Posted by: kerryl29 | April 5, 2021

A Focus Stacking Rant and What it Says about Today’s Camera World

The bottom has fallen out of the interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market in recent years.  New ILC camera sales last year were less than half of ILC volume a decade earlier.  The are multiple reasons for this:  cellphone cameras are cannibalizing the previously high volume low-end ILC market; much of the last decade has been relatively bad economically worldwide; the pandemic has decimated travel and thereby drastically reduced planned photo opportunities ; etc.  But there’s another explanation that’s relevant as well:  camera companies are doing, in my judgment, a bad job of addressing their customers needs and wants.  And why is that?  Because, in part, camera companies are doing a bad job of communicating with their customers, so they don’t know what customers needs and wants are.
Big_Bend_37975_Sotol_Vista_blend_cropped

Sotol Moonset, Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park, Texas

As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve acquired a Nikon Z7ii mirrorless camera.  And I’ve come here to complain about it.  Well, not really complain about this camera per se, but about the way cameras are designed in today’s world..  And I’m going to use one feature of this camera as a placeholder.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar–using something about this particular camera to make a broader point–well, it should, because I employed this approach just two weeks ago.  But in that instance, I was utilizing a metaphor about individual mindset.  This time, it’s considerably more straight forward, as will become apparent in relatively short order.

China Creek Beach from Spruce Creek Viewpoint, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

I’ve discussed the technique of focus stacking on this blog several times in the past.  (For a primer on the subject, go here.)  I’ve been using this technique, designed to overcome natural depth of field limitations, for about 15 years now and have always implemented the approach manually.  In other words, I’ve adjusted the point of focus physically.  For a number of reasons, this isn’t an ideal approach:  since it’s a relatively slow process, it’s necessary to touch the camera (which can introduce vibration) and is prone to error in terms of insuring overlapping focal planes from frame to frame.  I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, but it remains a less than ideal way to carry out the process.  Beginning several years ago, automated focus stacking began to show up as a feature in cameras and it’s now commonplace (if not universal).  The Z7ii is the first camera I’ve ever possessed that includes such a feature and I was, unsurprisingly, anxious to work with it.
Given the introduction to this post, it will come as no surprise that I’m not entirely enamored with how this feature works, which is more or less as follows.

Tulip Tree Evening, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

You access the feature through the camera’s menu (or via establishing it as a custom button option).  You focus the camera to the nearest point in the scene that you want in focus; you select the (maximum) number of images you want to produce as part of the stack; you select the “focus step width” (essentially, how much the plane of focus is going to change from shot to shot, on an unspecified scale of 1-10, with 1 being the smallest amount of change).  You select the delay between shots, from none to several seconds.  Once you get the settings in place, you initiate the sequence by pressing the OK button on the back of the camera.  The firmware “processes” the instructions and then begins the practice of producing the sequence of frames…after a 2-3 second delay.  The camera takes the shots, up to the number you specified.  If the camera reaches infinity focus, it stops taking shots, regardless of the limit that was set.

Chimney Rock Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There’s a great deal in there that I don’t like, so let’s start with one thing I do like:  the camera stops taking shots after it reaches infinity, no matter the number of shots set at the beginning of the process.  This makes sense because there’s obviously no reason to keep taking shots at the same distance setting–it just fills up your memory card and wastes time.  By forcing a stop once infinity focus has been reached it’s impossible to overestimate the number of shots to assign to the stack.  You can set a limit you’re certain is too high and not worry about the process taking longer than it should or having to delete countless extra frames when it’s over.  So that’s a well-implemented sub-feature.  [Waves tiny flag.]
Basically nothing else about this process is implemented the way it should be, in my view.

