Create Emotion, Don't Just Take Snapshots

The way I capture and process a photo may not be the way someone else would have done so. My image represents the way I saw it and how I felt at that moment. Looking back now, it’s when I started worrying less about how others might create an image, and started taking photos for me, that the quality of my images started to increase. The reason? My emotions started showing through in my images. I was telling a story and creating a memory, not just taking a snapshot.

Every scene can be photographed a hundred different ways, and an image can be edited a thousand different ways. You have been there, standing with friends, all photographing the same scene, and each of you creating different images. At the end of the day, the only image that matters is the one you took and edited. It’s your interpretation of the scene. It’s your art.

Don’t get caught up comparing your images to someone else’s, it’s not a competition. It is a personal expression of art and emotion.

Allow me to share three of my favorite images. Each from one of my favorite countries to photograph in.

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This is one of my very favorite images ever! It’s a simple photo, and I am sure if you have followed me on social media, you have seen it a hundred times. But it really speaks to me personally. It transports me right back to my many conversations with Buybelot at his home outside of Sagsai. I remember our conversations on how he captured this female Golden Eagle 9 years before my first visit. We discussed our families over Airag and our mutual realization that no matter where we come from, we have the same hopes, fears, and dreams for our children. We bonded and became friends.

It is because of this friendship that he trusted me enough to bring his Eagle into this setting. To show me his love and affection for this beautiful bird of prey which is a member of their family.

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This photo is also one of my all-time favorites, our first photo shoot of the workshop with a family of camel herders in the Gobi desert. I vividly remember standing there with Andy, Kip, and Larry before the sun rose over the dunes. The family was riding towards us, smiles on their faces, and we greeted them warmly.

The day before we had the opportunity to go into the family’s ger tent and get to know them all. Together we shared vodka, some good food, and a lot of laughs. We became friends, and I knew then that I would come back to visit them in subsequent years.

As I took this photo, I remember the warmth of the sun on my face, I remember hearing Andy talk to the camel herder how beautiful the scene was. I remember the hug from Larry because he was having so much fun. Kip was flying his drone over the whole scene to get a completely different, artistic capture of what we were witnessing.

The end result was a serene image that conjures the feeling of the warmth of the sun’s first rays.

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I have traveled to a lot of places and met a lot of amazing people. But this image of Aisholpan and her father, Nurgaiv, represents a lot of great memories for me and a strong sense of family and trust. These feelings are not just because of what you see in front of the camera, but also for what you can't see behind the camera—what happened leading up to this image.

To start, I am honored to have the trust of this family on that day. They allowed us to pick up their daughter, Aisolphan, from school and take her to the family home. That gave us two hours to talk and get to know Aisolphan as a person. She is such an incredible young woman—grounded, and mindful of what she has accomplished. She does not let her success go to her head.

What you also can't see in the image was the time we spent inside their home, talking and laughing. Her mother, Alma was making sure we were fed. This was an opportunity to continue to build on the foundations of the relationship that I had started forming with them years earlier.

The end result, a photo of a caring father that was giving tips to his daughter on how to ride to give us a better image.

It is because of all these memories that Mongolia has carved out a special place in my heart. I return each year with different workshop groups to create even more memories of the friends I have made. I take new photos that I can look back on with fond memories—images that keep getting better because of the emotions that get conjured up each time I visit.

The next time you are out taking photos, take images for yourself, capture the special moments, create memories. Create a personal connection to the people and the location. Let that show through in your images. Your passion will show through, your art will start to be something you're proud to show off.

I hope one day I can share an authentic Mongolia experience with you.

Happy shooting everyone!

~ Kevin

PATAGONIA | PART III

Guest Blog post written by Kerrin Burke Lahr.

PATAGONIA | PART III

A trip to Argentina is not complete without a visit to a gaucho ranch or estancia. Gauchos are considered a folk hero similar to the North American cowboy. They are known for being skilled horsemen and are an important part of Argentina’s past. We spent the afternoon with gauchos in La Estela near El Chaltén.

