Facebook Pixel Aperture and Landscape Photography: Why f/16 Isn't (Always) Best

Aperture and Landscape Photography: Why f/16 Isn’t (Always) Best

Aperture and landscape photography: a guide

Landscape photography is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult disciplines of outdoor photography and perhaps one of the most challenging genres of photography in general. Sure, at first glance, it seems straightforward. You find yourself a pretty piece of scenery, wait for some good light, and click the shutter. Easy, right?

And yet that’s not the end of the story. I have screwed up endless opportunities by making errors in composition, focus mistakes, and of course, by messing up the settings of my camera. I suspect anyone who has dedicated much time to the art of landscape photography can say the same.

But while entire articles, even books, have been written about each of those errors and frequent mistakes, there is only one I’m going to discuss here: aperture. It’s a relatively simple setting, yet it makes such a difference to your landscape photos. Careful use of the aperture setting can result in beautiful, breathtaking images; haphazard use of aperture, on the other hand, can ruin an otherwise great shot.

Below, I offer my best advice for choosing the right aperture setting when shooting landscapes. I cover a wide variety of subjects and shooting scenarios, from more conventional wide-angle approaches to aerial and even nighttime landscape imaging.

Let’s dive right in!

What’s the best aperture for landscape photography?

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

(If you’re not already familiar with the basics of aperture, I encourage you to read dPS’s more general aperture guide before tackling this article!)

What aperture should you use in landscape photography? It’s f/16, right? That’s what I’ve always heard. It’s a narrow aperture setting that offers the perfect combination of sharpness and depth of field. So set your aperture to f/16 and shoot away.

That’s it; the article is finished! I hope you enjoyed it!

I’m joking, of course! There’s plenty more to be said about aperture. But I am surprised by how many landscape photographers assume that is the end of the story.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

The real answer to the question of which aperture to use in landscape photography is all of your aperture settings, depending on the situation.

First, landscape photography is about much more than just the classic composition that includes a foreground element in front of lovely background scenery. There are detail shots, aerials, night photography, telephoto landscapes, and plenty of other sub-genres to consider. For each of these niches, and for each specific situation, a different aperture is often appropriate.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

Aperture and sharpness

Before I delve into aperture recommendations for specific landscape scenarios, I feel obligated to warn you: different aperture settings will affect image sharpness, and not just in terms of depth of field. Let me explain:

Wide apertures (generally) produce softer photos

Use pretty much any lens wide open, and you’ll end up with softer images. When set to the maximum aperture, every part of each glass element in the lens is put to work, and any imperfections in the lenses, dirt, scratches, and the physics of light all combine to mess with your photo’s sharpness.

This is part of the reason that high-quality fast lenses cost so much; the glass has to be excellent to retain sharpness wide open.

Very narrow apertures produce softer photos

When the aperture is closed way down, images also show a reduction in sharpness, but not for the same reason. Rather, something called diffraction occurs, which is a concept that comes from the physics of light.

Take a look at the terrible hand-drawn illustrations I made below, and you’ll see why I’m a photographer, not a painter. Hopefully, however, you’ll also learn something about diffraction. The lines on the left show waves moving across space. Think of them as light waves or ocean waves; it makes no difference.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

As the wave approaches a wall with a large opening, the gap allows the waves through largely intact, causing only a slight dispersal and curving of the incoming wave. But apply a smaller opening (below), and suddenly those waves are heavily curved and dispersed:

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

In photography, a large aperture will cause relatively little change in the light waves entering your camera. A small aperture, however, will force a small amount of light to spread, disperse, and curve before hitting the sensor unequally and with less intensity. This results in a loss of sharpness.

While the physics of diffraction is interesting, when it comes to landscape photography, what you really need to know is this: very small apertures will be less sharp than mid-range apertures.

Attaining sharpness

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

It’s probably clear to you by now that if you wish to achieve maximum sharpness, neither fully wide-open nor closed-down apertures are best. Rather, maximum sharpness can be found somewhere in between. For most lenses, two stops down from wide open is the sharpness sweet spot.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, an f/16 aperture is very popular in landscape photography, and perhaps this explains why: it’s a good compromise between sharpness and depth of field. At f/16, you get a deep depth of field, and while the files will be softened by diffraction, the effect won’t be as noticeable at f/16 compared to, say, f/32.

Choosing the aperture to match the scenario

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

So…what now? We’re back where we started, right? Just shoot at f/16, and your images will turn out sharp from foreground to background, corner to corner.

Well, if tack-sharpness was the end-all and be-all of landscape photography, that would probably be the case.

