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Michael Erlewine

The Hartblei 120mm Superrotator

4 posts in this topic

As a focus stacker, I especially like the tilt in tilt/shift lenses and the reason is that by using tilt I can compress the area that needs to be stacked enormously and thus get more in focus using less layers. 

 

I had all three of the main Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) early on, but lost interest in them because the quality of the lens was not corrected enough for my taste and they were physically too limiting at times. I liked the 45mm PC the best.

 

I even have one of those small macro-tilt adapters for nikon that provides 8-degrees of tilt only, but rotates 360-degrees. It actually works and is the least expensive way to get tilt on a Nikon that I know of. But mostly my interest in tilt has been in view cameras.

 

I have had a number of view cameras, ranging from big 14 pounders to little miniature view cameras that still had all the movements, but were too frail for real work with a DSLR. And I still have the Novoflex BALPRO system, which is poorly designed IMO, but offers some movements. And of course there is the view camera system I use the most, the Cambo Actus Mini, of which I have a streamlined version. What a great system for my work!

 

And I have taken a number of these view cameras into the field, but have found them pretty awkward, yet have done it just the same. However, I have not done it THAT often because they can be a pain.

 

What if I told you there was a robust, small, view camera that I would not hesitate to take outside and into the field. You might ask: why do that when the wind (in the flat-state I live in -- Michigan) is almost always present and this would prevent any large focus stacks. I hear you, but that’s not the point here.

 

With a small view camera, if it was really small and compact, I could us the tilt feature to compress what needs to be stacked in a single shot. Or, I could create what I call “short stacks,” taking a few close-focus images at key points in the image and stacking just those, perhaps three or four layers. But there is something more useful than that, which is the reason I am writing this piece.

 

When the Hartblei Superrotator Macro 120mm F4 TS came along, I could see that at heart this lens is a tiny view camera all wrapped in a lens and one with a very small vertical component (no more than just mounting a lens), making it relatively easy to carry around and still have some of the main movements that I like in view cameras plus some unique features of its own. 

Perhaps the Hartblei Macro 120mm is not purposely designed for stacking in the field, but why not? I don’t find that this discourages me. What it does offer is the ability (through Tilt and Shift) to add depth-of-field to a shot, if need be, in a one-off photo. I may not have time (or the wind prevents) to make large stacks, but I can independently rotate to tilt and/or shift the lens to maximize the depth-of-field in a single shot or a short-stack in just a few seconds. The result is I get more depth-of-field by the tilt and shift than I otherwise would. In my work, every little angle counts.

And it is this capability that makes this rather complex lens system worthwhile in the field as well as the studio. It shines in the studio! It is a heavy lens, but not as heavy and cumbersome as any of the view-camera systems I have otherwise used with equal features.

 

The Hartblei 120mm Superrotator uses a sturdy collar that mounts directly to the tripod via an Arca-Swiss plate so that the Nikon D850 hangs off the back of the collar mount and the heavy lens hangs from the collar and does not hang on the camera flange. This is very important for a 2 lb. lens. The lens kit also comes with a side-focus wheel which provides 2:1 fine-focusing, much like the focus-pullers I am familiar with in video work. 

 

And the lens is called a “superrotator” has three rotations:

 

(1) Rotation Collar (horizontal/vertical)
(2) 360-degree Rotation Shift Movements
(3) 360-degree Rotation Tilt Movements

 

These rotations are each 360-degrees by increments (all the way around) and the shift and tilt rings can be used independently of one another in any combination. This feature, which is very desirable, is unlike any lens I have ever gotten my hands on and it is no kludge, but very well made and it works smoothly.

 

As for the lens itself, this is the same 120mm Zeiss macro lens that Hasselblad has successfully used for many years, the “Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFI/CFE” of the Hasselblad last build. It has been thoroughly vetted and reviewed, so it is a known entity.  

 

And the lens itself has two separate focusing helicoids, a ring to get from infinity to 1.2m (170-degrees focus throw) and a second ring for close focus 1.2m to 75cm (160-degrees focus throw). In addition, there is a side focus which allows 2:1 fine-focusing. As a focus stacker, this is right up my alley. And I am told that this Zeiss lens has the best coating on the market; the blue channel is about 15-20% denser than other lenses. 

 

However, it’s true that the Zeiss lens used in the Hartblei implementation is not as well corrected as some of my exotic APO lenses, but most of those APO lenses have no infinity, are VERY restricted in their range, have very old coatings, odd-ball mounts, and so on. The Hartblei 120mm looks to be an all-around general purpose lens and not just a specialized lens, although it is special indeed.

