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Fine Tuning the Focus - Tips for Landscape Photographers

September 19, 2013 by Marie Joabar

The key to an engaging landscape scene is to convey a sense of depth. Having something interesting in the foreground grabs the viewer’s attention and draws them into the scene from which they can explore the middle area and background. When confronted with elements that provide interest in all three areas, it’s important to render all of them sharp. There are a few ways to do this, try any or all, experiment and learn what works for you and your subject matter.

First, let’s start with the most important element for achieving sharpness in a scene; the Aperture. This controls the depth of field; how much appears in focus in front of and behind the subject you have focused on.

A large aperture such as f2, f2.8, or f4 will give a shallow depth of field to make your subject sharp and the background blurred.  These large apertures are useful to isolate subjects and remove any background distractions.

Conversely, when you want extended depth of field to show everything front to back sharp, use a smaller aperture such as f11, f16, or f22.  Note that most lenses are optimized at the middle apertures so if you can capture the depth you need at f11, use that and avoid automatically setting your lens to its smallest aperture.

The focal length of the lens also plays an important role.  To achieve maximum depth, it’s best to use a wide angle lens such as 14mm, 18mm, 24 etc. as these offer more depth of field than telephoto lenses such as 70mm, 135mm, 200mm, etc. Telephoto lenses compress distance so depth is minimized.

A useful tool to help you see how much will be in focus in a scene is the “Depth of Field Preview” button located on the front of most DSLR camera bodies.  Normally when we look through the lens, the aperture is wide open letting in the most amount of light making it easy to see what you are shooting. When you use the depth of field preview button, this shows you the scene with the lens closed down to the aperture you’re using. It will appear dark as the aperture is letting in less light but once your eye becomes accustomed to it, you will be able to see what is in focus and what is not. It might be helpful to slowly change the aperture a little at a time giving your eye the chance to adjust and see the changes.

The first time you try this it would be best to look at a brightly lit scene so you can more easily see thru the viewfinder. Focus on a subject then press on the depth of field preview button. 

Using a wide angle lens and setting a small aperture will definitely help maximize sharpness throughout the scene.  But the question remains, where should you focus? This is where using the “Hyper Focal Distance” focusing techniques comes into play. It may sound intimidating but it’s not, it simply means using the focusing point that provides the greatest amount of sharpness for the aperture and focal length you’ve chosen.

Simply put, focus on an object part way into the scene and the result is sharpness throughout, from foreground to background.  How far into the scene to focus is determined by using a chart that tells you, based on the focal length of the lens and the aperture, where the hyper focal distance point is. This is where you should focus. 

Once you have the distance for where you should focus, if you halve that figure, you will know where in your scene focus will start. For example if using the chart you determine that hyper focal distance is at 6 ft, then by halving that, you will know that everything from 3 feet and beyond will be sharp. So you would frame your scene starting at 3 feet and not closer.

Look to see if your lens came with a hyper focal distance chart, if not you can find many online. Older lenses were made with a hyper focal distance scales on the barrel allowing you to easily determine how much would be in focus based on the aperture you were using. Unfortunately, most lenses today no longer offer this helpful tool so we’re left to figure the distances on our own.

If you’d rather not be bothered looking at charts and figuring distances, at the very least you could experiment. Set the aperture to f11 or f16, focus on something approximately a third or so into the scene and press the depth of field preview button to see if you have the sharpness throughout the scene that you want. If not, focus on something a bit nearer or further (provided you have the time and your subject isn’t moving) and again check what’s sharp using the DOF preview button. Be sure to put some distance between yourself and your closest subject for best results. 

Regardless of whether you’re using a chart, the scale on a lens or trying to “eyeball” it, one of the most important things you can do before leaving a scene is to check that you have what you want. In the Playback mode, zoom way into the frame and scroll side to side and up and down checking for sharpness throughout. 

So to sum it up, for maximum depth and sharpness in a scene, use a wide angle lens, set a small aperture of f11, f16 (f22 if needed), carefully select what you focus on (using a chart or a lens with a built in DOF scale) and preview what will be sharp by using the depth of field preview button. Try it, experiment with the lenses you own and see how effective this method can be.