Commandment 9: Use a narrow aperture
Getting the foreground, middle distance and background of a landscape acceptably sharp means using a narrow aperture to get lots of depth of field.
Aperture priority is a good choice of exposure mode for this because it enables you to set the aperture while the camera determines the shutter speed (learn more about your exposure modes with Dial M for… Your exposure modes exposed).
Don’t assume that the camera will always know exactly what you want though – keep an eye on the histogram and make sure the highlights are retained.
Also, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of using the very narrowest aperture available on your lens because this will often result in a soft image because of diffraction. Diffraction is the bending of light waves as they pass by the aperture blades – the narrower the aperture, the more significant it will be.
To avoid the problem, use an aperture of at least a stop or two wider than the lens’s minimum.
Using a narrow aperture and a low sensitivity means that fairly long exposures are required, so make sure you obey commandment five and use a tripod.
It can be hard to get everything in a landscape sharp, so focus stacking provides a convenient digital solution. Focus stacking involves taking several images from the same position (with the camera on a tripod), but with the focus set to a different point in each photo. These images can then be merged using Photoshop CS4 or 5 using Edit>Auto Align followed by Edit>Auto Merge.
A free software package called CombineZM is available for download by PC users from www.hadleyweb.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk.
Break The Rules: Open up
While we usually think of landscape images as having lots of sharp detail, you can add impact by restricting the focus to isolate a specific part.
To do this, use a wide aperture to limit the depth of field, so that only a small section of the image is in sharp focus (for more on depth of field, see our guide Depth of Field: what you need to know for successful images).
The best subjects for this type of approach are often in the foreground of the landscape because they will be comparatively large, and the soft, blurry surrounding helps put this detail into context without causing too much distraction.
Play around with a sequence of apertures to find the right one. Opening up to f/2.8, for example, may blur a background beyond recognition, whereas f/4 or f/5.6 will leave enough recognisable detail to make sense of the scene.
Using a wide aperture to blur the foreground can also add emphasis to a dominant but more distant part of a landscape, such as a windmill or lighthouse (learn more about when to use a small vs wide aperture). It’s a good trick when breaking commandment four to make use of positive space.
You could even consider merging two images taken with a wide aperture with the focus in different places.
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Commandment 10: Use a low ISO setting
A low sensitivity setting is a passport to smooth, noise-free images with plenty of detail. Failing to observe this commandment can turn uniform areas such as a blue sky into a mottled mess, and leave deep shadows speckled with colour.
Unless you’re trying to blur movement, there’s usually little to be gained from using a low sensitivity expansion setting, such as ISO50.
Even at the low end, straying from the native sensitivity range usually results in some compromise in image quality – often reducing the dynamic range. For most DSLRs the lowest native sensitivity value is ISO100, but for some older models it’s ISO200.
Using a low sensitivity setting along with a narrow aperture usually demands a slow shutter speed, and in most instances this means a tripod is required to get sharp images.
Most images benefit from post-capture sharpening, but it’s particularly true of landscape shots because it enables the treatment to be applied selectively. Selective sharpening allows details to be made crisp without introducing artefacts in even-toned areas such as the sky.
Software packages such as Nik’s Sharpener Pro enable different levels of sharpening to be applied to specific image areas, but it can be achieved with any software that enables images to be combined using layers.
Selective sharpening involves creating a duplicate layer and applying sharpening just to the land on the top layer. The eraser tool, or a layer mask, can then be used to remove the sky of this layer to reveal the unsharpened sky of the background layer below.
To learn more about using different ISO settings, check out our in-depth guide to What is ISO: when to increase sensitivity, types of noise and more.
Break The Rules: Everything to grain
If you’re shooting a misty landscape or you’re shooting in stormy conditions there’s often little point in getting too wound up about using a low sensitivity setting. In fact, using a high ISO setting to introduce some noise can really bring out the atmosphere of the scene.
If you decide to go down this route, you may need to push your camera to its maximum setting to get the levels of noise you want.
As usual, the best results are achieved with raw images because they provide the most control over noise. You might want the light and shade speckling of luminance noise, but occasionally coloured noise is desired.
Use your raw conversion software to reduce the level of chroma noise while keeping the luminance noise.
Monochrome images can work especially well with a bit of ‘grain’, and they transform coloured noise into luminance noise.
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