Let’s continue with the focus on landscape photography. I’m writing this on Saturday, April 16th. My excuse is April 15th. ‘Nuff said! The topic is close focus, which is a challenge when shooting the near to far kind of landscape composition that is so popular today (it really wasn’t in the olden days).
With those very close elements in the foreground, most images call for focus throughout the scene. As last week’s post indicated, these sorts of near to far compositions can work just as well when shooting intimate landscapes – those confined to smaller areas. So let’s get into it!
- CLOSE-FOCUS BENEFITS: Near to far compositions are the kind that can lend a sense of depth. Even more reliably they can also is highlight a foreground subject, giving the viewer a good look at it and maybe even “putting them into the scene”. Why focus on or very nearly on this close subject? If you’re using a lens with a wide enough angle (less than ~21 mm. full-frame or ~30 mm. crop-frame) you have to focus either right on or a hair beyond your closest element in order for that close subject to be in focus. And you almost always want it to be in focus. Generally an image with its closest elements out of focus rarely works. It can when using those elements to frame the photo, but not very often (see image of tree below).
- THE CHALLENGE OF CLOSE FOCUS: It’s often difficult to get everything in focus when you have very close elements. And if your foreground is only a foot or two away, getting a sharp background is going to be especially difficult. You’ll be forced to either move further away from your close subject, making it smaller and less impactful, or allow the background to be a little or a lot out of focus (deliberately by using a wider aperture). Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an out of focus background. But what if you want everything sharp? Read on.
- DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – LENS: Even at f/22 and at wide angles, most lenses can’t give you sharpness from say, a foot or two on out to 100+ feet. Most of us use these more common wide-angle zooms that start at ~16 mm. Despite the fact that they often can focus closer than a foot, for depth of field out to the background they work only up to a point, usually no closer than around three feet (and further if you’re out at 20 mm. or more.
But there are lenses with focal lengths significantly shorter than 16 mm. On a camera with full-frame sensor equipped with an ultra-wide angle lens like Canon’s newish (and spendy!) 11-24 mm., you can get everything in focus with one shot. The same goes for fish-eye lenses.
- MORE LENS OPTIONS: One type of lens that does a slightly better job at depth of field is the wide-angle with a bulbous front glass element, like a fish-eye lens. Examples include Nikon’s famous 14-24 mm. f/2.8, the Tokina 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and primes like Canon’s 14 mm. f/2.8L II.
Another option, again an expensive one, is the tilt-shift lens. Canon’s excellent 17 mm. and 24 mm. tilt-shift lenses can be made (by tilting) to bring everything into acceptable focus. The 17 mm. has the bulbous front glass as well, so it rocks in this department. Note a big downside to using lenses with bulbous front glass elements: you can’t use screw-on filters, at least without an extra kit – sort of a housing that goes around the lens and uses huge filters. But these can be shockingly expensive.
- DEPTH OF FIELD SOLUTIONS – FOCUS STACKING: In order to get good depth of field front to back when your closest elements are very close, and lacking a specialized lens, one option is to focus stack. You shoot several exposures of the same exact composition, using a tripod. Start by focusing at one extreme (the closest element, for e.g.) and work toward the other, focusing on increasingly distant parts of the scene in our example. Then in Photoshop you stack those images and blend them via masking to get one picture with everything in focus. By the way, this technique is used in macro photography as well, since macro lenses have very short depths of field.
- FOCUS STACKING CAUTIONS: Most landscape photographers today focus-stack with nearly every image. I’m the opposite; I prefer the simplicity of one exposure and don’t like sitting in front of Photoshop for too long. If my focal length is relatively long then I consider it (image below). One thing that’s often forgotten in the focus- (and exposure-) stacking frenzy is the fact that when things move in the frame from one exposure to the next, you’ll have a hard time later on the computer matching things up. It may be impossible to create a natural looking image. I’m talking things like living subjects, fog, waves and other stuff that’s not all at infinity. This is a bigger issue with exposure stacking, since then even clouds can present problems.
- CLOSE FOCUS FOR INTIMATE LANDSCAPES: When you’re shooting on a smaller scale, the elements tend to appear more similar in size than when shooting a traditional landscape. So if you want to highlight a subject by putting it close it may, depending on how intimate (small) your composition is, be necessary to get very close indeed. Then you’re back to the same problem as mentioned above; even wide-angle lenses don’t like to put everything in focus when set on one or two feet. It’s surprising how rapidly focus drops off. Focus-stacking intimate landscapes can be a real pain, since they tend to be composed of a lot of vegetation and other hard-to-mask elements.
- A FINAL WORD: Every landscape photographer falls in love at some point with the near to far composition. I did, and it was all I looked to shoot for a time. But that phase passed and I realized I would be making a mistake by continuing to stress about finding super-close foregounds. Sure, pigging out on a particular kind of image is useful to teach you how to shoot it. But to continue in that manner is to be a one-trick pony. It’s like going out looking for one specific image and being unwilling to take what is there; it’s a recipe for frequent disappointment.
I observe people doing this almost as often as I see other photographers in the field; for example the other morning. It tends to produce herd behavior so it’s noticeable. You will almost always get more good images when you avoid single-mindedness when looking for something to shoot.
As I’ve said before in this blog, variety is the spice of photography as well as life. Flexibility is key too. So use the tips found in this post and elsewhere when you’re focusing close. But save yourself some hassle and shoot plenty with your closest subject far enough away to get everything in focus. That can be satisfying as well (image below).