using aperture priority to get sharp landscapes

 Want to make your viewer feel like they were there experiencing the warm sunlight when you shot your beautiful landscape image? Try making your image appear 3-dimensional. We use our eyes to build a 3 dimensional image of the world in our brain but unfortunately photos are 2 dimensional. Your landscape photos will say so much more if you can give your viewer the impression that your landscape is 3 dimensional. One way to do this is to include foreground. Golden grasses make the foreground in the shot below. And that foreground has to be sharp...not easy if you leave your camera in Auto. In this post we'll look at how to get sharp landscape photos from front to back and where to focus to get maximum sharpness.

large depth of field from warm grass in foreground to castle in background of landscape photo

You will need to turn the top mode dial and put your camera in Aperture priority. This means that you set the aperture and the camera will set the shutter speed for you. By controlling the aperture you can decide the depth of field in your photo. The depth of field is the distance between the nearest and furthest points which are sharp. The golden grass and the sun-drenched castle in this shot. The depth of field here is around 200 metres- huge! 

Most landscape shots look best with a large depth of field. Have a look at the diagram below. What is the best f-number to set your camera aperture on for a landscape?

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That's right. A high f-number or small aperture /hole is best. f22 would be great. This gives a large depth of field. If you leave your camera on Auto then typically it will choose f5.6 and there is no way that you will get sharp foreground grass and a sharp castle in the background.

The above image was shot just as the sun set and so there was not much light. Choosing the tiny aperture of f22 lets in hardly any light. These two factors mean that the camera will choose a slow shutter speed. You will therefore need prevent camera shake by:

using a tripod - the safest method

supporting your camera e.g. on a wall, if there is one nearby

flicking your camera lens to VR or OIS 

set your camera to continuous and burst shoot choosing the last frame -surprisingly effective, especially when combined with the previous trick!

The next thing to consider in making a landscape image is where to focus your camera. If you want the image to be sharp all the way through you cannot simply point and hope it works out. 

The hyperfocal distance

Sounds like Star Trek speak but is actually a really simple technique to maximise sharpness:

Choose the nearest point you want to be sharp( the grasses) and the furthest point you want to be sharp(the castle). You'd expect to focus on a point exactly in the middle of the two, but you don't! Focus on a point one third of the way into the shot. So if the grasses and the castle are 300m apart. You focus on something that you estimate is 100m between the two( in this case I focussed on the end of the fence on the left). It is as simple as that. 

Sometimes this technique is hard to apply. What if there were no fence to focus on? It can be hard for your autofocus to lock on and focus on dark low contrast areas in the shadows. The key thing is to avoid focussing on your subject , the castle. I promise you the foreground grass will blur and you will have ruined a strong image if you focus on the castle as most people would. Here is a quick exercise to get you trusting this method for getting maximum depth of field. The simple task also gets you choosing the best aperture for a landscape.

An activity to help choose the correct aperture and the best place to focus in a landscape

Lay four coins down on a table and place a lamp behind them and slight above to light them. Rather than photographing them from directly above photograph them from the side.

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lighting set up for close up images of lens and coins

Take a shot on Auto and see if you can get all the coins sharp. 

Almost impossible!

Now flick the camera into Aperture priority ( A or Av).Take a shot at f5.6 and see if you can get all the coins sharp

Equally difficult!

shallow depth of field in photo of line of coins taken at f5.6

So by now hopefully you have an inkling as to the best aperture to use and where to focus?

I'm hoping you are wanting to focus one third of the way into the shot.

In this case that means focussing on the 50p.

You have focussed at the hyperfocal distance.

Next, you need to choose the correct aperture and take another photo

large depth of field in photo of cline of coins taken at f32

A small aperture of f22 maximises depth of field and here is the final shot.

Nice and sharp from the £2 coin in the foreground right to the 20p in the background. This is pretty much impossible to do with your camera set on Auto.

Hopefully , the benefits of shooting in other modes, like Aperture Priority are starting to become clearer.

Always choose a small aperture(large f-number) and focus one third of the way into your shot for maximum depth of field/sharpness.

If you want to practise some more, try choosing the right aperture to get all the writing on a lens barrel sharp. 

The techniques work brilliantly on nightscapes and cityscapes as well as close-ups like the coins.

Hope this has been useful - do leave your comments below.

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