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Gauchos were originally nomadic horsemen and cowhands of the Argentine grasslands or pampas. A typical outfit includes a poncho (not pictured but is used as coat, saddle blanket and for sleeping), a wide beret called a boina, tall leather boots, loose-fitting trousers called bombachas, and a whip called rebenque.

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It is said that “a gaucho without a horse is like a man with no legs”.

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We had an amazing afternoon at the estancia. It included a traditional meal of sausage and lamb cooked very slowly over a fire. After the meal we had an opportunity to photograph the gauchos in and around the stables.

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This gaucho is holding a cup of mate tea (pronounced ma·té). Mate tea is a traditional caffeine-rich drink made from yerba. It is served in a gourd shaped cup and sipped through a “bombilla” a special silver drinking straw. The mate tea is passed around and offered to anyone who would like to take a sip. I was offered a taste later in the trip, gave it a try and liked it.

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Loved photographing the gaucho’s racing in the water.

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Our photography leaders/guides, Randy Hanna and Cecelia Costa, discussing logistics with the gauchos at the sand dunes.

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The horses were flying! They are just beautiful and magnificent beasts!

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In this image the gauchos were trying to wrestle each other off their horse. The rider on the black horse won.

By the time the gauchos were done riding, the horses were panting heavily and their coats were glistening with sweat and lather. I really enjoyed the time we spent here. It was a glimpse of a past era.

Since Mother’s Day is right around the corner, I am dedicating this post to my 84-year-old mother who went horseback riding with the gauchos near Buenos Aires last fall. In her own words - “It took me three tries to get on the horse but with a little help - I made it!” (see sequence below). The little help was a hand on the butt and a little push. :)

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Mi madre - Shirley

GEAR AND LINKS

Canon 5d Mark IV
Canon 7D Mark II
Tamron Lenses: 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8
Breakthrough Filters: ND 3 stop, ND 6 stop, CP
Really Right Stuff: Tripod & Plates
Arca Swiss: Ball head
F-Stop Gear: Kashmir UL Backpack w/medium slope ICU

PATAGONIA | PART II

Guest Blog post written by Kerrin Burke Lahr.

As I mentioned in my previous post - I came to Patagonia for the mountains but now appreciate it for so much more.

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On the first day of the workshop we went to Los Glaciares National Park. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest national park in Argentina. One of the largest glaciers in the park is the Perito Merano Glacier which is pictured above. It was a magical day with moody clouds, dappled sunlight and a rainbow to seal the deal.

A glacier is like a slow-moving river of ice. What you can’t get from looking at this image is the constant rumble and cracking sounds created by movement and glacier calving. Glacier calving is the breaking away and release of a mass of ice from the glacier. While we were here a huge piece in the center of the glacier broke free. Unfortunately, I was on my way to the restroom but knew by the volume and length of the thunder-like sound I had missed an incredible event. Fortunately, one person in our group was able to capture it with his camera.

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Close-up view of the color and texture of the glacier. The blue color results from the dense ice of the glacier absorbing every other color of the spectrum except blue - so blue is what we see.

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There is a lot of wildlife in Patagonia. My favorite animal was the guanaco. They are so cute and tasty too. They are a food source for pumas. I had the opportunity try guanaco twice; both times as an appetizer. The first time it was prepared “tartare” and the second it came thinly sliced like prosciutto. Both were excellent! The Guanaco is a camelid native to South America and closely related to the llama, alpaca and vicuña.

Left to right: black chested buzzard eagle, unknown bird and southern crested caracara. We also saw condors, flamenco, 5 pumas, a fox and a deer. Apparently, the deer sighting is considered quite rare as there are only 25 in Torres del Paine National Park. I’m a newbie when it comes to photographing birds. I realize that I need practice shooting them in motion. They are so quick and it was very difficult for me to keep them in focus. There were some seasoned birders in the group that got some really great shots.

