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The Significance of Automated Focus Stepping for Focus Stacking (Nikon D850)

Get Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art at B&H Photo.

See my focus stacking how-to (to be expanding soon) in Making Sharp Images and focus stacking related pages.

Focus stacking is the only answer to the future of increasing megapixels, including today’s 36/42/45/etc megapixels. That is, if one’s aim is any application in which more than fraction of the sensor resolution is desirable.

If focus stacking is not in your photographic toolkit as a landscape photographer or similar application requiring deep depth of field, competence in the field requires learning it, yesterday. That is, if resolution and detail count for something.

Overall, focus shift is more applicable and useful than pixel shift (for landscape and similar). Just as a hammer is better than a screwdriver, or vice versa, depending. See also Sony Alpha A7R III: Pixel Shift Facts. Pixel shift is a different animal that is excellent in its own right, not to be underestimated as to its immense value in some shooting situations, but pixel shift is of much more limited application until and unless major advances in automated image processing smarts emerge. Still, we can even today contemplate focus stacking using pixel-shifted images in some situations.

Pixel-count and quality aside, I reiterate and emphasize that the Nikon D850 Focus shift shooting feature is the most significant feature in a decade aside from Live View, at least for a landscape photographer or for anyone needing more depth of field than stopping down can deliver, and with far higher quality by avoiding diffraction. That’s because its focus stepping automation makes images like the one below possible in a tiny fraction of the time it would take me focusing manually (and probably with errors). Such images can often often impossible as a practical matter, due to failing light conditions that make focusing increasingly error prone or non-viable, due to failing light, which not only impedes focusing but renders the stack of images difficult to use (light changes of color, angle, etc).

The bummer: focus stepping automation requires autofocus lenses. I can count the acceptable performing wide angles for Nikon (or Canon) on one hand. Well, two hands if one accepts the major PITA of strong field curvature and the headaches it causes when retouching.

Lenses: I greatly prefer what I am getting from the Zeiss Milvus 18/2.8 (very high grade), Milvus 25/1.4 (Otus grade) and Milvus 35/1.4 (Otus grade stopped down a bit). Stacking with manual focus wides is not too bad, but at 50mm and beyond it gets very tedious and error prone. The (autofocus) Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art is their best-designed wide angle and excellent.

Just a few of the pages specifically including focus stacked images (there are more):

Below, this image cannot be done with an 85mm (or 50mm or 35mm or tilt shift lens or macro lens) without focus stacking—not a fraction of the detail at any aperture. Image stacked with Zerene Stacker available at Zerene Systems.

Tiny Creekbed, Flowing but Icing-Up
f8 @ 1.3 sec, ISO 31; 2017-11-13 17:49:52 [focus stack 13 frames]
NIKON D850 + Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

[low-res image for bot]
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