Emulating Canaletto with focus stacking and print

Landscape photographer Chris Ceaser reveals how to create precision landscape photography prints using focus stacking with the EOS R5 and imagePROGRAF PRO printers.
A focus-stacked image by photographer Chris Ceaser showing a river in an autumnal forest, with sharp detail from foreground to far background.

"Sometimes I have an idea beforehand that I'll be focus stacking. But most of the time it's a case of seeing what's in the landscape and reacting accordingly," explains landscape photographer Chris Ceaser. "It all really depends on the relation of foreground to background elements. Focus stacking comes into its own when the foreground subject is very close." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 0.4 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

When he created his famous depictions of Venice, the 18th century Italian painter Canaletto subscribed to the artistic principle of vedute – the portrayal of a real place with absolute precision. It's a principle that veteran landscape photographer, print lover and Canson® Infinity Ambassador Chris Ceaser strives to emulate himself. "From day one, I was drawn to wide vistas because that's what we see in real life with our eyes," Chris says. "If I look at a valley, I want to show you that entire scene."

But how do you achieve total precision in landscape photography? For Chris, there are two elements. The first is ensuring absolute clarity in-camera. The second is ensuring the same in print.

To achieve the former using his Canon EOS R5, Chris often utilises focus stacking. In this technique, the scene is shot multiple times with different points of focus and then the frames are merged into one final image. This creates a very extensive depth of field and a scene that is rich with detail. "To reproduce a vista with the precision of a Canaletto painting, you're going to have to get everything in focus," Chris says. "In scenes where there are strong elements in the close foreground as well as in the far background, focus stacking is the only way you can get the depth of field required to bring out that detail throughout the frame."

To bring vedute through to print, Chris relies on the precision and professional features of the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printers, in combination with Canson® Infinity papers. Here, he discusses his process for focus stacking in landscape photography and bringing that captured detail to life in print.

A focus-stacked monochrome image of the rocky coast of Trefor, Wales, taken by Chris Ceaser.

While he loved the immediacy of the optical viewfinder (OVF) in his EOS 5D Mark IV, Chris prefers the electronic viewfinder (EVF) in his EOS R5. "You can see what you're going to get," he says. "If everything looks great on the exposure simulation and the live histogram, plus the picture looks great, then you're good to go." That ability to check the exposure simulation helps when photographing dramatic coastal images, such as this picture of Trefor in Wales. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 20mm, 0.4 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

Focus bracketing with the EOS R5

In most situations, landscape photographers need only to set a narrow aperture to achieve the extensive depth of field they need. But some scenes require a bit more. "If you're standing 2ft [0.6m] from a dry stone wall, for example, and focusing on that as a foreground element, there's no way that an aperture of f/16 is going to provide enough depth of field to reach the focal points at the back of the frame," Chris elaborates. The answer in these situations is focus stacking.

Some Canon cameras have a built-in focus bracketing feature, which enables them to shoot a series of images in quick succession with the focus distance automatically changing by small increments between each shot. The EOS R7 and EOS R10 introduced the further option of in-camera depth compositing, stacking the shots automatically. Chris, however, prefers to choose specific points of focus himself and stacks his images manually in editing software.

Regardless of the method you use, stability is key to ensure that all frames match perfectly when stacked. "The first thing is, you need the camera to be sturdy, so a tripod is essential," Chris says. He then enables his camera's Touch Shutter function, meaning he can simply touch different points on the frame and his camera will focus and take the shot. "Even with a two-second timer, there's a chance that just by pressing the shutter button I might create movements that could affect sharpness," he says. "With my EOS R5, I'll just touch the screen gently, and the camera takes a picture."

Chris begins his sequence in the foreground, and then gradually moves his point of focus up through the frame, touching the screen slightly further up into the middle ground, then the background. Usually, three or four images is sufficient to provide enough depth of field to cover the entire frame in the final image. "I use an aperture of f/8 for these images, as this gives me a bit of leeway. I find this provides focus from the point that I'm touching to quite a way behind," he adds. "The images are always clear and crisp."

As well as ensuring no movement, it's also imperative to keep an even exposure throughout the sequence of images to be used for focus stacking landscape photography. To this end, Chris avoids using any automatic shooting modes. Instead, he recommends fixing your camera's exposure in Manual (M) for all shots. "Using Aperture priority (Av) mode, for example, you might find that the camera chooses different exposure levels for each frame," he explains. "You'll then notice variations in your images, and you don't want that. When you come to stitch the photos together, it will look unnatural. The key is to get the same exposure for each frame in the sequence. All the colours and tones must match so that your final image looks like it was one shot."

Chris shoots in RAW, with all the camera's shooting aids and features turned off. "I don't want the camera to make changes for me," he explains. "I like to turn off all automatic settings, as well as in-camera noise reduction because I can adjust that in post-production."

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A focus-stacked coastal photo by Chris Ceaser of Bamburgh Dunes in Northumberland, England, with grasses close-up and the beach and sea stretching out into the distance.