 

This particular Zeiss 120mm Macro Lens is well known and has been a feature of the Hasselblad system for many years, so we know what it is and isn’t. And while the optics may be slightly old fashioned, it is certainly fine enough, especially as Hartblei has configured it. Given its very low vertical profile, the sturdy tripod collar, and the refinement of the side-focus wheel, what you have here is a miniature view camera built into a lens, ready and able to work well in the field where I find it can be difficult to cart a larger view-camera system.

 

This lens may have to be used stopped down more than I would like, but it’s portable and for stacking some photos, I can also take a shot wide open to get whatever bokeh I can and feather that in with the main stacked image shot at higher f-stops, if needs be.

 

What is at least a psycho-social barrier is the price of the lens, which is over $5k. Ouch! For me, I am kind of used to high prices and I just have to sell a few more of the lenses I don’t use much. LOL. The Zeiss Otus lenses cost a lot and many of the lenses I most use do also, I guess that’s the price of admission. 

With the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm, what you do get is a lens of known quality (the famous Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFi/CFe), a strong tripod color, a very helpful side focus system, plus the (and let’s use their word) three “Superrotators.” As mentioned earlier, I have had all three Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) and their physical restrictions and too much chromatic aberration make them pretty-much unusable for my work.

 

There is a learning curve with the Superrotator 120mm lens. There is a lot of functionality packed into a small package, in particular getting used to the three rotations. It’s a lot like the old test of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. And the little release buttons for the rotations are not totally easy to hold down and do the rotation at the same time. For my work, I probably will use the same (or a similar) setup each time, so this may not be a big problem. Also, I have to learn to recognize where the tilt is, since unlike most PC lenses, where the lens tilts, in the 120mm Superrotator it is the camera body that tilts.

 

After all, the lens packs almost a complete view camera, with all of the main movements that I need, into a tiny (albeit a somewhat heavy) package.

 

And while I may not use this lens all that much in the studio because I have so many temperamental exotic APO lenses on hand, I will take the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm f/4 lens into the field where it is just a single lens, albeit a heavy one, and get many of the movements I like and find in the standard view camera.

 

I would like to hear from other owners of this particular lens.

 

Here are a couple of photos, one with the camera setup and a first image with the Nikon D850 with the Hartblei Superrotator. This shot focuses on the leaves and the flower is not stacked.
 

_85B9932-SR120-777.jpg

_81A1001-SR120-777.jpg

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I can understand stacking and I can understand tilt-shift, but the idea of combining them particularly in a view camera situation sounds just too hard for me.:huh:

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12 minutes ago, crowecg said:

I can understand stacking and I can understand tilt-shift, but the idea of combining them particularly in a view camera situation sounds just too hard for me.:huh:

 

 

Not really, IMO. The point of it is to compress the image along the plane of focus so that VERY much fewer shots need to be taken to get the subject in focus. 

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I guess the case with this lens isn’t too complicated if you adjust the focus using the helicoid, but using your Cambo Actus do you move the front or rear and then in which direction parallel to the plane of focus or the front of the lens?

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    • By Michael Erlewine
      As a focus stacker, I especially like the tilt in tilt/shift lenses and the reason is that by using tilt I can compress the area that needs to be stacked enormously and thus get more in focus using less layers. 
       
      I had all three of the main Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) early on, but lost interest in them because the quality of the lens was not corrected enough for my taste and they were physically too limiting at times. I liked the 45mm PC the best.
       
      I even have one of those small macro-tilt adapters for nikon that provides 8-degrees of tilt only, but rotates 360-degrees. It actually works and is the least expensive way to get tilt on a Nikon that I know of. But mostly my interest in tilt has been in view cameras.
       
      I have had a number of view cameras, ranging from big 14 pounders to little miniature view cameras that still had all the movements, but were too frail for real work with a DSLR. And I still have the Novoflex BALPRO system, which is poorly designed IMO, but offers some movements. And of course there is the view camera system I use the most, the Cambo Actus Mini, of which I have a streamlined version. What a great system for my work!
       
      And I have taken a number of these view cameras into the field, but have found them pretty awkward, yet have done it just the same. However, I have not done it THAT often because they can be a pain.
       
      What if I told you there was a robust, small, view camera that I would not hesitate to take outside and into the field. You might ask: why do that when the wind (in the flat-state I live in -- Michigan) is almost always present and this would prevent any large focus stacks. I hear you, but that’s not the point here.
       
