Rodney Campbell's Blog

Sharper Landscape Images – Tips & Techniques…

by on Feb.07, 2015, under Life, Photography

Having been asked for tips on how I achieve sharp looking landscape images I saw it as an excellent excuse for putting together this how to article on the topic.

One could go into excessive detail on the theory behind sharpness, optics and lens characteristics, circles of confusion and all sorts of related aspects but instead I’ll try to give some quick practical advice for improving your results.

These aren’t hard and fast “rules” but are rather general guidance for typical setups and scenarios:

Out in the Field When Taking Images:

– If you are shooting at shutter speeds slower than your effective focal length then ensure you are using a nice stable platform (e.g. a good solid Tripod and Head setup – and make sure it’s all locked down – knobs tight enough, etc).

– If you are using a tripod then also use the self timer or cable release (to ensure you’re not moving the camera when triggering the shutter).

– If you’re shooting when it’s gusty or windy – try to time the shots during lulls (or shield the camera with your body, weigh the tripod down, etc).

– Use an Aperture which is likely to give you good results – for most lenses and for landscape work this will typically be in the f/8 to f/11 range. Even cheaper lenses are generally reasonably sharp at f/8. If you shoot most lenses close to wide open or any lens very stopped down (e.g. f/22 (or even f/16 on some cameras) onwards) then you’ll sap sharpness.

– Use an aperture appropriate to give you the Depth of Field you require. Side note – the Depth of Field is basically the range of distance from the sensor plane which “appears” to be “acceptably” sharp – note only the actual point of focus is really in sharp focus. This will depend on the focal length you are using, the distance to the nearest subject in your frame you want to appear in focus and where you focus – see below. For people shooting landscapes with a typically wide angle lens (e.g. anywhere from 14mm to 35mm on full frame (10mm to 24mm on crop sensor) cameras) then f/8 to f/11 again is likely to be a good starting point and you may need to stop down further (e.g. f/16 or more) if you need to increase your depth of field.

– Use Hyperfocal focusing technique (or something approximating this). Again basically the Hyperfocal Distance is the “optimal” distance to focus at for a given aperture/focal length combination. I don’t carry a card for this or use an app (both are readily available). However if I do have something close in the foreground of my images I want to appear to be sharp in focus then I do focus on or just past the closest object and use an appropriate aperture to get the Depth of Field to extend to infinity. For example if I have a rock thats about 1.5m away from the camera lens and I’m shooting at 20mm (full frame) then I’ll focus at about 1.5m and shoot at f/11 and I know the DoF will cover from in front of the object out to infinity. Excluding using longer focal lengths if the closest object in the frame is many many (ten+) metres away then just focus on that.

– Shoot at or near your camera’s “native” ISO – for most D-SLR’s and Mirrorless systems these days this is likely to be around the ISO 100 to 200 area. The more you move away from this ISO (especially to quite high ISO’s) the more sensor noise comes into play and the less dynamic range, detail and so on will be rendered in your final image and the more you’ll need to apply noise reduction to compensate. Note simplistically noise reduction effectively blurs images and reduces how sharp they look.

– If you are shooting in a specific range of shutter speeds (around the 1/25th to 1 second range) you may want to consider using the Mirror Lockup feature of your camera (if it has one). Personally I rarely bother and I don’t feel I suffer many ill effects.

– If you are shooting with a lens which has an optical image stabiliser (VR/IS/VC/etc) and you are on a tripod then turn off the image stabilisation.

In Post Processing:

– If you are shooting in RAW (and you should be :)) then the images come in without any sharpness applied by the camera – you may need to add a little input sharpening to compensate. Lightroom generally does this for you (e.g. Sharpness of 25).

– “Appropriate” use of some sliders (I actually suggest using selective adjustments rather than global) can improve the apparent sharpness of the scene – e.g. the selective use of clarity (which amongst other things adds midtone contrast and helps to bring out “detail”).

– When you’ve finished editing your images do “Sharpen” them – appropriately for the output medium – e.g. there are different levels of sharpening required when outputting files for print (matte vs gloss vs …) or monitor display, etc.

– Note – it’s easy to end up over sharpening your images in post so do be careful otherwise you’ll end up with ugly crunchy detail and halo’ed contrast boundaries.

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