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I'm planning to buy an image stacking software for macro photography. I have been trying to figure out the appropriate software to stack images if the photos are clicked handheld.

I understand that the best stacking happens when the camera is on a support. Is it high time to buy a tripod or there are softwares that can help me for handheld shots?

Note: I'm familiar with Helicon Focus.

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I've not yet graduated to Helicon Focus, though I'm open to persuasion at the moment.

I've found already, just using Photoshop's built-in stacking tools that unless you have a very steady hand & can takes fast bursts of multiple images just using a 'breathing' or 'squeeze & lean' technique to shift your plane of focus slightly across the burst, then you're going to have no hope at all.

It's very much going to depend on 'how macro is macro' - for instance capturing a stationary football on a 150mm lens is going to take you maybe two attempts at the 'squeeze & lean' method to get the 2 or 3 raw images you'd need to stack.

If you have a 70mm lens on 68mm of extension tube to capture a 2mm flower bud or a fly etc, you will be about 5-10mm from your subject with a DoF of maybe 0.5mm. At that, your chances of holding still long enough to get a single slice went right out of the window. You are also going to need a whole lot more slices than with your gigantic football & 3m distance to subject.
In fact at those kind of distances & sizes, merely finding your subject in the viewfinder can be quite a task, let alone finding exactly the same bit again for a 2nd attempt.

At that point you need a tripod [& some bright lights so you can choose ISO & aperture without compromising on light] & possibly even a macro focussing rail.
Personally, I'm still undecided on whether I prefer a rail or pulling focus manually, I've been experimenting with both.
Also, at that kind of magnification, merely putting the tripod on carpet rather than concrete floor means you can push the camera further than your entire focus stack with the weight of one finger, so you can't be touching the camera at the time & will need a remote release & mirror-up delay to minimise shake.

Examples...

Entire Alium head approx 10-12cm diameter 185mm f16 1/40s, 3 layer stack
This could have been done handheld if I'd gone faster than 1/40s, with a squeeze & lean.

Single Alium bud, approx 2mm 50mm F16 1/40s on perhaps 30-40mm extension [sorry, I didn't take notes] 4 layer stack.
I can see no way I could have got this handheld.

pics low-res jpg, shrunk on page - larger if you right click & open image in new tab.

  • Thank you for the detailed explanation. FYI, I'm using a reverse ring with 18-55mm lens, with almost negligible DoF. Here's the link to that cheap shot :D 500px.com/photo/207941609/… – MnZ Apr 16 '17 at 14:06
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A sturdy support is essential in still macro photography. It does not necessarily mean a tripod - if you are shooting subjects close to the ground level a tripod would actually get into your way. In such cases a beanbag is easier to carry around. If you are feeling cheap buy a sack of rice and rest your camera on it. It will do the same job.

If you are shooting active subjects - bugs and the like - a tripod will be again a hindrance, as it takes time to set up. In such cases you need a quick hand and a good lens mounted flash (and you can forget about focus stacking).

But a tripod is an item definitely worth considering. It will help you with much more than macro photography. Focusing rail is a more specialized piece of equipment, but an used one need not cost much (I get great results with a forty year old East German Praktica one, bought on an auction site for next to nothing). If you graduate to software stacking it will improve your results immensely.

I would recommend obtaining a tripod, a focusing rail and a decent macro capable lens (perhaps a prime lens with extension rings, or a reversed enlarging lens, but not a zoom) before spending money on a stacking software.

enter image description here

This is a setup I have successfully used to take pictures of lots of fishing flies. This meant operating around the 1:1 enlargement zone. The lens, bellows and macro rail are all of East German origin and came very cheap. I used them with Zerene, not Helicon, but that should not be an issue :)

  • Hi @jindra. Does focusing rail take long time to setup? Can it be used for handheld attempts? I will definitely try with a bean bag next time. Thanks for the suggestion. I usually take some pillows for support. – MnZ Apr 17 '17 at 4:15
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    Nice answer. This, compared to mine, shows how it can be "horses for courses" & depends what you're shooting as to what equipment you might need. My setup & subject choice allows me to move my subject to a position convenient to me. For capturing shots of insects a bean bag may well be a far better method, as you need to move to them.. before they're gone. – Tetsujin Apr 17 '17 at 6:36
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    @MnZ the main function of the rail is to get even steps between your shots for stacking - e.g. "slice" your subject into shots one millimeter apart. This works best with a tripod. An interesting description of a setup and technique can be found here coleoptera.org/p2356.htm - it was developed by Sam Droege of the USGS Bee Inventory Lab (never underestimate the scope of activities of US Army!) whose Flickr photostream flickr.com/photos/usgsbiml is a great source of inspiration to Macro shooters. – Jindra Lacko Apr 17 '17 at 18:38

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