      With a small view camera, if it was really small and compact, I could us the tilt feature to compress what needs to be stacked in a single shot. Or, I could create what I call “short stacks,” taking a few close-focus images at key points in the image and stacking just those, perhaps three or four layers. But there is something more useful than that, which is the reason I am writing this piece.
       
      When the Hartblei Superrotator Macro 120mm F4 TS came along, I could see that at heart this lens is a tiny view camera all wrapped in a lens and one with a very small vertical component (no more than just mounting a lens), making it relatively easy to carry around and still have some of the main movements that I like in view cameras plus some unique features of its own. 
      Perhaps the Hartblei Macro 120mm is not purposely designed for stacking in the field, but why not? I don’t find that this discourages me. What it does offer is the ability (through Tilt and Shift) to add depth-of-field to a shot, if need be, in a one-off photo. I may not have time (or the wind prevents) to make large stacks, but I can independently rotate to tilt and/or shift the lens to maximize the depth-of-field in a single shot or a short-stack in just a few seconds. The result is I get more depth-of-field by the tilt and shift than I otherwise would. In my work, every little angle counts.
      And it is this capability that makes this rather complex lens system worthwhile in the field as well as the studio. It shines in the studio! It is a heavy lens, but not as heavy and cumbersome as any of the view-camera systems I have otherwise used with equal features.
       
      The Hartblei 120mm Superrotator uses a sturdy collar that mounts directly to the tripod via an Arca-Swiss plate so that the Nikon D850 hangs off the back of the collar mount and the heavy lens hangs from the collar and does not hang on the camera flange. This is very important for a 2 lb. lens. The lens kit also comes with a side-focus wheel which provides 2:1 fine-focusing, much like the focus-pullers I am familiar with in video work. 
       
      And the lens is called a “superrotator” has three rotations:
       
      (1) Rotation Collar (horizontal/vertical)
      (2) 360-degree Rotation Shift Movements
      (3) 360-degree Rotation Tilt Movements
       
      These rotations are each 360-degrees by increments (all the way around) and the shift and tilt rings can be used independently of one another in any combination. This feature, which is very desirable, is unlike any lens I have ever gotten my hands on and it is no kludge, but very well made and it works smoothly.
       
      As for the lens itself, this is the same 120mm Zeiss macro lens that Hasselblad has successfully used for many years, the “Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFI/CFE” of the Hasselblad last build. It has been thoroughly vetted and reviewed, so it is a known entity.  
       
      And the lens itself has two separate focusing helicoids, a ring to get from infinity to 1.2m (170-degrees focus throw) and a second ring for close focus 1.2m to 75cm (160-degrees focus throw). In addition, there is a side focus which allows 2:1 fine-focusing. As a focus stacker, this is right up my alley. And I am told that this Zeiss lens has the best coating on the market; the blue channel is about 15-20% denser than other lenses. 
       
      However, it’s true that the Zeiss lens used in the Hartblei implementation is not as well corrected as some of my exotic APO lenses, but most of those APO lenses have no infinity, are VERY restricted in their range, have very old coatings, odd-ball mounts, and so on. The Hartblei 120mm looks to be an all-around general purpose lens and not just a specialized lens, although it is special indeed.
       
      This particular Zeiss 120mm Macro Lens is well known and has been a feature of the Hasselblad system for many years, so we know what it is and isn’t. And while the optics may be slightly old fashioned, it is certainly fine enough, especially as Hartblei has configured it. Given its very low vertical profile, the sturdy tripod collar, and the refinement of the side-focus wheel, what you have here is a miniature view camera built into a lens, ready and able to work well in the field where I find it can be difficult to cart a larger view-camera system.
       
      This lens may have to be used stopped down more than I would like, but it’s portable and for stacking some photos, I can also take a shot wide open to get whatever bokeh I can and feather that in with the main stacked image shot at higher f-stops, if needs be.
       
      What is at least a psycho-social barrier is the price of the lens, which is over $5k. Ouch! For me, I am kind of used to high prices and I just have to sell a few more of the lenses I don’t use much. LOL. The Zeiss Otus lenses cost a lot and many of the lenses I most use do also, I guess that’s the price of admission. 
      With the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm, what you do get is a lens of known quality (the famous Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFi/CFe), a strong tripod color, a very helpful side focus system, plus the (and let’s use their word) three “Superrotators.” As mentioned earlier, I have had all three Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) and their physical restrictions and too much chromatic aberration make them pretty-much unusable for my work.
       
