Where to Focus in Landscape Photography to Get a Sharp Shot

 In Newsletter, Picture
In photography, there are two types of focus. The first is a plane of focus. This occurs at the point where you actually focus the camera, and it runs in a plane that parallels the sensor in your camera. Then there’s depth of field. Depth of field is how much of the photo appears to be in focus behind and in front of the plane of focus. In landscape photography, we usually want great depth of field where every part of the image appears in focus as opposed to shallow depth of field in which only the subject is in focus and the rest of the picture is out of focus. In this month’s newsletter I’m going to provide a few rules of thumb about where to focus in landscape photography to get a sharp shot. To achieve a sharp shot we’ll figure out where to place the plane of focus and combine that with great depth of field.
Note: See below for a special offer for newsletter readers.

How to Achieve Great Depth of Field

landscape focus example

Where do you focus in this shot to get the foreground, the waterfall and the canyon in focus?

You control depth of field using your aperture. On your camera’s LCD screen that’s the f/number, also called an f/stop. We denote an f/stop, by writing “f/” followed by the number designation “4.” For example, f/4. While minimum and maximum f/stops vary on camera lenses, most have an f/4 and an f/22. To increase the depth of field, you stop down the aperture by moving from a smaller f/number to a larger f/number. For example, if you change your f/stop (f/number) from f/4 to f/11, you get more depth of field. A rule of thumb for depth of field is this:

  • The larger the f/number, the more depth of field. More depth of field = more appears in focus.

Note: the way I state this works and is easier to think about and conceptualize, but a higher f/number is a bit of a lie. F/stops are actually fractions, so f/4 is 1/4 and f/22 is 1/22. So, in reality f/22 is a smaller number than f/4, but if that confuses you, ignore it and think about it this way: the larger the number, the more depth of field.

Great Depth of Field Rule of Thumb

A rule of thumb for achieving great depth of field in landscape photography is:

  • Use an f/stop ranging from f/11 to f/16.
  • The closer the foreground is to the front of your lens, the higher the f/number should be.

For example, if the closest thing in the picture is about 4 feet away from the front of your lens, you can usually get away with an aperture of f/11 and get a great depth of field. If the closest thing in the picture is about 2 feet away from the front of your lens, you probably need to change to f/16.

Define Wide Angle vs. Telephoto

Let’s define the difference between wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses. This is important, because when you use these rules of thumb, you change the way you focus based on the type of lens that you’re using.
  • Wide angle: anything wider than 35 mm-e. Or wider than 24mm on a APS-C sensor size camera. A wider lens takes in a larger angle of view. That means that when you look through the lens you see more of the scene. A 14mm lens is wider than a 24mm lens. The shorter the focal length the wider the lens. Tangent: if you’re just learning to shoot wide consider using a focal length of 24mm-e (16mm on APS-C). It’s wide, but not too wide. Learning on anything wider is more difficult, because it sees too much of the scene. That makes composition much more difficult.
  • Telephoto: anything longer than 60mm-e. Or longer than 40mm on a APS-C sensor size camera. As you increase the number of millimeters of a lens, your lens sees less; a 200mm lens is longer and you see a narrower view than a 100mm lens. Basically, you zoom in.

Rule of thumbs on where to focus in landscape photography to get a sharp shot

These rules assume that you’re trying to get a great depth of field (see Great Depth of Field Rule of Thumb above).

  • Anytime you’re shooting wide with a foreground in the shot, focus near the bottom 1/3 grid line in your camera.
  • Anytime you’re shooting wide and have something close to the lens, pull out a hyperfocal distance chart and focus the distance away from the camera equal to the hyperfocal number.
  • Anytime you’re shooting long, focus on the closest most important item in the shot.
  • Anytime you’re shooting between wide and telephoto, it depends. Usually, you go with the telephoto rule, but not always.
where to focus in a landscape shot

Anytime you’re shooting wide with a foreground in the shot, focus near the bottom 1/3 grid line in your camera. Shown as the circle here.

Example 1

  • Anytime you’re shooting wide with a foreground in the shot, focus on the bottom 1/3 grid line in your camera.

In this example the tip of the ice chunk is near the bottom 1/3rd grid line when using the cameras third lines. There is nothing in the shot that is extremely close to the lens. The nearest part of the photo is about 4 feet away. You focus within the circle shown on the image. I used f/16 instead of f/11 to gain a little more depth of field in the background. I wanted to make sure that everything appeared in focus in the shot, but I was especially concerned with the fine detail in the treeline. Usually, I would have used f/11 in a shot like this.

Example 2

  • Anytime you’re shooting wide and have something close to the lens, pull out a hyperfocal distance chart and focus the distance away from the camera equal to the hyperfocal chart number.

