May 9, 2021 ·

Peter Aitken

Focus stacking is a technique to overcome the inherently shallow depth of field in macro/microphotography. In a nutshell, you focus on the nearest part of the subject and take a photo. Then you move the camera forward a small step at a time, taking another photo at each position until you have reached the furthest part of the subject. You end up with a stack of a few to hundreds of images. Specialized software extracts the in-focus part of each image and assembles them into a single output image where everything, front to back, is sharp.


Performing focus stacking manually is a challenge, and many photographers have turned to automated rails. The movement of the camera is performed by a precision stepper motor and the movement as well as the shutter release are controlled digitally by a dedicated controller, an attached computer, or a smartphone. Here’s an example. You have determined that your subject—an insect, say– is 2 cm in-depth and you estimate, based on your optics, that a slice spacing of 0.25mm (250 microns) is adequate. Focus on the near point, program the controller for 0.25 mm steps over 2 cm (80 steps in this case), then click Run and the rail gets to work. A few moments later it is finished and your image stack, saved on the camera’s SD card, is ready for processing.

Figure 1. Lily of the Valley flowers. Photo by the author.


Not long ago, Robert Thompson wrote a review on LuLa of the Novoflex Castille automated focusing rail (link here). I highly recommend this article for an in-depth discussion of stacking (which I will not repeat here) and some marvelous images. The Novoflex seems like a top-notch product and, given my interest in macro photography I was giving it some serious thought—until I saw the price of about $2,500. Yikes! I decided to look for cheaper alternatives and found the WeMacro rail, the subject of this review. At $299 it is a steal compared with the Novoflex. I admit to having some initial skepticism given the price. But after a few weeks with the product, I am a convert! No insect, flower, or spider in my yard is safe!

Figure 2. The WeMacro focusing rail. Photo courtesy of WeMacro.

The WeMacro rail is made in China and they have no distributors that I know of, so your order comes directly from there. My order came in less than 2 weeks, very securely packaged and in perfect condition. Shipping cost me $50. Your order includes the rail, quick-release camera mount, control box (16 x 5 x 2 cm), power supply, necessary cables, printed instructions, and a cute little 6-inch tripod with a clip at the top for holding your specimens.


In the studio, the rail is controlled from your computer, either Windows or Mac. The computer connects to the control box via USB and the box connects to the camera via USB and to the rail with a custom cable. In the field, it can be controlled via Bluetooth using an app for Android or iPhone and powered by a battery pack (not included, although the cable is). The rail weighs 1.3 kg and the maximum travel length is 100 mm with a minimum step of 1 micron (1/1000 of a mm). The drive screw has a 1 mm pitch (that is, the stage moves 1 mm per rotation). The rail can carry up to 3 kg, according to the manufacturer.

Figure 3. Closeup of the leg of a frog’s leg beetle. Photo by Steve Beats, courtesy of WeMacro.


I am impressed by the build quality of this product. The machining and the fit and finish are, to my eyes, impeccable. The stepper motor runs smoothly and is very quiet. And I confess to being impressed by the fact that it worked right out of the box. I installed the software, connected the cables, and – boom, I was making a stack! We all know that too many products aren’t so easy!

Figure 4. Rhodochrosite crystals. Photo by the author.


Operation is straightforward. Once the cables are connected and the control box and camera turned on, open the software and make the connection to the camera. The rail has two operating modes. The mode I use almost all the time is called “Distance” and it works like this: Your camera should be focused on the closest part of the subject, ideally a little closer to allow a margin of error. Then, your basic settings are:

Figure 5. The WeMacro control program screen.

  • Shutter waiting time: Time between rail movement and shutter release (to let vibrations die down).
  • Shutters per step: Number of images taken with each step. Usually, this will be 1 but if you are using your camera’s built-in HDR function you will set this to the appropriate value.
  • Interval of shutters: If the previous setting is more than 1, this setting controls the interval between these exposures.
  • Step length and Total distance: Self-explanatory. Set the total distance based on the depth of your subject, leaving some margin of error just in case.
  • Number of steps: Calculated by the program based on step length and distance.

Once all your settings are made, click Save Settings (to send the parameters to the controller) and then click Run. The system will get to work, advancing the camera and taking photos per your settings. When it is done, there will be a beep and the camera will return to the starting position (if you have selected these options). The photos are saved on the camera’s SD card and are ready to be processed with whatever stacking program you are using. Note that if you are just getting started, Photoshop will do a credible job of stacking although without the flexibility of dedicated stacking software.

Figure 6. Amethyst crystals. Photo by the author.
Figure 7. Spider. Photograph by Irenęusz Waledzik, courtesy of WeMacro.com.


The second operating mode is called “Start to End.” After setting the step length, you position the rail and adjust the camera focus at the start of the run—in other words, at the closest part of the subject. Use the software to calibrate this as the start point. Then, still using the software, move the camera to the desired endpoint and calibrate that as the end position. When you run the stack, the rail will move whatever distance there is between the start and endpoints using the step length you have specified.
Do I have any quibbles? I would like to see a “delay start” setting that delays the start of the sequence while you move away just in case your footsteps might jiggle the setup. Of course, this can be achieved by adding some unnecessary steps at the start of the sequence. The control box-to-rail cable is on the short side at about 1 m and it could be longer—or a short extension provided. My #1 desire is a live view function in the software so I can do preliminary framing and focusing more easily when the camera may be in an awkward position for viewing.


The Helicon Remote program can give you live view while controlling the rail, but it supports only Canon and Nikon cameras—we Sony, Olympus, etc. folks are shut out. I found a work-around, however, for my Sony, an A7-R3. Sony offers their free Imaging Edge software, which includes a tethering program with live view. If your camera, like mine, has 2 USB ports you can connect the live view program and the WeMacro program at the same time. Use Imaging Edge to set up the shot and the initial focus, then switch to the WeMacro program to perform the stacking.


In addition to the rail, the WeMacro company offers some useful accessories, such as translation platforms to allow precise specimen placement, tube lenses, microscope objectives, battery packs for outdoor use, extension tubes, and shutter cables. While I have not tried one, their translation stages seem a really good deal compared to others I have priced. For example, the XYR stage shown in the photo (X, Y, and Rotation) costs $139.

Figure 8. The WeMacro XYR translation platform. Photo courtesy of WeMacro.


Overall, I am extremely impressed with this product, particularly given the low price of $299 (plus shipping from China, which was $50 for me in the U.S.). It is well-designed, well-made, and has allowed me to explore a whole new dimension of macro photography. I have spent a good part of my photographic life out in the world photographing miles-wide vistas, and am now finding that some millimeter-wide vistas are just as interesting.

Note: All author images in this article were taken with a Sony A7-R3 camera using a Voigtlander Apo-Lanthar 110mm macro lens, sometimes with an extension tube, and processed with Helicon Focus.


Peter Aitken is a fine art photographer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You can see more of his work at www.peteraitken.com.

Peter Aitken

May 2021

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