Try these tips and techniques for getting razor-sharp landscape images straight from your camera.
Taking sharp landscape photos isn’t difficult, as long as you’re disciplined enough to follow a routine for checking your photography gear and camera settings before you take the shot.
Of course, buying the best quality lenses you can afford helps, but even the sharpest glass will produce a soft picture if it’s not supported firmly during an exposure.
With that in mind, here are 10 steps to banishing blur that every landscape photographer should know.
1. Don’t… skimp on a tripod
None of us have an unlimited budget as far as photography equipment it concerned. But if there’s one camera accessory it’s worth spending more on, it’s a tripod.
It’s rather hackneyed advice to suggest that you need a ‘sturdy’ tripod, but there’s a big difference between a tripod that seems robust enough on the carpet tiles of a camera shop, and one that’s built to shrug off a force 9 gale on the North Sea coast.
Read tripod reviews and get the opinions of users who’ve used them in the field to get the true picture of performance.
If sharpness is key, go for a tripod without a centre column, but which gets the camera to your eye level without having to extend every leg section.
Another feature to consider is spiked tripod feet, as these provide additional stability in boggy ground.
Don’t underestimate the difference that a good quality tripod head can make to image sharpness, either. Cheap ball heads can suffer from image creep, where your carefully framed scene slowly drifts in the viewfinder over time. Three-way heads are often better in this regard, but all those knobs and arms can slow things down when you need to make fast adjustments.
2. Do… use your body as a wind block
If you’re shooting landscapes in exposed locations, then a ‘sturdy tripod’ alone may not be enough.
Acting as wind block by positioning yourself between the prevailing wind and the tripod-mounted camera can help, assuming that the wind isn’t blasting the camera from the front.
Many tripods feature a hook underneath the head or at the end of the centre column. Use this to attach a weight, such as a full (and heavy) camera bag or rocks (commercially available ‘rock bags’ make this simple). A lower centre of gravity provides greater stability, so hang the weight so that it’s almost touching the ground – a length of bungee cord can help here.
3. Don’t… forget your remote release
The smallest vibrations can make details in a landscape look soft, including those vibrations caused by pressing the shutter release button.
The sharpest landscape photos are the result of hands-off photography, with the camera mounted to a tripod and the camera shutter fired with a remote release.
You can, of course, use the camera’s self-timer function to trip the shutter, but if timing is critical, such as taking a shot as waves advance or recede on a beach, then a remote release is the better option.
4. Do… use mirror lock-up
The action of the mirror bouncing up and down inside the camera is enough take the edge off sharpness at slower shutter speeds.
Use your camera’s mirror lock-up function — not to be confused with the mirror-up function used for cleaning the camera sensor — to move the mirror out of the way before you make the exposure.
With the function activated, a single press of the shutter release locks the mirror out of the way — you’ll know it’s worked because the viewfinder turns black. After a few seconds, any vibrations will have faded, allowing you to press the shutter release again to take the shot.
Some cameras have an exposure delay function that works in a similar way. For those that don’t have either, just use Live View mode: here, the mirror is already out of the way, allowing the rear screen to show a direct feed from the exposed camera sensor.
5. Don’t… leave image stabilization switched on
Some image stabilized (IS) lenses can detect when the camera (or the lens itself) is attached to a tripod and switch off the system accordingly.
But why take that chance? Not all lenses have this feature, and if image stabilization remains active while the lens is fixed to a tripod then the system essentially gets into a ‘feedback loop’ and attempts to compensate for vibrations that aren’t present. The result? Soft pictures.
For sharper landscapes, switch off IS.
6. Do… remove filters
Some landscape photographers will recoil in horror at this suggestion. But if you want to pull the sharpest performance out of a lens, you need to leave it naked, apart from a lens hood.
Admittedly, the difference in sharpness between a shot taken using the best quality filter and one taken without a filter in place may be small. But this post is concerned with how to get the sharpest landscapes possible.
