Before and After Forum; Mystery Bugs Stacked

The After and Before forum is organised by Stacy Fischer, it is a place where amateurs as well as seasoned photographers explain the wow and how about their photo and editing decision.You can read more here about how to take part.

When taking macro photos something that becomes your greatest enemy is depth of field. The closer you get to the subject the shallower the depth of field becomes. One of the ways to combat this is by using Photoshop and focus stacking. Focus stacking is when you layer a series of shots on top of each other and Photoshop calculates what is sharp and what is not, if Photoshop doesn’t want to play ball then you can always do this by hand.

Benjamin Rowe wk42 beforeWhen I was taking my shots of these bugs I was in the shade of a small wood; there were beams of light shining through but not hitting my subject. I was shooting at ISO 800 and f5.6, I can shoot lower but if I did the depth of field would start to become very shallow indeed. I would have preferred to shoot at f8 or f16, this however would have reduced my shutter speed; I was shooting at 1/125 with a + one stop exposure compensation (I used exposure compensation because earlier shots were slightly leaning towards the shadows and I was shooting using Av mode) I could have gone down one stop if I needed to, any lower and I would begin to get camera shake. I also needed to shoot with a burst as the bugs were moving and I knew I would be using focus stacking when editing and wanted their movement to a minimum. I focused on the nearest part of the subject and then took photos each time slightly changing my focus.


Before any editing I imported my series of images into Photoshop and used auto align (Edit- Auto Align) for Photoshop to line up my pictures, since I was shooting free hand there were slight movements between frames.


I did use Photoshop Focus Stacking but the result was a little strange with bits of bugs here and there. I instead turned off all the layers except the background layer and then turned on layer, looked at what was sharp, added a hide all layer mask (all black layer mask) and painted white onto the sharp areas. I continued this with all my layers. I would recommend doing this slowly. I used my tablet and stylus when doing this for added control.


Once focus stacking was complete I wrapped all the layers into a smart object and used Nik Soft Define 2 to reduce noise and Shake Reduction filter for capture sharpening.

Although I liked the composition, the bug on the top is looking right and the negative space is to the left. I decided to flip the picture to reverse the position of the negative space. I merged all that was visible into a new layer (shift +control +alt +E) and used free transform to flip the layer.


Obviously just by flipping the layer the bug is still looking in the wrong direction. Using the square marquee selection tool, I selected the bugs copied onto a new layer and flipped this back the right way. This did leave an obvious seam that I masked out. There was also a clear difference in colour and light between the copied bugs and the flipped layer. I created a levels adjustment and colour balance adjustment above the flipped layer and blended the colours back together.


On saving the picture was automatically imported back to Lightroom. I started with camera calibration to get the overall tone I wanted.


I then adjusted the saturation and vibrance to make the colour pop.


I added a slight curve to lighten the shadows but kept the highlights in check. I also raised the saturation of the oranges and reds selectively.


I added a little bit of sharpening as well as noise reduction just to make sure the tones were sharp.


Finally I made some basic adjustments to brighten the whole image. This is a step I usually do first, but I really wanted to make sure the colours were right and then play with light.


Finally I cropped the image in a bit. I had some leeway because as you focus stack you usually make the image slightly bigger.

Firebugs crawling on tree

Apart from being happy that I got quite a few details very sharp I also like the final composition of the image and my eye is continuously drawn to the bug on the top. As with all macro shots I think this one will look best printed big.

Let me know in the comments below what you think of the final image.

Also please head over to Stacy’s blog to see the other participant’s entries into this weeks forum

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25 thoughts on “Before and After Forum; Mystery Bugs Stacked

  1. WOW this is wonderful Ben . These little bugs are fascinating with their see through shell coats ..
    I need to come back and take in all the steps to try myself .Thanks for sharing the technique 🙂

    • My pleasure Poppy, glad you like the pictures, I am still not 100% sure that they are called but I would have thought the opaqueness of their shells would put them as young. Not sure.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. amazing photo and explanation as always! I need to take more time to use photoshop on my photos. Sometimes, it seems like such a daunting task. I’m used to working with the PS layers and have done some masking, but I’ve never done the stacking with bursts like you do. Once again, I’ve learned something new 🙂

  3. Wonderful explanation, Ben, as you always do. Robin told me back in the fall how useful a tablet and stylus is when editing, so to hear you say that’s what you used piques my curiosity into looking into it more. I don’t know if it’s needed as much in LR, but for what you’ve done here, I’m sure it was indispensable. Great final image, including the flipping of the bug!

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