Simple Tips for Tack-Sharp Landscape Photos
I’d say that of any genre of photography, landscapes have to be the most popular, right? I mean, that’s not to take anything away from portraiture or cityscapes, wildlife or macro… Each of those is certainly a worthy pursuit. But landscapes seem to have the hearts and minds of more photographers (myself included) than the others. I think part of the reason for the popularity of landscape photography is that on the surface it seems easier than the others.
After all, there’s no people to try to pose, no moving animals to worry about. You just stand there, point your camera, and press the shutter, right?
Just like any other type of photo, a landscape requires good lighting, excellent composition, and proper focus. Any of those things can be easier said than done, particularly getting the focus right. Let’s have a look at a few things you can do to ensure your landscape photos are perfectly focused and sharp.
Focus at the One-Third Point
One of the simplest tricks for improving the focus of your landscape shots is to focus about one-third of the way up from the bottom of the frame.
Doing so accomplishes a couple of things:
- First, by focusing closer to the bottom of the frame, you ensure the foreground is in focus.
- Second, because depth of field extends further behind the focal point, focusing at the one-third point ensures the midground and background is in focus.
Using the image above as an example, the one-third point would be approximately along a horizontal line that intersects with the man’s raised knee. As a result of setting the focal point at that location, the rocks nearer the camera are in sharp focus, the man is in sharp focus, and the background elements are in sharp focus as well.
Obviously, this isn’t an exact science, but with some practice, you can quickly learn to identify the one-third point and use it as an effective focusing technique.
Avoiding Focusing at Infinity
As I mentioned earlier, it seems as though there’s a misconception that landscape photography is easy because you can just stand there and snap the photo. Part of that is often simply focusing at infinity, thinking that doing so means everything in the shot will be in focus. So long as there aren’t foreground elements near you (i.e. within 15-20 feet), setting the focus at infinity will work most of the time. But if you find that the landscape photos you take have fuzzy foreground elements, you can rectify the situation by setting the focus at just under infinity.
Like focusing at the one-third point, this technique is not an exact science but is based much more on feel. Essentially, what you do is set the focus at infinity, then turn the focus ring ever so slightly, say 5 degrees or so. What that does is increase the depth of field. That means the previously fuzzy foreground elements, like the flowers in the image above, will be in focus without sacrificing the focus of the elements further back in the scene.
Mind the Aperture
When talking about keeping things in focus, let’s not forget the role that aperture plays. Remember, all things being equal, a large aperture like f/2.8 results in a shallower depth of field than a small aperture like f/16. That means that if you want a better chance of having everything in the landscape in focus, a smaller aperture is the way to go. However, a mistake that many landscape photographers make is that they automatically go for the smallest aperture their lens can handle, which is commonly around f/22.
The problem with that strategy is that no lens creates optimally sharp photos at its maximum aperture values. That means that even though at f/22 you have a larger depth of field than at f/16, the results you get at f/22 won’t be as sharp. What’s more, all lenses have what’s called a “sweet spot,” or the aperture at which they produce the sharpest image. The sweet spot varies from lens to lens, but in many cases, it’s between f/8 and f/11.
So, if shooting a scene like the one above, using an aperture of f/11 will get you sharper results than if you use f/22.
The key to this trick is that there can’t be anything in the immediate foreground of the shot. If there is, the smaller aperture might throw the foreground elements out of focus. So long as the nearest object is 20-30 feet away, you don’t need as small of an aperture to keep the scene nice and sharp.
Use Hyperfocal Distance
A more complicated – yet still very effective – strategy for perfecting the focus of your landscape shots is to use the hyperfocal distance technique. If we were to define hyperfocal distance, it would be something like the distance between your lens and the nearest object that’s in focus when the lens is focused at infinity.
I know that sounds scary…
Essentially, hyperfocal distance requires that you set the focus point for the specific aperture and focal length you’re using. In other words, the focus point will be different when you use an aperture of f/8 and on a 50mm lens than when you use a 24mm lens and an aperture of f/11. By choosing the right aperture and moving your focus point to the hyperfocal distance for that aperture, you’ll get sharp results. Unlike the previous techniques we’ve discussed, this one requires some mathematical calculations that aren’t immediately easy to understand.