Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Focus bracketing / stacking experiment

This post is not my usual Central Florida Photo Op entry. Instead I want to cover a technique and some software I’ve been experimenting with.

One macro photography challenge is to get the desired portions of the subject in focus without using such a small aperture that the image quality is degraded by diffraction effects. One solution is to combine multiple images focused at different depths within the frame to extend depth of field. In this post I’ll talk about how to do this, including software that can be used to automate the process. I’ve posted one focus bracket image before in this blog. That image was created manually. Using software to help is much easier.

Note: double click any of these images to view them on Flickr, where there is a larger version available. You can also visit the entire set at this link or view a slide show at this link.

Dry Backlit Orchid - focus bracket at f/8Back-lit Orchid – 15 separate captures at f/8.

As with all macro photography, good technique remains important. Focus bracketing will not make up for poor composition and exposure or sloppy camera handling. But for stationary subjects focus bracketing can give the photographer complete control over depth of field, background appearance / bokeh, and help optimize image quality. I used a program called Helicon Focus for this experiment. I think you can accomplish the same thing using Photoshop CS4, but I don’t have this latest version, so I haven’t tried. Helicon Focus is available as a fully functional 30 day trial download, so you can experiment with it too.

The Helicon Focus web site has a lot of information on how to use their software. To learn more, browse these links:

Here are some of my additional hints based on what I learned while evaluating the software.

  1. Use good macro and general technique
    • As for any type of bracketing, a sturdy tripod will help make sure all images are aligned.
    • Use a cable release or remote so you don’t jar the camera.
    • Use the mirror lock up function on your camera with low shutter speeds
    • Know your lens and camera.
      • Which aperture has the best image quality? (Usually ~ 2 stops down from wide open)
      • Make several test images at a different apertures. Use them to select the aperture to use with the focus bracket series. You can also use one of these later if you like the background bokeh better than in the focus bracket result.
      • Where does diffraction start to affect the image quality? (About f/11 for full frame cameras and ~f/8 for APS C size sensors
      • Don’t forget about composition.
        • Eliminate unnecessary image content
        • Remember (or not) the Rule of Thirds
        • Isolate the subject and make sure the background isn’t distracting (e.g. bright spots)
  2. When you’re ready to start the focus bracket capture, set your camera in manual focus and exposure modes. Also set your camera to a manual white balance, or do this post capture if you use RAW.
  3. Make a series of captures working from far to near and varying the focus slightly closer for each one. I found that the smallest movement of the focus ring that I could make worked best.
  4. I saved the images in RAW format and processed them through Capture NX2 in batch mode to apply the same pre-processing edits (overall lighting adjustment, some highlight recovery, a little dodging and burning and some basic sharpening) to each photo. I also used NX2 to convert the RAW images to TIFF format.
  5. Then I ran the TIFF images through Helicon Focus. By the way, it is Intel i7 aware and so it runs pretty fast on my iMac. The only change I made to the default settings was selecting Lancos8 resample quality.
  6. My resulting composite image had a few areas that could be improved by cloning from one of the source images. Helicon Focus supports this with a “resampling” mode which allows you to clone from any of the source files into the final before saving.
  7. Once I had the final composite output saved, I opened it in Photoshop. Since I liked the bokeh of the f/36 image, I cloned from that background into the composite – and I was done, except for importing into Lightroom where I added some clarity and adjusted contrast.

Here’s a series of images to illustrate.

Wet Backlit Orchid at f/5.6Wet Back-lit Orchid at f/5.6. At this aperture (2 stops from wide open) the lens optical quality is very good, but the depth of field is shallow. Parts of the flower and the stem are not in focus. The background is completely blurred out.

Wet Backlit Orchid at f/36Wet Back-lit Orchid at f/36. At this very narrow aperture, the depth of field is maximized. The out of focus leaves and background are pleasing. But the small aperture is causing diffraction to degrade the optical quality of the capture.

Wet Backlit Orchid - focus bracketWet Backlit Orchid – focus bracket. In this composite photo made using the Helicon Focus program and 16 individual captures at f/5.6, the depth of field covers the entire flower and stem and the background is completely blurred. The optical quality is improved since the wider aperture does not suffer from diffraction.

Wet Backlit Orchid - focus bracket with small aperture backgroundThe final image: Wet Back-lit Orchid – focus bracket with small aperture background. You can completely control the background. If you prefer the bokeh / background of the f/36 image, selectively clone it into the focus bracket image.

Conclusions: Focus bracketing is a useful technique that can give photographers a tremendous degree of control over depth of field in situations where the subject matter is still and there is time to set up, capture and process for it. If you add a manual step to the final output, you can selectively enhance the bokeh. Helicon Focus runs well and does what it is supposed to – make this process easier.

©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Viera Wetlands – a birder's paradise?

Intro / Description

OK, so maybe you don’t look at the top of my blog very often, where it says “Central Florida Photo Ops – What & Where they are, and tips on how to photograph them”.  That’s the main purpose here – to let others know about all the great places to make photographs in the Central Florida area.  So I feel like I owe an apology to all my loyal readers and the wildlife / nature / bird photographers that have visited my blog in the past without finding any mention of the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, also known as Viera Wetlands.  I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better – but I do have a day job!  And there are so many fabulous places to photograph around here!

Note: you can click on any of these photos to go to my Flickr photo stream and view a larger version (click on the magnifying glass icon at the top). There’s also links at the end of this entry to the my entire set, my slide show version of the photos, and some links to other photos of Viera Wetlands.

