You are using an outdated browser. Oliver Wright Photography requires a modern browser for the best viewing experience. Update NOW

Yorkshire based Professional Landscape and Wildlife Photographer

Handheld Stacking vs Stacking with a Tripod

Posted on 29/07/17

I get asked a lot of questions about my macro photography so I thought I'd start doing a few blogs on it. If you are not bothered about the technical aspects please feel free just to browse the images. They are all from the past few months and I think represents some of my best work to date.

So why stack at all and what is it? When I first started doing macro photography I would just take one shot and would never stack images. Because when you do macro photography your depth of field (DOF) i.e. the amount of the image that is in focus is ridiculously small. The more you magnify the image your DOF massively decreases and even using tiny aperture like f/16 your DOF can be as little as 0.2mm. As you are using tiny apertures you then nearly always have to use flash and this then causes it's own problems such as weird colours and black backgrounds are two examples. Also as you are using apertures like f/16 the backgrounds can be very off putting in the photographs. So after a few years I started experimenting with stacking. So stacking is were you take multiple images of the same subject but you change the focal plane in each image. You can then merge all of these together in post production (hence it gets the name stacking) to create an image with a much larger DOF.

A good example is the below Common Darter. This was nine images stacked together and you can see the dragonfly is in focus all the way through the frame.


The below image is a single frame from those nine images and as you can see only a fraction of the dragonfly is in focus. Now I could have used f/16 to increase the DOF (I used f/9) but this would mean I'd have to either used a shutter speed so slow the image would have been blurred or used a flash and it's would not have looked as natural. This image was taken early in the morning and the dragonfly had not yet woken up. So I could use a tripod take my time and because I'm using a tripod all the images line up very neatly which is very helpful for stacking. Also the tripod means it's much easier to get away with slower shutter speeds so you don't get camera shake.

Darter - one shot

So why don't you use a tripod all the time? If I could I would it makes the stacking so much easier. But there are lots of situations where a tripod will not work. I did a talk for Halifax Photographic Society and someone asked me, did I use a tripod for the macro photograph I was displaying, I stated that I hadn't. They then went on to say that another photographer had done a talk and said that for good macro photography a tripod is essential. It really isn't!

They are two main reasons there are certain situation where I won't use a tripod;

1. Insects move and can be super skittish. Many subjects will either just move around oblivious to you but keep moving away and some subjects will just run away from you full stop!
2. Often insects can be on brick walls etc and attempting to use a tripod means you can't get close to having an interesting composition

The below image of two dance flies mating (which incidentally was taken about 10 mins after the above dragonfly) falls into category 1! So for this image you have to really careful, dance flies are really difficult to photograph, they are extremely skittish so if I had tried to set up a tripod I would have very likely caused them to fly away. Also they where in deep undergrowth so I would have trashed lots of greenery which to me would be unacceptable. You can see the peculiar courtship of the danceflies in this image as the male brings the female a present of a dead insect for female to eat while they mate!

Dance flies mating

The next shot falls into the second category. The dandelion was only a centimetre or two above the ground and therefore the camera had to be on the deck to get this composition. This would have required a special tripod to have done or handheld like this was.

Mining Bee

The next two jumping spiders again handheld and at about 3 times magnification. With these spiders they rarely sit long so you have to track them through the view finder which is not easy at high magnification. Then as soon as the spider pauses fire off a burst whilst slowly moving towards the subject. I don't get a 100% hit rate doing this!

Jumping spider on ring

Zebra Jumping Spider

The next two images firstly a robberfly then a horsefly. Both species sit in the sun on fence posts and then generally as soon as you get near woosh they disappear very quickly. So again if you faffed about with a tripod you have a very limited chance of photographing them. With these I have all my settings done and then approach the subject very slowly and quite low. More times then not they will fly but sometimes they will sit and again you can get enough photographs for a stacked image.

Robber fly portrait

Female Horse Fly

Once I'd finished the stack on the robberfly it became active so I did a quick video!

Dancing Robberfly from Oliver Wright on Vimeo.

A wolf spider with her spiderlings sat on her back is a classic macro photographers photograph. Very difficult to photograph as these spiders are very intolerant and again disappear very quickly. But they do like to come back out to the same spot, eventually. So for this shot it's a case of lying down creeping forward, let the spider disappear. Move the camera to the spot where it would have been in focus and then wait till it reappears. Hopefully then you will be able to get the shots.

Wolf with Spiderlings

This is my favourite handheld stack of the season so far. The large skipper landed on a fence near me and quickly took a 54 image stack at 3.5 times magnification. Amazed it came out so well as at this magnification all your camera shake is magnified too!

Large Skipper Portrait

So there is a way of eliminating reason one and that is go out either at the very end or very beginning of the day...

All of these images are taken out in the field and I never do anything to the insects like spray them in cold water. I photograph them as I find them, for me nature photography should be natural. I see plenty of photographs of chilled or dead insects photographed in a studio set up, each to their own but this to me is not nature photography.

So as the insects are settled or torpid it's much easier to use a tripod and take your time. This often means you can get a more perfect and less cropped image.

The next two images were taken at around 8pm in the evening when the butterflies have settled down for the night. Although the first pair don't look too settled (incidentally this image was a handheld stack as I was in a rush and it's just quicker, normally I would have used a tripod)!

Mating Marbeled Whites

Two perched Marbeled Whites

This perched robberfly is my favourite tripod stack of the year. Again as it was just sat there I took my time with the composition.

Perched Robberfly

At the moment there are a lot of damselflies at my local pond the first image is a less magnified versions whilst the portrait is at about 4 times magnification. Both images are using a tripod to get the stacked images.

Perched Damsel

Damsel Portrait

So for me there is no right or wrong answer it's just situational I'm alway prepared to either use a tripod or do the stacks handheld - it just depends on the situation. But hopefully that gives you an idea to the rational as to when I would and wouldn't use a tripod. I shall do another blog which shows how you do both separate techniques. If you do try though don't get put off if it doesn't work out first time it took me a fair bit of practise before I got either technique working properly.

Any questions or feedback just let me know.

Happy shooting,

  • Incredible Macro images, you are amazing lots of photographers with these images including me, as you can imagine some have doubts about your hand held claim, i personally have followed your photographic progress for a good number of years and assure fellow photographers that you are a honest well respected pro, so reading your first blog on the subject is just the ticket to put the disbelievers in there place, can’t wait for next blog on the subject, top work Oliver.

    John Sanderson - 29 July, 2017
  • Really enjoyed reading this Oliver was hoping one day you’d do a blog on the subject, looking forward to reading your techniques, I’m spending quite a lot of time out in field doing macro especially stacking not sure if I’m doing it right, I focus say on the eye take a few burst shots then move closer and re-focus and bust again, or should I be focusing on a different part of subject. Peter

    Peter West - 29 July, 2017
  • Thank you so much for taking the time to explain how you took these (truly amazing) photos. I keep meaning to try this myself having seen you at work Feb 16 in Abisko. You’ve just given me another prod grin  Do you always use manual focus for these or do you ever rely on autofocus at all?

    the4ts - 29 July, 2017
  • Thanks for sharing your technique and skill

    JOHN BLEAKLEY - 31 July, 2017
  • They are really interesting and well crafted shots. I wonder if your camera does automatic stacking or whether you have to manually focus between each exposure? Just keeping in the same position would do it for me, even with auto align in Photoshop.

    Allan Harris - 11 August, 2017
  • Dear all thanks so much for the comments!

    Peter, I’ll go more into depth on a future blog as it depends on what lens I’m using and also if handholding.  Basically, if I’m handholding I go backwards and forwards.  If I use the tripod and a lens with a focus ring then I’ll manually move the ring.

    Allan, I use Canon cameras which don’t have in Camera stacking.  I always use manual focus using either of the above techniques I mentioned above to Peter - I hope that helps!

    Oliver Wright - 12 August, 2017
  • What you do is just amazing!


    Dorothea Grolig - 07 November, 2017
  • Amazing Oliver!  Very informative article.
    I have done focus stacking using a tripod and flowers as my subject.

    I recently started photographing dragonflies with my macro lens (canon macro 100 mm (non L )
    I don’t own any camera lights (no finches for that), but I would like to know more about the “how to” of
    handheld focus stacking.

    I was wondering if you have written a follow up blog ?

    Thank you !

    Gaylin Lyons - 06 July, 2018
Comment Form

Please submit your comment below. No registration required.