Rhododendrons and Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Let’s start with this “focus step width” business.  First, as I mentioned, it’s unclear what these 1-10 numbers really mean.  Higher numbers are “less sensitive” than lower numbers; that much we know.  But how much?  Who knows.  Is the difference between numbers a linear ratio or is this merely an ordinal scale?  Who knows.
You have to experiment to see what works…and given that the appropriate number of shots (whatever that means exactly) for a given stack will vary depending on focal length, aperture and the nearness of the closest object in the frame to be in focus…let’s just say that it’s going to take a lot of experimenting to get the right number.  Some kind of practical guidance about all of this would be welcome.  There is none.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

How should this feature work?  In my view, something like this:
1) you focus the camera at the nearest point in the frame (just as you do now) and set it (by pressing a button)
2) you focus the camera to the farthest point in the frame that you want sharp and set it (by pressing a button), or specify infinity focus as a default menu option
3) based on the established focal length, aperture and focus points (as established in steps 1 and 2); the camera’s firmware determines the number of shots necessary to overlap sharp frames.  (There would have to be a consensus on establishing a circle of confusion value; so be it.  If desired, the current sub-optimal scalar approach to defining the stack parameters could be retained as a user-selected option.)

Webb Lake Black & White, Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

Now let’s talk about this “press the OK button” to begin the process of taking the set of shots, followed by a 2-3 second delay.  Part of that delay is undoubtedly a function of having to press a button on the camera to start the process; the delay allows any vibration from touching the camera to dissipate.  And it evidently takes the camera’s “computer” a few ticks to run through its instructions.  But the whole thing is, in my opinion, not properly thought out.  Again, the process starts on its time (2-3 seconds after the OK button is pressed), not mine.  What if I’m photographing something that’s prone to wind-driven movement, as I frequently do?  (Think flowers or foliage.)  I want to initiate the focus stacking process on my direction (using a remote release, of course), not 2-3 seconds after I press a button, and hope for the best.

Redbud Serenade, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Here’s how this part of the focus stacking process ought to function, in my view:
1.  You get the settings established (just as it works now)
2.  One of those settings (not currently an option) is how you want the process to be triggered:
A.  By depressing the shutter release
B.  2-3 seconds after pressing the shutter release
C.  2-3 seconds after pressing the OK button
This setting option would stay in place until/unless changed by the photographer, to save time in the future.
3.  Camera processes instructions and:
4.  Carries out “C” if that’s what’s chosen; shows “READY” message after step 3 if “A” or “B” is chosen
5.  If “A” or “B” is chosen, camera awaits shutter depression (by direction contact with shutter button or via remote) to carrying out the process
There is nothing that would prevent all of this from being possible with a firmware update.  No extra mechanical or electronic parts are needed.

The Watchman at Sunset, Zion National Park, Utah

It’s my understanding that the focus stacking process isn’t much, if any, better implemented in any other camera currently on the market.  I’m told that it’s a bit more flexible and sensible in the Fujifilm medium format digital cameras.  [Again, waves tiny flag.]
This is simply one very modest example, among a seemingly infinite number, of how little camera makers appear to understand–or care to understand–how their products are used by customers and what can be done to address user problems, concerns and desires.  The fact that this is the second edition of the Nikon Z7 camera and this is how the focus stacking feature works is an indication that Nikon isn’t engaging with its customers properly.  And while Nikon is notorious for this sort of thing, I’m not at all certain that any other camera maker is doing all that much better–if better at all.
I’m not implying that the camera companies are going out of their way to intentionally design cameras that customers don’t want.  But there are tens of millions of photo enthusiasts and professionals all over the world who would be a lot more inclined to upgrade if the camera companies gave them a good reason.  In other words, communicate with your customers, understand their problems, figure out where your products are coming up short and act accordingly.  This simply isn’t happening and it is absolutely a factor–a big one–that helps explain the collapse in camera sales over the past 5-7 years.  So while these companies aren’t malevolent, in my view, they sure are complacent and short-sighted.

Moose, Clyde River, Essex County, Vermont


Responses

  1. Kerry,
    I couldn’t agree more about the way focus stacking has been implemented, and about the complete lack of interest by camera makers in meeting users where they are. I’ve been using the focus stacking feature on the D850 since that body was released, and I agree with all your points. Pretty much everything about the process is poorly thought out. It’s anybody’s guess what the step width should be, so I started with Thom Hogan’s suggestion and after experimentation settled on a best guess for what will work. Depending on the situation, I vary the selection a bit. However, it’s always a guess. I tend to err on the conservative side to ensure good coverage.

