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Maximizing Detail with Focus Stacking

Snow and ice crystals on the Raquette River near Tupper Lake

Exposure Data

4 exposures: all at 1/10 second, f/36, ISO 200
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm macro lens

Early one winter morning, I set off for Bog River Falls. The air temperature was -1 degree. If the flowing water was still open, I figured it might be generating mist, which could coat the nearby trees in rime ice. I arrived well before sunup and made some striking images of stars above the south end of Tupper Lake, the falls flowing into it. However, few trees were flocked in ice. I decided to change tactics and visit the Raquette River, just north of its confluence with Simond Pond. There I found interesting ice formations along the shore, but couldn’t get close enough to photograph them well without the danger of plunging through the ice. I thought I might find similar formations at the “Crusher” boat launch several miles upriver. Though the river remained open in the middle and I could hear ice moving and forming as if on a conveyor belt, I found I could venture out on strong ice along the shore. Thousands of snow and ice crystal balls adorned the ice, so many I didn’t know where to begin.

I took several shots with a wide-angle lens at waist level that showed the sun rising over the river. This wasn’t close enough to show the intricate details of the crystals. But once I lowered my tripod to its lowest level and attached a 105mm macro lens to the camera, it opened a window on a new world of beauty. The fibrous needles at the base of the crystals look like stacked kindling. The delicate snow crystals seem to be growing from them like flames.

To maximize my depth of field I shot at the lens’s minimum aperture of f/36, yet even then it couldn’t achieve sharp focus from the nearest to farthest crystals. So, using a process called focus stacking, and without moving the camera position, I shot a series of four images, manually focusing at different points from front to back of the frame through the scenDe, and later blended them in Photoshop CS5. The software did a remarkable job selecting the properly focused sections of each shot and seamlessly blending them. Note also how the warm sunlight coming in from the side highlights the crystals against the cool blues of the shadows, adding definition to the scene.

By the time I recorded my final image the temperature had dropped to -4 degrees. It was the extreme cold, combined with breezes blowing over the ice that had manufactured these incredible crystals.

Mark Bowie teaches photography for the Adirondack Photography Institute. He’ll lead their annual winter photography workshop January 17–20, 2013, in Lake Placid. For detailed information, including program descriptions and pricing, see www.adkpi.org. For more on Mark’s work, visit his website: www.markbowie.com.

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