Tips for Sharper Landscape Photographs

If you’ve grown up with Ansel Adams posters on the wall, you’ve been brainwashed into thinking that good landscape photographs must have edge to edge, back and front, sharpness.  Everything from the soda can at your feet to the mist on top of the far away mountaintop has to be tack sharp.

The problems is that trying to achieve the same results as Ansel Adams 8×10 view camera is difficult to achieve with a DSLR set up.  The physics are impossible to replicate between the two very different types of cameras and the very different “sensor” sizes.

Better Sharpness Is Within Your Grasp

Sharper landscape photographs can be made by following the following tips.  Mind you these tips work for all levels of lenses from consumer to pro grade lenses.  And they work pretty much for any camera set up from cell phone to pro level DSLR camera.  Just don’t expect to achieve view camera like results.

Stabilize Your Camera

All cameras, except for specially made out focus cameras like the Diana plastic lens toy camera, are designed to achieve sharp images.  All lenses are designed to create a single sharp focus area.  So any equipment can create sharp images if used properly.

The challenge to achieving sharp images typically comes down to eliminating motion blur.  Motion blur is when the camera moves during the exposure.

The trick is to eliminate an chance of motion during the exposure.  The best way to achieve this is to lock your camera down on a tripod.  Or rest it on a bean bag or if you are hand holding, to lock in your elbows to your body to create the most stable platform.

Tips for using a Tripod

  • Use a heavy duty tripod, not some flimsy cheap junk that will wobble with the wind.
  • Lock down your camera.  Tighten all bolts and joints.  You want to create a solid connection between the camera and the ground.
  • Hang a weight from the center column of the tripod.
  • Put a bean bag on TOP of the camera to hold it down.

Faster Shutter Speed = Sharper Photos

Faster shutter speeds will increase the likely-hood of getting a sharper image.  You should only attempt hand holding a camera at a shutter speed equal to the focal length of the lens you are using.  35mm should be used at shutter speeds of 1/30 and faster for example.  But to be safe, shoot at double the focal length and practice good camera holding techniques such as bracing your elbows against your body and rolling your finger over the shutter button.

You can get faster shutter speeds by:

  • Increasing the ISO – the trade off is more noise
  • Opening up the aperture (higher numbers) – the trade off is less depth of field
  • Shooting on bright sunny days – the trade off is harsh shadows.

Tips for Greater Depth of Field

Greater depth of field increases the illusion of a sharper over all image.  Only one plane within the photograph is truly at the sharpest point possible but a greater depth of field or DOF makes the areas not in focus less apparent.

  • Smaller apertures increase depth of field – but if you go too far you can lose sharpness
  • Wide angle lenses have greater depth of field
  • Mirrorless cameras have greater depth of field than full framed mirrored cameras.
  • Try shooting at F11 or F16 which is in the middle range of most lenses which is typically the sweet spot of sharpness.  Going to the extremes like F22 may lead to less sharp imaged due to diffraction.  Diffraction is an optical effect which limits the total resolution of your photography — no matter how many megapixels your camera may have. It happens because light begins to disperse or “diffract” when passing through a small opening (such as your camera’s aperture).

Since your camera is most likely on a tripod, focus can be done carefully and deliberately.

  • Switch of any lens stabilization when on a tripod.
  • Use “live view” so you can zoom in with the LCD screen and focus precisely.
  • Focus on third of the way into the view.  Objects closer in the scene will be scrutinized more closely then features in the distance.  We expect distant objects to be less focused.
  • Use “Mirror Lock” up to eliminate vibrations due to the slapping of the mirror during exposure.
  • Use a cable release or the timer feature to let your camera settle down before taking the shot.
  • Don’t touch the tripod during the exposure.

Use Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are non-zoom lenses.  Single focal length lenses are designed to achieve maximized sharpness in a single spot, while zoom lenses are inherently a compromise in design.  Prime lenses as a rule will provide sharper images.  Also prime lenses aren’t as likely to slip out of focus during the exposure.  Shooting down or up with a zoom can lead to movement of the lens.

Summary for Sharper Landscape Photographs

  • Stabilize your camera
  • Focus carefully
  • Step down the aperture
  • Have fun!