Chris uses layers in Adobe Photoshop to make his focus-stacked images, working with the Auto Align and Auto Blend functions to make the process simple and the results pin-sharp. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/30 sec, f/10 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

Keep post-production simple

Chris is unashamedly devoted to simplicity, so his focus stacking process in post-production is relatively straightforward. He first loads his RAW files into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, applying a colour profile, usually Faithful, which accurately recreates what he saw in-camera for an unadulterated starting point. "I really like the colours that the Canon cameras provide," Chris says. "I've always found them to be natural and pleasing. So I love the fact that Canon has worked with Adobe and now we've got the Camera Matching colour profiles in Lightroom.

"I'll set the noise reduction to about 15," he adds. "That helps take a bit of the digital noise out of those pictures."

After that, Chris loads his images into Adobe Photoshop as layers, and uses the Auto Align tool to ensure they all line up perfectly. Then he uses the Auto Blend function, which analyses the in-focus areas of images and merges them together into a single stacked image. "That's as complicated as I want it to be," he says.

Canon's free Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software is another robust post-processing tool that can help you build focus-stacked images. DPP's Depth Compositing function, tailored for images shot with Canon cameras that are equipped with focus bracketing, facilitates automatic adjustments, such as refining the compositing boundary, and also enables you to fine-tune the resulting image to ensure a flawless, pin-sharp final result.

Chris also makes a point of adjusting his composited pictures. "After I've stacked the images, I then treat the result as a single shot," he explains. "I might play with the highlights and the shadows, maybe a little bit of dehaze. Then when I've done the basics on the whole image, I will do a little bit of fine-tuning, maybe some dodging and burning in places."

A person wearing white gloves and glasses examines a print of a wintry landscape with the Northern Lights in the sky above.

Landscape photography in print

How Andy Farrer uses his EOS R5 and Canon imagePROGRAF printers to bring fine art landscape prints to life.
A focus-stacked image of running water flowing towards a lake surrounded by vegetation of a rich orange hue in a photograph by Chris Ceaser.

Chris loves the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300's red ink. "It's a really nice addition that helps the printer more accurately match the colours on the screen," he says. The extra ink enables the printer to render the warmer tones in a landscape, such as the rich oranges in this image of the Afon Lloer in Snowdonia, Wales. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1 sec, f/16 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

Rendering outstanding detail with the imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and PRO-1000

Much of Chris's post-shoot attention is directed towards print preparation and printing. After all, while sharpness can be ensured in-camera, vedute won't be achieved if the final prints aren't equally as sharp, and with accurate colour rendition.

Before printing, Chris applies individual sharpening to his focus-stacked landscape images. "The amount of sharpening needed is different on every size of print," he explains. "I'll apply suitable sharpening for the size of the print, and maybe only selectively sharpen – it's easy to over-sharpen detailed elements in the foreground."

To help him achieve true-to-life colours, Chris utilises Canson® Infinity's ICC profiles for his Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and PRO-1000 printers. "An ICC profile instructs the printer about the correct amount of ink to be laid down for every specific paper, ensuring the output is beautiful," he explains. "Without it, prints can appear dark and muddy."

A pair of hands, wearing white gloves, removes a landscape print from a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer.

Chris relies on Canson® Infinity's ICC colour profiles to ensure the finest quality output with Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and PRO-300 printers. "Printers are your best friend and a pretty formidable enemy," he warns – a good-quality printer will expose areas to work on in your photography and post-production. "Something might look reasonable on the screen, but when you print it, the printer will show those weaknesses. However, that's a positive, because the printer lets you hone your skills." © Chris Ceaser

To translate the fine detail and rich colour of his focus-stacked landscape images on to paper, Chris primarily relies on the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300. "The level of detail which that printer lays down is really outstanding. The prints are superb," he says. "There are two inks in there that I really like: there's a red ink which really helps the printer match some of the warm tones like the oranges in a sunset sky. And obviously, if there are vibrant reds in the picture, like postboxes or poppies, it's advantageous having a proper red ink.

"The main thing, though, is the new matte black ink. It's a big game changer," he adds. Some of Chris's favourite Canson® Infinity matte papers, such as the Arches 88 and Arches BFK Rives Pure White, have very high Dmax values – a measure of the deepest blacks a paper can show – which many black inks historically have not been deep enough to make use of. "The new matte black ink in the imagePROGRAF PRO-300 is beautiful," Chris says. "The level of black is really deep and, on those papers, it's quite stunning. There's no compromise: if I want to use a matte paper, I'm not worrying that the black will be wishy-washy. I will get properly rendered black that's true to what was on screen."

Paper choice is "the million dollar question," Chris says. "Sometimes I take a picture and know what I'm going to use. But the truth is, you probably won't decide until you finish processing the image, then you look at it and think it's going to look lovely on a particular paper.

"If it's a busy scene and very contrasty, I choose gloss," he explains. "If I want to make it really punchy, I'll go with the Canson® Infinity Baryta Prestige. But if I'm trying to keep the feeling of serenity or of peace, I'll go with matte. The Canson® Infinity Baryta Photographique II Matt is a barium sulphate coated paper. It's the smoothest paper you'll ever feel – and there's an old adage that says the smoother the paper, the more detail.

"However, while the papers can be great, they ultimately need the printer," Chris concludes. "Likewise, a printer can be great, but it needs the right paper. It's a marriage."

  1. Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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