Place your camera on a tripod and set it to aperture priority mode.
Compose your image, taking several shots, each at a different aperture. Begin with the widest aperture available, stepping it down by one stop with each subsequent shot.
Upload your photos to your computer and zoom in on the same point in each one, comparing each image to determine which aperture achieved the best sharpness.
Though landscapes are beautiful and inspiring spaces, there are a few problems that photographers must overcome in order to put their beauty on full display. Exposure can be difficult with areas that are very bright and others that are dark. There might be too many elements in the frame, forcing the photographer to reconsider how to frame the shot as well.
Of course, understanding where to set your focal point can be difficult too. For example, in portraiture, the focal point is usually very simple - the model’s eyes. But in landscape photography, finding that one focal point can be difficult because many times, you’re capturing a broad scene as opposed to a single, strong subject. In that case, how do you know where to set your focus?
We’ve identified four strategies that will help you find your focal point and capture a landscape image that has ideal focus every time.
Avoid Focusing at Infinity
In many cases, most of the elements in a landscape will be a good distance away from you, so setting focus at infinity isn’t a bad idea. After all, using the maximum focusing distance is probably the easiest method of getting most of the shot in sharp focus. This is especially true if you use autofocus, which most of us tend to do.
But what happens when there are foreground elements that are nearer to you, say, within 20 feet or so?
Here’s an easy rule of thumb: dial in your focus at infinity, then roll it back just a hair. Of course, this isn’t a scientific method of setting focus at all, but, with some practice, you’ll get a feel for how much you should dial the focus back with each lens in your kit. As a rule of thumb, a 5-degree turn should suffice
Why this works: Since the depth of field in most landscape images is quite large because of the use of a wide-angle lens, dialing the focus back a bit helps you deepen the depth of field, thus bringing more of the foreground into focus. Importantly, doing so still keeps everything out to infinity in focus, so you are only adding territory in the shot that’s in focus. In the image above, this strategy allowed the photographer to keep both the ripples in the sand in the foreground in focus, as well as the tree and distant sand dunes.
Find Your Lens’ Sweet Spot
One ill-advised landscape photography tip that’s floating around out there is that you should use the smallest aperture possible to maximize the depth of field. After all, if you maximize the depth of field, more of the scene will be in focus.
The problem with this strategy is that no lens - not even the most expensive professional lenses - performs at its best when shooting at its minimum aperture. In other words, though shooting at f/22 gets you the largest depth of field, it also results in diffraction, which is the loss of sharpness as the aperture gets smaller.
So, you can use a very small aperture like f/22 to increase the depth of field, but the benefits are null because the resulting images will be less sharp due to diffraction. Instead, you’ll need to determine your lens’ sweet spot, or the aperture(s) at which it produces the sharpest images. The sweet spot varies from one lens to the next, but typically, it’s in the f/8-f/11 range.
Why this works: By finding your lens’ sweet spot, you maximize the sharpness of the images you produce. So, if you find that your lens is sharpest at f/8, you know that you need to keep your aperture as close to f/8 as possible to get the best sharpness throughout the image. Note how in the image above, everything in the scene is sharp, from the sand and the waves in the foreground to the cliffs in the background. Had it been shot at f/22, the sharpness would be degraded, particularly around the edges of the frame.
To find your lens’ sweet spot, follow this procedure:
Focus One-Third Into the Frame
Along the same lines as avoiding focusing at infinity, focusing one-third up from the bottom of the frame allows you to ensure that the foreground elements in the shot are in focus. This is especially important if you shoot landscapes with a wide-angle lens because it will include more of the foreground in the photo. As a result, it is imperative that the foreground be in sharp focus, lest it become a distracting element in the shot.
Yet, many photographers simply focus about halfway into the shot. Though this keeps the midground and background in focus, it doesn’t necessarily help the foreground. So, instead, shift your focal point downward, to about one-third up from the bottom of the frame.
Why this works: This strategy maximizes the depth of field in the image, with elements from front to back in sharp focus. In the image of the Matterhorn, the point of focus would be roughly at the top of the rocks in the foreground. At that distance, the rocks are in sharp focus, as is everything behind them, all the way to the peak of the mountain in the background.
Don’t Be Afraid of Focus Stacking
If you’ve never tried focus stacking, it probably sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. Essentially, focus stacking involves combining a number of pictures together in post-processing, each of which has a slightly different focal point. The result is an image that has maximum sharpness from front to back.
The procedure is simple: compose the shot as you desire, and set your aperture to your lens’ sweet spot. Focus on a point perhaps one-third from the bottom of the frame and take the photo. Then, move your focal point upward, to perhaps the horizontal midline, and take another photo, ensuring that the composition remains precisely the same. Repeat the process again with the focal point approximately one-third from the top of the frame.
Why this works: Though this trick involves a little more work in the field and in post-processing, it results in optimally sharp landscape photos because it combines multiple focal points into a single image. With everything from the nearest foreground element to the furthest background element in sharp focus, the image avoids many of the pitfalls discussed above, such as diffraction from a small aperture. There is one caveat, however: if there are moving objects in the shot, like waves crashing on a beach or trees moving with the wind, this technique will not work because of the time between each shot.
Though none of the focusing methods presented here is perfect 100 percent of the time, each technique offers you a chance to create images with a greater level of acceptable sharpness. Whether you try focus stacking or focusing one-third into the scene, avoid focusing at infinity or use your lens’ sweet spot, your landscape images will be the better for it because they will be sharper with a greater level of detail for the viewers to take in.