    But… having vented… even as implemented, the feature still beats the heck out of doing it manually.
    Steve

    • Hi Steve.

      I agree with all of that, including the part that–flawed though it may be–the automatic approach is still better than the manual process. Though it really, really annoys me that I can’t precisely and directly trigger the start.

  2. Your systematic and analytic approach are always appreciated. Hopefully the camera companies will hear the roar of the crowd and adjust appropriately.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Unfortunately, history suggests not holding one’s breath for a positive response from the camera companies.

  3. Kerry, what you’ve laid out is not only logical from a photographer’s standpoint, but appears manageable without much difficulty with a firmware update. Considering the financial issues that Nikon has had, I would think they would jump at the chance to show the photographic world how solving this problem can demonstrate they are actually listening to their users. And, it would then give other users a solid reason to own a camera like this for focus stacking.

    • Ross, yeah, I can’t see any reason at all why the revised process I outlined couldn’t be implemented with an update to the camera’s firmware. Do I expect to see this happen? No. 🙂

  4. Hi Kerry: Good blog. I am not sure if you saw my most recent blog on Saturday, in which I went into some depth of thought on the camera market and factors that have affected it. Your newest article stimulates some thoughts. First, on focus-stacking. I haven’t used the technique as much as I probably should. My personal experience was with a post-processing software (Photomatix, I believe), with which I made my best judgment on how many exposures to make, setting the increments manually and manually exposing the image. Of course, that is fraught with many problems, not the least of which is changing light conditions and wind movement. So I can see your enthusiasm with the concept of automated focus-stacking. I can also appreciate your frustration with the current implementation. And, if as you suggest, it is a simple a matter as a software update, in a vacuum, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for them not to do that.

    My other thoughts are less complex and direct. First I want to be clear that none of these questions (however inarticulate they may be) are in any way intended to criticize your point – or argue with you. But I think the are legitimate things to consider. In a perfect world, a seller of a produce should listen to and respond favorably to every customer with a legitimate complaint – especially if accompanied by an objective and reasonable remedy or upgrade. But then there are scale issues to consider. So the rant stimulates a few questions in my mind:

    1. Nikon sold 1.73 million ILC cameras in 2019 (Canon sold more than twice that number and Sony sold almost the same – theirs nearly all mirrorless). What “sampling” of uses like you and me do they need to economically justify instituting changes we suggest or request?

    2. Do we know the criticisms and suggestions that we have are widespread enough to justify the changes? You suggest that there are tens of millions of users out there might buy new cameras if the manufacturers would listen. But what sampling of those millions would actually make focus stacking the “hill they would die on.” I get that I am cherry-picking here, and I think we agree that it is a combination of changes, including certain implementations, and certain design-features, such as the placement of electronic ports on the body. These are questions that came to mind and hopefully stimulate some thought by all of us.

    3. What are the engineering, economic, ergonomic, software, and practical problems with some of our preferred changes? (You have already addressed the software upgrade issue – assuming they agree with you 😊).

    4. What, if any, avenues have the makers given us (or should give us) as users to make these comments and critiques. It seems like making an area on their sites for – in essence – a creation of a “poll” of users would not only be good for us as end-users, but for them as sellers, for as you (and the market) suggest, they are not doing themselves any good if they are ignoring their user’s preferences and desires.

    I believe this is a very worthwhile discussion. My main concern is whether any substantial audience is listening. I said in my blog that I am currently shooting with the 2013 original Sony A7 “full frame” mirrorless iteration. They have released numerous versions over the nearly 8 years since then and have stimulated a full-scale changeover by virtually all manufactures to MILC models. I have watched every one of the A series releases (including the ridiculously priced A1 this year). Rather than address practical issues and offer useful features like we have been discussing over the past weeks, it seems that marketing has been more or less “gee whiz” kind of stuff. While I am certain that some of the things like lower noise sensors and processing, in-body stabilization, and very notably, video features are enough to persuade other users to change, there are still a substantial number of (maybe old school) shooters like you and me that really aren’t concerned with these things. We mostly shoot from tripods. We don’t do video. And at least in my case, noise hasn’t been enough of an issue to make me concerned. Sony simply hasn’t offered any compelling reason to spend money on a new body. A comment on my blog noted that my A7 is only worth $300. Yeah. But to me it is worth more than that and I am not sure there is $300 worth (to me) of new features on any subsequent body. Why not offer reasonable cost and useful upgrades to the A7 for those of us who aren’t looking to the “latest and greatest”?