      There is a learning curve with the Superrotator 120mm lens. There is a lot of functionality packed into a small package, in particular getting used to the three rotations. It’s a lot like the old test of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. And the little release buttons for the rotations are not totally easy to hold down and do the rotation at the same time. For my work, I probably will use the same (or a similar) setup each time, so this may not be a big problem. Also, I have to learn to recognize where the tilt is, since unlike most PC lenses, where the lens tilts, in the 120mm Superrotator it is the camera body that tilts.
       
      After all, the lens packs almost a complete view camera, with all of the main movements that I need, into a tiny (albeit a somewhat heavy) package.
       
      And while I may not use this lens all that much in the studio because I have so many temperamental exotic APO lenses on hand, I will take the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm f/4 lens into the field where it is just a single lens, albeit a heavy one, and get many of the movements I like and find in the standard view camera.
       
      I would like to hear from other owners of this particular lens.
       
      Here are a couple of photos, one with the camera setup and a first image with the Nikon D850 with the Hartblei Superrotator. This shot focuses on the leaves and the flower is not stacked.
       


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      Here is a little tableau I have put together. I will have to show a larger view at another time, but I am focusing on the two-dollar bill, but have included some burlap (pleated) so that it rises up and we can see how much depth-of-field is available at the higher apertures. Perhaps some of you reading this will have suggestions for what kinds of objects I could additionally include.
       
      These shots are not about color, but about resolution, diffraction, and depth-of-field. I notice that I can get away with f/11 (see the copper tacks), but with f/16 it is more iffy (but often still usable) for close-up, but not for macro. Lately my internal mantra seems to be “I always seem to go for high resolution,” but am interested more in acuity (micro-contrast) in post. And I only do all of this with APO lenses, for the most part.
       
      Your thoughts? Are these kind of images useful to anyone by myself?





    • By Michael Erlewine
      The Printing Nikkors for Close-Up Work
      Since the term apochromatic has no standard definition, various ideas of what is apochromatic exist. Finding apochromatic (APO) lenses that are really outstanding is difficult. By now, most of us know that the three new Zeiss APO lenses (135mm, 55mm, 85mm) are corrected apochromatically to a high standard, but finding lenses of similar quality (as to APO) is difficult without delving into the various industrial lenses, lenses designed for enlarger work or for various film-scanning operations.
      One good set of APO lenses are what are called the “Printing Nikkors,” a series of four Nikon industrial lenses designed for or use in film transfer (copy) machines, making accurate copies of 35mm cinema films and the like. These machines cost upward of $100,000, and the lenses individually cost (I am told) some $12,000 each. They are very highly corrected. To achieve this, chromatic aberration is corrected not only for the red, green, and blue range of the visible spectrum, but for the entire wavelength range (400 ~ 800nm).
      These four Printing Nikkors were each designed for a particular usable magnification range. Of the four Printing Nikkors (75mm, 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm), I have managed to find three of them, being the 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm. Here is a list along with what reproduction range they were designed for, and the general range suggested for use.
      75mm = 1/4x (usable 1/6X ~ 1/3X)
      95mm = 1/5x (usable 1/3X ~ 1/1/5X)
      105mm = 1x (usable 1/1.5X ~ 1.5X)
      150mm = 1x (usable 1/4X ~4X)
      I don’t use the Printing Nikkors for macro or higher magnifications, but primarily for close-up photography. This particular Printing Nikkor, the 150mm is of no use to me mounted directly on my Nikon D810 camera. Rather, it needs a bellows, and I generally use the Nikkor PB-4 for that. Since I mostly use this particular lens for focus stacking, the bellows works well for the close-up range.
      As a quick sidebar, to take advantage of the available focus-stacking software (I use Zerene Stacker), there are three main ways to stack focus and they produce different results, so it is important to use the most efficient method if you can. I give them here, starting with the best solution on down to the least efficient. The ranking is in terms of avoiding unwanted artifacts in your resulting stacked images:
      (1) The best way to stack is on a bellows, by fixing (locking) the lens to the front standard (so it does not move), and then focus with the rear standard on which sits the camera body (and sensor). So, we fix the lens, and only move the camera to focus.
      (2) The second best way to stack photos (and easiest) is by turning the focus barrel of the lens itself. This is why it can be important to purchase a lens with the longest focus throw you can get. For example, the famous Coastal Optics 60mm APO f/4 forensic lens (which is highly corrected) only has a focus throw of about 210-degrees, way too small (IMO) for stacking photos. You really have to use it mounted on a camera, mounted on a focus rail, and that is not good. On the other hand, the legendary Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro lens has a focus through of some 610-degrees. What a difference!
      (3) And lastly (and worst-ly) is to mount the camera-body and lens on a focus rail and move the whole combination to focus. This is not recommended, but I still have to often revert to it.
      (4) And there is the concern that spherical objects are the hardest to stack because you must take even smaller incremental layers with spheres, since there is no flat surface. To capture a sphere without artifacts takes some very fine increment-steps to stack properly.
      The above choices (themselves) each involve problems of their own, of course. Not all lenses will work well on a bellows, not all lenses have a decent focus throw, and the third option of using a focus rail should be avoided, if possible. These three options were first explained to me by Rik Littlefield, the author of Zerene Stacker, the focus-stacking software that I find to be the best for my work.
      I must say that my choice of flowers here is not ideal. In my experience the color yellow (and red, for that matter) are not as easy to capture correctly compared to the greens and blues. But this is what I have in the studio, so I am using it.
      Here are three different images, the first two images are stacked images shot with the Printing Nikkor 150mm wide open (f/2.8), and one at its narrowest aperture (f/11). The third image is a non-stacked traditional one-shot photo at f/11. My thoughts?
      My first thought is that I have to learn to better master the color yellow. Second, I feel this lens is very unforgiving, perhaps even a little aggressive or “forensic,” as in: what you see is what you get. And thirdly, I continue to wrestle with the question of to-stack-or-not-to-stack at all.
      The traditional one-shot photo is not bad. Why bother to stack, when stacking means artifacts of one kind or another (visible or not to the average viewer) will be present?
      It seems to me that the three new Zeiss APOs are not, well, so “forensic,” and have a softer feel to them. The bottom line is that I have to learn to better use the Printing Nikkors or….. just stick with the Zeiss APOs.
      Now, the industrial enlarger-lens, the El Nikkor APO 105mm, does not seem to have a “forensic” look. This is not to mention that maneuvering a large lens like the Printing Nikkor 150mm, mounted on a bellows, mounted on a quick-release clamp, in the field is no easy trick.



