How can you photograph a small subject and capture all the detail? Photographer and Chiswick Camera Centre owner Andy Sands talks through his focus stacking technique…

I have always had a strong interest in natural history. When I left school in the late 1980s and got a job in a camera shop I purchased my first film SLR and started photographing wildlife. I soon developed a strong interest in macro photography and embarked on a learning curve shooting negative then slide film and embracing digital SLRs when they first appeared. I now own Chiswick Camera Centre and last year began testing the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with the 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens, of particular interest to me was the focus bracketing/stacking option. I soon fell in love with the system, shooting many subjects in the field. With the superfast capture of images I found I was able to shoot live subjects with 18-frame focus bracketing and stack them at home using Zerene Stacker. This enabled me to obtain sharp focus throughout the subject with a very nice diffused background.

Quite a common species along rivers and streams I have always liked the large and colourful banded demoiselle, which is always a pleasure to photograph. I have photographed them many times and in many ways but wanted to test the focus bracketing function of my new camera.The banded demoiselle photo was shot using the OM-D E-M1 Mark II with the 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens and lit with two LED diffused panels, to really enhance the wonderful iridescent colours. I used a 60-shot focus bracket and stacked using Zerene Stacker. The biggest challenge was to make sure everything was still for the four seconds or so that it took to capture the images for the stack. To do this the subject was moved into a light tent on a dull cool day, mainly to act as a windbreak, as the slightest breeze shows up a lot on small subjects. The camera was supported on my Gitzo Explorer tripod, and I set the aperture to f/4, focus bracketing to 60 shots, and 2 on the focus differential scale. I then focused on the nearest point in the image that I wanted sharp, pressed the shutter release and hey presto, it all happens on its own! With the images recorded a quick playback and flick through them with the thumb dial to see the focus change from front to back and it’s off home to process them.

I always shoot Raw and JPEG but for this shot the JPEGs were fine. I loaded them into Zerene, selected Align & Stack Dmax and awaited the results. This image required hardly any retouching after the initial stack, just a small amount of post sharpening to the output image.As we head into spring I am super excited to get out shooting. There is an almost endless abundance of subjects appearing from flowers to insects – definitely the best time to shoot macro. I have always marvelled at the details in the small things all around us, but traditionally had to stop down the aperture to say f/16 or f/22 to try and get enough depth of focus. This causes an inherent softness in the image due to diffraction and also brings distractions from the background into focus. With my new-found ease of acquiring images quickly to focus stack, it allows me to show these amazing fine details by utilising a fantastic digital technique that Olympus has nailed perfectly.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 57 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.