    I will go back and revise my blog entry from Saturday with a link back to this one.

    • Hi Andy. I did not see the entry you posted over the weekend until seeing your note; I have since read the piece and am posting the link here (and have also included the pingback from your blog here in the comments, which provides another link back to your article). Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thorough and thoughtful response.

      Most of the feedback received so far has focused specifically on the focus stacking issue, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising given that I delved so deeply into what I regard as the shortcomings of its implementation and my proposed solution. I think, to a certain degree, there’s some missing of the forest for the trees; my focus stacking tale was intended to be an example illustrative of a larger, broader problem: a feature or design not optimized due to a lack of meaningful user feedback. I placed attention on the focus stacking feature in the Z7ii because it was convenient to do so since I’ve spent a fair amount of time with it recently. But there are plenty of other examples, both with this camera specifically and other cameras generally, that could have served as perfectly adequate placeholders for the wider concept: camera companies not accounting for user problems/concerns/desires in their design and feature implementation processes due to a lack of interfacing with customers.

      Now I’m going to respond directly to some of the specific points that you raised. 🙂

      You wrote: “Nikon sold 1.73 million ILC cameras in 2019 (Canon sold more than twice that number and Sony sold almost the same – theirs nearly all mirrorless). What “sampling” of uses like you and me do they need to economically justify instituting changes we suggest or request?”

      I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s becoming evident, at least to me, that Nikon, Canon and Sony don’t know the answer either, and I’d suggest that they should. I honestly wonder whether that question is even being asked at N, C and S headquarters. Given that these companies–or at least the imaging divisions of these companies–are in the business of selling products directly to consumers, how can this question not be at or near the top of the divisional agenda? I can’t prove that it isn’t, of course, but there’s a plethora of circumstantial evidence that implies as much.

      You wrote: “Do we know the criticisms and suggestions that we have are widespread enough to justify the changes? You suggest that there are tens of millions of users out there might buy new cameras if the manufacturers would listen. But what sampling of those millions would actually make focus stacking the “hill they would die on.” I get that I am cherry-picking here, and I think we agree that it is a combination of changes, including certain implementations, and certain design-features, such as the placement of electronic ports on the body. These are questions that came to mind and hopefully stimulate some thought by all of us.”

      Just to be clear, the issue really isn’t the focus stacking feature alone, and I recognize that you’ve acknowledged as much.

      Again, I don’t know what combination of new features or design changes would be enough to make a significant number of people make a purchase, but…isn’t asking and answering that question the job of the company trying to sell its product(s)? Companies that I worked with over the years all had departments filled with employees whose job it was to ask these very questions. This is what consumer research is all about: finding out what customers–existing and prospective–want and seeing if delivering that product is financially viable. I see no evidence that the camera companies are doing almost any of this, which is truly stunning to me. Speaking with some of your professional customers (e.g. Nikon Ambassadors, etc.) and calling that consumer research borders on self-delusion. This is no way to run a consumer-based company.

      You wrote: “What are the engineering, economic, ergonomic, software, and practical problems with some of our preferred changes? (You have already addressed the software upgrade issue – assuming they agree with you 😊).”

      This would clearly depend on the features and/or design changes under consideration. And, no question, sometimes “ideal” isn’t viable, for one reason or another. I do not expect every change I, or anyone else, can make an end-user case for to be implemented. I’d simply like to see any indication that these ideas are being solicited and listened to.

