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RiverGuy - impressive. Focus stacking is still a big mystery for me. Well done.
Akul: I'm tempted to say focus stacking requires great intellect, artistic skill, technical wizardry, blah, blah. If I had my Eel River Porter or Duck Rabbit in me, I probably would, but it's too early in the day.
Actually, it requires telling Helicon which images you want stacked, and then--here comes the hard part-- clicking the "Run" button.
It does require patience when you make the shots, and a very stable tripod. Whenever I do my artifact work, or any macro work or things like the dandelion shot, I shoot MUP to get the mirror flap out of the equation as well. And, of course, cable release. And before you start the "slicing" series, you gotta go through the fast mental checklist that the tripod column is locked up, all the ballhead knobs are tight, the tripod isn't on bouncy grass that's pushing back at it, etc., etc. And the evil nemesis Wind isn't there..... Or, as I did in many of my images for my 135 gallery, shoot carefully but furiously between gusts. And light conditions must be constant from layer to layer.
With a manual lens and out in the field where tethering is not an option, you have to look at the object carefully and think about where the focus layers should be. Go to what you think is the nearest part of the object to the lens, focus at that point until the dot appears in the viewfinder, then back up from that level a hair until it looks as if you've backed right out of all focus points.... Click that shutter there, regardless of what it looks like in the viewfinder. Then start the other way, down the layers through your object, taking care to "overshoot" the back side of it the same way you shot an "early layer" on the front side. You might end up throwing out the first and last layers, but you have them for safety's sake. The reason why you must do this is nothing kills a beautiful Helicon Focus stacked image like having the nearest part of your subject out of focus.... The eye goes right to it. The dandelion would have been a screaming example of this. Fortunately, I've learned my lessons.
One squirrely area with me is using Live View, which is a lot easier in the D800 or D800E than it was in the D3x. To tell you the truth, I just lose patience with it, and it introduces additional opportunity for the camera to be moved with all the focusing and hitting the buttons. This is just me, others might opt for LV when shooting layers. I occasionally use it to prep for single shot photography, usually getting the focus in LV, then coming out of Live View, going to MUP and taking the final shot. I usually opt for LV when for some reason I just can't be sure of the image in the viewfinder. But to do this in 8-15-20 layers for Helicon Focus, project after project, will put you in the deepest ward of the local asylum.
Helicon's algorithm seems to have vastly improved in the past two years. I know this because I shoot artifact photography all the time, week in and week out.
There are all sorts of possbilities using HF. You might shoot a whole complicated object with a solid surface and get a depth of field and clarity/sharpness you'd never get with a single shot, or you might just tweak the depth of field, maybe shoot 3-5 images in a fast slicing series to turn what otherwise would be a bokeh dominated study shot for us photo geeks into a publishable, sales-worthy print for the rest of the world. I can't emphasize enough the advantages of this. The first time you pull it off, you'll never look back. It's a tool every serious shooter should have. Doesn't work every time, but it works a very high percentage of the time, and when it does, you have something all together different in your galleries. Now you're in a position to "paint depth" into any image to the degree you want. But you get the best of both worlds: you get sweet range (for the 100/2 or 135/2, f/4 to 5.6, maybe stretched to f/8) sharpness and bokeh, with the depth you'd otherwise only be able to have coupled with loss of quality (diffraction) at f/16 and beyond, not to mention sluggish shutter speeds or having to shoot away from ISO 100 or 200 and introducing noise.
Here's a series using some of the component layers of HF images done with the 135/2. It's set up so you can look hard at the clarity, detail, sharpness and bokeh of each original layer image and then quickly compare it to the final HF image. That should make the points I talk about here very clear. This is the magic of HF unraveled:
Give focus stacking a try.