Let’s face it… all landscape photographers want to capture sharp photos. However, getting everything in sharp focus in landscape photography is an issue that many of us struggle with. We often get questions like the following about getting everything sharply in focus: “I’ve noticed that when I look at some of my photos, they seem to be in focus – but when I zoom in to take a closer look, they aren’t. What can I do?”
Like all other beginner landscape photographers, I struggled at first to get my photos in sharp focus. So how did I discover the proper focusing setting and focus modes to use for getting landscape photography in sharp focus?
How I Learned to Get Sharp Focus
The story begins in Washington’s beautiful Olympic National Park. I was new to landscape photography and was trying to shoot a gorgeous cascade in the Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park. But I was having trouble getting a sharp image.
Some landscape photos would turn out great, but many of them looked like the image you see above. I knew I wanted to get close to the foreground moss, but I didn’t know where exactly to set my focus point or which focus settings would help me to get the most important parts of the scene tack-sharp. I tried using different focal lengths, different focus settings on my DSLR camera but nothing seemed to help. I understood the principles and math behind the concept of hyperfocal distance in theory, but had no idea how to apply those principles in the field.
Over the next six months, I studied and practiced until I mastered the concept of hyperfocal distance. I took all of the theoretical information and applied my practical experience to it, developing an easy, five-step workflow that allows me to get my landscape photos in sharp focus every time.
When I returned to that same spot in Olympic National Park, I had no trouble getting close to my foreground AND getting everything sharply in focus. My digital camera was only inches away from the trillium flower in the above image, but I knew exactly where to focus and what focal length to use to highlight all the beautiful details of the scene.
There are various reasons why you might have problems getting sharp focus for your landscape photos. Getting the sharp focus requires you to think through the problem and then choose the correct focus settings on your DSLR or mirrorless camera and the right focusing strategy. Let’s take a look at some typical focusing situations found in nature.
Photographing Birds in Flight
When we are talking about capturing images of birds in flight, we are typically using a telephoto lens (200mm or longer) to capture them. Focusing with a telephoto lens is very critical because a tiny amount of focus adjustment can make your image blurry. In order to track the birds, I set my digital camera in continuous focus tracking mode and picked the widest possible focusing zone. This allows my camera to use ALL available focusing points to track the bird as it moves across the sensor. This combination of focus settings work well your are trying to capture the bird against a uniform background such as sky or a large body of water. So it is critical to know which combination of focus settings will work best in a given situation.
Focus Setting for a Moving Gecko in Hawaii
The motion of a gecko is not quite the same as the motion of birds in flight. A gecko’s motion is unpredictable. There are times when it sits perfectly still and other times when it’s on the move. This makes focusing more challenging then with flying birds. Here is how I ended up getting a sharp focus on the gecko in Big Island, Hawaii.
Landscape Photography in Sharp Focus
When my subject is static with a close foreground element, I use the Hyperfocal Distance Workflow to get everything in my landscape photo sharp focus. This requires me to set my focus point manually at a specific distance. In the following landscape photo from Death Valley National Park, Varina selected a single focusing point focus setting on her DSLR camera using Liveview to set her focusing point exactly where she wanted it to be.
It is important to understand that focus setting is just one of many variables that impacts sharpness of your landscape photos. Besides choosing the right focus setting, you also need to pay attention to the subject motion, camera motion, depth of field, and more. Besides focus modes and settings on your digital camera, here are a few more practical tips that landscape photographers should follow to get sharp photos:
Use a Tripod when possible
You don’t need a fancy or expensive tripod – just something that keeps your camera nice and steady when you are shooting. If you cannot use a tripod, make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the subject motion and overcome the camera shake that may occur. Many digital camera manufacturers support an image stabilizer functionality that is built into the digital camera or the camera lens. This will help capture sharp landscape photos if you are not using a tripod.
Use a Remote Release for Hands Free Operation
If you don’t have a timed release, most digital cameras have a two-second delay. This feature waits two seconds after you push the shutter release in order to minimize camera shake. You just press the shutter and then take your hand away. Two seconds later, the camera takes the picture. If you are using a DSLR, you can select the “mirror lockup” setting as well. When you release the shutter, the mirror inside the camera pops up, the camera pauses for two seconds, and then it takes the photo. This ensures that vibration from the mirror movement does not affect the sharpness in the final photo.
Switching to Manual Focus Setting when necessary
The idea is to get your focus just right and then switch out of auto-mode. Many cameras automatically adjust focus when you depress the shutter button part-way. Sometimes, landscape photographers set the focus on their subject and then shift their composition before releasing the shutter. That’s a good way to focus on something that isn’t in the middle of the frame. But if you don’t want to accidentally change your focus, you must make sure you turn off the auto focus option after focusing. Of course, many cameras have multiple focus points, so it’s often possible to focus on a specific point within your composition simply by choosing the right focusing point.
Pay attention to your Depth of Field
The wider your aperture, the narrower your depth of field will be. If the point where you focused is sharp but things that are further away or closer aren’t, then you need a narrower aperture. You can also back up a little and see if you can get a better focus.
DLR or Mirrorless cameras can’t Focus in the Dark
So if you are trying to focus at night, you might have problems. Try using a flashlight to light something in your scene so you can focus on it. Then turn the flashlight off before you take the shot.
As you can see, getting everything sharply in focus for landscape photography is about so much more than just knowing how your camera works. Getting really sharp images can be a challenge, but you can make it happen with a little knowledge and practice. Our In Sharp Focus and Hperfocal Distance tutorials offers a solid focusing workflow that highlights technical knowledge and encourages creativity. Filmed on the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii, this course is specifically designed with landscape photographers in mind.