    • By Michael Erlewine
      Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind if you are serious about getting into stacking focus. I realize that most here already know this, but I offer it for those who are just getting started in focus stacking.
      Best Aperture for Focus Stacking?
      The best aperture is whatever is the sharpest aperture for the lens you have. You are not looking for depth-of-field here because that is what you will simulate by stacking focus, so don’t stack at f/11 or f/16 just because you may get more DOF. Go for the aperture where your lens is the sharpest, which is usually around f/4-5.6 for most lenses. Let the stacking give you the sense of greater depth-of-field.
      Focal Length
      You can stack with pretty much any lens, but keep in mind that the wider the focal length of the lens, the less you need to turn the focus ring for each layer. And most wider-angle lens do not have a long focus throw so just a tiny movement may be enough. If you are stacking with lenses that are 100mm or longer, a lens with a very long focus throw is a real help.
      I routinely stack with lenses from 35mm to 200mm, most of them being macro lenses.
      A Good Tripod
      There are focus stackers who use no tripod, like as kids we would ride a bike and yell out “Look mom, no hands!” I don’t go there and if you want stacks of 6-10 or more layers, it for sure won’t work. Get a good tripod and ball head. Use them.
      Fast Lenses
      With focus stacking, especially in early morning or dim light you need a fast lens, not because you are shooting wide open but because you need enough light in the viewfinder to know where your key points of focus are. A lens of f/2.8 or faster is a real blessing in “magic” light of dawn and dusk.
      Focus Increments
      There is no set rule here but you want your increments short enough so that the overlap between shots (from the DOF your aperture is set to) is enough to merge well. Some shooters use a focus rail. I just use the focus ring but often move the ring just a tiny bit in each shot. This is something one has to get the hang of.
      Focus Throw
      A long focus throw while not useful in sports or action photography is very useful when stacking focus. I was surprised at how short the focus throw is on many fine lenses. If you have a lens you really love for focus stacking and it has a short focus throw, you may have to use a rail. The wonderful Coastal Optics 60mm f/4 APO lens has too short a focus throw for a 60mm macro IMO.
      Watch the Light
      This is more of a general photographic concern rather than limited to focus stacking. Pay attention to the light in your frame. If you have variable light, like a shaft of sunlight in a shady place, you may want to modify that shaft of light with a diffuser. I have thrown out more stacked photos because I could not nicely tone down hot spots where clipping occurred than for any other reason. Carry some small translucent diffusers with you and figure out some way (and it is difficult) to position them to filter the hot spots while you step through the focus stacking. The same goes for specular highlights (bright reflections). Tone them down in the field and don’t count on post-processing to be successful in removing or modifying them well.
      Front to Back
      Another very common mistake is to not catch the very tip of the front of your subject. You get back home and find a perfectly-stacked photo except that the front-most part is out of focus. It happens a lot. As a rule I back off until the whole thing is out-of-focus and creep up until just before the tip of the top of the front of the subject appears. I stack from there inward.
      Extraneous Stuff
      Another way to ruin a shot is to have too much room between the very front of your subject and the subject itself, like a blade of grass in the foreground or a stick, etc. If you can include the grass or stick in the composition (and resolve it), fine, but this is perhaps the most common way to produce large and un-fixable artifacts – a bridge too far. I remove or tie back whatever is intruding in my shot. Yes, Photoshop CS5 can remove extraneous objects pretty well, but so can you and perfectly.
      Sensor Cleaning
