LaurieKnight Photography
Articles»Methods and equipment used

Focus Stacking Software

Published: 16th Jan 2009
Updated: 13th Dec 2009

Which of the several available software packages should I use?

The software packages currently available include:

There are others but as far as I know they are not affordable to the general hobbyist, being intended for professional microscope work. If you know of any others I haven't mentioned here please let me know and I'll add them to the list!!

I'm going to treat Tufuse and Tufuse pro as one product, as that is the way I use it - The Tufuse pro GUI does add extra functionality to the command line product. I'm also only going to consider Combine ZP as I understand from Alan Hadley that this supersedes CombineZM including all of it's functionality plus the new pyramid algorithm similar to that used by Tufuse.

Some time ago I was lucky enough to be a private beta tester for Zerene stacker, and since day one I've been very impressed with it. It's output definitely has the edge over Tufuse and CZP, though I cannot comment on comparisons to Helicon as I do not have the full version yet. I also have not yet got round to trying Picolay so I'm not going to comment any further on that here, but it appears to be free so give it a go!

So the four products we're going to consider here are:

  • Zerene stacker
  • Tufuse + Tufuse Pro
  • CombineZP
  • Helicon Focus
Zerene stacker

Advantages

  • Ease of use
  • Good retouching features
  • Quality of output
  • Available for Mac and Linux as well as Windows
  • Stereo output available from single Z-stack

Disadvantages

  • If you want to sell your stacked images then it's one of the more expensive packages, however if you are only interested in personal use then that license is pretty cheap considering the overall quality of the output.
Tufuse + Tufuse pro

Advantages

  • Relatively easy of use
  • Output quality is good
  • Reasonably cheap

Disadvantages

  • No alignment functionality
  • No built in retouching facilities
Combine ZP

Advantages

  • Completely free
  • Output quality is good
  • Reasonably easy to use

Disadvantages

  • Quality of output definitely not quite as good as Zerene
  • Interface a bit quirky
  • No built in retouching facilities
Helicon focus

Advantages

  • Very polished interface
  • Has some funky extra features like 3d surface map generation
  • Easy to use
  • Fast

Disadvantages

  • One of the more expensive stacking packages, especially if you want the Pro version for the built in retouching functions.
  • Personally I was never totally happy with the output from Helicon, although I have to confess I've only played with the trial version for a couple of weeks. I know some people can get good output from it so the best thing to do would be try the trial version and see what you think!

I have the paid shareware version of Tufuse pro, the freeware CombineZP and the paid professional version of Zerene. However I have only trialled Helicon for a month, and that was a long time ago.

To be honest the only reason I can think not to recommend you immediately buy Zerene stacker is if you definitely want to sell your focus stacked images and you can't afford the professional license. The output is best in class. The user interface is good, not quite perfect yet but close. The retouching facilities are the best I've come across.

Having said that, I would definitely recommend you download and try CombineZP as it is totally free. It's output is very good and there's probably no reason why you need more than this software offers.

Considering there are free trials of both Helicon and Tufuse pro, I would also suggest you download these and give them a go, your tastes in software may well be different to mine.

Full disclosure note - Zerene stacker is written by Rik Littlefield, who is the editor/administrator of Photomacrography.net, where I am also an administrator. I consider Rik a friend. This does not mean I have recommended Zerene because Rik is my friend, or because I would get any benefit from you purchasing it. I just honestly consider it the best software available currently for this task.


 

12 Comments so far. Post a comment



Scale Model Photography

I'm not into macro photography, but I do take lots of pictures for various blogs on building scale models. I just downloaded Combine ZP as a way to increase the DOF when photographing small parts or entire models to make the scene look full-size. I'm looking forward to trying it out and will let you all know with examples how it works models and model railroad images. AND I don't care if it's cheating. I'm not about to invest in a photo studio, view camera and elaborate lighting to enable very small aperture shots. This way suits my Canon Rebel much better.


Myles at 12:37 on 12th Sep 2011



Focus stacking is cheating!

