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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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!