Some winter color in the trees at Viera WetlandsViera Wetlands

Our Phototgraphy Interest Group traveled to Viera Wetlands yesterday.  Located at the west end of Wickham Road, in Melbourne, Florida (behind the water treatment plant), the Viera Wetlands offers birders and photographers a close encounter with many species from the comfort of their automobiles.  Since cars are such a good blind to photograph from, you can often get quite close to the wildlife without disturbing them.  I’ve only been there one time (so far!), but if my visit with the Photography Interest Group yesterday was any indication, this is a very nice place to watch and photograph birds.  I should have checked it out ages ago.

Great Blue Heron full closeupUn-cropped photo of Great Blue Heron.  I did get out of the car for this one!

Info for Photographers

Photo hints:  You can get photos of many of the species right from your car.  The dirt roads are fairly narrow – so if you do exit your vehicle to get a “down low” perspective, or whenever you stop to get a shot – be courteous and make sure you pull over as far as possible to one side.

The roads are one way.  The perimeter road runs counter clockwise and so most of the photo ops will be on the driver’s side, although the roads through the center of the Wetlands do have some scenery and birds out of the passenger side.

The Viera Wetlands official site has a visitor’s checklist brochure you can download that lists all the species that have been sighted in the area, along with a map and some other information.  The brochure is here:  It’s well worth looking at before you go and gives you an indication of how common each species is in the Wetlands.

An American CootAn American Coot (the bird – not the author)

Crested CaracaraA Crested Caracara in flight. (Photo by Kevin McKinney)

Tripod/Monopod :  Definitely allowed – you can bring all the gear that will fit in your car.  You may also want to bring a bean bag so you can rest your camera on your car’s window sill.

Lenses:  Some of the birds get quite close to the side of the road.  I probably don’t have to tell you that for birds, longer lenses are better. But you can get by with a not so long lens here. I used my 70 – 300 on my D90 (1.5 crop factor = 450mm equivalent).  I also got some good frames with my 70 – 200 on the full frame D700.

Best time to visit : Now is a great time.  There’s lots of activity and the weather is what Florida is famous for.  Many of the birds are getting their breeding plumage.  In general, early February through June (nesting season) should continue to be a good time to go.  Go early in the day when the light is good and the animals are active.

Glossy IbisBreeding colors are starting to show in this Glossy Ibis.

Other : Normal hours are Monday through Sunday, Sunrise to Sunset. The dirt roads through the wetlands are sometimes closed due to heavy rains.  If this is the case, you can still walk in.  You can also call ahead to make sure the roads are open (see below).


The photos I’ve posted here are just a few of the ones we made on Saturday, and this was just some of what there is to see.  This is a place worth going to multiple times.  Check out the links below for more images of different species.  You could also visit the Photography Interest Group on Flickr to see the photos that the others made yesterday.

Also, there’s a group on Flickr that appears to be pretty active and has many photos and discussions about Viera Wetlands.  If you’re interested, you may want to visit there to learn more and even join.  Here’s the link:

My Gatorland photo set on Flickr: The set:

A slide show version:

Address / Phone: 10001 Wickham Road

Melbourne, FL 32940

Information:  321-637-5521

Current Road Conditions:  321-255-4329

Central Florida Photo Ops Rating: Bird fan bonanza – shoulda gone sooner!

©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida

Intro / Description

A great blue heron portrait

Great Blue Heron portrait

Note: you can click on any of these photos to go to my Flickr photo stream and view a larger version (click on the magnifying glass icon at the top). There’s also links at the end of this entry to the entire set and a slide show version of the photos.

In a “ToDo” post last year, I promised to visit and report on Gatorland and to compare it to the St. Augustine Alligator farm for you. I was finally able to go and this post is the basic review. I’ll follow-up with a comparison to the Alligator Farm shortly. Gatorland is a vintage, Florida, roadside attraction (started in 1949) and has grown into a 110-acre, photographer friendly theme park featuring some great shows with many kinds of animals on display. Although there are a lot of things to do in the park, the two that may attract nature and wildlife photographers more than others are:

  • The Bird Rookery: Created in 1991 as a natural breeding area for the gators, the 10 acre Breeding Marsh has over 100 adult alligators and is a completely natural environment. It attracts wild birds,which tend to nest above the alligators, since they provide protection against some of the bird predators such as raccoons and snakes.

Gatorland breeding marsh and bird rookeryThe bird rookery and breeding marsh


  • The Swamp Walk: This is located at the southern end of the park and is a self guided tour on a raised wooden walkway through a Cypress Swamp and affords visitors a rare look back into what much of Central Florida looked like before development.

There is also quite a bit for the non-photo family members to do, including shows, a small water park, a petting zoo, and displays of other captive animals.

The gator jumparoo at GatorlandThe gator jumparoo show

Photo hints: Gatorland reinstated its photo pass in 2012.  It allows entry at 7:30 and lets you stay inside until dusk.  Quite an advantage for bird photography.

Tripod/Monopod : Gatorland is a photographer friendly place. You can bring all of your equipment, including a tripod or monopod and there is ample room to use them as long as you are courteous.

Lenses: Of course, long lenses are a must for most bird photography and they will certainly help you at Gatorland. But since many of the birds are so used to people you can get very close to some of them, so very good shots with not so long lenses are possible.

Wood Stork and Alligator bokehWood Stork and Alligator bokeh

Best time to visit : Early February through June (nesting season) where the weather is also not as hot.

Other : Normal hours are 10:00am – 5:00pm.  Be sure to ask about Senior Citizen and Florida Resident discounts.


Families will find lots to interest them at Gatorland.  It’s a good value in today’s overpriced theme park environment. And photographers will enjoy visiting this park multiple times.

My Gatorland photo set on Flickr: The set: slide show version:
Address: 14501 S Orange Blossom Trail Orlando, FL 32837 (407) 855-5496
Central Florida Photo Ops Rating: Birds and gators galore – family fun too!

©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.  Updated on 3/29/2012.