However, sometimes you may wish to sacrifice some lens sharpness for a shallow depth of field effect or suffer some diffraction blur for the sake of attaining a long shutter speed. It really depends on the scenario, as I explain below:

Landscape detail shots

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

Landscape details are those small parts of a landscape that catch your photographic interest. This may be a cluster of autumn leaves, a stone in a tundra meadow, or light upon snow-covered trees, among many other possibilities.

In such situations, you may want to isolate that interesting subject from a cluttered background. You can do that by embracing the shallow depth of field created by a wide aperture.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

I was photographing a couple of years back on a crisp autumn day. Frost covered the meadow I was walking around, and each stem of grass glittered in the early morning sun. Spotting one particular stem, rising from the rest, I paused. I wanted to isolate that single piece of grass.

So, using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, I opened the aperture wide to create a shallow depth of field, composed, and shot. Here’s the result:

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography
This landscape photo doesn’t have a deep depth of field, and that’s deliberate!

I’ve used this strategy again and again in my landscape photography. Shooting autumn colors, I frequently wish to isolate a single leaf or patch of foliage from a distracting backdrop. A fast aperture and a shallow depth of field is the only way to do this.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

In such cases, I’m happy to sacrifice a bit of sharpness.

Aerial shots

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

In aerial photography, you are always a great distance from the landscape you are photographing. (If you aren’t, you’d have much greater concerns than taking photos!) Thus, depth of field should not be a major concern.

Meanwhile, the vibration of the airplane or helicopter’s engine creates a much greater risk of blur than setting your aperture too wide.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

When I’m shooting aerials, I open my aperture all the way to maximize shutter speed. When you need a shutter speed of around 1/1000s at minimum, a wide-open aperture is the only practical way to go.

Long-exposure photos

Slowing down the shutter speed for multi-second (or even multi-minute) exposures requires you to greatly reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor. Even with a low ISO and a neutral density filter, trying to create a long-exposure shot on a bright day is impossible without stopping down your aperture.

I was photographing along a river in Alaska a couple of years back on assignment for a conservation organization. It was a bright afternoon, but some clouds were breaking up the sky, creating decent photography conditions.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

I knew I would be unable to return to the spot in the evening, so I needed to make the most of the situation. Despite the bright afternoon light, I wanted a long exposure that showed flowing water.

I lowered my ISO to its minimum setting (50), put on a 4-stop neutral density filter, and stopped down my aperture to f/22.

Yes, I sacrificed a bit of sharpness, but by using an ultra-narrow aperture, I was able to get an 8-second exposure of the flowing river. The rippled water blurred pleasingly to a ghostly reflective surface, and I got the image I wanted.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

My point isn’t that you always need an f/22 aperture for long-exposure landscape photography. But if you want a long-exposure shot on bright days, you may need to narrow the aperture past f/16 to get a lengthy shutter speed, and that’s okay. In the end, landscape photography is often about compromise!

Landscape photography at night

Here in Alaska, I spend a lot of time shooting the northern lights, and I also spend a lot of time taking out visiting photographers to do the same. There is a myth about aurora photography that you need a long exposure. You don’t. In fact, you don’t want one!

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

One of the things that make the aurora so spectacular is the details in the curtains, the shifting colors, and the near-constant motion. A long exposure – anything more than a few seconds – will cause all those details to blur away. Fast shutter speeds (or speeds as fast as you can manage) are far, far better.

Choosing the right aperture for landscape photography

To get a fast shutter speed at night, you have to be willing to open your aperture all the way up, even if it costs you sharpness. High ISOs and fast lenses set wide open allow shutter speeds fast enough to capture the details of a fast-moving aurora display!

The same is true of astrophotography. While you generally have a bit more leeway compared to photographing the aurora, Earth’s rotation causes the stars to blur (and then streak), so it’s important to keep your shutter speed short and your aperture wide open.

Take better landscape photos by adjusting the aperture!

To wrap things up: Sure, in classic landscape photography, with a foreground element and background scenery, you’ll want a deep depth of field and maximum sharpness. In those conditions, by all means, set your aperture to f/16 and forget about it. But that’s not all there is to landscape photography.

Your cameras and lenses are equipped with many tools, each with a wide range of effects. To say there is only one aperture that is “right” is like saying that the only tool a carpenter needs is a hammer. Sure a hammer is the perfect tool for a carpenter when he needs to bang in a nail, but it’s really lousy at cutting boards.

What is the lesson here? Set your aperture for what is needed for the scene, not how you’ve been told it should be by someone else. Supposed “experts” say a lot of things. You don’t always have to listen to them!

Now over to you:

How do you approach aperture in landscape photography? How will you approach it in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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David Shaw
David Shaw

is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

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