Focus stacking with Helicon Focus and Photoshop

In the last few months I have slowly but surely been succumbing to the joys of macro photography.  After my initial doubts about the whole process beimg to time consuming and frustrating – I could easily spend 4 hours photographing and focus stacking a shot in Photoshop only to find that the image was unusable.  To often blurred artefacts would ruin images and generally shots would appear to be too soft.

Now, I should at this stage I am wiling to accept some the blame, I am new to the macro game and it is a genre of photography that requires a particular skillset.  That being said, I knew there must be an easier way to focus stack and after much research online I downloaded a demo version of Helicon Focus.

I thought it would be useful to show differences in the images created using Photoshop and Helicon.  Each stack was created from the same 36 tif files with only minimal editing carried out: this is not a finished image by any means.

The Helicon Focus stack

You can see the image here is pretty sharp with minimal artefacts.  There is some blurring around the outside of the flower but this would be easily fixed in Photoshop.  The petals nearest the stem still hold details.

You can see the image here is pretty sharp with minimal artefacts.  There is some blurring around the outside of the flower but this would be easily fixed in Photoshop.  The petals nearest the stem still hold details.

The Photoshop stack

Some obvious blurring at edges of flower and the image is far softer and the loss of detail in the petals is easy to see.

Some obvious blurring at edges of flower and the image is far softer and the loss of detail in the petals is easy to see.

The Helicon Focus stack

For the sample above, the Photoshop stack is very poor in comparison to Helicons and top of that Photoshop took 30 minutes to complete the stack compared to 5 minutes with Helicon

I dont want to delve too deeply in to the technical differences of the stacking methods but it is worthwhile noting that Helicon Focus provides three different methods of stacking compared to Photoshop’s singular method.  So it is possible to complete stacks using all three of Helicon's method types of focus stacks.

Conclusion

In my opinion Photoshop is just too slow to be used by anyone serious about focus stacking.  It is far too slow and the results are too unpredictable. To be fair Photoshop is a huge application with a multitude of uses.  In contrast Helicon is specialist stacking program.  It should be better, and it is. It is far faster and creates stacks that are (mostly) useable.  The only downside is Helicon costs at anything between $30 and $200 on top.of your Photoshop subscription depending on which licence you opt for - but if you are serious about macro Helicon is a must and I will purchasing very soon.

Have you used Helicon or any other stacking software?  Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.