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Thread started 03 Aug 2011 (Wednesday) 15:00
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Best Focus-Stacker and Why?

 
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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 03, 2011 15:00 |  #1
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I see some of you use the Zerene Stacker, where others use the Helicon Stacker, and since the full-versions of both are about $300 each ... I was wondering which was better and why? (Or, perhaps, this would be more properly asked what are the advantages/disadvantag​es of each and why?)

I know older Adobe programs didn't have stacking, but I have the full Adobe CS5 Extended program, and it has a focus-stacking "script" that allows me to stack images just using Photoshop.

Is there any advantage/disadvantage of using Helicon versus Zerene ... versus just using Photoshop CS5?

The reason I am asking is I want to get more into stacking my images, and don't know if I should get a dedicated "stacker" ... or "which" stacker is better than which (and why) ... or if the Adobe CS5 stacker can perform just as well as any of them.

Any experienced responses are sincerely appreciated!

Thank you,

Jack


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Martin ­ G.
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Aug 03, 2011 16:33 |  #2

Hello John,

Not sure if I will be of much help.

I use Zerene and I am sold to it. When I started trying to stack two years ago, I tried Combine and Helicon and I could not get any good results at all. Only with Zerene I started getting interesting results. So I think it is just by default I started using it, I did not "compare" strenght or other things like that. I did try Helicon again out of curiosity a while back and I still could not get anything to my liking. I did not want to change, I was just curious with more experience if I could finally achieve something with this program. I am sure it works really well for some people, but not at all for me.

I find the retouching tool in Zerene to be most excellent and for me that is the big thing as it is so useful. Since I shoot handheld, a lot of my shots do not perfectly allign, as you can imagine. So I need to do a lot of retouching. That option is a key factor for me, and I could not find anything comparable with the other programs. so in other words, Zerene works perfectly for my own style of shooting.

Since you shoot tripod, your shots should perfectly allign, so I wonder if you really need a sofisticated software. I never used Photoshop for stacking. Is there anything with the program that does not work for you that makes you want to change?

Also, the full version of Zerene is not really necessary, the main difference is computer control of the stackshot automated rail and automated stacking as the shots are taken. I tried it and still preferred to use the controls on the stackshot. You could start with the trial and see. Then buy the more affordable license (if you like the program), I think it was something like 100$ If you ever want to upgrade to the full version, you only pay the difference between your original license and the pro license, that is what Rik told me when I was contemplating an upgrade (when I got the stackshot).

Another thing is that I find customer support to be excellent with Zerene (although I did not contact the other program companies). Rik is a gentleman and he is insanely knowlegeable about optics and has first hand experience with the whole process. He is always extremely eager to help and always answers with precision... usually enough to make my brain melt! If you do not already go on his forum, I strongly suggest you go and maybe ask your question there.

But, I know I have not really answered your question. I do not know what truly are the differences. I know Rik will promote his own program (very politely as always) and I have often read him saying certain aspects of stacking that Zerene will handle better than Helicon. I think some of these programs work differently as to how they process the stack. How does that impact or fulfill your own needs, I do not know.

Good luck

Martin


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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 04, 2011 05:45 as a reply to  @ Martin G.'s post |  #3
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Thank you very much Martin, for taking the time and sharing your experience. I will follow your advice and see what Rik has to say on the subject.

Thanks again!




  
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Warl0rd
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Aug 04, 2011 08:51 |  #4

Try CombineZP, its free and you can get good results.


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Aug 04, 2011 21:19 |  #5

Warl0rd wrote in post #12875702 (external link)
Try CombineZP, its free and you can get good results.

x2 if you have a PC - last I checked they didn't have any versions out for Macs. Combine can be a little tricky when trying to figure out what does what and it takes a bit of practice to tell which images can be sufficiently aligned and stacked and which pics can be tossed.

Also, there are a bunch of places where you can find side by side comparisons using the different software - they can produce some very different looking images from the same pics, so see if you like one look better than another, etc.


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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 05, 2011 06:48 as a reply to  @ adamsheehy's post |  #6
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I have answered my own question: The Adobe Photoshop CS5 stacker gave me, by far, the best results in really tricky stacking situations.

Here is my report (external link) :D

Cheers!

Jack

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chauncey
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Aug 05, 2011 08:59 as a reply to  @ John Koerner's post |  #7

I'm a CS5 enthusiast and quite satisfied with their auto align, auto blend/focus stacking abilities, but I confess that I haven't tried the others.
Beyond that, I am curious as to your set-up in this scenario...how many images involved/use of focusing rail/f/stop/lens/etc.? Are more images better?


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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 05, 2011 09:41 |  #8
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chauncey wrote in post #12881646 (external link)
I'm a CS5 enthusiast and quite satisfied with their auto align, auto blend/focus stacking abilities, but I confess that I haven't tried the others.
Beyond that, I am curious as to your set-up in this scenario...how many images involved/use of focusing rail/f/stop/lens/etc.? Are more images better?


