I have played around with focus stacking a lot in recent years. Having a macro lens and a pandemic has given me plenty to opportunity to try stuff out. I was reading something along about stacking and it mentioned software call Helicon which is said was the standard for stacking software. I have been using Photoshop to date and, while it does a pretty good job, you do get some odd artifacts sometimes. I decided to download a trial of Helicon and see how it does.
I waited to use the trial until I had a bit of time available. The trial last 30 days but I wanted to make good use of it. Once I had installed it, I went through all of my focus stacks and ran through the software. It has a Lightroom plugin which made it easy enough to use. I found it was not so happy with some of my handheld stacks where alignment became an issue. Photoshop coped with that well. For the better planned shots, it worked a lot better. Overall, it seemed to do pretty well.
However, there was something that it struggled with. I had been playing with some shots of a memory card holder that I had shot when I had nothing better to do. Photoshop stacked them without any problem. The shots were in color but everything was either black or white. When Helicon tried stacking them, it introduced some strange purple coloration. I have no idea why it did this. It was almost like a chromatic aberration filter in reverse. I suspect there is a way to understand the more detailed settings and fix this but it was a weird outcome. Since I want something simple that basically works, this made me decide that buying the full version wasn’t worth it. I have already paid for Photoshop so I shall stick with that.
The latest version of Lightroom Classic was recently rolled out. It comes with a bunch of new additions and refinements. The one that caught my eye was the addition of content aware remove. There was already the cloning tool and the healing tools built in and these could do a lot of what you might want. However, these have now been supplemented by content aware removal. The tool is really straightforward to use but you can customize it if you like, both by choosing what area to use as a reference and also the ability to get it to try again if you don’t like the result by hitting Refresh.
The thing I wanted to try out was using it to remove power lines. These can sometimes be a bit of a pain when taking shots but, rather than use an aviation shot with some power lines crossing it, I happened to be looking at a photo I took in California of some railroad which had a bunch of lines strung across it. I wasn’t bothered about making a great shot. I was just interested in what the tool would do with the power lines. It was surprising effective. Too close an inspection would show the flaws but, if you look at the overall image, it came out quite well with very little effort. I have the before and after shots here for comparison.
This post might look like it is an aviation post but, while the examples I am using are planes, this is about software. A while back I downloaded the trial of DxO’s PureRAW product. I liked it but didn’t see enough use for me to justify buying the full version. I was also a little put off by the lack of integration with Lightroom. You had to start in the app and then the output DNG file would be exported to Lightroom.
PureRAW2 has been released so I downloaded the trial version of that to see how well it works. I was interested not only in the processing capabilities but also the new Lightroom integration. Now it is possible to use the application as a plugin so I can go to a file in Lightroom and take it out to PureRAW before the DNG returns.
First, what is my experience of the integration? It is okay but not great. Taking the file out works well and you can get the processing sorted out. The return to Lightroom is not ideal. First, it gives you the option to either put the new files in a DxO folder or to go to a specific folder you choose. I would rather it went to the same folder as the original. That is not available. The second issue is that the re-import process takes a very long time. It was a couple of minutes after closing the file that it showed up in Lightroom. No idea why it takes so long.
Now for the processing. It is very impressive. I was working with some shots from very dark conditions with B-1s taking off. The exposure was heavily driven by the afterburner plumes so the rest of the airframe was very dark. When I tried to bump up the exposure in Lightroom to get something that showed the bare outline of the fuselage, the noise was really bad. The PureRAW DNG was so much cleaner and allowed me to move the exposure around quite a bit. For an ISO 51,2000 shot, this was very impressive. I think the processing is not massively changed from before but it clearly works well.
However, as before, the number of times I would want to use this are not many. The full version is now $129 which is a step up from where the original was priced when I reviewed it. I am still not sure I need it enough to justify the investment. No question, though, that it is a significantly improved tool from the original version.
