- Lens Choice Matters, Too
- Other Optical Properties Exist
- Now, the F-Stops
- The Best Aperture For Landscapes
- The Landscape Photography Book: The Step-by-Step Techniques You Need to Capture Breathtaking Landscape Photos Like the Pros
- National Geographic Greatest Landscapes: Stunning Photographs That Inspire and Astonish
- The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography
- Best Camera Settings for Landscape Photography
- 4 Reasons to Use a Mirrorless Camera for Landscape Photography
- 8 Insanely Easy Things You Can Do Today to Immediately Improve Your Landscape Photography
- Landscape Photographer’s Checklist
Camera exposure settings control more than the amount of light from the scene captured by the imaging sensor. These settings also control creative aspects of photographic imaging. When deciding the best aperture for landscapes, optical characteristics are considered as well.
Choosing the correct f-stop for landscape photography involves many variables. The best aperture for landscape photography decision is guided by several important factors. For any given situation, you may end up setting any of the f-stops available on your lens. They all have aspects both pro and con.
Table of Contents
Lens Choice Matters, Too
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While the Exposure Triangle remains the same regardless of what lens is used, the other optical qualities and characteristics change depending on focal length and lens type. The best aperture for landscape photography has to factor in the lens type.
Many photographers like to use wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses for their landscape photography. There’s a good reason for this choice. Wide angle lenses, such as a 28mm or 24mm lens in Full Frame format, and ultra wide angle lenses such as 14mm, 17mm, or 20mm (shown below) take in a broad view of the scene in front of our lens.
For the sake of simplicity, we will stick to one format when referring to focal lengths, Full Frame 35mm format. The information here applies to all other formats such as MFT and APS-C, but you will need to consider Crop Factor for converting focal lengths discussed.
These wide angle lenses are also favored because of their optical characteristic of deep depth of field. There is an interesting reason for this property, but that can fill up an entire article on its own. Suffice it to say, when a landscape photographer wishes to capture a wide view with deep depth of field, they pick wide lenses.
However, as discussed in our video above, other lens types have a place in landscape photography, too. Normal focal lengths, wide very fast apertures, and telephoto lenses of all lengths allow for selective focus techniques and give a different apparent perspective. Isolation of subject elements within the image can make for very powerful images.
Recommended Landscape Photography Reading:
Editor's Tip: One of the must-haves for landscape photographers is a high-quality set of filters. Though you can invest in a set of ND filters, I personally like to use a single variable ND filter, like my Haida NanoPro MC Variable ND pictured above. This filter offers between 4 and 9 stops of light-stopping power, which gives it incredible versatility for just about any landscape. In fact, you can use this lens filter to change the shutter speed from 1/15th of a second to more than a minute. Alternatively, you could open the aperture from f/22 all the way to f/1.4!
Other Optical Properties Exist
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Searching for the best aperture for landscapes has more variables than deep or shallow depth of field. Distortion, chromatic aberration, diffraction limit, and center to edge sharpness and light fall off are very important to keep in mind. Optical bench tests give us the needed information concerning these performance limitations.
This optical property is either pincushion or barrel. Pincushion distortion has things pinching in to the center, while barrel distortion has things bulging out. Distortion is more common in wide lenses and extremely fast lenses.
This when different color light rays don’t all focus at the same point behind the lens. Seen more in telephoto and very fast lenses than other types, it manifests in a color fringe around the in focus image elements.
Learn more about chromatic aberration and how to fix it in the video above by The Science of Photography.
Center-to-Edge Sharpness and Light Fall Off
This is exactly as described. The outer edges of a lens don’t produce as much sharpness or light transmission as the center of the lens.
All four of these optical problems are worse at wide open apertures (i.e., f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, as shown below) and improve greatly when you stop down the aperture by just a couple of f-stops. Spherical aberration, coma, and astigmatism are other optical issues also improved by stopping down.
image by Rakdee via iStock
So you would think that stopping down as much as possible would be advantageous and that these smaller f-stops are the best apertures for landscapes. Besides correcting optical problems, you also gain more depth of field.
But wait! There’s more. We haven’t defined the diffraction limit yet. It is the upper limitation of the resolving power of the lens. In simple terms, it’s how sharp the lens can possibly be. In order to find the sharpest aperture, you stop the lens down until the optical problems described above are at their least. This is called finding the sweet spot of your lens.
The last issue, though, diffraction, actually grows more severe the smaller the f-stop is. This is because of how light rays interact with the edges of the aperture blades. Diffraction scatters some of the light, reducing the resolving power or sharpness of the lens. Learn more about diffraction in the video below by Tony & Chelsea Northrup.
So, the absolute sharpest aperture of a lens, what may be one of the best apertures for landscapes, is the largest f-stop that corrects the other problems the most before you start introducing too much diffraction.
For many lenses, its sharpest aperture is about 2 or 3 f-stops down from maximum. In Photographer Speak, we call this the Sweet Spot of the lens. Even though an even smaller aperture gives more depth field, that increased depth comes with a loss of sharpness.
Take some time to test out your lenses to find their Sweet Spot. Sometimes the Sweet Spot is a range of apertures. Some lens test patterns, a tripod, and a nice viewing program for comparing images are one way to find it. Learn more about finding the sweet spot of your lens in the video above by Mark Denney.
Now, the F-Stops
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I would wager that when you opened this article to find out what I had to offer as advice as to the best aperture for landscapes you weren’t thinking about a primer in optical aberrations. To be honest, I wasn’t either.
It’s interesting how much science is in our awesome field of art, isn’t it? One of the things I enjoy about talking about photography is that we mix, art, science, craft, business, and social activity. Photography has it all!
So now we can talk about how the different f-stops affect our landscape photography and why there isn’t just one best aperture for landscapes.
Fast or Wide Open Apertures
There are two good things about wide open apertures. They give us faster shutter speeds in the Exposure Triangle and they limit the depth of field thus enabling selective focus techniques.
Isolating certain elements of the scene can make wonderful images. The isolated part of the image gains power over the rest of the image, becoming a strong point of focus and interest.
photo by SHODOgraphy via iStock
When the light goes down, either in Golden Hour or close to Blue Hour, or in foggy or overcast conditions, we can use the faster apertures as the best apertures for landscapes under those lighting conditions.
When I employ these methods, I like to compose the shot to minimize the optical imperfections. If I know my lens has edge or corner light fall off or loss of sharpness, I make sure that the point of interest is not near the edges, eliminating that possible distraction.
Medium Apertures - The Sweet Spot
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As mentioned, the sharpest aperture for most lenses is about 2 or 3 f-stops closed down from maximum aperture. Even though this is the sharpest aperture, it doesn’t always mean it’s the best aperture for landscapes.
That really depends on what you’re attempting to accomplish in regards to the photograph. If you are desirous of the absolute sharpest image possible, a couple of other things need to be recognized also.
photo by Yiming Li via iStock
You will need to use a tripod and a remote release, perhaps even the mirror up mode, and the focus point needs to be carefully chosen. Adding these methods will help ensure you have the sharpest, highest resolution image possible. Shooting in RAW will also help.
It is also beneficial to be familiar with how to find the hyperfocal distance on your lens. If your lens doesn’t have an aperture ring on it and a depth of field scale, you could use a Hyperfocus calculator web site or smartphone app to figure it out. Learn how hyperfocal distance works in the video below by Matt Granger:
As discussed in the video, hyperfocal distance is the focus distance and f-stop combination that gives the greatest possible depth of focus for any given situation. It’s value is highly variable, being dependent on subject distance, light condition, and the actual f-stop in use.
Smaller Apertures - Deep Depth Of Field
The small apertures give the most depth of in focus objects or areas, otherwise referred to as depth of field. Many modern lenses have minimum f-stops of f/16, f/22, or f/32. Some specialty lenses may go even smaller, to f/45 or f/64.
Hyperfocal distance is a valid method for small apertures, too. In fact, you can achieve some extreme depth of field effects with the smaller apertures and creative use of hyperfocal distance.
The lens resolution or sharpness is not as high as the Sweet Spot, so a smaller aperture is not always the best aperture for landscapes. But if you are going for that extreme depth of field effect, a little loss of resolution due to not being at the sharpest aperture isn’t likely to be noticed. Besides, most modern lenses are extremely sharp to begin with.
The Best Aperture For Landscapes
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As you can see, there is not one answer for the question of the best aperture for landscape photography. All of the available f-stops are the best at some times.
Lighting conditions, the Exposure Triangle, depth of field requirements, optical imperfections, diffraction limits, and your own creative vision all play a role in the determination of the best aperture for landscapes.