- Ed Dozier
Macro Panoramas from Focus Stacks
Ironically, a major disadvantage of macros is their narrow field of coverage. You get really, really close to see tiny subjects, but you wish you could see a wider field of view. This problem can be solved by panning and taking overlapping shots to create a panorama, but there’s yet another problem. Focus depth is just too shallow on these small subjects. Now you have to turn to focus stacking.
It’s actually possible to combine all of these techniques together to create a macro panorama with deep focus. I’m going to show you how you can use a few different programs to make this all possible.
A Macro Panorama from 3 overlapping stacked shots
I’ll mention that you can make theoretically superior macro panoramas by translating the camera/lens instead of simply panning on a tripod, but the results are basically no different. For landscapes, especially with a wide-angle lens, you can notice significant perspective distortion in panoramas. In macro panoramas, it’s difficult, if not impossible to see perspective distortion unless you overlap a very large number of stacked shots.
Panorama via translating the camera/lens on a rack
Panorama via panning the camera/lens
As you see, the pair of shots above look fundamentally the same. You wouldn't be able to tell which shot was done via panning or translating the camera.
Macro Panorama Recipe
The following discussion spells out how I make focus-stacked macro panoramas.
I’m using a Nikon D850, that supports focus-shift shooting. I am using the 105mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor at f/8. I typically shoot 25 shots with a step width setting of 6, and I mostly use ‘DX’ crop mode. The CombineZP program I use that combines the photo stacks can have trouble with the huge FX-format shots from the D850, but DX-format shots are no problem. Please shoot in Raw format.
Shoot a whole stack of shots (using a tripod) at the left-most panorama framing, starting with the lens focused on the nearest detail. Autofocus must be active for the focus-shift shooting feature to work correctly. If the last shot didn’t focus far enough for the desired detail, then simply do another stack of shots without touching focus (it will pick up where if left off).
Next, pan over to the next panorama position with about a 30% overlap from the previous stack of shots. Focus on the nearest detail. Take the next stack of shots.
Repeat the panning/refocus/stack-shooting until the right-most shots are complete.
Open up the raw-format shots in a program such as CaptureNX-D that can batch-process the shots and convert them all into 16-bit TIF format.
Run the (Windows-only) CombineZP program or an equivalent (such as Helicon Focus) on each stack of shots. Save the stacked photo in 16-bit TIF format for best quality. The CombineZP program leaves each stacked photo with unwanted artifacts around the edges; don’t worry about this for now.
If you're interested in more details on using the CombineZP program, use this link to another article I wrote on the topic.
Stacked photo with edge artifacts that need removal
You can see in the stacked shot above that the edges have mirror-image artifacts. These artifacts will need to be removed before you can combine the shots into a panorama. . The CombineZP program gives you the ability to crop off these artifacts, but it doesn’t let you specify the exact pixel dimensions of the cropped file.
Import the stacked TIF photos into Lightroom. In the Develop module, crop the shots to remove the unwanted edge artifacts. All of the cropped shots will need to be the exact same dimensions before they can be merged into a panorama, so use the
File|Export|Image Sizing|Resize to Fit
to save each cropped file with the same pixel dimensions in both width and height. You have a variety of image formats to select from here, but I’d still suggest you use something other than jpeg for best quality.
Select the stacked/cropped/sized/exported photos and use the
Photo | Photo Merge | Panorama…
Lightroom feature to combine the stacked shots into a panorama. You can select from the projection options of Spherical/Cylindrical/Perspective to combine the shots. I usually select Cylindrical.
Left stacked shot with un-cropped mirror artifacts
Middle stacked shot with un-cropped mirror artifacts
Right stacked shot with un-cropped mirror artifacts
The three stacked shots above (from the CombineZP program) had to be cropped and then resized before Lightroom could successfully combine them into a panorama. The finished result is shown at the top of this article.
There are probably many ways to get a panorama from stacked macro photos, and this is just one of them. There’s no question that it’s a bit tedious to make macro panoramas this way, but the quality is simply superb.