This typically is not a review website, but in some cases I feel that I need to share something. In this case it is Zerene Stacker. Zerene Stack is an application that allows one to create a single image out of multiple photos taken with different parts of the image in focus. In my opinion, this is an essential piece of software for every insect photographer to own.
There are a number of stacking applications out there, but what sets Zerene Stacker apart is its ability to align photos. This is critical for insect photography as most photos are hand held. This means that the chances that they will perfectly align are practically nil.
Zerene Stacker is extremely easy to use, though it does contain an impressive list of options. It also contains a very powerful retouching feature that allows one to explain from which image to take different parts of the final image. This is extremely useful in a number of cases, though with care I have found that it is often not necessary. Typically I use the retouching feature when I specifically do not want a particular part of the final image to be in focus. Often this is for artistic reasons. I want the insect to be in focus but not this part of a leaf, etc.
There’s a common expression that a picture is worth a thousand words, so without further ado I’ll show you what it can do.
The following are three unedited photos of a stink bug I took recently.
As you can see, each of these images has a different part in focus. The image at the top has only the antenna in focus. The image in the middle has the face and the front of the body in focus, while the one on the bottom has the top of the shell.
Also note that they are not completely aligned. In particular the bottom image is quite a bit off. Nevertheless, I brought all three of these images into Zerene Stacker and then stacked them using PMax. The following is the result, which also includes some post processing to make the shot a bit more interesting.
As you can see, most of the stink bug is now in focus. The entire post processing for this photo, including the following, took only a few minutes.
- 1) Stack the photos using Zerene Stacker.
- 2) Exposure and slight contrast change in Lightroom.
- 3) Tonal contrast (to insect only) using Nik Color Efex in Photoshop CS5.
- 4) Removed dust spots.
This shot would not have been possible to take otherwise – there is simply too much depth of field (the original shots were all taken at f11).
One other small point to note is you can see at the very bottom of the shot that there is a part that looks slightly different. This effect is an unfortunate side effect that occurs when Zerene Stacker aligns the photos. To combat this issue you need to try to take the shots as aligned as possible. Also, make sure that no important visual elements are on the edges. Usually, I just crop this part out but if I feel it is important I will just use content aware fill in CS5 – which does a good job with these.
Of course, it can still be tricky to get several workable shots that can then be combined with Zerene Stacker. One must pay particular attention to the parts of the insect in the shot. As one moves in closer or farther to focus on a nearer or further part of the insect, very often part of the insect will leave the frame. The trick is to still keep the same parts of the insect in the frame while changing the area of focus.
This technique is even more important at higher magnifications. Due to diffraction at high magnifications, if you need a very high quality shot you will need to stop down quite a bit. On a 5D2, the MP-E 65 does show diffraction at 5x at f11. This can be noticed on an 8×10 shot, though not enough to overly detract from the shot. If one needs to crop the shot though or create larger prints, then the lens will need to be stopped down to f5.6. At this aperture, the DOF is miniscule and focus stacking is a necessity.
For these reasons, I believe Zerene Stacker is an essential tool for any serious insect photographer.
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