Image stacking – CS4 versus Helicon Focus

Let’s start with some disclaimers. I am only using HF on a 30 day trial so I am not a whiz on this software and I am not a power user of CS4 so this is an experiment. It is not a test to see which is better for you.

I downloaded Helicon Focus because it gets very good reviews and I had a failure with CS4. It simply refused to align one of my images no matter how many times I tried.

My first effort with HF was disappointing. I found the output, even after some intensive retouching, less than pleasing. So I decided to give it a second go and here are the results.

Lichen stack 1

Lichen stack 2

I processed both images as close to identically as I could for sharpening and resizing. Stack 2 needed some brightness adding and Stack 1 needed some highlights pulled in.

When I looked  at stack 1 I was gutted at what I thought was extensive ghosting. Looking at the source images however it is clear that this is in fact out of focus bark / foliage behind the deepest plane of focus. I confirmed this by checking with my “insurance shot”, one I took at F11 in case the stacking failed. The ghosting effect is also evident in Stack 2 but HF has arguably handled this a fraction better.

In both shots the there are some soft areas in the top left quadrant where I guess I should have taken more input images.

In my view there is little to choose between them and the HF stack is perhaps a shade better here and the shortcomings are user error.

Here is the insurance shot:

Lichen F11

And herein lies the problem. I find the background on the left intrusive and the foreground is not crisp and sharp. So I would have needed to stop down further or maybe altered the focus point and focused further forward.

In some ways this is fantastic progress for me. I find myself thinking much more critically about my images and what and what is not acceptable. In the field I think a lot more about a) composition and b) what is the depth of field I want and where are the real front and rear planes? Here I got it wrong but learned from the experience. The old saying is that a bad workman blames his tools – not here. Mea culpa.

My general feel for Helicon Focus is still “the jury’s out”. It may be a useful add-on – it is certainly faster than CS4 – and I need to think about the cost-benefit of having this versus plugging away with CS4 and the incredibly slow speed at which it works for DoF extension stacks. maybe the tortoise does beat the hare.

Here, to close, is one I also took this morning and it did work – CS4 processed.

Underside of bracket fungus

Isn’t this grand?

Well, I understand this is my 102nd post so the century is already up. The “followers” are growing – thank you. You seem to prefer “straight” to “comedy” and birds to bugs but, hey, its my blog and I’ll post what I want to. I don’t do parties and I don’t cry (although I may have made an exception if Wales had not won the Triple Crown on Saturday afternoon). There may well be an interlude of a week or so as I am off to sunny Karachi on a business trip. Be patient 🙂

Rainy day macros (updated)

The weather this week has been miserable. Oppressive grey skies, mizzle every day. Not heavy enough to be called rain but too heavy to be tagged as mist. I am still captivated by this stacking lark and I wanted to try out some software called Helicon Focus, which I have downloaded for a 30 day trial. So, on with the rain gear and off to the local reserve where I take many of my images. I took a different path this time towards Ma Nam Wat. Technically I guess it is not part of the reserve but I accessed it through the Lion’s Nature Education Centre. Surprisingly there were quite a few people around in the park and even on the path up the hill I encountered several dog walkers. A cheery lady with 3 large hounds chatted with me for a few minutes as I explained why I was crouched on the ground with a camera in the rain. She seemed impressed if not a little bemused. Then a chap with a brace of Dachshund, their little legs barely keeping their bellies off the ground.  I always find “sausage dogs” quite fascinating. I know they were bred to go down badger sets but did evolution really have to leave them positively selected in such an odd way? I guess so.

And what, you are doubtless asking, did my efforts bring forth?

Well, lets start with what I took last. I found a broken branch with a single fungus growing on it. As it was broken I felt no concerns about taking it 30 yards down the track to somewhere more sheltered and there I photographed the underside. Stacked or not stacked? Any guesses?

Fungus underside

It shows the detail nicely. A stunning honeycomb structure. And here, Madam, is your topside:

Fungus topside

Only a few inches across and as it was getting really rather wet by this stage I am afraid this shot was a tad rushed.

Next, definitely a single frame, a sort of lichen & algae tapestry, camouflaged to perfection. Can you see the tree?

Painted tree

If Pablo had done something this good he may well have become famous.

And finally, the piece de resistance, the one the lady dog-walker (careful where you put the hyphen) thought I was slightly batty to be taking in the rain:

Tree fungus

If my book on the fungi of Hong Kong ever arrives I am sure I shall be able to identify this but it looks vaguely like some sort of jelly fungus. Help me, someone! BTW I have a slightly different version of this at so you can play “spot the difference”. No prizes.

Now the interesting thing (to me anyway) is that although I managed to load Helicon Focus and get some sort of stacked image produced, I had no idea what to next. The image had ghosting and marking lines on it, presumably telling me I need to do a little extra to knock the image into shape. But what? And how? I need to investigate further. So I went back to good old CS4 and it didn’t do too bad a job. Two of the 4 images today are stacked and 2 are not. I could get to like this technique. How could you possibly have more fun?

Update: I guessed I was doing something wrong with Helicon Focus and so it transpired. I left my image on Default setting B for processing and I read later that this is used only for image stacking when the sequence of focus changes is front to back or vice versa. I focused in a rather more random order as I had an irregular shaped object. I should have opted for setting A. I reran the software using this and this was the result. There was some ghosting that I did not get in CS4 and I tried to clone this out but if I were doing this seriously I would spend a lot more time and care on it. Overall the stacking process was extremely fast.  See what you think:

Fungus underside using Helicon Focus

I think  this falls into the category of user error, or more coarsely put, RTFM.