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During the trip we had an unusual amount of bluebird days for the region. Not the best light for midday photography. When we pulled up to this waterfall, I knew I couldn’t capture the whole thing due to the extreme dynamic range created by areas of bright sunlight and dark shade. Instead, I tried to find a small section that I could work with. I exposed this image so the highlights were not blown out. The result - dramatic light that I really like.

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Cascada Rio Paine is known more for its position in front of Paine Massif, a mountain range with three distinctive mountain peaks. The usual shot in this area consists of the raging river in the foreground and Paine Massif in the background. After I got that shot, I turned 90 degrees to the right, started walking and came upon this site. I was drawn to the curves made from the river and rock formations. I was excited about this composition when I took the picture but even more so during a critique session when I discovered I was the only one that got this shot.

Gear and Links

Canon 5d Mark IV
Canon 7D Mark II
Tamron Lenses: 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8
Breakthrough Filters: ND 3 stop, ND 6 stop, CP
Really Right Stuff: Tripod & Plates
Arca Swiss: Ball head
F-Stop Gear: Kashmir UL Backpack w/medium slope ICU

Patagonia - Part I

Guest Blog post written by Kerrin Burke Lahr.

“THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING AND I MUST GO!” — JOHN MUIR

I am drawn to the mountains but live the oxygen-rich life of a flatlander in the State of Minnesota. Mountains have been a part of my heart and soul since my first visit to Whitefish, Montana, as a young girl. Over a year ago I signed up for my third Muench Workshop. The destination - Patagonia! Patagonia is a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. It has some of the most breath-taking hiking trails in the world and has been on my list for a long time. My journey to the other side of the equator involved 5 airports (Minneapolis to Houston to Buenos Aires (EZE) to Buenos Aires (AEP) to El Calafate), 3 planes, 2 taxis and 25 hours. El Calafate is 1,700 miles south of Buenos Aires and is considered the jumping off point to the region.

I came to Patagonia for the mountains but now appreciate it for so much more. This post is the first in a series and is dedicated to those majestic peaks.

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Mount Fitz Roy (or Cerro Chaltén its original name which means - smoking mountain) has an elevation of 11,171 feet. It’s located near El Chaltén village in the Santa Cruz Province of Argentina.

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Mount Fitz Roy at sunset. The winds were intense at this time and for sunrise the next day (see previous image). The gusts would knock you off your feet if you weren’t properly braced.

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Cerro Torre sits just to the west of Mount Fitz Roy. Jon Krakauer, referres to Cerro Torre in his book Into Thin Air: "Near the southern tip of South America, where the wind sweeps the land like “the broom of God” —”la escoba de Dios,” as the locals say—I'd scaled a frightening, mile-high spike of vertical and overhanging granite called Cerro Torre; buffeted by hundred-knot winds, plastered with frangible atmospheric rime, it was once (though no longer) thought to be the world's hardest mountain".

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After several days shooting in and around El Chaltén, we headed south and a little west to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The bar had been set high in El Chaltén but the Chilean side did not disappoint.

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These two images (black & white and color versions) are the Cordillera Paine mountain range in Torres del Paine National Park. The highest summit is Cerro Paine Grande to the left. The bridge in the foreground is what remains of the old Weber Bridge. I’m not sure if I like the B&W or color version better. I do like the presence of the moon and the warm glow of the setting sun in the color image. If you feel strongly one way or the other, please let me know in the comment section. I would love to hear from you!

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“What a glorious greeting the sun gives the mountains.” — John Muir

And what a magnificent sunrise it was! We arrived in the dark, donned our headlamps, made the short steep hike to the top of the hill and waited for sunrise. Mother Nature put on a spectacular show. It was definitely worth the early wakeup call! My emotions were pure joy and gratitude for being here, with my camera, at this time in this special place.

