Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use depth of field to keep image elements in focus in the thirteenth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
There are many subjects for which an out of focus background is desirable. When the background is completely blurred such that there is no definition at all, wildlife, birds, people, flowers, and many other subjects are poignantly defined by the contrast between the sharp foreground and the soft background.
By contrast, landscape photographs should almost always be sharp from the front of the picture to the back. One of the main reasons that we appreciate nature so much is because of its intricate detail. If that detail is out of focus, the picture is not nearly as effective. In fact, most of the times it will be a failure. We don’t see elements in a landscape out of focus when we look at them with our eyes, and all we are doing in photography is trying to simulate our everyday experience where everything is in focus.
Depth of field can be increased three ways:
1. using a wider-angle lens
2. using a smaller lens aperture
3. moving back from the foreground
Obviously, it is not always possible to have as much depth of field as we would like. However, that should be the goal in many situations. If you make it a habit to use a tripod every time you go out shooting, getting complete depth of field should not be challenging at all. As long as you have a tripod, you can get as much depth of field as you want even if you are shooting in dark and stormy conditions, at twilight, or after dark. Light is cumulative, and with long exposures you can gather enough light that will then enable you to use small lens apertures for maximum depth of field. The top image, for example, was taken in Antelope Canyon when the sun was low in the sky. It was very dark at the bottom of the canyon, and I used a one-second exposure at f/32 to make the picture. You would never know that it was so dark, simply because the long exposure lightened up the scene. It was important to have the sandstone in the foreground tack sharp, and at the same time the more distant part of the canyon had to be sharp as well. Otherwise the picture would not be successful.
The same was true for image 13.2, an architecture composition I found in Morocco. If the distant village were less than sharp or if the frame of round stone window had any amount of softness to it, this picture would end up in the trash can. Make depth of field your foremost priority when shooting landscapes, cityscape, and seascapes.
The only inhibiting factor about using small lens apertures for maximum depth of field in landscape work is that if there is any wind it will cause elements in the image to move and appear blurry. One of the advantages of shooting when the sun is low in the sky is that the wind usually dies down or is completely absent. The air is usually very still before sunrise and after sunset simply because the sun is not warming up the air and causing it to rise.
The closer you get to the foreground, the less depth of field you’ll have. However, dramatic landscape photography often entails placing the camera position extremely close to the foreground elements in the scene. This could be three to five feet, and when you create that kind of composition you have to be meticulous in your focusing technique. If you focus on infinity—i.e., the most distant part in the landscape—the foreground will be soft even if you use a wide-angle lens. It may look sharp on the LCD monitor, but when you get home and enlarge the image on your computer, you’ll see that the rocks, the tree branches, or the wildflowers that you composed close to the camera position are not as sharp as you would have liked.
The solution, therefore, is to focus very close to the camera position. I generally focus about seven or eight feet away when I am using a wide-angle lens in the 16-24mm range on a full-frame sensor, and with the smallest lens aperture that gives me the most depth of field I can get given the distance to the foreground, the f-stop, and the focal length of the lens. This is exactly what I did in figures 13.3 and 13.4. To ensure that my pictures will be as sharp as possible, I also use the built-in self-timer on the camera to trigger the shutter (or a cable release) as well as the mirror lockup feature to minimize vibration.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow