When you think about focus stacking, your mind likely goes to macro photography. When photographing close-ups, you can use focus stacking to create a tack-sharp image from front to back. This is especially important when doing macro work, because the depth of field is so thin that it’s impossible in most cases to get the entire subject in focus using only a single image.
However, focus stacking has utility outside of macro photography. It is a technique I use frequently when photographing landscapes. The primary subject of a landscape shot may often be in the distance, but there can be portions of the image much closer to the lens. For example, consider an image of a distant mountain with vegetation or rocks in the foreground. I want foreground elements as part of my composition, but I can’t focus simultaneously on the background and the foreground.
In some cases, I may need only two or three images at different focal distances to create a final image that is sharp from the closest element to the one furthest away.
The advantages of focus stacking for landscape photography
Focus stacking in the context of landscape photography provides you the same advantages of focus stacking in macro photography. You can combine images captured at different focal distances to produce a sharper final image.
Why not just stop down your lens when shooting landscapes? I sometimes do this but there is a major disadvantage to this approach. When you stop down your lens too far, you introduce noticeable diffraction into the captured image. This means that instead of capturing an entire scene sharply, you introduce more softness to the image.
By utilizing focus stacking in landscape photography, you can ensure that the entire frame is not only sharp, but very sharp.
The disadvantages of focus stacking for landscape photography
Using a focus stacking technique for landscape imagery is not always the best option. For starters, you must have a tripod or other very stable shooting foundation for it to be a viable choice. Further, not every camera includes built-in focus stacking tools, so your camera and lens must allow for precise manual focusing. Doing focus bracketing manually can be time consuming and tedious. It results in capturing fewer compositions, which can be especially problematic when working in fleeting light. Even if your camera can focus bracket, capturing multiple frames takes a while and it uses more of your memory card space.
Speaking of time and memory, saving many raw image files for focus stacking on your computer takes up more space and focus stacking software is resource intensive. If you are manually stacking your images using layer masks in Photoshop, as I sometimes do with simpler situations, that takes quite a bit of time as well.
When you want a sharp image from the closest object to the furthest away, there is no substitute for focus stacking. No amount of stopping down your lens or utilizing hyperfocal distance can match the results, especially when making large prints. The result comes with different and more stringent requirements on your capture technique and your time. Focus stacking is not the ideal technique for every landscape photograph. However, it is a very useful one to have in your arsenal.