This post takes us through the steps required to get perfectly sharp landscape photographs from front to back and side to side. I’ve been using various techniques, including focus stacking in Photoshop, increasingly in my landscape photography. Always with the same goal. To create an image that is sharp where I need it to be sharp.
It’s probably good to be clear about sharpness. It is not necessary for every image to be pin sharp. For example, a lot of street photography is less than sharp and it doesn’t matter because having a shallow depth of field focuses the viewer’s attention on the subject. Similarly those wonderful food shots fading away into a blur, use sharpness as a means of drawing the eye to the subject.
If you practice landscape photography with the aim of bringing the viewer with you into the landscape, then it requires a certain amount of sharpness throughout the image. Otherwise the viewer will see it as something other than what it is. Exceptions to this include introducing ‘haze’ to accentuate a sunset shot, but the aim is usually to take a pin sharp photograph into the editing environment.
Check out The Best 3 Lenses for Landscape Photography for a primer in the different characteristics of the “holy trinity” of lenses.
I’m going to talk first about the factors that introduce soft focus. Camera movement and vibration. And then we’ll discuss focal point manipulation and finally focus stacking in Photoshop.
Sharp Landscape Photographs
As a good photographer you’ll want maximum sharpness throughout your landscape images.
Avoid Camera Movement
Think of it like this. If I move the camera fractionally during the time the shutter is open then something close up will not be majorly affected. However, a movement of half a millimetre at the lens will be magnified the further away you get from the lens – remember you are capturing reflected light, so moving the camera even fractionally will cause distant objects to shift quite dramatically in the frame. Like it or not, this will manifest as soft focus or blur.
If sharpness matter to you. then you absolutely have to use a tripod to get this right. Lens stabilisation and a fast shutter speed will forgive a lot of things, but sharp focus on distant objects is not one of them. I’d go so far as to say that your tripod is the most important thing you own other than your camera and lens.
I use a lightweight carbon fibre tripod by Feisol with no centre column. I haven’t come across a centre column yet that doesn’t introduce movement. You may also need spiked feet as an option for soft ground.
Choose your tripod head carefully. Ball heads are very convenient but very prone to “drooping”. I used to use a Giottos ball head on a Giottos Vitruvium tripod and I got used to compensating for the inevitable couple of millimetres slippage when I positioned the camera. Of course that became a total curse and I recently made the decision to invest in a ballhead (Acratech GXP) that doesn’t slip and a dedicated panoramic head (Acratech Panoramic Head) that only moves in two dimensions. Both are by Acratech and although expensive, I think it was a worthwhile investment.
I’ve seen videos on YouTube by perfectly reasonable people that go to huge lengths to set up every aspect of their shot and then place a great big hairy paw on the camera to release the shutter! Nobody will ever convince me that doesn’t introduce some vibration.
Always use a shutter release cable.
Watch out for these factors.
Most modern lenses have image stabilisation. This does not combine well with a tripod because any vibration introduced into the tripod itself will travel to the camera and the IS will try to correct it. Switch it off when using a tripod.
Mirror Lockup – DSLR only
The slap of the mirror being released in a DSLR also introduces vibration into the camera. You can switch mirror lockup on in the camera settings. This will mean that you have to release the shutter twice, once to lockup the mirror, a second time (after a couple of seconds to allow the vibration to fade away) to release the shutter.
Focus and Lens Sharpness
There is way too much information available on focusing skills. Much of it is unclear and some is just plain wrong. Sharpness in an image is dependent on two things, you and the camera/lens combination. You need to understand the relationship between the area in front of your focal point and the area behind.
What we are primarily interested in is
- Accurate Focus – this where you come in.
- Lens Technology – what the lens is capable of delivering
There are two methods of achieving acceptably sharp focus throughout a single exposure.
- The quick and dirty solution – this works well with wide angle lenses, focus 1/3 of the way into the scene at a sharp focal length, for most lenses f8 or f11.
- The scientific method – Hyperfocal Distance
Depth of field is determined by three things. The focal length of the lens, the aperture setting and the distance between the camera and the object in focus. Broadly speaking if I set my aperture to say f/8 and focus on something a few yards away from the camera then a yard or so in front of the subject will be sharp and approximately twice as much behind the subject will be sharp.
If I keep the same settings and focus on an object 100m from the camera then the relationship between the area of sharpness in front of and behind the focal point remains the same but the distances are much larger.
There are images where you need to have absolutely everything in sharp focus, edge to edge and front to back. Panoramas are a good example, where the viewer can zoom in and look closely at any part of the image.
Lets take a look at the science.
In terms of depth of field, the smaller numbers (widest aperture) offer the shallowest depth of field, the larger numbers (narrowest aperture) offer the deepest. Sadly, most lenses introduce diffraction around the edges after about f/16 and this gets worse as you stop down. So shooting at f/22 is emphatically not the answer.
