How to Combine Focus Stacking and Exposure Blending for Better Photos

I have already written two articles on focus stacking here. The first post covered how I used autofocus bracketing in the field, and in the second post I shared my focus stacking workflow in Helicon Focus. To provide you with even more tools, I now show you how I combine focus stacking with exposure blending.

In the field workflow

I have to do this frequently because in addition to capturing everything from foreground to background as sharp as possible, I want to show the full dynamic range of a scene. And for many scenes, it’s not possible to capture it with a single exposure.

The Canon R5 can generally capture the dynamic range in the foreground and middle of my landscape shots in a single frame without too much of a problem. But for the background, multiple exposures are often still necessary.

Unfortunately, the R5 and other modern cameras do not yet support combining AF bracketing and exposure bracketing. So my workflow, which I show in the video above, is as follows:

  1. I capture a series of images focused on different points in the scene using the Canon R5’s autofocus bracketing feature, which many other modern cameras also have, or I can manually change the focus for a image set.

  2. I focus on the horizon and capture three bracketed exposures, separated by two stops, to capture the full dynamic range. This is usually sufficient to achieve a clean blend result during post-processing.

The above order can be changed depending on the scene. For example, you can shoot a bright sunset where you want to first capture what’s happening in the sky and then do focus stacking.

I will also adapt the workflow if I need multiple exposures for other parts of the scene. If so, I don’t use autofocus bracketing. Instead, I focus manually and keep exposure bracketing active all the time.

Photo editing workflow

At the end of the video above, I show my old focus stacking workflow in Photoshop. But for the past few weeks I’ve been doing focus stacking in Helicon Focus, which is faster and gives me better results. But how can I incorporate exposure mixing into this new workflow?

Helicon Focus does not support exposure blending, as it is not designed for that. So I still need Photoshop for this part. In Lightroom, I first apply my typical raw adjustments to one photo, then sync the settings across all stacked and bracketed images. Then I try to equalize the brightness in the three bracketed exposures so that the dark and bright exposures look like the other photos in the series. This makes mixing much easier, as I show in the video overview.

Exposure Blending in Photoshop

Next, it’s time to mix the exposures for the background. I select the three photos, right click on one of them, and go to Edit In – Open As Layers in Photoshop, where I use a mixture of standard masks and, if necessary, luminosity masks to do the exposure blending.

Then I flatten the three layers into one and save the result. Since I opened the photos directly from Lightroom, the saved image will automatically appear in Lightroom.

If you don’t want to use Photoshop, you can also try Lightroom’s HDR feature. For architectural and cityscape photos, this can work very well. But beware: I’ve found that HDR mixing in Lightroom can introduce artifacts at high contrast edges. If I try to extract all the details from it, I sometimes see aliasing. In Photoshop, on the other hand, I have much more control over these areas, which is why I prefer to blend there.

Combine Focus Stacking and Exposure Blending

Now it’s time for stacking. Helicon Focus lets me stack DNG and TIFF files. Since I saved the blended photo as TIFF, I also have to do the stacking with TIFF files. It’s different from the DNG workflow, which I showed in my last article on Helicon Focus.

I load the exposure blended image and photos taken with different focus into Helicon Focus by right-clicking one of them and then selecting Export – Helicon Focus (TIFF). In Helicon Focus, I usually use method B to stack photos by clicking To return. You can see my preferred settings in the screenshot below.

Once the rendering is finished, I do manual touch-ups, which is crucial. Here I combine the result of the exposure fade with that of the stack.

The algorithm selects which areas will end up in the final blend based on image detail and sharpness, and it may already use parts of the blended photo when stacking. I can now paint in the additional areas I want in the final image. The retouch brush makes this very easy by providing an outline and smoothing the blend as I paint.

When I do the hand blend, I look for the transition between the middle ground and the background. After I find it, I fill in the rest. Here it may be useful to toggle the depth map display. It shows how the images in the series have been merged using distinct shades of gray. With it active, I can find where to look for the transition and what areas of the background I might have missed in my painting.

The final touch

Once I’m satisfied with the result, I head to the Economy , save the image, close Helicon Focus and return to Lightroom, which should automatically re-import the photo. I can now apply additional settings in Lightroom or reopen the image in Photoshop, where I like to apply some finishing touches.

Then the last step is to prepare the image for the web. Here I have one more tip for you: use Andreas Resch’s Web Sharpener. It is a free plugin for Photoshop, and it ensures that your photos will look great in your targeted web resolution. After spending so much time with blending and stacking, we don’t want to lose any detail at the finish line now.

Leave a Comment