GEAR & LINKS

Canon 5d Mark IV
Canon 7D Mark II
Tamron Lenses: 15-30mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8
Breakthrough Filters: ND 3 stop, ND 6 stop, CP
Really Right Stuff: Tripod & Plates
Arca Swiss: Ball head
F-Stop Gear: Kashmir UL Backpack w/medium slope ICU
Muench Workshops

Quick guide to focus stacking with Lightroom and Photoshop

Quick guide to focus stacking with Lightroom and Photoshop

By Kevin Lisota on April 20, 2019

Focus-stacked image of tulip fields. Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8E @ 140mm, 1/160 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400

Focus-stacked image of tulip fields. Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8E @ 140mm, 1/160 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400

The tulips have started to bloom at the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Long rows of flowers are a perfect subject to learn or practice focus stacking.

What is focus stacking and why is it needed?

Sometimes you are trying to capture a scene that is in focus from immediately in front of you to infinity. Long rows of flowers is one such scene where I like to use focus stacking.

Given the large depth-of-field, most camera lenses, even at extremely small apertures like f/16, f/22 or f/32, will not be able to have an entire scene like this in focus. Even when the optimal “hyper focal point” is set, at these small apertures there is much more diffraction that decreases the sharpness of the final image.

At f/13, only the front third of this scene is in focus. Nikon Z7, 130mm, f/13, 1/40 sec, ISO 64

At f/13, only the front third of this scene is in focus. Nikon Z7, 130mm, f/13, 1/40 sec, ISO 64

To maintain optimal focus and sharpness, focus stacking is a technique where you take a series of photos focused at varying parts of the scene and combine them into one image that is completely in focus.

The same scene as above after focus stacking. Notice that the flowers in front and barn in back are all in focus. Nikon Z7, 130mm, f/13 ISO 64

The same scene as above after focus stacking. Notice that the flowers in front and barn in back are all in focus. Nikon Z7, 130mm, f/13 ISO 64

Tilt-shift lenses are able to alter the plane of focus to potentially achieve this in one shot, but most photographers do not own them, and tilt-shift lenses can be a genuine pain in the butt to operate in the field. Even when set correctly with the optimal “hyper focal point,” this technique can also suffer from diffraction.

How to take focus stacked images

It is important that your camera does not move when taking a series of images that you intend to focus stack. A sturdy tripod is essential to avoid difficulties in merging images that have slight differences in perspective. Using a timer or cable release to trigger your shutter also helps ensure that you do not move the camera.

If you are using one of the latest Nikon cameras like the D850, Z6 or Z7, there is a special focus shift function that I’ll get to in a bit. Let’s start with instructions for most cameras.

With your camera on a tripod, compose your scene. For landscape images, use an aperture in a range where the lens is in sharpest focus and avoids the diffraction present at very small apertures, so something like f/8-f/11. While wider apertures with shallower depths of field may make the focus stacking process better by increasing the variation between sharp and soft detail, it can be very difficult to accurately take a series of images at wide apertures like f/5.6 without missing a “slice” of focus area.

Focus-stacked image of tulip fields. Nikon D850, 200mm, 1/40 sec, f/11, ISO 100

Focus-stacked image of tulip fields. Nikon D850, 200mm, 1/40 sec, f/11, ISO 100

Since you will be blending the images, it is also important to ensure that exposure settings like ISO and shutter speed are also fixed throughout the series of photos. If outdoors, you should take the series of photos in fairly quick succession. You want to avoid changes in lighting, exposure or the sky over the series of photos that will make it difficult to blend images together.

For most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, using manual focus will be easiest. Focus on the nearest element in the scene and take a picture. Now move the focus ring of your lens a small increment towards infinity to focus on a part of the scene that is slightly further away and take another photo. Repeat this process until you have reached either the furthest element in your scene or infinity focus. Be sure that you have one picture at infinity focus.

Users of the latest Nikon cameras like the Nikon D850, Z6 or Z7 currently have a benefit over other camera manufacturers. A built-in mode called “focus shift shooting” allows you to automate this process.

