Focus-shift-shooting.

There is a troublesome dilemma that sometimes exists in our wildlife photography experiences. It is the line, quite literally, between having all that we want in focus and inviting too much distracting details into or background. Usually there is more than one subject in question and usually they are quite close to each other, one close and one further from you. the most common approach would be to increase our aperture, F9, F14, in order to have both subject in focus, this has a negative effect on the image, though, as it makes a once smooth and silky background textured. It is these textures that take visual mass away from our subject. So, what do we do? How do we get both our subjects in focus without losing our beautiful blurry background that our wide-open aperture has created?

Well, there is quite an easy answer to this. We simply take a series of subject, two if there are two subjects, three if there are three, and then stack these in post processing. Our aperture stays wide open with each shot which means all of them have a beautifully blurry background. The algorithms, in either Lightroom or Photoshop, can recognize the sharp areas and bring them to the front and subsequently drop away the blurry subject of each photograph, leaving two subjects in focus within the same frame. 

It is not this simple, however, still very simple. Both subject need to be in relatively the same position in all the images. these days the algorithm is stronger than people think and can calculate for small movement in your subject, but there is a limit. The two shots should be taken in quick succession to each other so that you limit the amount each subject moves in between the two shots being taken. If they move too much one will find strange and sometimes catastrophic results. Most of the time these include more appendages than the animal should have, an extra ear or arm, or at least part of one.

Consider these vultures. Again, we have two subjects and whilst shot on a 500mm lens there is no way to get both perfectly in focus without shooting on excessively high aperture and compromising the blurry background and inviting diffraction (loss of details into the image). So, we take two images. Focus on one vulture and take the shot, then focus on the second and take the shot. We can, now, simply merge the two images within Lightroom or photoshop.

Image 1 - right vulture in focus

Image 2 - left vulture in focus

The merge - both vultures in focus

The second image is a similar situation, although this time it is cheetah. Again, on a large focal length we can’t get both cheetah in focus without compromising on the ‘look’ of the image. Once again, we take two images, one of each cheetah in focus and merge the image in post processing.

Image 1

Image 2

The merge

The same can be done with more than two subjects, although risky as there is more chance one of the subjects move too much and the merge does not work as well. The three lions depicted here are all at different distances from the photographer so three images were taken in quick succession and then merged in post processing. It almost worked. If you look closely at the last image of the series, you will see remnants of another layer coming through on the final image. An ear and half a faded face corrupt the final result, although fixable, anything is in Photoshop these days, the idea is to do it right in camera so try to get the image right and not rely on playing around on photoshop later.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

The merge

The extra ear

Notice the vague extra face on the right

The process is fairly easy. Most of the time one can simply highlight the image in Lightroom, right click, click photo merge and then click HDR or even panorama will sometimes work better, and your single frame will be rendered.

Lightroom

If Lightroom fails it is time to bring in the artillery, Photoshop. Highlight the same image, click ‘edit in’ and then click ‘open as layers in photoshop’. The images will open on top of each other and then you simply need to highlight them all, click ‘edit’ then click ‘auto-align’. The algorithm will align the image on top of each other as best as it can and then you click ‘edit’ again, click ‘auto-blend’, now the algorithm will bring the sharp areas to the front and drop the blurred subject away. Leaving you with the same blurry background but all your subject in focus.

Step 1

Step 2 - select both layers

Edit - auto align

Auto align

Edit - auto blend

Auto blend

The end result!

I hope you enjoy using this nifty trick and I hope to see you out there soon.

Andrew D.

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