Why Shooting Landscapes and Nature is Better at f/11 or Less

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Shot at 8mm, f/5.6 on an APS-C camera. The focal point was about 1/3 of the way into the frame at a point about 30 feet from the camera on the green grass where it meets the road.

Almost everything you will read will tell you that to have a great looking landscape shot it has to be sharp from front to back, and you have to shoot at f/16 or f/22 to get that.

Not true.

That is not how it works in the real world with your eyes, and it is not how a camera or lens should be used either. I’ll break this down and destroy this myth.

Landscape photos do not need to be sharp front to back (foreground to background).

I don’t see that way. You don’t see that way. Eyes don’t work that way.

Unless you’re a raptor (and a damn smart one if you’re reading this), your eyes do not see far things with as much clarity as they do near things. Far away items should not be in focus.

Focus vs. Sharpness, Clearness, Cleanliness

Separate “focus” from “sharpness.” Everything should be sharp and clear, but not everything should be in focus. Sharpness or clearness could be thought of as a correction of the lens and camera limitations that brings the image into what you would see with your eyes. Your eyes, if they’re good, see everything sharply and clearly whether you are focused on something or not. There is not a blurring or softness of the image near the edges where it is not so in the middle. It is sharp and clear all over. The out of focus areas are also clear and not showing signs of lens aberrations (defects).

I like to think of sharpness also as clearness. A clear image is free of aberrations just as my vision is clear. It could also be described as clean. This takes into account all of the camera and lens limitations such as lens aberrations and noise. If an image is clean and clear, it is perceived as sharp or crisp. If it is not in focus or blurred, then that fuzzy area is also clean, clear, and free of aberrations. It just has a texture to it that is smoothed by the blurring.

A Fluid Shooting Style = No Tripods = <f/11

Another problem with shooting with those small apertures (high f numbers), is that it reduces the light entering the camera and necessitates using a long shutter speed. Long shutter speeds mean more opportunity for blurring due to shaking when hand-holding. Or, even worse if you ask me, it means you must use a tripod. The dreaded tripod is the bane of fast, fluid shooting styles. I like to shoot on-the-go, and this hand-held method has let me get some quick shots of landscapes in perfect light and nature in motion. If I had used a tripod, I would have missed most of my best shots.

The photos on this page were all taken at less than f/11 and most were at f/5.6 or even lower.

 

I shoot in program mode a lot. I let the camera decide the shutter, aperture, and ISO. However, with program mode on my camera, I can still control the aperture to some extent. So, I will modify the aperture until the shutter is at about the extent of my capability of hand-holding which is around 1/60th of a  second (sometimes 1/30 s).

 

I have set an upper limit on the ISO that my camera can choose. On my 80D, the most noise I can stand is at an ISO of 3200, so that is my upper setting I programmed into my camera. However, I try to get landscape shots down in the 100 to 200 ISO range or 800 at the most.

 

Wide-Angle Landscape Lenses

Another reason to shoot at larger apertures of f/5.6 or larger (lower f numbers) is that those wide angle lenses often used for landscape photos have lower minimum apertures. Try to find a wide angle lens with a low f-stop, and you’ll either be surprised or stunned. There aren’t many, and those that are out there are incredibly expensive.

This means hat the lens itself will limit your ability to capture light, so using it at f/5.6 will let in the most light for a good exposure of your image.

As far as focus goes, wide-angle lenses are some of the easiest lenses to keep sharpness from front to back in a scene. Shooting at the hyperfocal distance will allow this to happen. See more about that below.

 

Vivid Color

One more reason for shooting at apertures of less than f/11 and probably less than f/5.6 is about color. The color of a picture taken at f/5.6 will be better than the same taken at f/16. Why? This is because light makes color. In the dark, you cannot see any color because there is no light. More light equals more color. Your camera works in a similar way to your eye in that it sees more color when there is more light.

Setting a small aperture of f/16 doesn’t let in much light to the camera sensor, so the colors are reduced in the captured photo. The receptor photo sites on the sensor have less light to work with and so digitize the image using what they have. They must put their color information into specific bins in memory and with fewer incoming levels, the output is also reduced. This results in a less-colorful picture. The colors are less intense. Sometimes this results in small-scale color banding as well that maybe only your eye will perceive. It can be seen as a subtle shift in color, so that what color there is will not only be reduced but will also be “off.”

Having a larger aperture avoids that problem. An aperture of f/5.6 lets in much more light than one at f/16 — 8 times more in fact!

Noise

But why not just leave the shutter open longer for that f/16 aperture?

  1. You will have to use a tripod.
  2. You will have more noise.

The tripod we already discussed, and I hope you know it is a barrier for getting many good shots.

Noise will increase because leaving the shutter open longer leaves the sensor on longer. The longer a sensor is energized, the warmer it gets. The more heated a sensor gets, the more noise it generates in the capture. Even in winter, the sensor will produce noise all on its own. There are shot noise, stuck pixels, dead pixels and hot pixels. These are all generated by the camera sensor and electronics. Leaving the shutter open longer allows more of that noise to be captured.

 

Hyperfocal Distance

To use a lens to its fullest extent, everyone should know the basics of hyperfocal focusing. When shooting landscapes at less than f/11, it becomes particularly important. As a general heuristic, the maximum sharpness can be achieved by focusing on a point that is 1/3 of the way into the scene. By doing this, everything will be sharp from front to back of the scene. I use this heuristic rather than use either the scale on my lens or a calculator. Neither of these allows for quick shooting, but the 1/3 rule does.

I focus on a point about a third of the way into a scene, lock focus there, then recompose.

If I were shooting at f/16 though, I wouldn’t have to do this. I could just focus on infinity and shoot away. But, I would have to stand there while my camera on my tripod took the photo because the exposure time would have to be long. I would probably be hoping for a calm day so my tripod wouldn’t shake, and I’d be dying to see what photo I was going to get.

By using the hyperfocal method, I can shoot photos much more rapidly and with greater flexibility in my choice of f-stop. I unconsciously use it now all of the time.

Summary

Shooting landscapes and nature using an f-stop of f/11 or lower make all the difference in the world between getting the shot and missing it. I would recommend that you should do the same. Leave the tripod at home and shoot away using this technique.

Thank you for reading what I wrote — I hope you enjoyed it!
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