
On the flip side, Photoshop not being a focus stacking specialist means the users need to give required touches at the end to fix the stacking errors that happened during the alignment and blending process.
Use Photoshop for focus stacking only if you already have it installed on your computer. If not, you are better off using one of the free or paid focus stacking software listed in this article.
When you want to click an image of a product for the client, the client demands to have a focus on the complete product. This is where focus stacking comes into play.
The technique makes it easy for the photographer to deal with macro shots without having to compromise on the focus. With the right stack focusing software, the process becomes much easier.
All the software listed in this article support focus stacking. If you are looking for free software, PICOLAY and CombineZP offer just enough to get you started and also get great results when you are ready to go through the learning curve.
While the premium options like Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker are industry standard when it comes to stack focusing, Affinity Photos offers a straightforward one-click solution to create stunning images from focus stacking.
Can I increase resolution through focus stacking?
Yes, the final result of your focus stacking operation will not only have a sharper focus, but a higher resolution, and a reduced noise level, as well.
How do I take focus stack photos with my camera?
The process is quite simple in theory, but in reality, it requires some camera skills. Make sure to follow these steps to snap great focus-stack-ready photos:
- Focus your lens on the nearest object and snap a picture
- Set the focus a bit further away from your initial subject and snap another picture
- Repeat step two until you have enough pictures
Is Focus Stacking the same as HDR?
No, although the principles are highly similar, the end-results are wildly different. Focus stacking means increasing the effective Depth-of-Field (DOF), while HDR involves increasing the effective Dynamic Range.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2019 and has been since revamped and updated in March 2020 for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.