Landscapes with a difference: shoot amazing shallow scenics

(Image credit: Peter Fenech)

One of the first things we learn in photography is that, when shooting a landscape image, it is vital that sharpness extends from the very front of the scene to the furthest background detail. While in most cases this will produce a reliably high-quality image, it is not an unbreakable rule. 

The need for a small aperture is to ensure that there is an equal degree of sharpness across the whole frame - to guarantee that we won’t overlook a soft background by accident. If you do not want every zone to be equally detailed however, due to creative reasons, don’t be scared to experiment.

Wide aperture landscapes can possess a huge amount of visual appeal. They have a painterly appearance which can be missing when every detail is perfectly resolved and, when using a very fast lens, can actually start to adopt a miniature look. This is far from a gimmicky effect however, as might be introduced through overuse of a Lensbaby optic. When done correctly a shallow depth-of-field scenic can adopt an organic style, closer to how our own eyes might interpret the location.  

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The biggest danger with this technique is a misunderstanding of the intent - if you don’t choose the correct settings the effect can quickly start to look like an unintentional mishap.

Set camera height

(Image credit: Future)

This plays a big role in emphasizing an intentional shallow look. Arrange the elements of the scene to show depth and the focus gradient in front of and behind the focussed point, softening foreground and background.   

Shoot wide-open


(Image credit: Future)

We need to make the shallow focus strong enough that it becomes clear the reduced depth-of-field is an intentional creative effect. The easiest way to guarantee this is to use maximum aperture, in this case f/1.4.

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Vary focus distance 


(Image credit: Future)

Experiment with the fall-off in focus in the near foreground and background by moving the point of focus. Try rendering the foreground sharp and then focussing further back to change the feel of the shot. 

Adjust brightness 


(Image credit: Future)

With f/stop set, use shutter speed (in this case controlled through exposure compensation, in Av mode) to alter image brightness. Pay attention to how defocused highlights are rendered, altering mood. 

Experiment with POV


(Image credit: Future)

With low sun comes opportunities for lighting experimentation. Shooting into the sun will often create washes of colour and light, while shooting away will produce richer, painterly colours, with less flare.

Check sharpness


(Image credit: Future)

Whenever we use wide aperture settings it is a good idea to magnify the review image and check that sharpness falls exactly where we need it to be. Scan the shot for camera shake, which can be masked by bokeh. 

Slightly soft: Here the f/stop chosen (f/3.2) was insufficient to render the whole scene sharp, nor was it wide enough to emphasize an artistic DOF limit.   (Image credit: Peter Fenech)

Shallow focus: Reminiscent of large format images, shallow DOF can focus attention and soften distracting high frequency detail. The pastel colours and soft light become more prominent here.  (Image credit: Peter Fenech)
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Peter Fenech

As the Editor for  Digital Photographer magazine, Peter is a specialist in camera tutorials and creative projects to help you get the most out of your camera, lens, tripod, filters, gimbal, lighting and other imaging equipment.

After cutting his teeth working in retail for camera specialists like Jessops, he has spent 11 years as a photography journalist and freelance writer – and he is a Getty Images-registered photographer, to boot.

No matter what you want to shoot, Peter can help you sharpen your skills and elevate your ability, whether it’s taking portraits, capturing landscapes, shooting architecture, creating macro and still life, photographing action… he can help you learn and improve.