Wikipedia has an excellent definition of hyperfocal distance:

Definition 1: The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp.

Basically, hyperfocal distance is a distance that we can calculate that tells us how far away we need to focus to get everything in our shot in focus. Most of the time, we can use the first rule of thumb and it approximates the hyperfocal distance of a wide angle lens. But, when you have something extremely close to your lens, you should get out an app or a chart and get more exact in where you focus.

Here’s a typical hyperfocal chart for a full frame camera. For APS-C cameras, you’ll need a different chart. If you run windows, you can get a free program to make these charts here.

hyperfocal chart

ice curve on lake superior

Anytime you’re shooting wide and have something close to the lens, pull out a hyperfocal distance chart and focus the distance away from the camera equal to the hyperfocal chart number.

To use the chart, find the focal length that you’re using along the bottom. Follow the vertical line up from that focal length until you run into the diagonal line labeled as the f/number that you are shooting at. From the intersection point, make a horizontal line that goes from the intersection point to the left side of the chart. The left side of the chart tells you how far away from your camera you need to focus to get the maximum depth of field possible for that aperture. You focus on an object that far away from your camera.

For example, in this shot I was shooting at 28mm, so I found the 28mm line and follow it up to my aperture of f/16. At the intersection of the f/16 diagonal and the 28mm vertical line, I create a line that goes horizontally to the left. It hits the left side of the chart between 5 feet and 6 feet. I’d call it 5.4 feet. 5.4 is the hyperfocal distance. So, in the field I measured 5.4 feet away from my camera and then focused there. It made everything from half of the hyperfocal distance (5.4/2 = 2.7 feet) to infinity in focus. The ice at the bottom of the photo was about 3 feet away, so everything ended up in focus.

Example 3

  • Anytime you’re shooting long, focus on the closest most important item in the shot.

When you switch to a telephoto lens, the general rule of thumb is focus on the closest most important item to you. For example, in the opening shot of the Grand Marais Lighthouse and the full moon (you’ll need to click through to the website to see the image, because it doesn’t go out with the newsletter unfortunately). The two most important items in the shot are the lighthouse and the full moon. The lighthouse is closer to the camera than the moon, so you focus on the lighthouse. If you had focused on the moon, the lighthouse would end up out of focus.

Image Gallery Examples

I’m including select shots from the last couple of months. Click the thumbnail to see a larger image. Try to figure out where I focused using these rules of thumb. If you have questions, ask in the comment section on my website.

Upcoming Workshops

Most of my workshops are full or close to full. I still have space in my Lake Superior Fall Photography Workshop. This is a five-day workshop during peak fall color on the north shore of Lake Superior. The five days gives us flexibility that a three-day workshop doesn’t. It also allows you to get immersed into the landscape and it helps you break the connection to your workaday life and achieve a creative flow that frees your imagination. It also gives me flexibility to add additional teaching topics, and I bring a guest instructor in for an evening of night photography. Last year, we had an amazing display of northern lights.

Some teaching topics include:

  • The three elements of organic composition
  • Expose to the right
  • Using filters to transform your pictures, overcome sensor limitation and to help achieve creative flow
  • General principles of night photography
  • How to make your fall color images pop
  • Planning sunrise and sunset shots
  • Effective seascape photography
  • Bold Lightroom processing
  • Two image review sessions

A few locations we may visit include:

  • Lake Superior for sunrise and sunset
  • Inland lakes for sunset (I might bring my wooden canoe if you talk me into it which is easy)
  • The maple forests of the Lutsen/Tofte area
  • A maple syrup factory
  • Overlooks near the BWCA
  • Rivers surrounded with fall colors
  • The Pigeon River overlook
  • The birch forests of the Gunflint Trail
  • And many more…

As an added bonus to photographers who want to stay another night, I’m planning on shooting the lunar eclipse on the Sunday night after the workshop. Anyone that wants to learn how to create a photo like the one below will want to stay for the eclipse. If you sign up in the next month, this is included for free with your registration. After that, it’s $100.

The workshop is $750. I’m offering an early bird discount of $50 for anyone who registers in the month of May. Use the code “earlybirdfall” at checkout to get your $50 off. Rooms are 10% off at the Aspen Lodge.

Register here: Lake Superior Fall Photography Workshop

Stitched Panorama

Stitched Panorama

 

Website Housekeeping

I was told by someone that they have a hard time getting to my website. I can’t duplicate the problem. If you are having a problem, please, let me know where you live, the operating system you use, the browser you use. Version numbers are great as well. Also, let me know if the thumbnails and images are appearing in your email newsletter.

Thanks,

Bryan


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Comments
  • Kathleen Streich
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge of photography. The newsletters work for me. Love how you use examples from your photos.

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