Helicon Focus

An insanely great application.

Now and then an application comes along which truly must be graced with the Insanely Great accolade, especially now that Apple has ceased making insanely great products and prefers to focus on insanely great sales instead.

That application is Helicon Focus from some programming geniuses in the Ukraine which, by the time you read this, will doubtless be a part of the USSR again.

Simply stated, Helicon Focus asks that you make several pictures of a subject with the focus slightly different in each, so that your range of pictures has something sharp in each plane. The application then merges the images for one overall sharp one.

Pictures beat words, so here’s one of the six originals I took of that much abused currency, the US dollar. Doubtless it’s illegal to photograph currency, but when the subject in question is worthless, it’s no longer currency right? Here’s the first of six snaps, with the focus at the far end:

Now here is the composite of six originals, each with slightly different focus points, after processing in Helicon Focus. The slight image magnification is conferred by the application to allow for image size changes between the component pictures. It’s something you can adjust in the application’s Preferences. Suffice it to say that the default setting of 4% magnification seem to work pretty well, so make sure you leave a little space around your subject to allow for this magnification:

Look carefully and you will see an out-of-focus band around the ‘A’ in ‘America’ – I should have taken more snaps with smaller focus adjustments. The lens was set on manual focus and the camera on manual exposure.

You can either use a stationary camera and adjust focus or use a focus rail to move the camera. The latter approach avoids image size changes but as the program adjusts image sizes when blending, if you use the stationary camera approach, I fail to see the advantage of a focus rail. If you use ring flash you should use a stationary camera as otherwise your lighting intensity will vary between component pictures.

Mind blowing! Insanely Great!!

So any time you need extreme depth of field and your subject is stationary, this $30 application is just what the doctor ordered.

All six snaps were taken on a Canon 5D with the 100mm macro lens at maximum aperture, for minimum depth of field. Helicon Focus reads many formats, including the RAW originals used here. Processing (MacBook, 2.1gHz C2D) took maybe 40 seconds and the interface is completely intuitive.

For those with high speed motor drives I imagine you could just set the camera on Continuous and move the focus ring as you bang away.

Well done Helicon Focus and let’s all pray you avoid the clutches of Mother Russia. Heck, you can always ask the French to save you ’cause sure as hell we will not. And for those of you who enjoy locking up now and then, Helicon Focus also comes in a Windows version. Either way, an available premium version of the application takes advantage of multi-core CPUs so if you use a computer with Intel’s drop dead (Insanely Great!) Core2Duo or Core4Duo or whatever, your processing speed will be nice and fast.


A composite of ten images. 5D, 100mm macro at f/2.8.

I’m using the Canon macro at f/2.8, its maximum aperture here, so as to push the application hard; realistically you would expect to stop down to take advantage of the lens’s sweet spot as well as to reduce the number of exposures required. For this lens, f/8 to f/11 seems best. You can see some overlap issues on the right of the above image – something I will address in a subsequent piece.

Disclosure: After writing the above I was given a free registered version of Helicon Focus by Dan. While it’s always nice to get things free, remain assured that my objectivity is not about to get corrupted. Sure, like all of us I can be bought, but it will cost you a sight more than $30! Thank you Dan.

Postscript: I shared the constituent RAW files for the above image with Dan Kozub of Helicon to see what was causing the slightly imperfect alignment visible in places. Dan wrote back that a new, enhanced version of the application would be out in about a month and would fix the issue. He advised me that he had tried it with my images and all was well – so at least it wasn’t me! In fairness to Helicon, this was a pretty extreme test given the closeness of the flower and the flower’s extreme angle to the plane of the camera’s sensor.

For some more practical ‘in the field’ tests, please click here.

2 thoughts on “Helicon Focus

  1. I photograph flowers. Helicon Focus is the greatest thing to happen to flower photography. I did (BF “before Helicon”) everything but get a hernia to get good depth of focus. Now I have it. Thirty bucks! I have wasted months of effort. This is a rave – exactly what I mean.

    Glenn Stoutt

    By the way, good article.

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