How-to: Fast focus stacking for food and drink photography

When you’re shooting close-ups or macro you often find yourself at f/16 and still not getting enough depth of field. So that’s when focus stacking can be a really useful tool. It sounds complicated and there are lots of in-depth tutorials telling you that you need x,y and z special equipment to make it work.

But it actually doesn’t have to be that complicated, particularly if you just want to get the whole of a glass in focus for example. In this video, Joanie Simon from The Bite Shot shows you how to focus-stack drinks in a very simple way.

Joanie explains that she likes to photograph drinks from a 3/4 point of view so that you can see the top of the drink and also the side as well. It makes the ice and garnish really stand out. This may be a ‘focus stacking made easy’ tutorial, however, there are still a few things that you absolutely must-have for this technique to work.

Firstly, you need a decent tripod. That ensures that all of the images will be identical. Remember that it is only the point of focus that we are moving, everything else must stay the same. Similarly, a remote shutter release will also help to avoid any tiny movements of your camera when you press the button. The less you touch the camera, the better.

To begin you want to set your focus on the front of the glass, that will be the point closest to you that you want in focus. Some cameras actually have a focus stacking mode that will help with this – the Nikon Z7 has a ‘Focus Shift Mode’, and similarly the Canon R5 and R6 both have focus bracketing modes.

The number of images you need to take depends on the subject, how close you are, and the aperture that you’re shooting with. Joanie suggests around 20 in this instance, as she has chosen an aperture of f/3.5 and wants the whole top of the glass to be in focus but nothing else. The other thing that she changes is the time between each shot. She likes to get the shots taken as quickly as possible because of the nature of shooting food and drinks. If there is real ice in the glass, for example, that will start to melt, food will start to look less appetising and garnish will wilt. But, there’s one caveat: she is shooting with a strobe and so the recycle time does have to be taken into account.

If you don’t have a fancy camera that will automatically do focus stacking, there are two other options: using software like Helicon Focus and Helicon Remote, or just doing it manually, which isn’t as complicated as it sounds. If you’re moving the focus manually then just be really careful not to bump the camera.

Again start with the focus on the front edge of the glass and take a shot. Gradually move the focus point back towards the furthest edge of the glass taking a shot each time. The smaller the increment the better.

Now for the post-processing. Joanie brings all her images into Lightroom, and does a basic edit, keeping all the images synced together. Then she brings the images into Photoshop, making sure to bring them in as layers. She recommends using auto-align to make sure that all the images are lined up as well as possible in case something shifted in camera. After that, go back to the edit menu and select ‘auto blend layers’ and then select the ‘stack images’ option.

That’s the entire process, easy, and not a focus rail in sight!


How-to: Fast focus stacking for food and drink photography