      You wrote: “What, if any, avenues have the makers given us (or should give us) as users to make these comments and critiques. It seems like making an area on their sites for – in essence – a creation of a “poll” of users would not only be good for us as end-users, but for them as sellers, for as you (and the market) suggest, they are not doing themselves any good if they are ignoring their user’s preferences and desires.”

      Good question! I have lots of ideas. 🙂 If I was working for a camera company’s customer research division, assuming any of them have one, I would start with a large scale survey of existing customers and start the process of understanding who my customers are and what they want. From there, depennding on what I discovered, I’d almost certainly engage in an extensive series of focus groups to bore down on some of the findings that came out of the survey portion of the process. And then, I’d probably repeat the process, probably every year or two, to make sure I was current…and I’d almost certainly add in additional studies centering around particular products I was planning to introduce (likely specific camera bodies).

      Consumer research should be seen as a regular, ongoing part of doing business.

      Thanks again, Andy, for adding so much to the ongoing conversation.

  5. […] is a very well though-out and different approach to this issue here on my friend, Kerry Lebowicz’s […]

  6. Your comments on automated focus bracketing are applicable to the system Olympus has and needs to be improved as you have laid out in order be able to move from the manual operation which still works best. Thanks for putting the issues into a readable, understandable format. I was subliminally hoping you would put to rest any need to do focus bracketing at all, unburdening us of thinking everything needed to be in-focus, relieving us of a compelling need for near-far sharpness, making that goal unnecessary and old school. Yes, sometimes “for artistic purposes” it is OK but now, with the God-cursed automated focus bracketing so readily available it seems the ante has been raised and it’s sloppy to not use it as imperfect as it is. Or to do it manually.

    Drat.

    Well done again Kerry, you continue to raise the bar and enlighten us, inform us and to speak our inner thoughts so well.

    • Hi Gary, great to hear from you.

      You know, it’s ironic; I first adapted focus stacking–which was introduced to me as a way of overcoming the incredibly narrow DOF endemic to macro photography–to the landscape 15-odd years ago. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to do this, but I remembered thinking “why can’t I use this technique to overcome DOF issues in landscape settings?” I frequently wanted to narrow the field of view, but ran into all kinds of problems rendering scene elements in focus when I did and this seemed like a solution…and it has largely proven to be just that.

      Now, I employ the approach almost reflexively, to this point always manually (because I didn’t have a choice).

      Now I can’t help but think–as this post makes clear–that simply having a workable (if imperfect) automated approach isn’t good enough. I guess I’m never satisfied. 🙂

  7. Thanks. I am just learning how to do focus stacking.

    • Great!

      Manually or via your camera’s automated feature?

      • Using Nikon Z7 mirrorless to autos shoot the focus stack then merging them in Photoshop using the RAW files after a little post processing in LR or processing after merging – depends.

        • Got it, thanks.

          How do you find PS handles the focus stacking part of the process?

        • OK I guess. Sometimes seems to me it maybe better to manually mask out what I want in focus. I tried Helicon years ago and got no where with it. What do you like to use?

        • I use Helicon Focus exclusively for stacking. I’ve heard good things about Zerene Stacker over the years, but never felt the need to pursue it given my satisfaction with Helicon, which I’ve been using for about 15 years now.

          With Helicon, it requires a bit of playing with the various options to find the best approach for a given stack. For landscapes, which is what I use the program for the vast majority of the time, I’ve established my own default settings that work well about 99% of the time. I may blog on this subject at some point, but it’s pretty arcane “inside baseball” subject matter and I’m not sure it would be something that would interest very many people.

        • I am defiantly interested in your Helicon process for landscapes. Hope you share it.

  8. […] and Effect” – partly in response to my friend, Kerry Leibowitz’ post on his blog, discussing current interchangeable lens camera (ILC) offerings and how they related to (perhaps) a […]

  9. […] done a significant amount of complaining about certain aspects of the Nikon Z7ii on this blog in recent weeks, I thought it was only fair […]

  10. […] and remote triggering devices. As covered in my blog post “Cause and Effect,” and Kerry Leibowitz’s blog “rant,” this design represents a pretty big fail for Sony’s designers. Especially with the the […]


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