focusing rails and focus stacking software

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by skip_wilson, Jul 26, 2015.

  1. Hi all,
    I have the Tokina macro 100/f2.8 lens on a Nikon D7100 and am looking into focusing rails and focus stacking software. Does anybody have experience with either the Kirk or Really Right Stuff manual focusing rails, and a preference of one over the other? I have the Kirk BH-1 ballhead already and an Arca-Swiss universal adapter plate from a Cotton Carrier system attached to my camera body. Are the manual focusing rails good enough or is an automatic system such StackShot macro rail significantly better and at what additional cost?

    Does one have a preference of the focus stacking software Zerene vs Helicon? I would be looking at the personal rather than pro level. I understand Zerene has more image manipulation capabilities. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and advice. Skip
  2. You may have a look at the Novoflex focussing rail as an alternative. I have experience with the Manfrotto one; it's a lot cheaper but needs to be fastened after every step to get good results.
    Software: if you're a Lightroom user LR/Enfuse plugin is a good option, Photoshop does it too but not as good as specialized software.
  3. For focus stacking, just a heads-up that Helicon Remote (and some other software) can crank the focus on the lens automatically, without needing a rail for more than initial composition. I've never used it, but it's on my to-do list. A powered rail may be better, but software-only is cheaper! I've not looked into Zerene; I'm vaguely amused by the 3D reconstruction that Helicon can do.

    I have a (barely-used) Manfrotto macro rail (454) - which is a pain because most of my kit uses Arca clamps, but was an impulse purchase and moderately cheap. I don't remember having to "fasten it" particularly (you can lock it down, but I've not seen it creep). It's probably less painful than my alternative of putting my 055CXPro3's column into horizontal mode and using that to position the camera, though the horizontal column is the main reason I kept that tripod.

    I'll look forward to see what more specialists have to say, but I hope that helps. :)
  4. I recently purchased an RRS B150-B focusing rail. My search boiled down to a choice between the B150 and a Novoflex Castel-Q focusing rail. I use Arca type QR exclusively because it is secure and rigid, even when components are stacked, and the plates fit the camera or lens and cannot rotate. I chose the RRS device because it can handle both fine and coarse adjustments, whereas the Novoflex is coarse and coarser. Both are relatively thin, and fit easily into a pocket in a bag or backpack. Both can be attached to a tripod with a single screw, but the useable range of adjustments is cut in half that way.
    I have an old rack-and-pinion focusing rail from Nikon, which attaches to the camera via a 1/4-20 tripod socket. It works well for a small camera like an F3 or a Sony A7, but is marginal for a D100 and useless for any camera with a built-in grip.
    The RRS has a screw thread (1.25 mm pitch) with a half-nut, which can be disconnected for quick settings. The bottom of the rail has a full length Arca style bevel, and a lever type Arca clamp on the moveable table. The total range of travel, is a little over 10".
    The Novoflex Castel-Q is similar, with a top plate top moves with a rack-and-pinion and a full length Arca bevel on the bottom edge. The moveable plate is available with a tripod screw or an Arca style clamp. The assembly is a little over 7" long and has a 14" total range of travel. The rack-and-pinion motion is about 25 mm per revolution, but cannot be disconnected for rough adjustments.
    The Novoflex, with its rack-and-pinion movement, is best suited to macro photography, like items for sale on eBay or insurance documentation, typically less than 1:2 magnification. The movement is precise enough to focus at low magnification and coarse enough to facilitate focus stacking in that application. At closer range, it is increasingly difficult to tweak the knob gently enough for fine focus, and focusing the lens becomes problematic too. For larger objects, like match box cars, it is easy to use the rack-and-pinion for focus stacking in intervals of 2 mm or more.
    The RRS rail is ideally suited for fine focusing at 1:2 magnification or greater. Even at 1:4, typical for flowers and small objects, it is easier to focus using the screw than the lens itself. For coarse adjustments, the rail can slide in a loosened clamp on the tripod, or the nut can be disengaged and the camera mount moved. The former is really loose with attendant wobble. The latter is smooth, fairly tight and wobble free, on large V-ways. The assembly is stiff enough to handle any reasonable camera load without slipping, probably 6 lbs or more (e.g., Hasselblad ELD and lens).
    In this example, I used the Nikon rail to stack about a dozen images at 2.5 mm increments. The camera is a Sony A7ii + Summicron 90 at f/11 + Vello 16 mm extension tube. The software was a fully function trial version of Helicon 6. (According to the car's owner, it needs a detail job.) The car is about 2" long.
    No stacking
    With Stacking
  5. I have a (barely-used) Manfrotto macro rail (454) - which is a pain because most of my kit uses Arca clamps, but was an impulse purchase and moderately cheap.​
    For anyone who's curious, the Manfrotto 454 is here.[​IMG]
    Henry Posner
    B&H Photo-Video
  6. ... and they are fine.<br>I use a crossed pair of these to position cameras (heavy ones), have used them for many years, and am quite pleased with how they work, the size of the, the fact that you can add any QR-system you would ever want.<br>If you do not want to hang on to your 454, Andrew, i'll gladly give it a good home, relieve you from that pain, make sure it will be used well, for an even more moderately cheap price. ;-)<br><br>As far as focus stacking goes, i do use Helicon. It's fine, though not perfect. I have no experience using other software (except something i wrote myself some decades ago. That did work, but not quite as well as Helicon). The Helicon remote software is good too. Stepping the camera's focusing motor isn't the same, though, as keeping the optics unchanged, moving the entire camera instead. I would like to try a step-motor slide too, but that's expensive, and i don't do this often enough (not by far) to justify the expense.
  7. If I was to do this often, I'd get Novoflex....tho I think Velbon rails are quite capable.
  8. I know the Novoflex rails, and though good enough (not better than Manfrotto), i think they are far too expensive.
  9. Thanks, QG. If I got rid of all the photo equipment that I very rarely use, I'd have a lot more cupboard space (and a bit more money). :) It's on my "to play with when I eventually get a free moment" list, but thanks for the offer. Its recent use was actually to take a photo through the finder of my F5 when discussing the behaviour of finder screens a few weeks ago! Good to know you've had a good experience with it; I'm a little biased because it looks so much like the extended L-plate on the Manfrotto 393 - which is a great budget gimbal head but I really wish it came with an Arca clamp... Still, I like the 454's clutch mechanism. (I've noticed that Manfrotto's part naming scheme is at some point going to coincide with Boeing's, by the way...)

