Orchid flowers. Photo by Eduardo Libby

How good is in-camera focus stacking?

Even though not all digital cameras offer automated focus-stacking of focus-bracketed exposures, the Panasonic and Olympus micro four thirds cameras have been doing it for several years so far. I wanted to compare it with computer focus stacking and, with my garden orchids blooming, I finally did the test.

One of the advantages of mirrorless cameras for macro photography is the absence of camera shake induced by mirror and shutter slap. The electronic shutter does wonders in static subjects in all cases.

Burgundy-colored orchid flowers. Photo by Eduardo Libby
I found the in-camera stacks just a bit less sharp than the stacks I made from the individual jpeg files in the computer (I did not use the raw files). This is a very small difference that might have to do more with the sharpening settings I chose for my camera. In-camera and Helicon stacking are identical for this image.

Panasonic uses a 4K movie-like mode to do the in-camera focus stack using a large number of images but the resulting image is 4K-sized. The results are excellent though. My Olympus EM1-II uses up to 14 images but you get a 20 MP jpeg and also the focus-bracketed images. Both brands offer of course many more focus-bracketed pictures for you to stack later if you do not want to do it in camera.

I made my photos with the superb 12-100 f/4 zoom wide-open. Check the Olympus website to see which lenses are currently compatible with in camera focus-stacking.

White orchid inflorescence. Photo by Eduardo Libby
Some very fine details are lost in the in-camera stacks but you could only tell by comparing the images in detail (if pixel peeping is required then both the photos are just fine). This is the in-camera stack, and therefore not-retouched photo.
When you have parts of the photo like here where the petals and the column have thin sections that go towards the back and the front, respectively, artifacts are unavoidable and require retouching. I am showing here the Helicon Focus images before (left) and after retouching (right).

Because I can make a comparison with the Olympus and Helicon Focus I am providing you here the images. The results in a nutshell are that for deep focus stacking both methods can produce artifacts but Helicon Focus allows you to edit the stack and remove them. If the subject does not require large focusing changes both are actually comparable.

Please let me know what do you think… you might see details that escape me!

Orchid flowers. Photo by Eduardo Libby

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