One of the most important things to consider in photography is the focus you set for your camera. No matter what subject you’re shooting, you’ll need to focus properly to capture each detail in all its glory.
Focus stacking software can achieve levels of focus that even a premium tilt-shift lens would struggle with. Its use is especially prevalent in fields like macro photography where close-up focus is paramount. Compare a focus stacked macro image to one you took yourself and you’ll likely be amazed by the difference.
Most people’s photography kits are already full to the brim with expensive tools. Why should focus stacking software be one of them? Thanks to the plethora of good quality open source options out there, editing your image focus is simple, easy and most importantly, free.
This page outlines some of the best free options available for good focus stacking software. We also discuss two premium solutions. Read on to find the best program for you.
Open Source Focus Stacking Software
This page contains a list of our favourite focus stacking software. Each program featured is compatible with windows and has been chosen for its ease of use, convenience and results. In most of the software on this list, a GUI is used to add your shots. These images are then auto-processed to produce a shot that’s virtually impossible to achieve alone.
First on our list is a handy program called CombineZP. The user interface is refreshingly easy to use. Just click to add the images of your choosing and when you’re ready to start processing, click “So Stack” followed by “Go”. If you want to tweak your shots before stacking them, it’s easy to align your photos with the included align tool.
Your finished photos are exported to an output folder in a location of your choosing on your PC. If at any time you find yourself stumped using this focus stacking software, there’s a built-in help function that’s ready and waiting.
Picolay is pretty amazing if you need software that can focus stack your photos very quickly. The process for adding your photos is just as simple as with other options. Just click the images you want for processing and let Picolay do the rest.
To create a stunning image stack with Picolay, click the “File” tab to add your images. Next, click “Stack With Current Parameters” in the “Stack Operations” tab. This will focus stack your images.
If you take a lot of macro or micro photos, then this is definitely a focus stacking program to consider. Just make sure you capture your images from a fixed point. For those who find the process of manually aligning each image to be quite time-consuming, the auto align feature that comes with Picolay will be a welcome breath of fresh air.
Among the other tools in this stack-happy app’s arsenal are auto-brightness tuning, colour based stacking, flat-field stacking and auto white balance tweaking.
3. Chasys Draw IES
This is another free piece of focus stacking software that’s worth a mention. The slew of tools available on this program can be used for editing a single photo or for focus stacking a huge pile of photos. As always, click to choose the images you’d like to stack and export them to your chosen output folder.
For best results, use images from identical shooting points where only the focus has changed. Other features on this open source software include image HDR, like-image averaging and auto white exposure tweaking.
4. Image J
This is a very modular approach to helping you stack images. Image J has a number of available plug-ins that add different features to the software. One of the most popular plug-ins for Image J is their stack images option. To create your focus stack, you’ll have to download the relevant plug-in.
Feel free to download other options if the idea of messing with plug-ins is off-putting to you. Once you’ve added the images you’d like for your photo stack, click the “Stk” button to combine the layers and get your stacked photo.
One of the features to be aware of is the “Stack Focuser”. This is a small box that gives you a preview of your chosen images. Here, you’ll be able to save in a variety of formats including tif, png and gif.
TuFuse is a bit different from the other options on this list. It’s a great stacking solution, but it doesn’t have a GUI. You’ll have to use a command line for this one. Don’t worry though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Here’s how to use the command line with TuFuse:
- Open your TuFuse folder.
- Place your desired images here.
- Click the address bar of the same folder and delete the contents.
- Now type “CMD” into the address bar and press the enter key.
- You should now see the command line.
- Enter this command to stack multiple images: tufuse -o output.tif input1.tif input2.tif input3.tif input4.tif.
- You should see your resulting photo in your TuFuse folder.
This process can be overwhelming at first but it gets much easier over time.
Below are two premium options for those looking for a more comprehensive piece of software for their stacking needs.
1. Helicon Focus
This is a powerful piece of editing software. For several years now, advanced technologies such as HDR and EDoF have been paving the way for a world where stacked images are the norm. Helicon Focus is purpose-built to accommodate that world.
As with other options, multiple photos are combined in a focus stacking process that delivers the best photo your camera is capable of. The output quality from Helicon Focus is quite remarkable. Other features on offer with Helicon include the run benchmark tool, folder monitoring system, color accuracy processing and advanced interpolation options. This is a killer feature set that begins to justify the price tag.
If you’re looking to create a high quality stacked photo, you may need to give Helicon Focus a try. It can easily handle raw files and can output in a variety of formats.
2. Zerene Stacker
Zerene Stacker is the second premium option on this page. It was designed specifically with challenging macro subjects in mind. Focus stacking doesn’t get much more sophisticated than this. If you need stacking software for your work, this may be one to consider.
While other options on this list are more versatile tools that happen to offer a stacking process, Zerene Stacker was purpose-built for stacking. For this reason, many photographers consider it the best option out there. This software works with virtually any camera you throw at it and is suitable for a huge variety of subjects.
No matter what setup you’re using, Zerene Stacker can probably handle it. The feature set on Zerene Stacker includes automatic alignment, ultra-high-quality interpolation, a large image capacity, advanced stacking algorithms and high output optimization.
If you’re a professional who needs to process a lot of raw files, Zerene Stacker is hard to beat.
What is Focus Stacking?
Using stacking software involves a process of taking multiple shots of the same subject using different focus levels. These files are then run through the software of your choice to combine the images. After some clever processing, the result is images that are truly stunning, with a focus level that captures detail vividly and authentically.
The focus stacking software automatically identifies the best focused areas of each image you add. These are combined to produce a far superior image.
Many fields of commercial photography are now almost completely reliant on focus stacking software.
Some of the following can be achieved with either premium or free focus stacking software:
- Increasing the depth of field further than is possible by just stopping down
- Maintaining a razor-sharp focus across the image
- Creating a beautiful blurred bokeh while keeping the subject sharply in focus
These software work by using state-of-the-art algorithms to comb through each image layer you upload and combining the best aspects of each.
There are tonnes of great editing options out there for getting perfect stacked images. Before you decide which one to download, take a minute to think about your requirements. If you’re mostly a hobbyist photographer who just wants to do a bit of editing and share a nice image every now and then, it’s probably worth choosing a free option from the list above.
There’s no point splashing out on Zerene Stacker until you’re working in a professional context. If you work professionally as a photographer, or are a more experienced photographer with higher demands, a free solution might not cut it. Either way, we hope this page makes your decision that bit easier.
If you’d like to learn more about photography and boost your skills, then check out the other articles on this site.