Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Helicon Focus mini review

I got the opportunity to try Helicon Focus recently, which is a software package that automates taking a sequence of images at different focus points, and then 'stacks' these to produce an image with massive depth of field. Applications are macro work, product photography and landscapes, the latter being my particular interest.

For landscapes you ideally need an Android or Apple iOS tablet, as carting a laptop around is not really practical. I chose the former as iOS support seems a bit clunky, and I was able to get hold of a Samsung Galaxy Note II Android 'phablet' which with it's 5.5" AMOLED display makes it viewable in daylight and it is also extremely portable at under 200g.

With the Helicon Focus Android app downloaded and installed, the Note was connected to my Nikon D3x camera via a USB Host Adapter (I used a genuine Samsung item, about £8 from Amazon) and a standard mini USB cable. The app worked flawlessly with the D3x and 50mm 1.8G AF-S lens.

You simply select the near and far points you want in focus using the liveview image shown on the Notes' touchscreen, and the app works out the number of images required and then takes them in sequence. The resulting images (jpeg only in trial version, full version supports RAW) are then imported into the desktop application on your PC and stacked to form single image with vastly increased depth of field compared to a single image.

For landscapes this means you can get the depth of field you want without degrading quality by stopping your lens down beyond it's diffraction limit, or resorting to fiddly and expensive tilt/shift lenses. Instead you can shoot with a relatively modest lens at it's optimum aperture, like f/5.6 or f/8.

Given that a single Canon or Nikon tilt/shift lens retails for around £1400, the cost is competitive - even the Note II retails for around £500 SIM free and the Helicon Focus lifetime license is about £180 i.e. about half the cost of a single tilt/shift lens. A Galaxy Tab 2 7" halves the price down to a total of £350, but it is heavier and I haven't used one so I cannot vouch for the screens viewability in daylight.

I'm still evaluating this setup for landscape use and will post an update when I have reached a conclusion. At the moment it all still seems a bit cumbersome but I sense some real possibilities.

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