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Steady, Stacked and Loaded

Focus Stacking In The Field • Fear Of Trying DSLR Video • Before You Pack It In

Owl’s clover and goldfields in Coastal California. Using manual adjustment of the focus ring, Lepp captured five focus-stacked images from a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro lens. The background was purposely left out of focus to isolate the subjects. Each capture: 1/350 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 200. Composited in Zerene Stacker software.

Focus Stacking in the Field

I’m using the focus-stacking technique for some macro subjects out in the field. I don’t know if it’s better to move the camera for each capture in the stack, or just to turn the focusing ring to move the focus through the subject. Can you give me some direction on this?
Seminar Participant
Corvallis, OR

A It depends. If you’re working from a tripod in the field, you can keep the framing constant and use the manual focusing ring to move the depth of field deliberately through the subject, capturing an overlapping “slice” of focus at each position. If you’re working hand-held, you can achieve a less precise result by setting the focus for the nearest point, setting the camera at its highest capture speed, and moving the camera toward and away from the subject repeatedly while capturing constantly, until a large number of possible slices have been captured. The stacking assembly software will retain only the in-focus areas of each capture, ideally covering the entire subject.

If the subject is quite small and you’re using a macro lens of 0.5x to 1x or more magnification, you will need to move the camera in small, precise increments. This is best done in the studio, but can be done in the field on a non-moving subject, using a focusing rail with a geared system.

Fear of Trying: Mastering DSLR Video

My DSLR camera can capture video, but I’m never happy with the results. Is it really possible to produce good video with a DSLR?
J.B. Farnsworth
Via the Internet

We’ve had excellent DSLR video capabilities for a number of years, but I find that very few of the participants at my seminars actually use their cameras in this way. When I ask why photographers are avoiding this great new potential, responses range from indifference to outright panic, but the most common response is that it’s just too difficult to get good results.

It’s true that successful video capture and production demand an extra investment in equipment, software and skills. But video gives new life, breadth and perspective to your photographic stories, and the results can be very satisfying and easily shared via the Internet and social media. As you begin to master the process, you’ll come to enjoy it as an important creative tool in your photographic repertoire.

Keep it Sharp. Focusing video capture has been one of the most frustrating challenges. DSLRs present video on the LCD screen. LCDs have been getting larger and the resolution has improved with each new generation, but it’s still very difficult to see the image on a bright day. The trick to get that focus right on any DSLR is to use a loupe on the LCD to view, clarify and/or slightly magnify the image. I use a Hoodman 3.2-inch loupe and the HoodCrane, an arm that comes off the hot shoe, to position the loupe. Hoodman offers other apparatuses to manage the loupe; see the options at (This seems an appropriate moment to insert a caution about video equipment and accessories: The video industry uses DSLRs, and there’s an abundance of high-end, specialized, very expensive accessories out there. You can do without them.)

Continuous autofocus, available in a number of recent DSLRs, is a big game-changer in the world of video capture. It allows you to lock onto the subject and smoothly refocuses automatically to keep it sharp as, for example, the subject moves from the distance to the foreground. Models from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony all feature continuous video autofocus. Don’t be confused with manufacturers talking about AF in video that is not continuous; in that case, you’re constantly telling the camera where to focus and that is just an exercise in frustration. I’ve used continuous video AF with the Canon EOS 70D, EOS 7D Mark II and EOS-1D X Mark II and it really works well. With the EOS-1D X Mark II, I’m able to capture video at 4K resolution and 60 frames per second while still maintaining the continuous video AF.

Keep it Steady. Much of video’s bad rep has to do with the fact that it really can make you sick to watch a jumpy clip. If you don’t want to hand out barf bags to your viewers, you’ve got to keep it steady. In hand-held situations, use wider lenses and activate image stabilization if available. But it’s better to use a tripod; employing a cable release to start and stop the capture will eliminate the jiggle caused by touching the camera.

A video fluid head (replacing the ball head or gimbal you use for stills) greatly facilitates smooth panning; even the best ball head costing hundreds of dollars won’t give you a smooth pan. Remember to level the tripod and the head so the pan moves parallel to the horizon. Fluid heads run from a couple hundred dollars to many thousands. I have several of the less expensive units and they do a pretty good job. I’ve recently had access to the professional-grade Really Right Stuff FH-350 Fluid Head and it’s as smooth as they come, even when following a subject with an 800mm lens.

All this movement is accentuated with longer lenses, and of course outdoor/nature photographers use a lot of telephotos. In extreme cases, such as my recent work on a bald eagle nest at 3200mm in 4K, any movement is disastrous. I’m using a sturdy tripod and incorporating a CamRanger ( to start and stop the video as well as set focus. The CamRanger establishes a wi-fi connection between the camera and a tablet (in my case an iPad), which displays the camera’s view and from which the camera/lens can be completely controlled, including precise placement of focus.

Keep it Short. The last factor I’ll mention here is the software for video editing. It is extremely important to edit your video to remove distractions and tell your story well. Basic editing programs are easy to learn, will do most everything you aspire to do, and may surprise you: editing can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the creative process when it comes to video. The simplest software I’ve worked with is Apple’s iMovie, which works only on Apple computers, as does its big brother Final Cut Pro X. A similar software set is available from Adobe in Premiere Elements for basics and Premiere Pro for the advanced videographer.

To sum it up: Keep it sharp and smooth, and tell the story. You’ll be hooked, just like I am.

Before You Pack It In …

I’m getting along in years and my back hurts, but I don’t want to give up my outdoor photography, my fast DSLRs and steady tripods, and my favorite long-lens wildlife subjects. Do you have any ideas, beyond switching to smart phone photography, to keep me out there and productive?
J. Roberts
Via the Internet

Kathy is going to take this question, because while she has not aged at all, George definitely needs more help hauling his gear these days.

Every time we board a plane or head down a trail, George’s photo stuff seems to get heavier and more awkward. Take, for example, his current eagle-nest project. The photo site is located on the edge of a cliff, down a rocky 200-yard trail, and he’s working with a hefty EOS-1D X Mark II and an 800mm lens. These, of course, require the world’s heaviest tripop (or two), still and video heads, 15x image-stabilized binoculars, a full pack of backup cameras and extenders and lenses, iPad and CamRanger, folding chair, water and snacks. He claims it’s all necessary.

So, in the same spirit in which George gave me a new vacuum cleaner for my 39th birthday last year, I searched the Internet for a way to get out of helping him haul all that stuff to the eagle-viewing site at dawn each day. He needed something heftier than those two-wheeled canvas carts that older ladies might use for grocery shopping, but not quite as much as a Caterpillar skiploader.

The call was answered by two German-made carts for photographers. The Eckla Beach Rolly Gear Cart is pretty simple, with big fat tires that will transport precious gear over rocky paths. A more expensive version, the Eckla Multi Rolly Gear Cart, is the cat’s meow. It has the same fat tires, a generous cargo area with shelves, hooks and pouches for tripods and camera bag, and a foldout seat for long periods of eagle-watching.

Best of all, George’s new cart arrived just in time for his birthday this year. Perfect.

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.