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In many types of photography the question of where you should set your focus is pretty simple. For example, in portrait photography, there is one simple rule: focus on the eyes. When the eyes aren’t on the same plane of focus, focus on the near eye. End of story.
It is pretty simple with other types of photography as well. In wildlife photography you focus on the animal. In fact, in any type of photography where there is a clear subject, you always focus on that subject. That’s not to say it is always easy, but at least it isn’t difficult to figure out.
But what about landscape photography where you are generally capturing more of a scene than a solitary subject? Where do you focus to ensure that everything in the scene is as sharp as possible? The answer isn’t always so clear. Therefore, in this article, we’ll cover some tips for helping you know where to set the focus.
Again, oftentimes in landscape photography, you are trying to capture a scene rather than a solitary thing. Many times, the scene you are trying to capture is far away from you. Most lenses have a range of focus values, and once you get beyond a certain distance (often 20-30 feet, or 8-10 meters) the focus is set at infinity. Everything beyond that point will just be infinity. Therefore, if you are taking a picture where most things in the frame are far away, it might seem that you should just set the focus at infinity. If you are using autofocus (and most of us are), you might be inclined to set the focus using something that is very far away from you.
If everything in the frame is truly at infinity, then setting the focus at its maximum distance is not a horrible idea. If there is nothing close to you, then there is just no need to do anything else, you don’t need to overly complicate things. But more commonly there are aspects of the scene that are closer to you than infinity. Where do you set the focus then?
You can get into hyperfocal distance (we’ll talk more about that in a minute) and make this as technical as you want. But often your time is precious when you’re out shooting. The light is changing and things are moving. You can get a pretty good sense of things without resorting to calculations. As a result, consider this rule of thumb: set the focus at infinity and then just turn it back a little bit. The obvious question is what is, how do you define a little bit, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you. It will vary from lens to lens, but will usually be about a 5-10° turn or just to the highest distance number printed on the lens (if your lens has these numbers).
Why would you want to do that? Because of the depth of field that will be in your picture (more on depth of field below). Since you are taking an outdoor photo, you will probably not be shooting wide open, or even with a large aperture. So, there will likely be some depth depth of field involved. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a large depth of field, but the point is that it gives you some leeway. By pulling the focus forward, that leeway will still get everything out to infinity in focus. It will also get things a little closer in focus as well.
Many pictures are ruined because the foreground is not sharp. It happens all the time. Therefore, if you have something in your scene that is close to the camera, focus on it. If the ground is prominent in your picture, set your focus close to you. Make sure that foreground is in focus. Often you will set the focus only a few feet in front of you.
But wait a second, you might ask, what about my background? Won’t it be out of focus or blurry? Probably not. If you’re using your wide-angle lens (and if you are taking a outdoor photo that has a discrete foreground, then you probably are) you will have a wide depth of field, even at moderate to large apertures.
Let’s not lose sight of the obvious though. When you have a definite subject or center of interest in your photo, just focus on that. It is the most important part of your picture and you absolutely need it in focus. Don’t worry about your foreground, don’t worry about your background. Just make sure the subject is in focus. Frankly, if there is a little fall-off in sharpness from your subject, that will probably not be such a bad thing.
There are no free lunches in photography. You probably already know that by using a smaller aperture to get a larger depth of field, it will cost you light. The smaller aperture lets in less light so you will have to use a longer shutter speed (risking blur if you aren’t using a tripod) or raise the ISO (risking digital noise in your picture). But the smaller aperture will also lead to something called diffraction, particularly in cameras with smaller digital sensors. Therefore, just using the smallest aperture possible isn’t always the answer. You cannot just set your focus anywhere and rely on a super-wide depth of field to save you.
There are two ways around this issue though, which we’ll talk about next.
Hyperfocal distance is just a fancy name for determining how close you can set your focus, and still keep your background acceptably sharp. There are apps and calculators that will tell you this distance depending on your aperture, sensor size, and focal length. For a full explanation of hyperfocal distance along with some charts and links to apps that will calculate it for you, check out How to Find and Use Hyperfocal Distance for Sharp Backgrounds .
An example will illustrate the point made above about backgrounds tending to remain sharp when you are using wide angle lenses. If you’re using a 16mm lens on a full frame camera, and shooting at f/11, your hyperfocal distance is only 2.5 feet. That means you can set the focus on a point just in front of you, and keep everything behind that point sharp.
Knowing the hyperfocal distance will often liberate you to set the focus point quite close, in order to maintain sharp foregrounds in your picture. It also means you often don’t need to use the smallest aperture your lens offers, so you can avoid the effects of diffraction.
When the methods above won’t work for you, or you just need to make sure absolutely everything in the photo from front to back is tack sharp, you may want to consider focus stacking. Here you take multiple pictures of the same scene using different focus points.
Start by setting the aperture of your lens where it is sharpest (also called the sweet spot – if you don’t know, that is usually in the range of f/5.6 – f/8). Take a shot with the focus set close to you, then repeat the process, gradually setting the focus point farther and farther away with each shot. Later you blend your pictures in Photoshop (for more about how to do that check out Maximizing Depth of Field Without Diffraction).
This method is not a cure-all. It obviously won’t work with moving subject matter. In addition, it can be tedious, and you risk slightly moving the camera since you have to twist the focus ring between shots. Still it can be a powerful tool for maintaining focus and sharpness throughout your entire picture.
No rule is going to cover every situation when it comes to focus. As with many aspects of photography, you’ll just have to use your own judgment in the field. Hopefully, as you do so, these tips will help you nail the focus and keep the picture tack sharp where it matters.
This week we are doing a series of articles to help you do better nature photography. See previous articles here: