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A Good Look at Zerene Stacker

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Joined: 19 Apr 2010
Posts: 37
Location: Big Rapids, Michigan

PostPosted: Fri Apr 30, 2010 4:14 pm    Post subject: A Good Look at Zerene Stacker Reply with quote

I seldom write software love-letters of any kind. “Zerene Stacker” (ZS) is an exception to my rule because it is an exceptional product! It is an incredible piece of software. I will explain.

There is a variety of stacking software available, some free like CombineZP, some expensive like Adobe Photoshop CS4, and some kind-of-expensive like Helicon Focus. And it seems there is more each month. I have not had time to work extensively with all of this software, but I have played around with a few them and done extensive work with Adobe Photoshop CS4. I am currently engaged with testing Zerene Stacker.

I am embarrassed to tell you that I did thousands of stacks using Photoshop CS4 and mistakenly assumed that all of its artifacts and disappointments were par for the course. I did this because I tried some others (not mentioned here because I did not pursue them) early on and got similar mistakes and artifacts as I did with Photoshop CS4, and thought they all were like this. I then went with Photoshop CS4 mainly because it seamlessly interfaced with Adobe Lightroom, a program I depend on every day.

Not sure why I did not connect with Zerene Stacker earlier, but as mentioned, there were a lot of programs around and I did not test them all. I lived with Photoshop CS4, warts and all.

So it came as a real surprise when I first ran a mid-sized stack (15 or so) on Zerene Stacker and watched two things happen before my eyes. The first was the fact that the program marched through that stack like a knife through butter. With Photoshop CS4, a stack of 6-7 photos could take five minutes, a half hour, an hour, an hour and a half, or all night. I never know which and sometimes Photoshop CS4 would grind away all night and by morning have stacked all the photo layers in something like a round ball, again: for no reason I could figure out. If I ran the stack again, often it would just deal with it correctly.

So to have a good-sized stack handled in a minute or two gave me no time to even run to the bathroom or read a short article. Bam! It was done. As mentioned, that was only half of the surprise.

The other, and larger half, was the fact that the very intricate stack was seemingly perfectly done. Every hair and bristle on the plant stems was preserved and there were no halos, no real artifacts. All I could say as my jaw dropped was “Wow! Where have you been all my focus-stacking life.”

ZS offers two distinct forms of stacking, one (DMap) that follows the general approach of Adobe Photoshop CS4 and (so I am told) all of the other stacking software on the market. It does a good job, but like Photoshop CS4 there are often ‘gotchas’, some of them acceptable, but some not really acceptable to me, and I would probably not be likely to show them to someone else like those of you reading this.

The second method or algorithm (PMax) is apparently original to this software and done by ZS’s author and creator, Rik Littlefield. This stacking method does everything I ever dreamed about and hoped for, with one caveat, and that is that sometimes there is a little more noise and color shift than you want. There are no artifacts like you are used to seeing in Photoshop CS4 and other software, no out-of-focus areas created by the software itself, like halos, etc. - almost never. This in itself is remarkable.

And you can stack your photos deep and still get that incredible gazing-into-the-Grand-Canyon feeling, as everything is in deep focus and has a real sense of space. There is more.

The most mind-bending feature of Zerene Stacker is the re-touching tool for stacks. It works like Lightroom’s adjustment brush, but is even a little sweeter. You position your finished stacked photo on the right, and can shuffle through any sized stack on the left. When you find a stack layer that has the detail (or lack) you are looking for, you just brush over that area on the right and voila, it is seamlessly changed.

This retouching feature makes the very tedious process of masking, etc. alternate layers totally simple and accurate. With Zerene Stacker I can retouch my most interesting stacks or repair ones that otherwise would be lost, putting exactly what I want to see on the surface of my finished stacked photo, like frosting on a cake. I was taken aback at how powerful this feature is, how easy to use, and how absolutely useful it is.

So I am madly stacking away with Zerene Stacker these days, handling each day’s load much faster, and eyeing re-doing all the many thousands of stacks I have accumulated to the present.

I can’t say there are NO compromises with Zerene Stacker, but there seem to be almost none that don’t have workarounds. ZS’s more-or-less flawless stacks (PMax option) tend to accumulate noise more than I would like and some colors shift a tiny bit. The color thing has not bothered me yet and I am sensitive to color, which is why I like APO lenses like the Voigtlander 125 and the Coastal Optics 60mm. The color is ok. And ZS will accept ProPhotoRGB color space, do its thing, and the finished .tiff shows up with the correct color back in Lightroom. Thank goodness for that!

The accumulated noise is more difficult to be happy about, but it does not show up on all photos. Or, put another way, many photos don’t show off the noise. And, as mentioned, ZS offers a second (more traditional) method (DMap option) that does not add noise and does not muck with the colors. It however can cause posterization and some other problems.

The author has a built-in contrast-threshold slider that lets you choose what sections of the photo to not mess with and to just smoothly let flow together. In other words, if there are areas where no detail is present, this option allows you to not-enhance any of what is there, but to leave it alone. It works pretty well and that along with the retouching feature seems a solution to most problems I have come up with so far. Of course I do have a suggestion.

I would like to see the author add a couple of noise reduction options to the suite, and it would be pretty much perfect. It is pretty darn perfect, at least for me, right now and it only costs $89 for a single-user license. When I think of the countless hours I spent waiting for Photoshop CS4 (64-bit, dual-core, etc.) to return my finished stacks, I have to wonder why they cannot do what one individual has done. Thanks Rik Littlefield for Zerene Stacker! I would be interested in other’s comments who have used this program.

