Take Pictures With Unlimited Depth of Field

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Depth of field is perhaps the most striking difference between photography and what you see through your own eyes. Unlike your normal vision, cameras can't keep everything in focus all at once. Instead, you get something called depth of field: One point in a photo is in sharp focus, and everything in front and behind is somewhat fuzzy.

Indeed, half the artistry of photography is choosing the right depth of field for a given photo. You might set your camera to give you a deep depth of field so most of the photo is in focus, or keep it shallow so your subject stands out against a sea of soft blue. Most of the time, though, it's very difficult to get your entire scene in focus. Photography is all about trade-offs--until now, that is.

Miracle Cure for Depth of Field

I've recently found some programs that allow you to get the equivalent of infinite depth of field in your photos, with sharp focus from the foreground all the way back to the rear. How is this possible? By taking multiple photos of the same scene and combining them afterwards into a composite that features only the sharpest bits of each image.

The best program of this ilk is called Helicon Focus. There's a 30-day free trial, and the program costs $30 to register.

Creating Your Photo Series

Want to give it a try? Suppose we take a close-up photo of a toy astronaut and a globe. That's easy enough to do, but when you get in close for your macro photo, you find that only a very tiny slice of the image is in focus. You can put the astronaut in focus, or perhaps the globe, but not both at the same time, as in these examples:

We can use Helicon Focus to remedy the situation. Put your camera on a tripod, focus on the nearest part of the scene, and snap the image. Then vary the focus slightly and shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat--take as many photos as you need to get a series of images with various points in sharp focus from the front to the back of the scene. For this scene, I needed five photos to get the astronaut, the globe, and the foot of a speaker way in the back.

Stack Them in Helicon

Now start your trial version of Helicon Focus. Click File, Add New Items, then choose your set of images. If you want to experiment with my photos, here are the three other shots you'll need:

Click Run, located on the right side of the Helicon Focus screen. After a few moments, you'll see a composite image.

Now you'll want to go to the program's parameters tab and tweak the settings. To get a sharper or more natural looking image, try moving the Radius and Smoothing sliders. I have found that I need to reduce both settings for macro photos. For ordinary photos of the world at large, the program's defaults are pretty good.

Could my composite photo be improved? Sure. Notice that the tabletop is blurry. That's because I didn't take any intermediate shots that included the wood grain of the table surface in sharp focus. Remember that the more "slices" you take, the better your final photo can be.

Of course, this technique has limitations. You can't use it to shoot scenes with moving objects, and you really should use a tripod, because each frame needs to line up precisely with every other frame. For best results, use a remote control or the camera's self-timer, since pressing the shutter release (especially for macro shots like my example) will reduce the sharpness and detail of the final image. But if you can put up with all those limitations, you'll be treated to an entirely new kind of photo--one in which the focus is always infinite.

Hot Pics

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Inside the Orchid," by Steve Zimmermann, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Steve writes: "This orchid was backlit by the sun through a window. The lighting allowed me to get the lens very close to the center of the flower without having to worry about the camera itself blocking light coming from the other direction. I think the picture gives an interesting perspective to an already beautiful flower. I shot this with an Olympus SP-350 set on its 'super macro' mode. Afterwards, I brightened the image slightly with the Curves tool in Photoshop CS2."

Hot Pic of the Month: Each month we choose one of our weekly winners to be the Hot Pic of the Month. For April, we chose "Framing the Moon," by Edward Blinn, from Seabrook, New Hampshire.

Congratulations to Edward and to everyone else who won a Hot Pic of the Week last month. Keep those entries coming!

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Take Pictures With Unlimited Depth of Field" was originally published by PCWorld.

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