You can download the full programs of the others for a free 30-day trial.

As mentioned in the article, it was a 5-image combination, taken on a tripod (no focus rail). I purposely chose a difficult subject, with a lot of curvy "ends" to it, because it doesn't challenge anybody to use a simple subject with just a few even, straight ends to it.

I also purposely saved my files in the deepest, most complex color space possible to see how these other programs handled really-complex colors, and outputted them for print.

The results were that the Helicon-Focus destroyed the bokeh and left dozens of artifacts ... while the Zerene Stacker diminshed the color and left dozens of artifacts ... whereas the Adobe CS5 stacker met all of the challenges nearly perfectly and by far preserved the bokeh better, the color quality better, and was light years more accurate in its image alignment. (Look at my images carefully and see.)

You are also more than welcome to download these other programs, and test them yourself on your own stacks, and report your own findings here :D

Hope this helps someone!

Jack


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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 05, 2011 13:51 |  #9
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Martin G. wrote in post #12872244 (external link)
... Rik is a gentleman and he is insanely knowlegeable about optics and has first hand experience with the whole process. He is always extremely eager to help and always answers with precision... usually enough to make my brain melt! If you do not already go on his forum, I strongly suggest you go and maybe ask your question there ...
Martin


Follow-up ...

I was not able to find Rik's forum, so I emailed him directly. As you said, he is a gentleman and took the time to painstakingly and precisely answer my questions, and (naturally) stated why "his" product was superior in most instances. Much respect to him for taking so much time for a person he does not even know!

Unfortunately, I had to let Rik know that what he said about his product working better than CS5 was not in alignment with my own tests, though I do agree it worked better than Helicon, and I submitted my images for his consideration. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say ... and I will keep an open mind ... but, regardless if I am convinced (or not), I do agree Rik is a thoughtful, helpful person.

Jack


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Martin ­ G.
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Aug 05, 2011 14:30 as a reply to  @ John Koerner's post |  #10

John,

I am glad you found your own answer and even better for you, it is the program you already have!

I am not surprised that Rik took time to properly answer. Too bad you did not have the link to the forum, will send it to you in private, I am not sure if it is allowed to post links to another forum here. It would have been the best place to get feed backs as members there do massive stacks all the time.

I believe I use Zerene in a non conventional way, I never take what it produces as an image. So whatever the output is, I do not really care as I redo everything manually. I therefore have no artifacts and no bokeh problems. But it takes a lot of time and patience. So it is excellent if you can get the result you want in an instant in Photoshop.

I would be curious to hear what Rik has to say about this. It seems that very few very experienced "stacker" use Photoshop for stacking, but it could simply be the pricetag of that program, 1000$ versus 100$ for Zerene + let's say Photoshop Element for 120$ in my case. So 220$ (once more, you do not need the pro-version to do stacks) versus 1000$, it is a huge difference for many of us.

I really never had good results with Helicon, I am "happy" to see that you came to the same conclusion. Not that I want to "bash" on a program, I simply do not get what's the big deal with Helicon.

All the best

Martin


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Aug 05, 2011 15:32 as a reply to  @ Martin G.'s post |  #11

After using the stack script in CS5 how did you blend the images together?




  
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chauncey
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Aug 05, 2011 15:39 as a reply to  @ chrisa's post |  #12

Arrange your images in layers>"select all">"auto align">"auto blend"...one tutorial explained here http://www.youtube.com​/watch?v=kFN7r0FmTJE (external link)


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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 05, 2011 15:56 |  #13
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chrisa wrote in post #12883752 (external link)
After using the stack script in CS5 how did you blend the images together?

To reiterate in a little more detail, after you run the stack script in the Files pulldown, then highlight all the images in the layers panel. Go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers and choose "Auto" and let the layers align.

After they align, go back to Edit > Auto-Blend Layers and choose "Stack Images" (and make sure that the "Seamless Tones and Colors" checkbox is checked) and let the layers blend.

Then flatten the image and crop to size as needed.




  
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chrisa
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Aug 05, 2011 16:13 as a reply to  @ John Koerner's post |  #14

Thanks




  
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John ­ Koerner
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Aug 05, 2011 16:26 as a reply to  @ John Koerner's post |  #15
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Martin G. wrote in post #12883413 (external link)
John,
I am glad you found your own answer and even better for you, it is the program you already have!

I admit, it was a pleasant surprise :D

Martin G. wrote in post #12883413 (external link)
John,
I am not surprised that Rik took time to properly answer. Too bad you did not have the link to the forum, will send it to you in private, I am not sure if it is allowed to post links to another forum here. It would have been the best place to get feed backs as members there do massive stacks all the time.