      Cleaning your sensor takes on another whole meaning when you focus stack. That spec of dust on a single-shot photo becomes a long line when 15-20 layers are stacked, a line not always easy to remove if it passes through part of your subject. They are nasty, so be ready to clean your sensor if you are around dust, which means: just get ready.
      Touch-up
      If you imagine that you won't have to touch-up your stacked photos, think it through. Focus stacking is a sampling technique like digital music, etc. By definition sampling means that something is left out. More often than not what is left out may cause unwanted artifacts in the final stacked photo. Plan to fix those if you want a finished looking photo. Focus stacking requires and teaches patience.
      Focus Stacking Software
      The focus stacking software I have found convenient are Zerene Stacker, Helicon Focus, and Photoshop CS5, and in that order. These all work more or less well.
      Photoshop CS5 is a great improvement over CS4 but the program is still not ready for prime time as regards focus stacking and that is an understatement.
      Both Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus work well and both are available in a demo version so I suggest you try them. I would not consider either the student or 32-bit versions from either company if you value your time. You want the 64-bit versions and that means their pro versions and they are more expensive. Of course if you have a 32-bit computer, you have no choice.
      By all means get the 64-bit versions which are $289 from Zerene Stacker and $250 from Helicon Focus. I have tried and purchased both of these packages and have done (relatively speaking) a lot of focus stacking. Both companies have fine software.
      That being said, my personal preference is very much with Zerene Stacker and I have a couple of reasons. One is that the retouch feature in Zerene Stacker is much better than that in Helicon Focus IMO. And retouch is the name of the game the deeper you go into stacking focus. Why?
      The reason is simiple. Focus stacking is a sampling technique much like digital music CDs sample from an analog base. By definition all samples are just that, “samples,” and that means something is not sampled or left out. In the case of focus stacking what is left out tends to cause unwanted artifacts to appear that detract from and can ruin a stacked photo. So as much as I originally resisted retouching any stacked photo, over time I have accepted that it has to be done. After all most of us accept quite easily that we have to fiddle with white balance and other factors in post prepossessing. Retouching is the same idea. Therefore a very easy-to-use retouching method as in Zerene Stacker is worth a lot to me. It is really a brilliant solution.
      My second reason is that the support and hand-holding from the Zerene Stacker staff is exemplary and I have been in the software business for a long time (second only to Microsoft on the Internet) and run a software company full-time. I am sure the other companies also have good support. You pretty much have to pay for Adobe support, so I won’t go there just now.
      So take thirty days and check out some software and find out which brand you like.
      Summary
      There you have a few suggestions on focus stacking. I should add one more comment:
      Patience and Exercise
      Macro and close-up photography is a slow process, ideal for those of us who need to learn patience. If done well stacking photos can slow us down until we are forced to experience just the present moment. For many of us who are busy and think too much, this is a good thing and a respite, the best medicine I know.
      It is also physically the perfect exercise for older folks. What else would possibly induce me to get up, get down, get up again, now get on my knees, now on my side, etc.? You could not pay me to get the exercise I naturally get when motivated by this or that wonderful shot. It is especially good for the abdomen, all the holding of the breath, keeping perfectly still, maintaining a pose, etc. This is all good.
      Your thoughts?
      I also have two books (2nd edition) on focus stacking that are free e-book downloads here:
      http://macrostop.com/
      Photo with Nikon D3s and Voightlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar lens