I have seen announcements from Adobe about a feature that is coming soon to Lightroom which seems particularly appealing to me. When dealing with dull and overcast conditions, I shoot quite heavily overexposed. This gives me a lot more shadow detail to work with and also still allows me to pull back detail in the sky. On a dull day, a couple of stops of overexposure can work quite effectively. The Lightroom/Camera Raw editing only has a limited amount you can do with the exposure and shadows sliders so it is not ideal for this. However, the new version of Lightroom is going to use AI to analyze the image for a subject to be selected or a sky. What I didn’t realize was that this was already available in Photoshop. I decided to have a play with it there to see how it works and get a feel for the way it might work in Lightroom soon.
I opened the image in Photoshop as a Smart Object. I then created a New Smart Object Via Copy to duplicate the object. In Select, I picked Subject and it did a pretty good job of selecting the airframe. Some edges were a little vague but overall pretty good. I used that selection to make a mask on the upper layer. Then, I was able to open each Smart Object in Camera Raw and edit them each to optimize the sky or the background. Some tweaking was occasionally required to ensure that it didn’t look like a bad superimposed job but it worked quite well. Lightroom will have this function as a filter so I should be able to do something similar in there but we shall see when it gets released. If it works, it could be a great addition to the editing toolset. I wish I had known about it in Photoshop before to be honest!
UPDATE: The Lightroom update is now out and I have played with it a bit. I think it is even better than the Photoshop implmentation so I shall put together a more detailed post on how it is working out for me.
The most recent update for Adobe Photoshop includes a function called Super Resolution. Many of the third party plugins and stand alone image processing tools come with tools to increase the resolution of images. In Photoshop you used to have a basic way to increase resolution but it wasn’t that clever and could introduce odd artifacts. I had been advised to use it in small increments rather than one big increase to reduce the problems but I hardly ever used it.
The new addition to Photoshop is apparently based from machine learning. If the PR is to be believed, they took loads of high res images and low res versions of the same image and the machine learning came to recognize what might be there in the small shot from what it knew was in the large shot. I don’t know what the other packages aim to achieve but this new tool in Photoshop has been doubling the resolution of the shots I have played with. You end up with a file four times the size as a result of this doubling of dimensions.
I have tried it out on a couple of different shots where the resolution was okay but not terribly large and where a higher res shot might prove useful. So far the tool is available through Camera Raw in Photoshop – not Lightroom. You need to update Lightroom in order to import the DNG files it produces. There is a suggestion that Lightroom will get this capability in time which would be more user friendly from my perspective.
My computer is not cutting edge so it takes a little while to process the images. It forecasts five minutes but seemed to complete the task way faster than that. In the examples here, I attach a 200% version of the original shot and a 100% version of the new file. There seems to be a definite benefit to the output file. I wouldn’t describe this as earth shattering but it is useful if the original file is sharp enough and I might have a need for this for a few items over time.
I watched a video on YouTube about a way to process shots taken in low light with high ISOs to improve the noise performance. I wasn’t particularly interested in the approach until I was down on the shore as the sun was going down and I was using a long lens. I figured this might be a good time to try it out. The approach is to shoot a lot of shots. You can’t have anything moving in the shots for this to work but, if it is a static scene, the approach can be used.
Shoot as many shots as you can. Then import them in to Photoshop as layers. Use the align function to make sure that they are all perfectly aligned and then use the statistics function to do a mean calculation of the image. You can do this a couple of ways in Photoshop. You can make a smart object and then process it or you can process through Statistics. The averaging function takes a lot of the noise out of the shot. If you have lots of images, you can make it effectively disappear. I wasn’t prepared to make that many shots but I tried it with a reasonable number of images. The whole image isn’t really of interest. Instead, I include one of the images cropped in and the processed image similarly cropped to allow you to compare.
Winter in the PNW does not mean reliable conditions for photographing planes. If the weather is bad, you might decide it isn’t worth going out. If it is raining and threatening to rain harder, there is a strong possibility you would skip a shot opportunity. However, 727s are getting pretty rare these days so that seems worthy of a trip out.
