Focus stacking out in the wild: Australian Photography Magazine

By October 12, 2014Media, Photographic techniques

Behind The Lens: Focus Stacking a Stony Creek Frog

Australian Photography Magazine, 05 May 2014

Wildlife photographers Stanley and Kaisa Breeden specialise in macro focus-stacking using natural light, taking multiple exposures of one subject at different focal points and merging the best parts of those images together in post-production. Here, Kaisa Breeden explains the techniques they used to capture this native Stoney Creek frog.    

In the bush, shooting conditions can be unpredictable: wind, shifting light, subjects getting up and running away! Why do we do our work using this technique? We try to produce photographs which are as true to human eyesight as possible so you feel you could reach out and touch the subject. And we enjoy this tricky work!

With this image we wanted to create the feeling that you had just encountered this frog in the creek and had crouched down to have a closer look. Frogs are especially gorgeous when they’re captured in natural light. All their textures and tonal subtleties are retained. You have to choose your moments and have an understanding and respect for the animal and its behaviour. A panicked, man-handled frog is not going to sit calmly right in front of you for 11 or more exposures.

We have experimented with a few apps designed for tethered and/or remote focus stacking and we continue to try them out. But at present they’re too slow to suit our type of work. We need to make changes to the shoot very rapidly. The frog changes position slightly and you have to instantly scrap that focus stack, move camera position, recompose and start from scratch. You can’t wait to tell the software this and let it cancel, reset and start again – the moment (or the frog) would be gone! Therefore, Stan still prefers to create our focus-stacks manually, changing focus with the lens, in miniscule increments.

My favourite focus stacking software is Zerene Stacker, which consistently returns the best results, with less ghosting and better clarity. Whatever software I use though, there are no short-cuts. I need the ability to edit and mask each exposure within the software before the stack is merged. Depending on the subject, a stack can take up to an hour or so.

Focus stacking is a process. You’re not capturing one instant, but a period of time, and the entire experience is then condensed into one whole photograph. We sometimes like to leave a hint of that duration of time in the finished image: a leaf trembling, an antennae waving. In this case, the frog’s throat was pulsing, despite the rest of its body being quite still. So we retained that movement.

Kaisa and Stan are the authors of ‘Rainforest Country’ and ‘Wildflower Country’, both published by Fremantle Press. See www.stanleybreeden.com

Image info: Canon 1Ds Mk II, 180MM macro lens @ F/16, 11 exposures, focus stacked, tripod, cable release, mirror lockup

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