Once again, I thank you for your time, Martin. I am registering on that forum right now and will try to see if I can find a satisfactory answer. By "satisfactory," I mean an answer that makes sense, because (although Rick did answer), none of what he said actually proved true in my own experiments.

For example, Rik said Photoshop routinely makes "incorrect assessments" as to what should be in focus, yet it was the Zerene program that made FAR more "incorrect assessments" in my complex test.

Rick also said Photoshop also worked from a "layers" model (which Rik disfavors), but he didn't really say why, other than it makes it "awful" for re-touching. However, Photoshop was so accurate, there was nothing to re-touch, so what really proved to be "awful" for me was dealing with the need to retouch almost everything that the Zerene program left me with!


Martin G. wrote in post #12883413 (external link)
John,
I believe I use Zerene in a non conventional way, I never take what it produces as an image. So whatever the output is, I do not really care as I redo everything manually. I therefore have no artifacts and no bokeh problems. But it takes a lot of time and patience. So it is excellent if you can get the result you want in an instant in Photoshop.

Well, we most definitely are not in agreement here!

The way I look at it is, Time is Money, and the more time anyone has to spend "correcting" what the software should have done right to begin with, the less that person really needs the product. (Taken to the extreme, if you had to do everthing by hand, then you wouldn't need the product at all.)

By contrast, the more you are able to "push a button" and get everything you want to get done, done right, the more that product becomes a useful tool that helps you leverage your time, not waste your time cleaning-up the product's botch-job.

This basic goal of a stacking program is exactly why I felt Adobe CS5 was the superior product ... because it did the job that the other products should have done ... so I don't have to waste my time doing the clean-up work for them. I mean, just look at my images on the blog post and imagine the time it would have taken to correct the botch-jobs of the other products ... no thanks!

It would have been impossible to correct the botch-job that Helicon-Focus did to my image, and would have taken hours to correct the Zerene job too. And, while I realize different results would obtain for simpler stacks, the idea of any tool is to make my life easier ... not hours-and-hours "harder" ... and that is exactly what the Adobe product did do for me and what the other products failed to do.

Martin G. wrote in post #12883413 (external link)
John,
I would be curious to hear what Rik has to say about this. It seems that very few very experienced "stacker" use Photoshop for stacking, but it could simply be the pricetag of that program, 1000$ versus 100$ for Zerene + let's say Photoshop Element for 120$ in my case. So 220$ (once more, you do not need the pro-version to do stacks) versus 1000$, it is a huge difference for many of us.

Well, I touched on what Rik said above, but again it just didn't obtain when I actually compared the products. (And I still haven't heard back from him, since I sent him the full-sized comparison of the results ...)

As for the cost of each product, I am sure price does have a lot to do with more people stacking with a cheaper download than a more expensive one. More people who are "having fun stacking" are going to be willing to spend $100 on Zerene than are going to want to spend $1000 (10x that amount) on the Adobe CS5. (Plus, I don't think Adobe has even had the stacking capability until recently with CS5 Extended--I may be wrong on that, I don't know).

Yet, here again, Time is Money, so if you're spending an extra :45 to an hour per image, "touching up" all the mistakes of a cheap program ... factor that by dozens/hundreds of images a week ... and again multiplied over months/years of time ... and you are losing in a major way in the long run.


Martin G. wrote in post #12883413 (external link)
I really never had good results with Helicon, I am "happy" to see that you came to the same conclusion. Not that I want to "bash" on a program, I simply do not get what's the big deal with Helicon.
All the best
Martin

I am with you Martin, I honestly don't want to bash anyone either, but my experience mirrored yours and the Helicon-Focus was the worst of the bunch. Destroying the bokeh in a macro shot is like taking the grapes out of the wine ...

Where stacking is concerned, it isn't just the ability to "align" multiple images correctly, it is also the ability to retain the colors accurately and pleasingly, not to mention how critical it is not to botch-up the smooth & creamy aspect to the bokeh, that comprises the whole image.

Maybe I did something wrong in my tests, but I doubt that very much. I used the exact same files for all 3 programs, and I rendered all 3 of them into one stacked 16-bit ProPhoto .tiff image ... that was then re-sized to a 2000 x 1333 8-bit sRGB .jpg image for internet viewing. These flaws did not just happen in the conversion to sRGB .jpg, either, they were all immediately viewable in the final 16-bit ProPhoto .tiff "stack."

Except in the Adobe CS5 stack. That was the only one which transferred seamlessly to a 16-bit ProPhoto .tiff, and again seamlessly to an 8-bit sRGB .jpg.

I am sure there are many instances where these other programs can stack "simpler" images with straighter lines just fine, but I purposely chose a complex image with dozens of curvy ends, and processed it with the maximum-potential color space, precisely to see which program/s would rise to the occasion ... and which program/s would have their limitations exposed. And, for me, the Adobe CS5 stack was the one that came through.

Cheers!

Jack


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