The weather was unpleasant when it made its approach but not as bad as it got a short while later. I went with my normal approach for shooting in really bad conditions by pushing the overexposure pretty high. I include a couple of edits. For the main image, I actually blended two different process versions in Photoshop to get the combination that most reflects how the shot looked through the view finder. The other edit is a straightforward Lightroom edit where the angle and the light suited it.
I’m sure a bunch of my relatives will look away for this post. Maybe they aren’t fans of focus stacking but it could be the spiders that put them off. My macro lens has been out a lot during the pandemic since it provides something to photograph close at home that is a bit different. In fact, I have got so used to having it available, when I am out with a normal lens and come across something small and interesting, I am a bit frustrated to realize I can’t get a close up shot.
The problem with the lens is that it is not a very advanced one and the autofocus on it is pretty crap. When I am trying to hand hold the lens and something is moving and so am I, things get a little unpredictable. We had a few spider webs in the backyard with the owners sitting in the middle. The afternoon sun provided great illumination so I figured I should give it a go. I tend to go to manual focus and move to get the shot but with the breeze moving the web a lot, things are pretty tricky. This is what prompted me to try cheating.
I figured that focus stacking does a good job of increasing the area in focus and it manages to align images and make use of what is already in focus. If I can be straight on to the spider and stay reasonably still and roughly at the right focus point, let the web move towards and away from me and fire a bunch of shots off hand held. Ignore the ones that have nothing in focus and then let Photoshop work on the remainder.
It isn’t a perfect solution and some weird things happen at the edges of the frame but the center works out pretty well and you can crop in a little to address the edges. I was quite pleased with the outcome to be honest. It is making the best of a few bad elements but it did do quite well. You don’t get to control what is in focus for each shot so getting a complete set to work with is unlikely but overall, not a bad experiment.
Summer weather means lots of sunny days but also means lots of heat haze. I was at Boeing Field one sunny afternoon and there were two jets parked across the field that I wanted shots of – one was an Illinois ANG KC-135R and the other was a Falcon 20. Looking through the viewfinder, both of the were shimmering in the heat haze that a warm and reasonably humid day brings. This is the downside of summer in the Pacific Northwest.
Not long before I had watched a video on YouTube about photographing Saturn through a telescope. The image of Saturn was all over the shop but they were using a software technique to take multiple images and build a more stable and sharper final image. It worked reasonably well and this got me thinking about how to do something similar. In the past I have used Photoshop to blend together multiple images to remove the moving elements of a shot like people or traffic. I wrote about it in this post.
I thought I would see if something similar could be done. I put the frame rate on to high and steadied myself before firing off a few seconds of shots. I wanted a lot of images to provide the best opportunity for the statistical analysis to find the right solution. Importing this in to Photoshop as layers and then auto aligning them allowed the analysis tool to do its thing. I don’t think the result is quite what I want and I may experiment with different analysis methods – median versus mean for example – to see which ones are most effective. However, there is clearly a smoothing out of the distortion and, if I needed to get a shot on a hazy day when there wouldn’t be another chance, I would definitely fall back on this approach to see whether it produced something more usable.
While scanning through some images, one of the shots that showed up in my catalog was an HDR processing of some shots of a US Army Chinook. It had been processed with a plugin that I had previously experimented with. I thought it looked over vibrant but I was impressed with the way the dark interior of the helicopter had shown up while the outside was also well lit. I decided to have another go at processing the images.
I used Lightroom initially to do the processing. It came out surprisingly well and looked not unlike the outcome from the plugin. However, there was some ghosting on people in the shot and there was a lot of chromatic aberration. I have noticed issues with Lightroom making a worse job of it than Photoshop so I decided to try HDR Pro in Photoshop as well and use Camera Raw for tone mapping. The outcome was very similar from an overall perspective. However, the ghosting was virtually eliminated and the aberration was not apparent either. It clearly is still a better bet than Lightroom.