    • By Michael Erlewine
      I have stacked focus for many years, moving up through many different cameras, mostly Nikons, but also a medium-format Mamiya, and several mirrorless cameras.
       
      The sweet spot in all that work has been the Nikon D800E, with its 36 MP and no AA filter. I have even looked into stacking video clips and had a special frictionless slider built for that purpose. That is a separate article.
       
      In the course of all of this I have shot many hundreds of thousands of photos, plus published several books on focus stacking and scores of articles, and created some 20+ video tutorials, all of them free of course. I would never want to be a professional photographer. It is far too difficult these days. I have made my living in other ways. And now to the point:
       
      Years ago I went on an odyssey to find lenses that were "sharp," whatever that means, lenses that had high resolution. I have written exhaustively on this and in the beginning the experts either ignored me or made fun of me. And here is why:
       
      My research and tests showed me that the search for sharpness finally turned on how well a particular lens was corrected. I gradually found my way to more highly corrected lenses. My point is that putting lenses together of equal sharpness, the sharpest lens (again and again) IMO turned out to be the lens that was most highly corrected for the various aberrations, and so on.
       
      I ended up using lenses like the Coastal Optics 60mm f/4 APO forensic lens, the Leica Elmarit-R 100mm APO macro, and especially the legendary Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar, and others. These are the lenses I found were the best for focus stacking or any other work. I also got deep into the various Nikkor industrial lenses, lenses like the four Printing Nikkors, the El Nikkor APO lens, and others. They were all highly corrected lenses.
       
      However, I still could not get much of a witness to my claim that sharpness in lenses (all things being equal) finally turned on their degree of correction. I assumed these great lens experts knew what they were talking about. It turned out that this wa s not always so.
       
      All of this changed when Zeiss brought out the first in their series of special APO lenses, the Zeiss APO Sonnar 135mm f/2 lens. By this time I had accumulated a great number (like 80) of very high quality lenses, for the most part close-up and macro lenses. The Zeiss 135mm APO had a minimum focus distance of 2.62 feet (0.8 mm), so (since I am a close-up photographer) I at first dismissed it out-of-hand as a lens I would ever purchase, not to mention that it cost $2000.
       
      But over time, what I read about this lens led me to believe that indeed it was highly corrected, so much so that even with extension tubes the results were very good. I am not a believer in adding glass to good glass, and I have tested this. I own about every possible diopter, teleconverter, and so forth that is available and none of them ever improved a shot. I own them, but avoid them at all costs.
       
      Still I was intrigued by the reports I was reading on the new Zeiss 135mm APO Sonnar, so finally one day I just pulled the trigger and ordered one.
       
      I soon found out that the 135mm Zeiss was indeed exceptional, so exceptional that it outclassed all of the highly corrected lenses I already owned. And although the near focus distance was a distant 2.62 feet, I found that I could crop out and resolved fine detail better than with any of my other lenses. And the color and contrast were great.
       
      I already owned both the 50mm and 100mm Zeiss Makro-Planar lenses. And while these two lenses have a sterling reputation, I never used them because they simply were not well enough corrected and I could always see the difference. Of the two, I liked the 50mm Zeiss Makro-Planar most, perhaps because I had so many other fine lenses around the 100mm mark. Anyway, those lenses sat on the shelf, and I had come to assume that Zeiss lenses were very 'contrasty' and lacked correction. This probably was the main factor that kept me from trying out the Zeiss 135mm earlier than I did.
       
      Anyway, suddenly here I was using the Zeiss 135mm APO lens all the time and being knocked out by its performance. I didn't bother adding extension to it, but found that I could crop out what I wanted from a 36 MP shot on the Nikon D800e and use that.
       
      Then along comes the second in the new Zeiss series, the 55mm f/1.5 Otus Distagon lens in Nikon mount. By this time I was already a believer in this new series and, despite the price tag of $4000, I pre-ordered that lens as soon as it was announced.
       
      Again the Otus 55mm APO lens was a total winner, producing just incredible photos. And finally I am coming to the point of all of this writing:
       
      The new Zeiss lenses, especially the 55mm Otus, are so good that I found I could push the f/stop much higher than I could with other lenses. I had learned, as we photographers all know, that high f/stops (f/11,f/16, f/22, or what have you) flirt with diffraction, with the result that sharpness and the depth-of-field attained is washed out by the softening of diffraction. And I know that is a law of nature, like the law of gravity, and that we don't break the laws of nature.
       
      That being said, I found that I often could shoot at even f/16 (the highest f-stop on the 55mm Zeiss) and, depending on the subject matter, I got incredible depth-of-field and paid a very small price for it in diffraction results. How could that be?
       
      And I tested many single shot photos with the Zeiss 55mm against a multi-layer (100 layers) stacked photo from the same lens and the single shot was acceptable as a "stacked photo." Of course there are tradeoffs.
       
