I’d like to introduce Craig Lamson.  Craig has been a professional product photographer for over 3 decades.  Craig has done it all and I encourage you to check out his website for the best product photography you’ll ever have the privilege of viewing.  Often times I can spend a great amount of time viewing just one of his images and learning while observing how he uses light.  Craig is a master of light, and I’m afraid that is an understatement.

 

Helicon Focus

A Review By Craig Lamson

 

Copyright Craig Lamsom

"As far as the eye can see"  copyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

The Promise of Infinite Focus

We have all had that oh-so-perfect image perfectly framed in our viewfinder.  Carefully we check the light meter and select the proper exposure based on our desired depth of focus.  With great anticipation we press the shutter release and capture the fleeing moment of time for posterity.

Once back at the computer we process our new masterpiece and open it up at 100% in Photoshop zooming in and scrolling around to admire all the wonderful detail.  This joyous moment is often spoiled when we discover that our masterpiece suffers from areas of soft focus that spoil our desired result.  With the standard method of stopping the lens down to f16, f22 or more to extend depth of focus, we again find disappointment at 100%. Lens diffraction has robbed the image of all the fine detail. 

Depth of focus is controlled in a few different ways. Focal length of the lens, wider angle lenses giving more depth of focus.  Camera to subject focusing distance, focusing on objects closer to the camera reduces depth of field in most instances.  Selecting a smaller aperture, the smaller the f-stop the greater depth of focus. Using a tilt shit lens or a technical camera to change the plane of focus to increase depth of focus

Even with all of these creative options at our command, there are times when they are simply not enough to fulfill out creative vision. 

 

Enter Helicon Focus 

 

Now, thanks to the good folks at Helicon Soft LTD., computer software comes to the rescue.

http://www.heliconsoft.com/heliconfocus.html 

Their product, Helicon Focus, lets you extend the depth of focus in your digital photographs by taking a number of “focus bracketed” images of the same scene, and blending them to create the final, extreme depth of focus image.  I’m a photographer…not a software wiz.  I don’t really know what’s happening “under the hood” but it works and works very well. For this review I was supplied with a copy of the most current version of Helicon Focus, V4.8.  Let’s check it out!

 

As Easy as 1-2-3 or 4-5-6-7-8

Shooting the frames.

You need to plan ahead when you consider using this program for a photograph.  A tripod and a remote shutter release, while not required, will yield the very best results.  Likewise your choice of subject matter for extended depth of focus photography is important.  Things that move in your scene like leaves, water, clouds and people can cause problems that are impossible or at least very difficult to repair in the final image.  Helicon Focus does include a set to retouching tools to help repair minor problems. Remember this is just another tool in your creative toolkit, to be used when the situation requires it.

To create an extended depth of focus photograph using Helicon Focus you start by shooting “focus brackets”.  These are nothing more than consecutive exposures of the same scene with the lens focused at different points within the scene.  If you regularly do exposure bracketing you will easily understand the concept, only in this case it’s the focus that changes, not the exposure. For those of you unsure of the concept it works like this:

 

Setup your camera on a tripod (for the best results) and carefully frame your image and select the proper exposure.  Since we are using software to create the desired depth of field you can safely use the sharpest f-stop for your lens which is typically two stops down from wide open.

Focus your camera on the nearest point in the image you want in focus.  Carefully check and set your exposure.  I suggest you use your camera on the manual setting to eliminate any possibility of exposure shifts during the creation of your focus stack.

Shoot your first image, using your remote shutter release and mirror lock up if your camera has that function.  Our goal here is precision and maximum image sharpness.

Being very careful to not move the camera, refocus to a point a bit deeper into the scene and make another exposure. Male sure the depth of focus for each image overlaps the prior image.  You may need to use the stop down button on your camera body to see exactly the amount of depth of focus your lens is producing at a given f-stop.

Continue this process until you have changed the focus to include every area in your scene you want to be rendered in sharp focus. It takes a bit of trial and error to determine just how much you must change focus for each image.  Don’t fret this step… the end results are worth the time spent in experimentation.

 

You now have your focus bracket frames.  There may be as few as three or as many as 15 or more. The choice is yours and depends on the amount of DOF required and the f-stop of the lens you have chosen.  I will suggest you play it safe and shoot more frames than you think you will need.  You can disregard any frames you don’t need later when you run Helicon Focus.

