Tutorial: Focus Stacking in Photoshop

Ever wonder how photographers can get such deep focus from something really close to something really far away? Here's a spoiler alert for you: We use Photoshop. I know. Photoshop gets such a bad rap. But why? It's a tool just like anything else in a photographer's kit. Without ranting too much about the use of Photoshop, let's get back to the reason why I started writing this post. Focus blending. I should note here that many professionals, including myself, also use a tilt-shift lens in order to get both the foreground and background in focus. It takes a lot of practice and patience, but it can offer some really amazing results. But what if you don't have a tilt-shift lens? Or you don't have it with you? Or the tilt-shift isn't giving you desirable results? Enter focus blending.

Before I go any further, I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as my main post production tools. You may use something different, but these are what I know. The same steps should be pretty similar across the board, but as far as I know*, these steps are the best way to blend focus.

How to blend focus in Photoshop:

1. Find a scene and set up your composition. Make sure to use a tripod for this step. Once you've got the exposure the way you want it, focus on the foreground object and take a photo. With the same settings (remember to use Manual mode) focus on the background and take a photo. This step can include several focus points, depending on the scene. Take as many photos you think are necessary. For this example, I will only be using two photos.

2. Import into Lightroom (or your editing software of choice).

3. Highlight the photos you want to blend (hold down command and click on the photos you want to include in the focus blend). Right click, choose "Edit In" and then click on "Open as Layers in Photoshop...". This action will open Photoshop and prepare your selected photos as layers.

4. Once in Photoshop, click on the eraser tool. Then highlight the top layer where it shows the photos on the right. The bottom layer will remain hidden until you start erasing the top layer. Don't forget to select the top layer before you start erasing or you might just erase the bottom layer without noticing. You can switch the layers by dragging and dropping them in a different order. The top photo will always be the top layer.

5. Use the eraser tool and start erasing the section that is out-of-focus. In this case, my top layer is the photo where the flowers are in-focus and the mountains in the background are out-of-focus. My bottom layer is the photo where the mountains are in-focus, so when I erase the out-of-focus mountains from the top layer, the in-focus mountains show up from the photo in the bottom layer. Make sure your opacity is at 100% and flow 100%.

6. Once you've erased the large sections, zoom in and start focusing on the details. This step is where the world "blend" comes in. You want to make the transition between the two photos are as seamless as possible. It takes some practice, but this is a critical step that definitely needs attention.

7. To see what you've actually erased, and to make sure you erased everything you needed to erase, click on the eye next to the layer. I clicked on the eye next to the bottom layer so I could see what was remaining of the top layer. Remember, the top layer is what I was erasing. Everything that is showing will remain on top of the bottom layer.

8. If everything looks OK, go to File>Save. This will save a new file, leaving the original files as they were, and automatically bring it into Lightroom.

9. Back in Lightroom, you can finish up the edit and get it ready for export.

You can use this same method with numerous layers. Just remember the basics. The possibilities are really endless. I've used this same process to blend exposures, and although it's not my favorite end-result, it has opened up the possibilities for me in Photoshop.

If you learned something, feel free to share this.


*Full Disclosure: I am not a Photoshop expert. Not even close. If you know of an easier or better way of doing this, please share. I won't be offended.


Published: April 28, 2014

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