Arguably, there are a couple of filters that can give the impression of improved sharpness. A circular polariser reduces glare and boosts the contrast between blue skies and clouds, while a strong ND filter will blur any moving objects in a picture, making stationary objects appear sharp by contrast.
7. Don’t… rely on autofocus
Autofocus isn’t always accurate: some lenses and AF systems show back-focus or front-focus errors, where the lens actually locks focus slightly behind or in front of the object that appears to be sharp in the viewfinder.
Using AF Microadjustment (AFMA) to calibrate each camera and lens combination you have is one way to improve autofocus accuracy, but when it comes to photographing landscapes, manual focus is the way forward.
Thankfully, the days of having to swap a camera’s focusing screen for one that enables more accurate manual focusing are gone, and the best way to fine-tune image sharpness is with Live View.
As the image you see displayed on the cameras’s rear screen during Live View mode is taken directly from the camera sensor, you can be confident that what you see is what you get. Magnifying areas of the image lets you assess sharpness at a fine level of detail, and pressing the depth of field button button allows you to check for focus shift.
8. Do… use hyperfocal focusing
Hyperfocal focusing is a technique that involves manually focusing the lens at the hyperfocal distance. It’s a trick that landscape photographers use to give their photos as much depth of field, or front-to back-sharpness as possible.
The old-school advice for photographing landscapes is to focus a third of the way into the scene. This is because the depth of field extends approximately one third in front of the object you’re focusing on, towards the camera, and two thirds behind it.
If you focus on the closest point in the scene, then the depth of field in front of it is essentially going to waste, and the background may fall beyond the depth of field
Hyperfocal focusing enables you to focus at a specific point which makes both the foreground and the background look sharp. The image may look blurred in the viewfinder when you do so, but this is because the image is always displayed at the lens’s largest or maximum aperture. Press the camera’s depth of field button to reveal the true picture.
Hyperfocal focusing does have its limits: it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to squeeze both the distant horizon and something close to the front of the lens into the depth of field, for instance. But it can be an effective way if increasing sharpness at normal shooting distances.
The hyperfocal distance varies according to the combination of camera, lens focal length and aperture being used. Once these are set, you can work out where to focus using a hyperfocal distance chart, or by downloading one of the many hyperfocal distance smartphone apps that are available.
Of course, to set the hyperfocal distance you’ll need a lens with a built-in distance scale. If yours doesn’t, you can measure the distance using a tape measure or laser measuring tool, or estimate it using Live View and depth of field preview to ensure that details remain sharp.
9. Don’t… use apertures of f/22 or smaller
Taking pictures with the camera in Aperture Priority or Manual exposure mode enables you to manually set the aperture. The choice of aperture is an important consideration when it comes to landscape photography, as this gives you more control over the depth of field.
Smaller apertures increase the depth of field and make more of a photo looking sharp — only up to a point, though.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but you should avoid the smallest apertures — represented by high f-numbers such as f/32, f/22 and f/16 on a typical wide-angle lens — even though these results in a large depth of field.
This is because the effects of diffraction are more noticeable at smaller apertures.
Diffraction is caused by light striking the edges of the aperture blades as it passes through the lens. This light rays are bent and dispersed, causing the image to appear softer. Diffraction actually happens at all apertures, but the proportion of ‘bent’ light rays is greater at smaller apertures.
10. Do… consider hiring a pro-quality lens
Professional camera lenses are better corrected for optical defects and are generally sharper than their amateur counterparts. But the price is often prohibitive.
Hiring a high-quality lens rather than buying one enables you get the sharpest glass for a fraction of the cost. It also means you can demo a range of specialist lenses that are found in the camera bags of professional landscape photographers, such as Canon’s wide-angle tilt-and-shift lenses.
Tilt-shift lenses enable you to use larger apertures than you would typically use for landscapes. These apertures produce sharper images, but they lack the depth of field required to keep both foreground and background details sharp at the same time. However, you can adjust the ’tilt’ of a tilt-shift lens to increase the amount of a scene that is in focus.
Posted on August 12, 2014 at 2:41 am