 

Copyright Craig Lamson

The user interface of Helicon Focus is clean and simple to use, and has a feature set to suit the beginner or professional user.

 

Running Helicon Focus

Here is where the magic happens.  The software is surprisingly easy to use and produces stunning results with the default settings.  Helicon Focus will also allow the power user to alter the output based on a number of settings.  Rather than delve into custom settings lets just work our images using the preset defaults.

Your first decision is what to do with your focus stacked images. If you shoot in raw format (you do shoot raw don’t you?) you can choose to process your images in your favorite raw processor of let Helicon Focus do it for you. If you chose to let Helicon Focus process your raw files you can select the method in the preferences section of the program.  I prefer Phase One Capture 4 to process my Canon 1DsMKIII files so I decided to make the conversions prior to running Helicon Focus.

Opening the program brings up a very simple and intuitive interface.  On the left is the viewing window which displays your selected image.  On top of this window are tabs that select the functions of the program.  Selecting a tab shows the contents and actions in a smaller window on the right side.

When you click the files tab you select the browser to find the files you want to process in Helicon Focus.  Once in the proper directory simply place a checkmark in the box for each of the files you want to include in your stack.  At this point you can simply press the RUN button at the top of the right hand window and Helicon Focus will create your blended image. When it is completely processed you can save your new image to the location of your choice using the save tab or the save button in the toolbar.

 

Copyright Craig Lamson

"Alone in a crowdcopyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

Getting Creative

I’ve always been the type of guy who looks at something and asks, what else can I do with this?  Helicon Focus is no different.  Sure it is superb for creating extended depth of focus but can it produce extended and limited depth of focus at the same time?  The answer is a resounding yes!

I’ve taken to shooting landscape and botanicals as a relaxing change from my normal photographic fare of advertising images.  When shooting flower macros I’ve had a hard time achieving those creamy, out of focus backgrounds and a nice, fully focused flower in the foreground.  When you stop the lens down to assure a fully focused flower you destroy the creamy background.

The solution I found was to use the lens at widest f-stop to produce the creamy background blur and then focus bracketing with Helicon Focus processing to get that perfectly sharp flower. The results are unlike anything you can produce with conventional photography.  And I’ve just scratched the surface of the creative applications for this product.

 

Copyright Craigh Lamson

Helicon Focus Image compared to a single shot image

100% corner crops show the increased depth of focus obtained by using Helicon Focus

 

Nuts and Bolts

Helicon Focus is a very deep program with options and settings to fill the needs of the novice and expert users alike.  It supports a large number of raw and processed file formats for input and can work is 64 bit mode, with multi processor support for faster processing.  You can retouch your blended images to remove “ghosts” caused by subject movement, change the processing parameters, file output types, color space, bit depth etc.  You can also create 3d images and panoramas.

 

Copyright Craig Lamson

An extended depth of focus image created with Helicon Focus and Helicon Remote software

 

All in all this is a very complete software package.  For a detailed look be sure to stop by the Helicon Focus website and read the articles and view the samples.

If you shoot products, studio or location macros, or simply want the most detailed landscapes possible, check out Helicon Focus.  It has found a permanent place in my image processing toolkit and I highly recommend it for yours.

 

Copyright Craig Lamson

The user interface of Helicon Remote is clean and intuitive

 

A Look Into the Future 

Helicon Soft Ltd. was kind enough to send over a beta version of its newest addition to the Helicon Focus family, Helicon Remote, for testing.  Helicon Remote is a tethered shooters dream.  It provides a computer interface for automatic focus adjustment and shooting of images for extended depth of field processing in Helicon Focus software.

Helicon remote works much like other tethering software in that you can remotely adjust focus, file type and other camera parameters directly from your keyboard. Where it exceeds the others is its ability to control focus and automatically produce “focus bracketed” frames.  The upside of doing this with a remote application is repeatability and camera stability.  You can check your composition, focus and exposure all on screen using your cameras live view feature. You select the number of frames and the number of steps for your focus stack as well as the size of the focus shift.  Then it’s a simple click of the mouse and Helicon Remote controls your camera and exposes your frames.  This is a hands-off operation as you never touch your camera after you compose your scene.

