focus stacking montblanc 149 fountain pen

Fountain Pen Photography: How To Focus Stack

John Bosley How To 6 Comments

If you’ve ever tried to photograph your fountain pen nib using a macro lens, you’re probably aware of how frustrating it can be trying to get everything in focus. It seems like no matter what you do, a small part of the nib is in focus, while a big part of the nib is out of focus. Unfortunately, due to the way cameras work, this is largely unavoidable. Fortunately, with a little bit of work, it’s not too difficult to work around and get an image where the entire nib is in focus. In this article I want to show you the technique that I use, which is called focus stacking. I’ll also give you a few photography tips if you don’t have the correct camera gear or software to focus stack.

What Is Focus Stacking

So before we get too far into things, I want to explain what focus stacking is. Focus stacking is a processing technique where multiple photographic images with varying points of focus are stacked together, eventually making an image that is completely in focus.

Why not just create an image where everything is in focus? Due to the physical limitations of camera lenses, as you get closer to an object you’re photographing, less of it will be in focus. This means that when you are very close to a fountain pen nib, so close that it fills most of the image, only a very small sliver of the nib will be in focus.

focus stack conklin fountain pen nib

You can see that the tip and base of this nib are not in focus, even though the middle is.

To create a focus-stacked image, you’ll need a few things. First, you’ll need a camera with a lens that you can manually and precisely focus. This could be any DSLR or mirrorless camera. While a macro lens will help you get in really close to your pen, focus stacking can still be helpful when shooting non-macro photos. Second, you’ll need a tripod for your camera. This helps ensure that the only thing that is changing between images is your focus. Finally, you’ll need software that has the capability to focus stack. This could be specialized software or general image editing software like Photoshop.

How To Focus Stack

Once you have your camera, tripod and a subject to photograph, you can start capturing images. Focus stacking consists of a series of images that, when combined, create an image that is entirely in focus. This means that you’ll need to take a bunch of different images of your subject, changing the point of focus each time. For a fountain pen nib, you’ll probably want to start at the very tip, working your way down the length of the nib and into the body of the pen. Here’s a quick look at what a few images in your series of images might look like:

montblanc fountain pen nib focus stack

Image 1 – The very tip of the nib is in focus, while everything else is out of focus.

montblanc fountain pen nib focus stack

Image 2 – In this image, most of the scrollwork on the nib is in focus, but the tip and base are out of focus.

montblanc fountain pen nib focus stack

Image 3 – In this image, the entire tip of the nib is out of focus but the base is in focus.

montblanc fountain pen nib focus stack

Image 4 – The entire nib is out of focus but the pen body is in focus.

For this particular pen I took a total of 11 images. Depending on your lens and how close you are to your pen, you may need fewer or even more images to get everything in focus. When changing focus, you’ll want to make sure that there is a bit of overlap. Luckily, fountain pens and nibs have good “landmarks” that you can use, such as words, logos and designs, to reference what is in focus and what is out of focus in any given image.

You may notice that as you change where your lens is focused, your camera may appear to slightly zoom in on your pen. This is called focus breathing and is completely normal. The only reason I mention it is so that you can be sure to frame your image with it in mind and not be forced to crop out a part of your final image. I would suggest focusing on the closest part of your pen and farthest part of your pen that you want in focus and making sure your composition works for the entire focal range.

Combining Your Images With Software

Now that you have a series of images, it’s time to combine them into a single image. Before doing this, though, it is important to edit them so that they all look the same. It is also important to not crop any of your images yet. Any cropping that needs to be done should only be done to the final image.

All images should be exported from your image editing software at a fairly high resolution. At a minimum, they should be exported at the resolution you plan to use. Keep in mind that the larger the images you use, the longer it will take to process the final image. Again, your final image can be sized to fit your needs.

Now it’s time to import your series of images into the software that will combine them into your final image. Not everyone is going to have software that can focus stack. If you want to try it, you can always download a trial version and see what you think. A few that I would recommend are Adobe Photoshop, Affinity Photo, or Helicon Focus. Unfortunately, basic image editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom do not have the ability to focus stack images.

Personally, I use Affinity Photo. I have tried the other programs and they work just fine, but I prefer Affinity due to how affordable and fully-featured it is. If you already have Photoshop or another program that can focus stack, there is really no reason to try anything else.

The focus stacking process is fairly straightforward. In Affinity Photo, I go to File > New Focus Merge, which gives me a dialog box to add images. I add the images I want to stack and click OK. The software automatically starts doing its thing and in a short amount of time I have an image that shows everything in focus, from the tip of the nib to the ink windows in the barrel!

focus stacking for fountain pen photography affinity photo menu

Here you can see the “Focus Merge” option in the Affinity Photo menu.

focus stacking for fountain pen photography affinity photo finished image

Here is the finished image.

If you’d like to see a video of how to use software to focus stack images, I have this one on my Youtube page:

I also want to point out that focus stacking can be used on more than just fountain pens. If you’ve ever tried to photograph sheen, you know how frustrating it can be. Sheen typically needs to be photographed from an angle in order to really be seen, but that angle usually causes large portions of the image to be out of focus. Here is a focus stacked image of the sheen on Robert Oster Fire and Ice. It is made up of 12 different photos.

robert oster fire and ice sheen

The sheen on this Robert Oster Fire and Ice is a great candidate for focus stacking.

Do You Even Need Software?

Many newer cameras now offer in-camera focus stacking. The concept is the same, but everything is done in the camera without the need for special software. An added benefit to in-camera focus stacking is that the camera can also shift the focus for you, meaning you don’t have to manually adjust the focus for every image! While you do give up a bit of control by automating the process, in most cases it should be worth it due to the amount of time you’ll save sitting in front of your computer.

How To Avoid Focus Stacking

Many people, myself included, don’t always want to be bothered with a technique like focus stacking. Let’s face it, taking a series of images, importing and editing them and then using special software just to end up with one image can be a real hassle. If you don’t feel like going through the process of focus stacking, you do have a few other options. Not all of them will provide the same results as focus stacking, but you can still get fairly close.

The first thing that you can do is use a smaller aperture (or higher f-stop) on your lens. The main reason for focus stacking is to get more of your pen in focus, which is exactly what using a smaller aperture does. Another thing that using a smaller aperture does is let less light into your camera, so you’ll either need more light or longer exposure times. If you typically use something like f/4 or f/5.6, try stopping down to f/11 or f/16 and you should see a difference. Still, there are limits to how much of your pen will be in focus, especially when you’re very close to it, so don’t get frustrated if you still can’t get everything in focus. It’s not you or your camera, it’s physics!

Another option that sounds counter-intuitive is to move farther away from your subject when you take a photo. Just as moving closer to your subject causes less of it to be in focus, moving farther away causes more of it to be in focus. Of course, this means you’ll have to crop your image to make it look the way you want it to look, but if you’re having focusing issues, simply moving a little farther away can drastically help. If you want to learn more about how this works, you can find more info in my Camera Gear blog post.

focus stacking fountain pens close image

Sometimes to get an image where everything is in focus…

focus stacking fountain pens far image

… you need to start with an image like this.

Conclusion

I hope that you found this informative and helpful. I realize that it won’t benefit everyone, but still think that it’s worth mentioning for those of you who enjoy photographing your fountain pens. I know how frustrating it can be trying to get everything in focus and hope that this helps you get the photos of your pens that you want. It sounds like an involved and intimidating technique to learn, but I think that once you try it you’ll agree that it is fairly simple and requires more time than skill to do.

If you end up trying to focus stack some images and post them online, please feel free to let me know. I’d love to see your work! Good luck and have fun!

Comments 6

    1. Post
      Author

      Thomas, a tilt-shift would definitely help with this. The one thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t give you more depth of field, it just tilts it, so you can change which parts of the image are more in focus, but there will probably still be parts of the image that are out of focus.

      I don’t have one, and I’m assuming most other people don’t either, but if I did I’d surely give it a try!

    1. Post
      Author
  1. I would think that a small aperture, such as f8 or smaller, and a well lit space so as to ensure the support of the small aperture would give one the depth of field necessary to focus from the tip of the nib down towards the finial.

    Is this technique and software really necessary? I’ve never photographed a fountain pen, but I’ve made lots of images on film and its all about the light, aperture and shutter speed, as with all photographs.

    1. Post
      Author

      Roy, it depends on how close to the pen you are. With the images that I stacked above, I was at f/13 with a 60mm macro lens and you can see how small my depth of field was.

      This technique isn’t necessary when photographing fountain pens, but can be very helpful. Sometimes it is simply impossible to get everything in focus in macro photography. It is a technique that is widely used in photos of insects and flowers, as well as landscape photography and cityscapes.

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