      The stacking process, in post, messes with the color and introduces various artifacts, so the retouching in post of complex stacked photos is pretty much mandatory. So here I was comparing a carefully stacked photo of many layers to a one-shot photo taken with the 55mm Otus at f/11 or f/16 and choosing to go with the one-shot photo. That was news!
       
      Now, with a one-shot photo I could not push focus as deep as I could by focus stacking, but the depth-of-field was deep enough to capture the effect that I liked from stacking focus. And prior to this I had been going exactly the opposite way, which I will sidebar here.
       
      Since early-on I found that I could not push the aperture into the high numbers without suffering diffraction consequences, I had gone in the opposite direction. I developed a method using the best wide-angle lenses that were sharp wide open and were very fast, ones that had an extremely narrow depth-of-field. And I used that very sharp depth-of-field like a laser paintbrush to paint in (by doing many stacked layers) just that part of the image I wanted in extreme focus, and let the natural bokeh that fast wide-angle lenses provide just run wild in the background.
       
      This produced an impressionistic and often ethereal look to the photo. I loved what you can do with sharp wide-angle lenses (of which there are few great ones).
       
      And suddenly with these two new Zeiss APO lenses, my original dream of finding the holy grail of natural depth-of-field focus was coming true. I could take a one-shot photo and have outstanding depth-of-field with one shot. The only downside I found is that, by definition, I then lost the dreamy background bokeh that wide-open lenses bring. However, if I wanted that, all I had to do is shoot one blurred background photo and paint it into my one-shot photo. I did that maybe once.
       
      With this method, the endless artifacts necessarily caused by stacking photos were gone. Keep in mind that focus stacking, like making music CDs or video DVDs, is just another digital sampling technique, meaning that we sample, taking some of the image, but by definition, leaving gaps behind of what we don't record. And those areas not sampled are what cause, naturally, all of the gnarly artifacts that we focus stackers have to retouch out. Even worse, the stacking process messes with the color, and that is even harder to restore, if it is even possible.
       
      So, here I stand at a crossroads, with my well-worn path of focus stacking heading off one way, and going another way is simply learning to take almost perfect one-shot photos with these highly-correct Zeiss lenses. The truth is that I already find myself walking the path of the one-shot photo, because….. the results are better. Ultimately all of my passion for photography depends on capturing in a photo the beauty of what I see in my mind. I am not a technique person for its own sake. Never was. I use technique to get an effect.
       
      I go where the beauty goes, and that seems away from so much focus stacking. Sure I will stack product photos or photos where pushing depth-of-field is paramount, and lack of perfect color is not important.
       
      But that aside, the purity of color, sharpness, and lack of artifacts makes single shots with these new Zeiss lenses the obvious choice. In fact, I am already culling through my collection of great macro lenses, many of which I will never use again because they lack the quality I can now always get with the new Zeiss lenses. I keep them around just to say I have them, but I never use them and never will again. So I will sell them and buy whatever next Zeiss APO lens comes down the pike, in this case an 85mm APO, I am told.
       
      So that's my story. It should interest those of you who stack focus.


    • By Marco Lanciani
      I’m interested in entering into close-up photography and focus stacking.
      For this reason I thought to buy the StackSoht from Cognisys.
      My field of interest is products photography. (from small objects like a ring to any dimension where focus stacking makes sense)
      Currently I own a Nikon D7000, AF Fisheye 10.5 2.8, AFS 14-24 2.8G, AF 20 2.8D, AF Micro 60 2.8D, AF 180 2.8D.
      Also I can borrow an Hasselblad System: H4D-50MS, 35mm 3,5, 80mm 2.8, Macro 120mm 4.
       
       
      Michael (Erlewine), I’ve seen some of your video tutorials: they were both interesting and inspiring.
      I’ve learned that there are three method to work:
      1- Lens fixed on a Bellow and moving only the Camera to focus; (which is also the best choice)
      2- Focusing on the Lens;
      3- Moving the whole assembly, Camera and Lens (without moving the focus ring); or Macro Rail;
       
      It appears you use macro rails a lot: when they start to show their own limits and only method 1 is the solution?
       
      On the other side I can understand you when you speak of “Entrance Pupil”.
      I work in Panorama Photography: to avoid parallax errors the lens must rotate on its Entrance Pupil. I don’t know but this also might explain why method 1, in focus stacking, works the best.
       
      Still one question about the StackSoht from Cognisys. They sell an extended version: does it make sense in your experience? I mean:
      - Do you make any use of long (up to 20cm) rails? Where or when?
      - Could it make more sense with medium format cameras?
      - Is the standard 10cm rail more than enough?
       
      Thanks in advance for your help and suggestions.