My name is Kenn Wingle and I can do the exact same thing you guys do with this so called stacking software. But this is nothing more than a cheap shot. Anyone with this software can do it. What talent and innovation is required. I have a special lens I use that does the same thing and some other techniques that require no special software. Lets see what you guys can do without the software. Some of my photos are over at Microbus website.


Kenn at 13:28 on 1st Apr 2011



Focus stacking is cheating

Ken,

You are of course welcome to your opinion. I'll even link over to your website and let readers decide.

One questions - How has your special lens got around the problem of diffraction?

Or does it not in fact do that, does it just have a very small aperture?


Laurie at 16:43 on 1st Apr 2011



cheating ?

Who cares ? I notice that the higher magnification your images get, Kenn, the more cheating you need, rofl.

If the aim is to get the largest portion of the specimen in focus with the minimum required effort, then you use whatever works regardless of the baseless opinions of the 'elite'. If you work at high magnification then focus stacking is required for more than minimal DOF no matter how expensive your equipment and polished your technique may be.

In fact, focus stacking is the poor man's entrance into the world of high quality macro-photography. My $47 2 MP ocular camera and CombineZP generate results comparable to those generated by much more expensive equipment and software.

BTW, Laurie, your images are lush and beautiful !


BioBob at 04:50 on 2nd Apr 2011



This one is not for stacking but for taking multiple photos with different focus

http://www.milosparipovic.com/dslr-bracketeer.html

It can be used with one of free stackers.


David at 16:30 on 5th Jul 2010



Focus stacking is cheating

I do not agree that focus stacking is cheating it is just another technique to achieve good macro photos. The use of software is not cheating then the use of photoshop and other image post processing software is also cheating. Sorry but I cannot agree with you.


Dwarak at 20:42 on 18th Aug 2013



Cheating ??? Come off it...

Concerning Myles post above, I'd like to know WHICH lens he uses that gives IN ONE SHOT a DOF of several centimeters (or even meters) !?!?!

IMO, there isn't any other way to get a good and sharp image ! Not even a 4x5 camera with tilt & shift can do that !


JPS at 20:40 on 18th Aug 2013



Focus stacking

To say Focus stacking is cheating is like saying buying a macro lens is cheating because it enables you to get macro shots. You still have to take the time to get the photos in the first place, the software doesnt do that for you. All it's doing is enabling you to do the process of combing and improving the final outcome of your photos slightly quicker than without it. Btw I like the link to your website Mr Wingle, is that perhaps cheating in that you are using an issue on here to plug your shots maybe??? hmmm.


The Doctor at 20:37 on 18th Aug 2013



Stacking is cheating?

I think stacking is just a method or technique and that it is no different to the use of a special (perspective control?) lens. Certainly I know which is the cheaper option and probably produces the best results in many different scenarios. The freeware as well as the piad-for stacking software should encourage like-minded photographers to improve their work and raise all our standards and that can be only good.


DumbMarine at 20:39 on 18th Aug 2013



stack cheating?

Times have changed friend.The end justifies the means.The final product matters no matter what you do to attain it.Is Photoshop cheating? I am not ready to accept what the camera spits out and wants to modify my images to my liking..Is it cheating?


George Augustine at 20:40 on 18th Aug 2013



Cheating?

Get real and grow up! Any thing that enables one to acheive the kind of results one can get from "FS" is very wellcome!. As a photographer who works with a "Sinar P2" (Swings and tilts) and is quite "expert" with it, I would use this relatively new way of bringing every thing I want into focus, over the "Sinar", "alll the time". Just because you may be lucky enough to own specialised equipment that can deliver these great results, do not begrudge any one without it, from getting such fabulous results. And anyway, "FS" is superior! I know, I use both. I use "Combine zp" It is excellent! and "FREE".


Geoff at 20:40 on 18th Aug 2013



Focus Stacking

Hi Laurie

How to find the FS in Photoshop (CS5 and 6) compares to other (Mac) stacking apps? I have only recently started using this and seem to have good results....


Waldo S at 20:35 on 18th Aug 2013





Post a comment
  1.