If you have one of these Nikon cameras, remain in auto-focus mode, compose your shot and focus on the closest part of the scene. Then enter “focus shift shooting” mode, chose the number of intervals and width of those intervals and choose start. Because this process is automated, you can use a slightly wider aperture like f/5.6-f/8.

Focus shift shooting mode on Nikon Z7.

Focus shift shooting mode on Nikon Z7.

The camera will take a series of photos and change the focus depth at each exposure. The camera will take the lens beyond infinity focus, so you will want to discard the extra photos at the end of the series that go beyond infinity before merging the images. Take one additional picture at infinity focus to be certain that you have it.

Motion in the scene can be your enemy. Flowers, leaves or plants swaying in the wind, or other objects moving in the scene are difficult or impossible to merge in post-processing without odd artifacts or extremely tedious manual edits. Smooth motion, like that of flowing water is easier to merge.

On landscape photos you will likely end up with a series of ~2-6 photos, depending on aperture used and the depth-of-field you are trying to capture. When using this technique for close-up macro photos, or when using longer focal lengths, a larger number of photos with narrower areas of focus will be necessary.

Processing focus-stacked images

Synchronize edits in Lightroom

I use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop to process my focus-stacked images.

Starting in Lightroom, identify a focus-stacked sequence of photos. Edit one of those to your liking, making adjustments to color temperature, exposure, contrast, highlights, etc. This is also the point where I apply any lens correction, sharpening, noise reduction and spot removal.

Once the Lightroom edits are complete, synchronize the edits to the series of focus-stacked images. The final result should be a group of photos that are identical, other than their focus points.

Synchronize edits in Lightroom before blending focus-stacked images.

Synchronize edits in Lightroom before blending focus-stacked images.

In Lightroom, highlight the series of photos. Right-click and choose Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop to bring each photo in to Photoshop as an individual layer.

Export from Lightroom as layers in Photoshop.

Export from Lightroom as layers in Photoshop.

Remove focus breathing with auto-align

Most still camera lenses will exhibit some amount of focus breathing. Focus breathing is when the focal length of the lens changes when focusing at different depths.

In your series of focus-stacked images, this may be subtle or it may be obvious. As focus changes, you will see that the images appear to zoom in or out. Sometimes it is a few pixels, but sometimes it is quite a bit more. This is entirely dependent on the lens that you used. Let’s look at an example.

I own two 70-200mm lenses. One is the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL. I also own the smaller/lighter Nikkor 70-700mm f/4G. Both are very sharp, but the f/4 version exhibits quite a bit more focus breathing that the f/2.8E. After auto-aligning a series of images at different focus points, you can see the effect focus breathing has on the changing scale of the pictures.

  • 70-200mm f/2.8E

    • Full resolution: 8279 x 5519 pixels

    • After auto-align: 8255 px (-24 pixels) x 5503 px (-16 pixels)

  • 70-200mm f/4

    • Full resolution: 8256 x 5504 pixels

    • After auto-align: 8094 px (-162 pixels) x 5395 px (-109 pixels)

Photoshop can help correct this by auto-aligning the images. Select all of the layers that you brought in from Lightroom and choose Edit > Auto-Align Layers. For Projection, Auto will usually give great results, but you can also use Collage, which allows for image rotation, scale and translation. The resulting layers will be scaled slightly to align the image and remove any changes in scale, perspective or distortion caused by focus breathing.

Auto-align layers in Photoshop.

Auto-align layers in Photoshop.

Blending focus-stacked images

Photoshop’s Auto-Blend Layers command allows you to blend multiple images with different areas of focus.

Once your layers are aligned, select the same layers and choose Edit > Auto-Blend Layers. Choose Stack Images for your Blend Method. Also choose Seamless Tones and Colors and click OK. This process may take awhile.

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The end result is a set of layer masks applied to the various areas of focus in each layer. These are normal Photoshop layer masks, so you could alter or tweak them if the initial result isn’t to your liking.

Layer masks applied by Photoshop after auto-blending.

