Amongst the diversity of jobs a commercial photographer will shoot during his career, product photography has to be one of the most technically challenging. Products come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colours and materials. As a result, photographing products presents specific difficulties including lighting, limited depth of field, as well as challenging focus acquisition for smaller subjects.
Having the best equipment is not enough to master the challenges of product photography as getting close to a subject creates an array of problems that are not encountered in other types of photography. The use of flash and/or external light modifiers such as reflectors and diffusers is essential to achieve the best lighting of the subject. In addition, manual focusing is critical to obtain sharp images due to the reduced depth of field, especially at high magnification values when photographing smaller objects.
To address the latter point, the emergence of digital photography has rendered possible a new technique called focus stacking that permits the overlap of several exposures of the same subject taken with different areas in focus. From all the focus stacking softwares available to photographers, I recently decided to purchase a copy of Helicon Focus and Helicon Remote for my product photography. This post is by no mean a full in-depth review of the software but an attempt to showcase the benefits of using such a program to produce great product images.
I recently photographed a watch for my portfolio and chose to use this shoot as a case study for this post. In this case, my lighting setup included 2 Profoto D1 monobloc heads, a large diffuser and several smaller reflectors in order to control the reflections on the metallic surfaces of the watch. The lens used was the magnificent Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f2.8G shot at f8.0 for maximal sharpness at 0.6 second (ISO 100). Keep in mind that my intent here was to capture the watch in focus from front to back. The first shot was captured in Lightroom with my camera tethered to a computer (Figure 2). At this stage we can see that even though the lighting is pleasing and the reflections on the metal are controlled, the depth of field used doesn’t allow the entire watch to be shot in focus. The zoomed in image (Figure 2) clearly reveals that the numbers on the left side of the chronograph are out-of-focus compared to the ones on the right where the focus was acquired.
In order to solve this problem, I used Helicon Remote to control my camera in live-view mode from the computer and shot the watch using the focus stacking technique. The first step consisted in focusing on the area of the watch closest to the lens and locking it. This was simply achieved by clicking autofocus in the top panel of Helicon Remote then clicking on this area in the live view window. Note that the software also allows to control the number of intervals in the bracketing sequence. In this example, I just used the default parameter of 3. The focus was then locked by clicking the “A symbol” resulting in a small yellow lock in the Focus Bracketing panel of the program (Figure 3).
The same procedure was repeated for “B”, the point of the watch furthest from the lens. The adjustment is conveniently fined tuned using the arrows in the bracketing focus panel. The focus can then be checked using the preview button, which opens up a high resolution preview of the image in Photoshop/Camera RAW allowing precise control of the focus (Figure 4).
The focus bracketing sequence, in this case, was constituted of 8 shots that were automatically captured by the program after pressing the “start shooting” key that triggered the capture and fired the strobes in sequence. After completion, the software offers the option to directly open the bracketed sequence in Helicon Focus to render the final stacked image (Figure 5).
Helicon Focus offers 3 different methods of rendering to process the source files and create the output image. According to the user’s manual, method A – weighted average – is better at producing smooth transitions and preserving colors (Figure 6) ; method B – depth map – works best for continuous surfaces ; method C – pyramid – is good for intersecting objects and deep stacks (Figure 7). I generally run the 3 of them and pick the best output image for my final editing in Photoshop. Note that the software occasionally makes small stitching errors that can be easily recovered in Photoshop by opening the bracketed sequence as layers and mask the problematic area.
I also shot the watch at another angle using the same methodology and used this new picture as the background in my final image (see Figure 8). I also included below a few more examples of products that I recently shot with Helicon Focus-Helicon Remote, which in my opinion, is one of the best professional focus stacking softwares available on the market.