Many beginning landscape photographers read online tutorials that suggest using f/22 for maximum depth of field and blindly follow that advice. And while a smaller aperture does influence depth of field, f/22 isn’t the best answer. There are other elements at play that allow you to use a wider f-stop and get the same - if not better - results.
There are a number of reasons for this, each of which has to do with the sharpness of your final image.
F/22 Isn’t as Sharp
No lens, no matter how high-brow, has its maximum sharpest at the smallest and widest aperture. In fact, the sweet spot for many lenses - the point at which it gives you its best sharpness - is much larger than f/22. Generally speaking, f/11 and f/8 are common sweet spots, depending on the lens.
What that means is that if you automatically go to f/22 when shooting landscapes, you aren’t doing yourself any favors in the sharpness department. While you might be able to get a greater depth of field at f/22 than at f/11, the drastic difference in sharpness between the two will be of much greater consequence.
A Wider F-Stop Means Faster Shutter
Naturally, if you shoot at a wider f-stop than f/22, you’ll be able to dial in a faster shutter speed as well. This is convenient for those occasions when the wind is blowing and you need to freeze the movement of elements like trees, flowers, or grasses that move with the wind (as seen above). Shooting at f/22 might require a shutter speed of 1/30 seconds, whereas at f/11 you can speed the shutter up to 1/125 seconds (which gets you the same exposure). That gives you far more leeway in terms of freezing any movement in the scene without sacrificing a well-exposed image.
A Faster Shutter Means Less Camera Shake
As a consequence of using a faster shutter, you’re less likely to inadvertently blur your photos due to camera shake. Although using a tripod would render this problem solved, in many situations, landscape photography is simply easier when you can move light and fast and handhold your camera. What’s more, when using a long telephoto lens, slower shutter speed might still result in some blur as the weight of the lens and the uneven distribution of that weight on a tripod can result in some camera shake.
Is F/22 Ever Okay?
Certainly! There will be times when you happen upon a landscape element that warrants an up-close shot, like the one above. In this situation, the short distance between your lens and the object in the landscape will all but require that you minimize your f-stop as much as possible. If not, your depth of field likely will not be deep enough to keep everything in the frame in sharp focus.
However, in most landscape situations in which the elements of the scene are a good distance away, you can open up your aperture - and do so to a far greater extent than you might think. In fact, if you use a wide-angle lens, like a 24mm f/2.8 and nothing in the scene is closer than 10 feet from your lens, you can open the lens all the way up to f/2.8 and still get an excellent depth of field. In fact, you might not be able to tell the difference between f/2.8 and f/22 in terms of depth of field at that distance.
Because the focal length of the lens and the distance between your lens and the subject both impact depth of field, the same situation does not apply for telephoto lenses. The longer the lens, the further away the subject matter must be in order to get good depth of field at wider apertures. So, if you shoot at a distance of 10 feet with a telephoto lens, f/2.8 will look vastly different than f/22. But if you photograph a mountain peak a mile away, you can use f/2.8 and you will get just as good a depth of field as you would if you took the shot at f/22.
Maximizing the depth of field in your landscape images doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go straight to f/22. Instead, try shooting at f/11 or even f/8, and see how much sharper the images are than identical ones taken at f/22. As noted above, shooting wider gives you more leeway with shutter speed and will help you keep camera shake and motion blur at bay. Just ensure that you’ve got enough distance between you and your subject for your focal length, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how wide open you can shoot landscapes and still get sharp images with a good depth of field.