Category Archives: Macro

Olympus Focus Stacking

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/40 sec., Olympus in-camera focus stacking.

After my past workshop at Watson Lake, Prescott, Arizona, a participant asked me to explain the Olympus focus stacking process in a macro setting. Since I use the focus bracketing modes almost daily in my macro photos, it made sense. So, follow along to explore capturing focus bracketed images using an Olympus OMD1 Mark II.

First, Olympus offers two different focus bracketing modes – focus stacking and focus bracketing. Focus stacking is a capture of eight images at different focus depths stacked into one JPG within the camera. The original RAW images write to the memory card as well as the finished JPG stack. Focus Bracketing is a capture of up to 999 images at different focus depths and all RAW images write to the memory card for the photographer to stack using other stacking software (Helicon, PhotoShop, etc). This article discusses focus bracketing mode specifically. However, the focus stacking mode is almost identical.


Olympus focus stacked image of ice and moss
Ice and moss at Watson Lake. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 400, f/5, 1/8 sec., 30-images focus stacked and circular polarizing filter.

With your camera on a tripod and a lens capable of focus stacking (Olympus 60mm, 12-100mm, etc) frame your shot. I prefer the 60mm and place it as close to the subject as possible. Next, toggle the 1:1 switch on the side of the macro lens and position the camera/tripod to achieve focus. Now, switch to manual focus and focus back and forth to find the part of the image that is closest to the lens. With live view and zooming, manually focus the nearest part of the image.

Olympus Menu

Now you are ready to activate the focus bracketing function. Using the menu, locate Camera 2> bracketing >on >focus bkt >on. At this point, you are given a choice between focus stacking or focus bracketing. With the focus stacking option set to off, set the number of shots and focus differential for focus bracketing. (With focus stacking ON, these other options are grayed out). In the images below, I demonstrate the difference of a focus stacked image (left) and a single image (right).

Number of shots: I am often asked how to decide the number of images to capture in a stack. That is hard to describe. The more intricate and larger depth of field requires more images. Generally, I start with 50. If there are more than I need meaning some are out of focus because it went beyond my subject, I don’t use those images in post-processing.

Differential: The differential is the distance between each bracketed image and more complicated to calculate. I tend to use a small differential of 1-2 with my macro lens and extension tubes. With more practice you will see different results and learn to adjust according to your subject.

With focus bracketing activated, press the shutter using a cable release. A cable release is crucial to avoid camera movement from pressing the shutter with a finger. The camera captures the images using Silent sequential high-speed shutter and they are viewable on my LCD screen at the same time. If I watch closely, I can see the focus move from the front to the back of the frame. It really is that easy! Now, it is all up to post-processing. My preference is using Helicon Focus, but PhotoShop and other software can stack images as well.

View my camera setup in the video to the left. Notice the camera is upside down on the tripod to achieve the lowest perspective.


If you create more than one stack, you will want to capture a random photo in between each stack. For example, I take a photo of my hand in between each stack. Then when I download, I know where each stack starts and stops.

To learn more about macro photography, check out our book, The Art of Macro Photography. Also available on Amazon.

Liquid Art

Liquid Art – paint, oil and milk

For the past two months I’ve captured studio images of liquids or liquid art. Instead of water drop collisions (I will do more soon) capturing macro images of paint, oil and milk are my new passion thanks to Jason Cummings. Jason shared his setup with me and I couldn’t wait to make it my own. Changing the liquid quantities and thicknesses create very diverse images. The above image followed the steps in this article and the gear used for this project is in the image to the right: two off-camera flash units with diffusers, shutter release cable, macro lens, extension tubes, plastic table cloth, solo cups, paint and a disposable plate. Not pictured: camera and tripod.

Gear used in liquid art photos
Gear used in liquid art photos

Make your own masterpiece

Step One:  Water down acrylic paint. Using a disposable cup, water down cheap acrylic paint. The thicker the paint, the longer the paint balls stay intact.

Step Two:  Pour milk, half and half, cream, etc into a water resistant or water proof plate/bowl. I prefer using disposable plates or Petri dishes.

Step Three:  Pour oil in a new cup and add drops of paint. Use all the colors you want in your image.

Step Four:  Pour oil and paint into milk substance. Pour fast, pour slow, make circles/squares, etc; these differences in technique add to the individuality of the final image.

Step Five: Capture images. When setting up your gear, be sure that the macro lens is parallel to the plate of liquid. I use a toothpick on the surface of the liquid to pre-focus. After pouring, I manual focus in live view, at 3x enlargement or more, to fine tune focus. Snap the shutter and rotate the plate for different compositions. The liquid will move on its own as the oil, milk and paint interact. If you have paint “balls” they will burst at some point, so shoot fast. Since the liquid mixture is moving, I recommend using a flash or other strong light source to create sharp images at a fast shutter speed. Here are a few examples from different paint colors. Give it a try, it is a lot of fun.

Why Focus Stack

focus stack of fordite

Cropped version of final Focus Stack. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm + 26mm extension tubes, ISO 400, f/4, 1/50 sec.

Not all macro subjects are captured sharp in a single image, that makes a great reason to focus stack. In preparing for a camera club presentation, I decided to focus stack a new object. I chose a piece of fordite from Cadillac Ranch. If you aren’t familiar with fordite, just think – layers of paint. The first image (image A) is a close-up image of the piece of fordite that measures 2” x 1”. I used my 12-100mm lens and got as close as I could to capture the image. Then, with my macro lens and extension tubes, I captured image B. A small sliver of the subject is sharp, but not the whole piece of fordite. In order to have sharpness throughout the entire frame, I would need to focus stack.


At first, I tried a stack of 50 images. My Olympus camera has a focus bracketing mode so all I do is focus on the closest part of the fordite and program the camera for 50 images at a small increment of focus bracketing. The camera then captures 50 raw images changing the focus with small increments from front to back. After looking at image 50, the farthest part of the fordite was still blurry, so I needed more photos in my stack. I tried again, this time with 125 focus bracketing images. When I reviewed the photos, at image 118, I had the sharpness I needed. Next step was to focus stack the 118 images in Helicon Focus. Helicon is amazingly easy to use. After selecting the images in Lightroom, I export to Helicon and press the render button. Helicon does the rest. The last image is the final image of 118 focus stacked images.

A few tips on focus stacking:

  • Mark the start of a focus stack by capturing a single image of your hand, or other random subject otherwise if you capture several stacks, it will be hard to identify the start and stop of the stack otherwise.
  • Use a tripod and shutter release to minimize camera shake. Photoshop CC offers focus stacking but it is more complicated than Helicon Focus.

Water Drop Collisions

Creating water drop collisions keeps me entertained for hours. For the last year, I have been very busy completing and publishing the book, The Art of Macro Photography and my drip kit was neglected. So, I blocked a few hours and went to work in my make shift studio (spare bedroom). I kept the setup simple and started with single drops of water. I didn’t use any additives, just wanted to practice making drops and fine tune the timing of the flashes. After a successful single drop, I added the second drop.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, 60mm, ISO 400, f/16, .5 sec.

In all the time I have been shooting water drop collisions, I’ve never seen the second drop hit next to the original drop as you can see in the image to the right. After several minutes problem solving, I tapped the valve and all subsequent drops collided. Why does this entertain me for hours? I love the challenge of focusing sharp and the varied final images. With a small change on timing of the flashes, I can achieve several different looks. The last image is of my setup for this series.

Stay tuned for more images next week!