For many types of photography, choosing where to focus is pretty simple. In portrait photography, you focus on the eyes. In wildlife photography, you focus on the animal.
But where should you focus in landscape photography? You’re generally capturing a scene, not a solitary subject – so how do you ensure that everything is as sharp as possible?
In this article, I’m going to share six tips for setting focus in your landscape photos. That way, the next time you’re faced with a tricky landscape scene, you’ll be able to come away with stunningly sharp results!
1. Don’t just set the focus at infinity
In landscape photography, you are trying to capture a scene, not a solitary thing. And many times, the scene you are trying to capture is far away from you (i.e., a distant mountain at sunset).
Now, 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 will be set at infinity.
Therefore, if you are taking a picture where most of the scene is far away, you might guess that you should just set the focus at infinity. And if everything in the frame is truly at infinity, then this is not a bad 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 the best compositions often include aspects of the scene that are closer to you than infinity. For instance, this shot below has a strong midground subject, which you’ll want to keep sharp:
If you set the focus on the distant sky (i.e., to infinity), the grass and lake will turn out soft. So in scenes with closer elements – like the landscape above – where should you set the focus?
You can get into the hyperfocal distance – we’ll talk more about that in a minute! – and make this as technical as you want. But when out shooting, your time is often precious. The light is changing and things are moving. So you probably don’t want to spend time doing calculations.
Instead, consider this rule of thumb:
Set the focus at infinity. Then just turn it back a little bit.
Of course, there’s an obvious question: How do you define a little bit?
I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you. It will vary from lens to lens, but it will usually be about a 5- or 10-degree turn or to the highest distance number printed on the lens (if your lens has these numbers, that is).
That way, you can have a bit of leeway. You’ll still get distant subjects in focus, but you’ll also maintain sharpness on midground objects, such as a lake (assuming you’re using a narrow aperture).
Unfortunately, this guideline won’t be a big help if you’re faced with close foreground subjects, as I discuss in the next section:
2. Try focusing a third of the way into the picture
Many pictures are ruined because the foreground is not sharp. It happens all the time.
And while the trick discussed above – focusing at infinity, then pulling the focus back slightly – will ensure a sharp background and a sharp midground, it probably won’t keep close foreground objects sharp.
So what do you do if your scene has close foreground elements?
Focus about a third of the way into the frame.
That way, you get the foreground elements sharp, but you get the background elements sharp, too.
So if your shot has rocks in the foreground, set your focus slightly past the first few rocks:
And if you have interesting vegetation in the foreground, focus just past it:
The goal is simple: focus a third of the way into the scene, even if it means setting the focus only a few feet in front of the lens.
“But wait a second!” you might say. “What about the background? If I focus on close foreground elements, won’t the background end up out of focus? Won’t it be blurry?”
Probably not! If you’re using a wide-angle lens and you’re using a decently narrow aperture (such as f/8 or f/11), then your background will still be in focus, even as the foreground remains tack-sharp.
3. Focus on the subject matter
In the previous tips, I’ve talked about setting focus to keep the entire shot sharp – but it’s important to remember the obvious:
When you have a definite subject or center of interest in your photo, just focus on that. It’s the most important part of your picture, you absolutely need it in focus, and nothing else (mostly) matters.
Don’t worry about your foreground, and don’t worry about your background. Just make sure the subject is in focus.
Yes, the foreground and/or background might end up blurry. But if there is a little fall-off in sharpness from your subject, that’s not a big deal; it may even look good!
4. Don’t narrow your aperture too much
There are no free lunches in photography. You may already know that using a smaller aperture to get a larger depth of field will cost you light.
(Remember: In landscape photography, you’ll often need a small aperture to maximize depth of field. But because the small aperture lets in less light, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed – which risks blur unless you’re using a tripod.)
