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Landscape photography gives us many opportunities to exercise our photographic creativity, whether we are experienced or relative newcomers to serious photography. In addition to the many landscape photography tips covering exposure and composition, we also have tips on how to focus for landscape photography.
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(And beyond!) An early realization concerning landscape photography focusing is that the focusing distance for our subject matter is not always at infinity. And even when the main subject is at infinity for our lens, we might also want other things in focus as well.
Photographically speaking, infinity is when the lens focuses parallel light rays as points of light at the focal point of that lens. Interestingly, infinity can be a wide range distance depending on the focal length of the lens.
Looking at the focusing ring of various lenses shows us at what distance a lens starts seeing light rays at infinity focus. The symbol for infinity is a figure eight lying on its side. The lens will be marked with this symbol as the infinity focus position.
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The next part is what I think is interesting. Looking at that focusing ring, notice what the distance measurement right before the lens says it’s at infinity. On a Nifty Fifty (50mm) lens, it is around 20 feet. That means anything beyond that distance will have parallel rays of light, infinity focus. Everything farther away than 20 feet is infinity to this normal focal length lens.
Now, look at a wide-angle lens. That focusing distance mark right before infinity for a wide-angle lens might be 4 feet. Interesting! Even more interesting is that if we have a telephoto lens, we see that focusing mark as being 200 feet.
I’m very much simplifying things here with this statement, but this particular optical property of the different types of lenses is part of how we can achieve extremely deep depth of field with a wide-angle lens.
Depth of Field
As we’re focusing for landscapes, depth of field is an important consideration. Depth of field refers to how much is in or out of focus in our captured image.
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If few things are in focus except for the main subject, we say the pic has limited or shallow depth of field, as called selective focus. If many things at various distances are in focus, this is known as deep depth of field.
Depth of field is controlled by several things at once. The lens focal length, the lens aperture (f-stop), and the focusing distance. Yes, now we see why we are concerned with what makes infinity focus with different types of lenses.
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Since a wide-angle lens sees light rays in such a way that things beyond just a few feet are at infinity focus, then it is easier to achieve deep depth of field with that wide-angle lens. More things are likely to be in focus since the range up to infinity focus is so short.
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Figuring out how to focus for landscape photography is actually pretty simple. There are even smartphone apps and websites that will do all the calculations.
Of course, we can also simply leave our cameras on autofocus (AF) and let the camera decide for us, but we’re considering techniques of how to focus for landscape photography creatively, so we’ll also try manual focusing.
It is easy to focus manually with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. We can see what is in or out of focus either through the viewfinder eyepiece or on the rear viewscreen. Using the viewscreen, we have an option of using the magnifying feature to clearly see what we want to focus on.
Grab the lens focusing ring ring and twist it one or the other until you see the subject in focus. If your lens has the focusing distance marks we looked at earlier, you can also guess how far away the subject is and set it based on the scale printed on the lens.
Calculating Depth of Field
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We learned that multiple factors affect what’s in and out of focus, lens focal length, lens aperture, and focusing distance. We could learn all the formulae for figuring everything out, lots of people enjoy that, or we can use a depth of field calculator to do the heavy lifting for us.
For this article on how to focus for landscape photography, let’s use a website of a smartphone app. There are also some older printed versions from lens manufacturers still out there that you might snag, they’re small enough to fit in a pocket or in a camera bag, but it’s a little hard to find them in good condition.
The Online Depth of Field Calculator from DOFMaster is one of my favorites, they also have Android and iOS versions, just follow the links to install on your phone or tablet.
Type in our camera format, in this case I listed a Full Frame format camera, the lens focal length, let’s say it’s a 24mm wide-angle, aperture of f/8.0, and a focusing distance of 10 feet. The DOF calculator shows that everything from 4 ½ feet to infinity will be in focus.
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Did you notice in that calculation how things closer to the camera than the focusing distance would also be in focus? Generally, depth of field for a lens extends from 1/3rd in front of the focused distance to 2/3rds behind.
We set our focus on the lens at 10 feet. If we had set it at infinity, the range of distances in focus would have been less. From about 7 ½ feet to infinity. We achieved greater total depth of focus by not focusing at infinity.
Which leads us to a great tool or technique of landscape photography focusing, hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance that will result in the greatest depth of focus, front and back, for any given lens aperture.
The hyperfocal distance for our lens and aperture choice viewed earlier, 24mm at f/8.0, is 7.95 feet. At that focusing distance, everything from just under 4 feet to infinity is in sharp focus. So, with that subject at 10 feet away, we actually gain 6 feet in front of it and everything behind it as being in sharp focus.
If our wide lens is stopped down to f/16, we can use the hyperfocal distance of 4.02 feet to have everything from 2 feet to infinity in focus. And if our lens has a smallest aperture of f/22, we can focus at just under 3 feet, 2.86 feet to be exact, and everything from a tad under 1 ½ feet (1.43 feet) to infinity is in focus.
Landscape Photography Tips for Composition
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Now that you’ve unlocked the secret of how to focus for landscape photography in order to have objects near, far, and everywhere in between in focus, the next step is use composition techniques to take advantage of your new landscape photography focusing skill.
By the way, this is only half of the discussion covering how to focus for landscape photography, how to get many things in focus, near and far. Another great landscape photography focusing technique is called selective focus, having just a little slice of the scene in sharp focus. We’ll discuss that soon.