Every autumn, in the forests near my home, a massive reproductive event takes place that I just can't ignore. It starts during the warm days of summer when long tendrils of mycelium digest their way through the rotting corpses of fallen forest detritus. When autumn arrives, an asexual explosion erupts from the earth, as the fruiting bodies strive to spread their genetically identical spores throughout the forest floor. We're talking mushrooms here, people! And I love to photograph them.
Mushrooms grow remarkably quickly and decay even quicker. But if you time it right they can be quite photogenic. Many species are so small that a macro lens is an absolute necessity. Anyone who has worked with a macro lens recognizes that it can be a real challenge to achieve a sharp subject from front to back and still maintain a nice, soft, defocused background. In fact, with most subjects it's an impossible task. Enter focus stacking or focus bracketing.
The concept is quite simple. Take a series of photos with each one being focused at a slightly different point on your subject. Then use software to stack and process them in order to capture a greater depth of field than is capable with just a single shot using a macro lens, all while maintaining nice bokeh in your final image. Olympus developed built-in focus stacking in their OMD E-M1 with the release of the 4.0 firmware update. That feature has been included and improved in the E-M1 Mark II. Although focus bracketing will be addressed, the main focus of this post is the focus stacking feature. All of the images have been photographed using the new Mark II model.
The following Olympus cameras have built-in focus bracketing and focus stacking.
OMD E-M1 Mark II
OMD E-M1 (firmware version 4.0 and newer)
OMD E-M5 Mark II (firmware version 4.0)
Not every lens is compatible with the focus bracketing/stacking feature. Here is the most recent list of stacking compatible lenses (as of April 2018).
M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO
M.Zuiko ED 12-40 f/2.8 PRO
M.Zuiko ED 12-100 f/4 PRO
M.Zuiko ED 40-150 f/2.8 PRO
M.Zuiko ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO
M.Zuiko ED 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO
M.Zuiko ED 30mm f/3.5 Macro
M.Zuiko ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro
A tripod is definitely recommended. However, a few of the shots in this post were hand-held and for others I placed the camera on the ground.
The following steps will set up the camera for focus stacking.
Generally I have found that a wider aperture and a narrow focus differential yields excellent results with the fungal subjects in this post. In all of the photos below I have included the lens, basic camera settings and focus differential.
Although I have found the focus stacking feature to yield excellent results, it is not infallible. There are times where the camera cannot process the stacked image and a message pops up stating, "Focus stacking error. Image composite failed." This is usually due to camera or subject movement, however I have also had it occur when the lighting changes rapidly during the sequence.
Bracketing vs. Stacking
I have found the built-in focus stacking to be remarkably accurate. So why would you opt for bracketing vs. stacking? Here are a couple of reasons;
To access the bracketing options turn off focus stacking. This allows you to choose from 3 to 999 shots with a focus differential between 1 and 10. For the image above, I selected 20 shots with a focus differential of 2. After the sequence I had a look at each one using the LCD and determined that I had captured sufficient detail throughout the range.
Upon uploading the images I determined that I only needed 12 of those images to clearly capture the fungus from front to back. I then used Photoshop to stack them. This gave me greater control over the process (which I like), and there was no trimming of the final image. That being said, I really do like the convenience of the built-in focus stacking and how easy it is to use.
A Final Photo
It was my interest in the sheer number of mushrooms sprouting up in a local bush lot that inspired me to experiment a bit more with focus bracketing and to write this post. However, there are plenty of subjects out there where focus bracketing can be used. The photograph below is one example, but with full disclosure, it was a complete accident. Shortly after photographing a mushroom, I came across two toads on the trail. I bent down quickly, framed the shot, and pressed the shutter release only to realize I still had focus stacking enabled. Here's that shot.
For more information on the features of the new E-M1 Mark II, read my blog post.
Peter Baumgarten is a professional photographer and educator. He is also an Olympus Visionary and NiSi Official Photographer.