Focal length refers to the zoom (or fixed) setting of a lens. This matters because it manifests as the different perspectives achievable with wide angle and telephoto lenses.
A 16mm lens is ultra wide angle where objects close to the lens appear large and objects in the mid distance and beyond appear much smaller.
A 50mm lens behaves quite similarly to the human eye in terms of the comparative sizes of everything in the frame.
A 200mm lens introduces a compression of the distance such that things in the background appear to be much closer.
These characteristics are often used for creative effect.
The distance between the subject and the camera.
For landscape photography, to achieve the maximum sharpness both across and within the image, you need to shoot within the sharpest aperture of your lens, usually around the middle of the scale, f/8 or f/11 (for any given lens check out the Ken Rockwell website or DXO Mark). However simply shooting at f/8 and focusing 1/3 of the way into the frame will not deliver true front to back sharpness in every case.
Where the result impacts the image, you need to go one step further.
One solution is focus stacking with a telephoto lens. This technique involves shooting three images with different focal points. What this achieves is overlapping zones of sharpness and if you pick the focal points to be close, mid and far away, you’ll be able to combine the pictures and get precisely what you need.
To do this, you need to set up the camera on a tripod, choose your composition and for the three shots change nothing except the point of focus.
The Hyperfocal Distance method is the best way I’ve found to get acceptably sharp focus from front to back in a single exposure. What is it?
The hyperfocal distance defines the distance at any given aperture where objects behind the focal point are rendered in an acceptably sharp focus to infinity. For any aperture this is a fixed value and so using this in the field requires an understanding of where the hyperfocal distance falls in any one composition.
Fortunately, there are apps that will calculate the hyperfocal distance for any given body/lens combination so this is not as difficult as it used to be!
One such app, and the one that I use is PhotoPills
Tilt/Shift lenses are another way to achieve uniform sharpness in an image. More commonly used in architectural photograhy, the lens can be adjusted to move the plane of focus from its usual position perpendicular to the lens. This technique can also be used to achieve the “miniature” effect that was so popular a few years ago.
Open the Images in Lightroom
We’re going to go through a process that begins with Adobe Lightroom. Check out my post on Catalog Management with Lightroom Classic for some insight into why I use Lightroom to mange my photographs.
The first step is to import the RAW images into Lightroom so that we can begin to build the final image.
Focus Stacking in Photoshop 2023 is a semi manual process that requires some patience as the align stage in particular is very processor intensive.
Open as Layers in Photoshop
This step puts all the images into a stack in photoshop.
Auto Align Layers
This step aligns every image. This is necessary because changing the focus introduces or changes the very tiny amounts of distortion associated with the lens
Auto Blend Layers
This step creates masks for each layer, painting in the areas of best focus. The blend of all these masks produces a picture with perfect focus, front to back. Photoshop is very good at this, but it can be done manually too.
Many landscape photographers use exposure bracketing to capture a dynamic range wider than the sensor can cope with in a single shot. In the UK this usually involves exposing for the sky and exposing for the land and blending the two images together.
In Spain this is not a choice, the light tends to produce much greater extremes of light and shade so exposure bracketing becomes a habit. The method I use is to use the histogram on the camera to expose as brightly as I can without clipping and then if the shadows are too dark, to increase the exposure one stop at a time until there is no blocking in the dark areas. Then I can blend the shots to get the best exposure for all parts of the photograph.
if you have taken sets of exposure bracketed pictures to capture a greater dynamic range than your sensor can cope with in a single exposure, and you have taken sets of images with variable focus points then you will end up with a terrible muddle!
This should be done in stages. For each shot that you may want to blend focus, take the three variable exposure shots first. Then blend these so that you have a single set of exposure blended images that need only to be focus blended. If this seems like multidimensional chess, wait until you try it with panoramas!
Let’s take an example.
I need to take a shot involving a vista with a set of wine barrels in the foreground, a vineyard behind and in the distance, a mountain range with snow and jagged peaks. The light is bright and harsh and I know that I will need to blend exposures to capture the whole dynamic range.
Working backwards, I’ll need three images with front, mid and distant focus. For each of these images I’ll take three (typically) shots, adjusting the shutter speed to throttle the light until I have the whole dynamic range.
I’ll process the sets of three so that I end up with just three shots with perfect dynamic range.
Then I’ll blend the final set to get perfect focus front to back.
We’ve dealt with a number of ways of reducing softness in an image and some ways of increasing sharpness. Focus stacking in Photoshop is a solution for a very particular use case. It’s not required of every photograph but it is another weapon that enables the creativity you bring to your photography.
The greater problems are the ones where softness is associated with unintentional camera movement.
Hand wobble while shooting very deep landscapes can only be resolved by using a tripod, preferably one without a centre column.
Use a good quality head for your tripod.
I hope this has been useful, let me know in the comments below!