Layer masks applied by Photoshop after auto-blending.

Fix mistakes in the sky when auto-blending

The process that Photoshop uses to focus stack images is to compare areas of micro-contrast in each area of the photo to determine which areas are in focus and which are not. This works great for many parts of the scene, except for the sky.

A clear sky or even a cloudy sky will have no discernible changes in micro-contrast when it is in focus or out of focus. Because of this, focus stacking software may mistakenly blend parts of the sky using the wrong layer.

Inspect the layer masks applied to the layer that is at infinite focus to see which layer or layers are being used for the sky. Clicking the eye icon next to each layer on and off can help you to see which layer(s) are being used in the sky.

The sky should be this layer, which is at infinity focus. However, notice the masking mistakes that Photoshop made during the auto-blend layers procedure.

The sky should be this layer, which is at infinity focus. However, notice the masking mistakes that Photoshop made during the auto-blend layers procedure.

In some cases, despite blending mistakes in the sky, the image may look perfectly acceptable as it is.

In cases where blending mistakes in the sky are noticeable, this can be fixed by altering the layer mask for the sky.

First, chose the layer that is at infinity focus. Move it to the top of the layer stack, if it is not already there. Turning off visibility of the other layers will help you to see the exact layer mask that you are working with.

Highlight the sky layer and drag it to the top of the layer stack in Photoshop.

Highlight the sky layer and drag it to the top of the layer stack in Photoshop.

Now highlight the layer mask that should include the entire sky. Choose a brush tool and make it white. Now brush in all of the areas of the sky that are masked out.

Click on the layer mask in the sky layer of your image.

Click on the layer mask in the sky layer of your image.

Activate the Brush tool in Photoshop.

Activate the Brush tool in Photoshop.

Toggle the color of the Brush tool between black (to hide) and white (to reveal) layer contents.

Toggle the color of the Brush tool between black (to hide) and white (to reveal) layer contents.

As you brush with a white brush, you will see that the transparent areas now begin to reveal the photo. Ensuring that this layer is at the top of the layer stack will make sure it is visible for the sky versus the lower layers of the image.

After correcting the layer mask with the Brush tool, the layer at infinity focus with the sky now looks correct.

After correcting the layer mask with the Brush tool, the layer at infinity focus with the sky now looks correct.

Clean up the edges

If your lens exhibits quite a bit of focus breathing, the edges of the merged photos are going to show transparent areas. This is because auto-aligning the images caused changes in scale, leaving transparent areas that need to be cropped from your final image.

You may also find that the auto-align/auto-blend process leaves artifacts at the edges of the photograph that appear to be out of focus because of the auto-align process. Zoom to at least 100%-200% and inspect each edge of the photo.

Transparent edges and blending artifacts need to be cropped from the edges on the image.

Transparent edges and blending artifacts need to be cropped from the edges on the image.

The quickest solution is to crop out any edges that did not satisfactorily merge because of changes in scale. For some lenses with minor focus breathing, this may only be a few pixels. For lenses with heavier focus breathing, you may need to crop a little bit more.

Once you are happy with the merged image, you can flatten it to remove the layers and save your final image.

Focus stack of 8 images of the Skagit Valley tulip fields and Mt. Baker. Nikon D850, 160mm, 1/160 sec, f/8, ISO 64

Focus stack of 8 images of the Skagit Valley tulip fields and Mt. Baker. Nikon D850, 160mm, 1/160 sec, f/8, ISO 64

Other focus stacking solutions

Photoshop is not the only software tool available for focus stacking. Software like Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker can focus stack images, and do offer more control and tweaks for the image blending process that may provide better results. However, for many uses, the focus stacking capabilities of Photoshop are quite powerful and useful.

Thanks to March Muench of Muench Workshops, who has been honing his focus stacking techniques for years longer than most of us, for tips and suggested edits on this post.

Focus-stacked image gallery

Here are some other focus-stacked images that I took at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.