But ultra-small apertures come with another problem:
While the details are a bit technical, diffraction is essentially softness due to a too-small aperture. Shooting at f/8 is usually fine – but push your aperture to f/16, f/18, or f/22, and you’ll start to get a lot of softness. (Diffraction is especially problematic in cameras with small sensors and lots of megapixels.)
Therefore, just using the smallest aperture possible – even if you have a tripod to handle the increased shutter speed – isn’t always the answer. You cannot just set your focus anywhere and rely on a super-deep depth of field to save you.
There are two ways around this issue, though, which we’ll talk about in the final sections.
5. Know your hyperfocal distance
Hyperfocal distance is just a fancy name for determining how close you can set your focus while keeping your background acceptably sharp. There are apps and calculators that will tell you this distance; you just type in your aperture and focal length, then hit “Calculate.”
Using the hyperfocal distance is the most fail-safe method of keeping an entire landscape photo sharp. So when you’re dealing with a tricky scene – one with a very close foreground element as well as distant background elements – it’s often worth doing a hyperfocal distance calculation.
Then, once you know the hyperfocal distance for a particular focal length and aperture, you can tweak your settings and composition to get the best possible result. For instance, remember how I said that a too-small aperture will result in diffraction? If you need an aperture of f/22 to keep the scene sharp, you can always widen your focal length (and widen your aperture at the same time). Or you can take a few steps back to decrease the necessary aperture.
In other words: Knowing the hyperfocal distance lets you maximize depth of field with precision. You don’t have to use a narrow aperture in the hopes of getting everything sharp; instead, you’ll know exactly what aperture, focal length, and point of focus is necessary to get a perfect result.
For instance, if you’re using a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera with an aperture of f/11, your hyperfocal distance will be 2.5 ft (76 cm). That means you can set the focus on a point just in front of you, while still keeping everything behind that point (all the way to infinity!) sharp.
6. Consider focus stacking
Say you’re faced with a very deep scene, like the one below:
After doing some calculations, you may find that you need an aperture of f/22 or beyond to get everything sharp from the nearest foreground subject to the most distant background elements. And as I discussed above, that will cause blur due to diffraction.
Of course, you can accept the blur…
…or you can use another method, called focus stacking.
Here, you take multiple pictures of the same scene using different focus points. Then you blend them together in a program such as Photoshop.
(This is also a good strategy if you don’t have a hyperfocal distance calculator on hand or you don’t have time to calculate the hyperfocal distance, yet you want to make sure everything in your scene is sharp.)
Start by setting your lens to its sharpest aperture (generally in the range of f/5.6 to f/8). Mount your camera on a tripod to ensure the framing remains consistent.
Then take a series of shots while subtly adjusting the focus. The first image should have the focus set on your closest foreground subject. The next image should have its focus point beyond the foreground subject, the third image should have its focus point beyond that, and so on.
Note that you can set the focus manually – where you twist the manual focus ring with each shot – or you can change the autofocus point before shooting. Personally, I’m a fan of using manual focus for this type of work, but feel free to try both methods and see which you prefer.
You may be wondering:
How many shots do you need for a focus stack?
It depends on your scene. But landscape photographers will often use two shots for the most basic scenes (one for the foreground and one for the background), three shots when things get slightly deeper (one for the foreground, one for the midground, and one for the background), and five or more shots when things get deeper still.
Then, when you get back home, you can blend the shots in a post-processing program.
This method is not a cure-all. It can get tricky when photographing moving subjects, and it requires a tripod plus a lot of patience, especially if you’re shooting in low light.
Still, focus stacking can be a powerful tool for maintaining focus and sharpness throughout an entire landscape picture.
Setting the focus in landscape photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be able to confidently determine where to focus in your landscape scenes – even if you’re dealing with a lot of depth.
(And remember: If all else fails, focus stacking is an option.)
So go out and test your newfound focusing skills!
Now over to you:
Do you struggle to focus when shooting landscapes? Which of these strategies do you plan to try first? Share your thoughts (and images!) in the comments below.