After a brief time spent manually stacking a series of photos, Helicon Focus was the program I first used to produce decent quality stacked images. It’s quite a nice polished program, with 3 different licence levels and the option to buy an annual licence, or an unlimited “lifetime” licence. You can also download and try the program free for 30 days, which I recommend doing, alongside “Zerene Stacker”, to see which works best for you.
Benefits of Helicon
Comparing between Helicon, Zerene, and manual methods, the main advantages of Helicon are:
- The ability to process RAW files without having to convert to JPG first
- Helicon Remote – seemless automatic shooting and processing in one package
- Helicon 3D viewer – If 3D output generates from Depth map processing (detailed later in this guide) is important to you, it’s inclusion in the helicon package is very useful!
- Pretty straight forward workflow
The drawbacks of Helicon are:
- Slightly more expensive than Zerene
- The output is not always as good as Zerene (but this varies)
*NOTE* The above is just my basic opinion based on using both stacking programs, other users may have different opinions.
So, lets begin. I’ll be using Helicon Focus Premium for this guide, the features detailed below are available in all versions of Helicon, with the exception of the 3D viewer plugin. You are able to download the trial version however if you think this is important to you.
The Helicon start screen
Once you have installed Helicon Focus, click the exectuable. You’ll be presented with the default screen, which contains a sample stack of stick insect eggs on a leaf. You can either use this sample stack for the rest of this guide, your own stack, or if you would like to follow the guide, I’ve made available a stack of images of a Dung beetle, which is the same set of images featured in all the screenshots. Click here to download the zip file. Note that it is a 50mb file!
Regardless of which images you intend to use, it’s easiest if you keep all the images in a single folder (so that you can use “select all” in future steps).
Select your photos
To select the photos that you want to process as a stack, use the file explorer on the right hand side of the screen. When you select a folder, its contents will be displayed in the middle column.
Right click on an image and choose “Select all”. you’ll see the check box to the left of each images name get marked.
Note that as a shortcut, if you just navigate to the folder and then either click “run” or “parameters”, Helicon Focus will assume you want to process all the photos in that folder, either automatically processing the contents using the last used settings (if you clicked run), or selecting the folder contents and showing you the parameters tab (if you clicked parameters).
Processing the stack
With the images (or folder) selected, you can either click the “Run” button, and Helicon will automatically process the stack using the last used settings:
or you can click the “Parameters” tab, and fine-tune your settings.
For this guide, click the Parameters tab.
On the Parameters screen you’ll see a preview of the first image of the stack, either on the left, or top of the screen (the layout is configurable), as well as the list of images in the stack on the right hand side, processing method, and any options associated with the method.
In the parameters tab, the main setting you are likely to want to play around with is the stacking method. Helicon has 3 methods:
- Method A – Weighted average
This method uses differences in contrast to compute the in-focus areas. It gives a result somewhere between methods B & C.
- Method B – Depth map
Requires images are shot in order from top-bottom or vice versa, assumes equal focus intervals between each shot. This method produces 3D models using the depth map method. Its good for non-complex subjects (IE, not hairy ones!)
- Method C – Pyramids
This method is best for complex stacks, where the subject is hairy or has lots of intersecting/overlapping parts.
For this guide, if you are using the example beetle stack mentioned previously, I’d recommend method C. However if you have time, do run Method B as well, and compare the results. Look particularly closely at hairy or spiky parts, as well as reflective surfaces.
When you are happy with the settings, click “Run” in the upper right corner of the window.
By default Helicon shows intermediate steps as it processes. This looks cool, but can slow the processing time down by up to 30%. You can turn this setting off in the preferences window.
Helicon will temporarily save up to 20 output images, these are visible in the lower right. If you run different methods or tweak settings, you can swap between the different outputs and compare results.
If you are happy with any of the output files, right-click on the name and choose to save it to file.
Post processing / touching up
If the processing didn’t entirely go to plan, Helicon has some retouching options. If you click on the retouching tab, you have the option to select through the source files, and “paint” over the output image. Additionally if you hover over the output image, helicon will display the source image used for each part of the output.
This is useful for very large stacks, as it saves time trying to locate the source image that is needed for any corrections.
This is the end of the tutorial. I appreciate it’s a very basic guide, but hopefully it’s enough to get started. Please do get in contact if you have any questions!