Helicon Remote is still in Beta testing and will only be available for cameras that feature a live view function.  Look for a detailed review of this great program when it is released.

 

Steve’s Comments:

I really like this program! It does what it advertises and it does it very well. That’s saying a lot, because it’s often not the case.

Helicon Focus opens up possibilities you might not have ever considered by allowing a previously unheard of Depth of Field (DOF) at your lenses sharpest aperture. For me, this meant the biggest part of the learning curve was spent wrapping my mind around this amazing new capability, and then mentally adding it to my mental variable list.

Now when I’m out in the field or working in the studio and I’m appraising a scene or set, I can add unlimited DOF to the creative possibilities, keeping in mind the caveat: Using Helicon Focus takes forethought and purpose.

There are some points I’d like lightly cover:



Typical Uses

This is a program you use with purpose. It is not a program you use as an afterthought. My current image archive has over 142,000 images and I couldn’t find a single set of images to test this program with, so I had to go out and make some.

Helicon Focus is not something you would consider for casual tourist captures, photojournalism, weddings, events, sports, or wildlife. Helicon Focus however adds an exciting new dimension to micro and macro photography, landscapes, and many things you would do in a studio.



Why the Limitations?

The types of photography you’d use Helicon Focus for is limited because the process demands a set workflow where precision is the buzzword.

For optimum results you’ll need to be setup on a good solid tripod and locked down solid. You should use an external shutter release. Exposure should be as close to spot-on as possible, so taking the time to check out your histogram and dial in your exposure is mandatory. Do consider using mirror lockup if your shutter speeds are any lower than 1/60th. Start by focusing on the absolute closest object in the scene within your lenses MFD capabilities, and work your way through the scene focus slice by focus slice. When in doubt take more exposures.

It is possible to handhold the camera and do these things as the program features an alignment function similar to those you might be used to in HDR programs.  For me personally, I can handhold and bracket exposure (using an auto-bracket feature or even manually) because I can still brace with two hands/arms.  When you bracket focus with a DSLR you'll need to make sure your bracing style has your off-hand on the bottom of the lens barrel in such a position to move the focus ring without creating too much physical movement.

As you can see the workflow takes purpose and time.. This is common for landscape and studio photographers.



Outdoor Scene Limitations?

Scenes captured outdoors tend to be dynamic. Movement might not be obvious at the time, but if there is movement in the scene the set of captures won’t be suitable for the Helicon Focus process.

Clouds move, and they move at different speeds. Depending on their height and the season they can be almost stationary, or as fast as several hundred knots per hour. Pay attention to the clouds, pick a point in the sky/clouds and reference it to a landmark, preferably at 90 degrees. Count how long it takes for significant movement. If the resulting time is longer than it takes for you to effect the series of captures consider adjusting your composition or using another method.

Water moves. Even seemingly peaceful lakes have surface movement from the wind, ripples, etc.. so take notice of any bodies of water and adjust your composition accordingly.

Birds. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken a series of exposures for HDR purposes only to discover during post I didn’t notice the flock of Canadian Geese flying right through the middle of the composition.

Flora moves. Leaves rustle, grass sways, flowers almost shake back and forth. All of these areas will not come into focus using Helicon Focus when you combine the captures. This doesn’t rule out using Helicon Focus, but it is something you should consider in your composition.



Summary

I’m excited about Helicon Focus. It’s a great new tool which allows you to effect captures you never would have considered before.

Helicon Focus has a 16 bit workflow that supports multiple-CPU cores and threads and takes advantage of 64 bit operating systems. This is good, because when you start processing the number of “slice” exposures you’ll need for some scenes, you’ll need some serious computing power. Files supported are RAW, TIFF, JPEG, PSD, and BMP images in either 8 or 16 bit.

The “Dust Map” is a nice feature for processing out dust spots, but I haven’t had a chance to use this feature.

3D Modeling (comes with a 3D viewer) is something else I haven’t tried, but I’m looking forward to it. Some of the examples on
Helicon’s site
are simply awesome.

Helicon Focus also has 2D panorama functions when I intend to try out on my next venture along the Thai/Myanmar border next month. The mountains up there are just incredible.

To the folks at Helicon Focus: Great software! Where’s my Lightroom plug-in? ;o)