Enclosed is a stacked photo I took today using Zerene Stacker.

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Joined: 01 Aug 2006
Posts: 20652
Location: Richland, Washington State, USA

PostPosted: Fri Apr 30, 2010 5:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hhmmm...how to respond! Confused

I'm not sure whether to start off with "I swear, I have never met this man!" or "Well, gosh, it's always nice to hear from a happy user!"

Both of those are true, although it's also true that I have exchanged several emails with Michael to better understand his needs and speed his climb up the learning curve.

Many readers here at photomacrography.net have some familiarity with Zerene Stacker, its history, and its pros and cons. I confess to feeling a little uncomfortable with Michael's enthusiasm, given my dual status as admin of the rigorously non-commercial photomacrography.net and simultaneously the developer of a commercial product of interest to our members. I don't know what to do about that other than try to quell my anxiety, so I'll take that approach until a better one comes up. I understand that Michael's thoughts have been posted on other forums as well, and I assume the wordsmithing was primarily aimed at those readers.

I would be interested in other’s comments who have used this program.

Well, I'll be happy to comment. I've probably used ZS in more different situations than anybody else on the planet, and I'm not shy about telling people where the pitfalls lie. It reduces the number of unpleasant surprises, which I like to think is always a good thing.

But right now I have a dinner date. More later...

By the way, we should probably move this thread to a Technical Discussion forum. It would be a better fit there than here in the Image Galleries. I'll do that later also.

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Joined: 14 Mar 2009
Posts: 8520
Location: Near London, UK

PostPosted: Sat May 01, 2010 3:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think a review has to mention the Batch Processing facility. Big stacks can still take a long time, perhaps hours, so being able to load them up and go to bed is an advantage.
Also, I find it hard to get the best out of Dmap, so several runs with altered parameters can be tried.

It's personal, but for me the program's ability to produce very good 3D pairs is so overwhelming that its acquisition is justified. I believe this is unique amongst the stacker programs?

And I'm sure Rik is working on the next thrilling instalment...

Last edited by ChrisR on Wed May 05, 2010 8:34 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Posts: 317
Location: Albany, Oregon

PostPosted: Wed May 05, 2010 6:17 pm    Post subject: Another Love Story Reply with quote

I started using image stacking about 7 years ago and I was pleased with the results I got with what was a "state of the art" system back then. It was a Leica MZ16 stereomicroscope, setup for automated stacking and controlled by a computer with a dedicated camera tethered to the computer also. The software I used was called ImagePro (about $2500 if I recall correctly). It created a lot of stacking artifacts that were very frustrating to deal with, but it was what I had, so I coped.

One and a half years ago I got a new Visionary Digital imaging system that was bundled with Helicon Focus stacking software, A lot cleaner stacks, but with a new set of artifacts, haloing, mush, etc. I like challenges and solving problems, but I would rather spend my time shooting and producing clean images.

I was making a little head way but still not happy with a lot of my stacks. Then I heard from Rik Littlefield that he was developing a new stacking program that he would like me to try. And WOW, the very first stack I ran through Zerene Stacker was perfect, BEAUTIFUL, FANTASTIC !!!

I have been using Zerene Stacker at work ever since and Rik has added some very nice improvements over that time, the 64 bit version is great and takes advantage of extra RAM and multi-core processors.

I also use ZS on my computer at home, but I could not get the Retouching feature to work with my Wacom graphics tablet. It worked with the same model at work, but not at home. Rik spent a couple hours on the phone with me one evening and solved my problem. It turned out that I had the hardware acceleration on my graphics card set too high and the whole composite image was loaded in the graphics card RAM and Java cannot talk to my graphics card. This is what I call truly great costumer service. I have to say THANKS RIK, I love your program.

Three features I would love to see in the future: Undo or back-up (say 10 steps or so) in retouching, a dust mask (say if you shoot a dust map shot with the same lighting setup as your subject), and a noise reduction routine (something like Noise Ninja) to take care of the grit that sometimes shows up in featureless areas with PMax. Oh, and maybe a way to change softness levels on the Retouching Brush.

Disclaimer: Rik did not ask me to say any of this and is probably embarrassed that I did.

"You can't build a time machine without weird optics"
Steve Valley - Albany, Oregon
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Joined: 02 Feb 2009
Posts: 223

PostPosted: Tue Aug 31, 2010 4:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, I have to confess guilty that I hooked Michael up with ZS and Rick - but I have that feeling that it was a good thing done! The results speak for themselves!!

http://www.macrolenses.de for macro and special lens info
http://www.pbase.com/kds315/uv_photos for UV Images and lens/filter info
http://photographyoftheinvisibleworld.blogspot.com/ my UV diary
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Joined: 24 Oct 2009
Posts: 595
Location: SF, CA, USA

PostPosted: Wed Sep 01, 2010 12:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I recently did a stack of 410 frames with no problem at all. It didn't even need retouching!
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 01, 2010 12:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Amazing Paul!!

http://www.macrolenses.de for macro and special lens info
http://www.pbase.com/kds315/uv_photos for UV Images and lens/filter info
http://photographyoftheinvisibleworld.blogspot.com/ my UV diary
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