    I'm not sure any stacking system can be perfect. Racking the lens (which I appreciate may not be all that precise if done electronically) may cause focus breathing, and I suspect (without drawing myself a diagram of the optics) adjusts the image size anyway if the body isn't moved relative to the optical centre. Racking the rail and keeping everything else still will change the composition. There's something to be said for just using a tiny aperture and deconvolving the result - but "tiny" is limited, and sharpening operations produce ringing artifacts and introduce noise. My interest in the Helicon Remote solution is mostly motivated by laziness, of the "set it going and leave it to it" persuasion - although it won't work with a tilt-shift, of course. Not that it would help with that problem, but I wish Nikon had implemented focus bracketing - it would be useful even for landscapes, and for lenses whose focus I don't trust. Thus far I'm not expecting to get keen enough to need a side motor - I'm not currently into shooting ants, so it's good to know that may gear acquisition syndrome actually has a limit. (Now, astro-trackers are another matter!)
  10. The current version of Helicon is great - much improved from their prior version. On the other hand, John and Barbara Gerlach mentioned using Zerene in their closeup photography book, so I'd imagine it must be good as well.

    Re focussing rails. I have tried a few, including the prior version of Kirk FR-2, and decided they were more trouble than they were worth. YMMV depending on what you shoot and the condition under which you operate. I mostly shoot flowers and insects outdoors.
  11. You might want to check out Michael Erlewine's videos and blogs.
    Here is a link to a youtube video:
    He seems to have quite a bit of knowledge on this subject.
  12. The image size and position changes whether you change the focus or distance from the subject. The closer you are to the subject, the greater the change. I suspect adjusting the focus is the best option beyond 1:4 magnification. The position change required is related to the object size/depth (larger objects require greater distance), whereas the change in magnification due to focusing or focus breathing decreases exponentially with distance.
    Helicon 6 software accommodates these changes, registers each layer, masks and weights each layer according to (I think) edge contrast. The results are automatically cropped into a smooth rectangle. The process is simple and fast, yet provides for manual intervention.
  13. I do a lmted amount of focus stacking work and none of it has been what I'd consider macro work. I don't use a focusing
    rail but if I did I'd go with the Stackshot system

    So if I don't use a focusing rail (and I have tried all of the manual ones described and listed so far excepting the Novoflex)
    what do I use? I put my lens into autofocus mode and use the CamRanger to drive it. The
    CamRanger system also works with the Stackshot hardware as well.

    For blending the photos in the stack I use Helicon Focus Pro.
  14. I should add that my photo editing software is Photoshop Elements 11. Am I able to run Zerene and Helicon photo-stacking programs with that? Skip
  15. ... Photoshop Elements 11. Am I able to run Zerene and Helicon photo-stacking programs with that?​
    Think they should offer plugins for Photoshop Elements. It's probably best to get the most accurate info from the source. I would go to the individual websites, look at "Support" and find a way to ask this specific question. I've seen comparisons of the two programs and Zerene came out marginally ahead. Hwvr, I am not sure which version of Helicon they used for the comparisons .
    Good luck and have fun!
  16. Helicon installs a plug in for Lightroom. Select the images, including RAW, and Export. The results are automatically re-imported. Naming is funky but adaptable.
  17. I bought a micrometer slide on e-bay for about $30. It's very stiff and very precise. Much stiffer than any of the rails you are looking at. The one I got happened to have a differential micrometer which can be easily adjusted to less than a micron which is overkill. It has over an inch of travel which is plenty. I added a cheap Arca clamp to the top and a plate to the bottom. The down side is that you have to look and wait but it's easy on the budget.
  18. My approach for macro stacking has been:
    - Nikon bellows
    - Get the lens (front standard) into the right position
    - Move the rear standard to shift the focus plane
    - Combine the stack with Helicon Focus
    Why? My theory is that leaving the lens in one place keeps the same point of view on the 3D subject.
    For stacking non-macro subjects, I don't see how you can beat the Helicon Remote app, though I've never used it.
  19. If you are near 1:1 magnification, focusing the lens doesn't have much effect. It doesn't matter which standard moves. Even if you can focus that way, the movement is very sensitive. You are probably better off racking the entire assembly fore and aft.
    Helicon software can handle changes in magnification, but you may lose something after cropping the composite.
  20. My mistake. Once the lens is set in place, you can always focus with the rear standard, even at or near 1:1. However the bellows fully collapsed will give you about 0.85 magnification with a 55 mm lens.

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