Unlimited Depth Of Field

A revolutionary software package redefines what’s possible for you to achieve with sharp focus in a photograph
Unlimited Depth Of Field
Above: In this original exposure, the foreground is sharp, but the depth of field couldn’t carry through to the background.

In the digital era, advancements arrive every few months—not just in cameras, but also in the form of image-processing software programs. Some of these give us new standards for judging both photographers and their photographs. Coupled with decent equipment and capturing techniques, great image-processing programs leave no excuse for images that are less than sharp, improperly exposed, incorrectly colored or poorly framed. Now another new program, Helicon Focus, has removed the limits to depth of field in photography.

Think of all the times you’ve tried to capture that landscape spread out before your camera, sharply focused, from the flowers beneath your feet to the tree-topped mountains in the distance. That’s how your eyes see it, but your camera makes you choose the area you want to be in focus and blurs the rest. In macro, with even the best technique, you can’t get all the elements of a tiny subject, such as a butterfly or flower bud, in focus at the same time. You have to choose the part of the insect or blossom you want to emphasize and let the rest remain an artistic blur. We’ve all viewed these kinds of images and, as photographers, we’ve considered the optical limitations of cameras and lenses. We make allowances for the practical limits of sharp focus and appreciate the photographer’s skill in working to minimize blur or turn it to creative advantage.

Unlimited Depth Of Field
In the second of the original exposures, the background is sharp. In both images, Lepp has chosen an ƒ-stop that gave him the best compromise between sharpness and area of focus.

But now there’s no excuse for limited depth of field. Helicon Focus has changed what we thought we knew about sharpness. Introduced by the Ukraine-based company Helicon Soft about two years ago and continually upgraded since then, Helicon Focus gives photographers control of the sharp and unsharp areas within their images, from landscapes to micro.

Helicon Focus operates within a concept that should be familiar to those who work regularly in Photoshop. The photographer provides a series of images to the program, each sharply focused at a different point through the subject. The software combines the images in layers. As the composite is formed, the program selects from the layers the sharpest available rendition of each area of the image and masks the unsharp versions. The final result combines the best-defined choice for every portion of the image from among the options provided by the photographer into one image.

landscape
Close-up images always create a struggle for depth of field. This image is a composite of the photographs to the right made with Helicon Focus.

The success of the technique is conditional on factors such as movement. The subject can’t move as it’s being photographed, so forget the idea of flowers on a breezy day. When large foreground structures are present, they tend to “bloom” as they’re passed by the photographer in the sharp rendering of areas behind them. The photographer needs to choose the angle of approach and the juxtaposition of elements within the image wisely to avoid an overly dominant foreground.

The drawbacks are few, and the results are consistently good. When demonstrated to a group of experienced photographers, this technique hits the “Wow!” factor every time. It’s not magic, even though it may seem to be. Using Helicon Focus requires advanced planning and specific intent. You must know what the program can do and what it needs from you before beginning to photograph a Helicon Focus composite. In short, if you’re planning on using Helicon Focus, you have to plan the photograph accordingly in the field in order to achieve the best result.

 

arch
Macro is ideal for Helicon Focus, but you need to take care that the subject isn’t moving or is moving only very slightly. This insect stayed still for Lepp.

First and foremost, you need a quality tripod. The camera must stay in position throughout the series of images. A focusing rail on your tripod head can be useful. The photographer needs to determine which areas of the image are to be rendered in sharp focus. The foreground or background can be blurred or not—you have this control. Choose an ƒ-stop that gives the best compromise between sharpness and the area of focus to be used in each image, normally ƒ/11 or ƒ/16, or choose a larger ƒ-stop (ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8) to maintain an out-of-focus background, keeping in mind that it will take more images to achieve the sharp effect in the desired area.

Once these technical and creative decisions are made, you can shoot a series of captures, slightly changing the focus in each frame. Each image must overlap the depth of field of the previous frame for a smooth transition through the desired area of sharpness. You’ll want to give the software plenty of information to work with. Too few images are more risky than too many.

The Helicon Focus program, both Mac- and Windows-compatible, is user-friendly. Bring the files into the program, follow a few prompts, and you’re good to go. Excellent documentation can be viewed on screen as you’re working. Available in Pro and Lite versions, we suggest using the Pro version because it allows you to make subtle corrections to your final composite in case of blurs caused by movement or the blooming of foreground elements. The program can handle RAW, TIFF or JPEG formats equally well. You might prefer to convert your RAW files in either Lightroom or Photoshop before processing them in Helicon Focus. These converters are fast and allow equal optimization of all the images before they’re combined. There seems to be no limitation to the amount of data the program can handle, but the final composite will equal the size of only one of the original captures. Once the composite is completed within Helicon Focus, it’s saved and then brought into image-editing software and treated as a single image.

landscape
The Helicon Focus interface shows your original exposures. Using the software controls, you fine-tune which elements of each exposure will be combined into the final photograph

What’s complicated about Helicon Focus is the way it obligates us to reconsider our photography. Free of the limitations of depth of field, we can approach every subject with a new set of interpretive options. In virtually every kind of photography, this software gives us more control—and more decisions to make. For some photographers, these choices will be confusing; for others, they will be liberating.

mountains
The entire depth of the flower can be rendered sharp thanks to Helicon Focus.

But for all of us, Helicon Focus sets new standards. The informed photographer has to stop and think about more options, more opportunities and more choices that can be made to express a creative vision. And the informed viewer will assess the finished image with the same set of options and opportunities in mind. When we know what’s possible, we’re more critical of work that falls short.

Are you up to the challenge of achieving your creative vision without the obstacles posed by optical physics? If you are, keep that vision right up front. Forget about the limitations of the past, and approach your subjects afresh with full knowledge and mastery of the wide range of tools available to you now. Know the possibilities from the outset, so you’ll capture all the data you need to realize your vision in the end. Great photography doesn’t happen in the computer, but new tools such as Helicon Focus are fulfilling the promise of digital and revolutionizing the way we experience photography from both sides of the camera.

For more information about Helicon Focus, visit www.heliconsoft.com. You can download and use the full program for 30 days at no charge. Helicon Focus Lite can be purchased as a one-year license for $30 or as an unlimited license for $115. Helicon Focus Pro is $70 for a one-year license or $250 for an unlimited license. Updates are free for both products. Available for Mac or Windows.

1 Comment

    How does this compare with using the same technique in PS CS4? I auto align & then auto blend and have been getting excellent results. Is Helicon better?

    Thanks….Lynn

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