7 Tips For Getting Tack Sharp Landscape Photos
One very common question from amateur photographers is why they are unable to get their landscape photos as sharp as they see online. There’s no single trick to getting the tack-sharp landscape photographs. But, here are the basic 7 tips that one can follow.
1. Use Single Point Auto Focus
Proper focus plays a key role in order to get a tack-sharp landscape photo. Many beginners use multiple points auto focus in the camera. There’s a big problem when the focus point is automatically set on a mountain in the background whereas you in fact would like to focus on the tree in the foreground. Therefore I’d highly suggest you to make a one-time adjustment on your camera to use single point AF method. This allows you to tell the camera precisely where to focus on. Do not use the focus and recompose method, and move the camera around too much, as it may alter the plane of focus. I typically change the position of the single focus point in the camera after composing the image.
2. Increase depth of field
Different from portrait, you want to increase your depth of field so your subjects will appear tack sharp from the grass a few feet away from you all the way to the mountains in the infinity background. The larger f number you set, the wider range of landscape that will be in focus. This applies to aperture priority mode, manual mode and bulb mode. I’d suggest you to use one of these 3 modes to take your landscape photos. In other camera mode your camera will automatically set the aperture (eg. f-stop) for you, sometimes resulting in shallow depth of field. Most lenses are at their sharpest when used at apertures between f/8 and f/11 (see below pictures taken at different depth of field)
3. Use a tripod
For any properly exposed image, the higher the f-stop, the slower the shutter speed. Whenever you use a shutter speed slower than 1/100 of a second, you will most likely get blurry images in any hand-held position. In dim light situations during sunrise or sunset, the best time to capture landscape photos, oftentimes the shutter speed is slower than 1/100 of a second, sometimes much longer. Therefore using a tripod is necessary to stabilize your camera to ensure a sharp image. Make sure your tripod is set up in a sturdy spot, ie. on a solid rock or ground, and double check all your tripod legs are tightened before clicking the shutter. Because any unstable set up can defeat the purpose of using a tripod and cause blurry images.
4. Use self-timer mode to release your shutter
Pressing the shutter can cause camera shake and therefore blurry images. The self timer feature is available on most camera models and typically gives a shutter delay of 10 seconds (some cameras have two second delay as well). Therefore the camera will only take the pictures a few seconds after your finger touches the shutter button, and avoid unnecessary camera shake. I use 2 second self-timer mode on 90% occasions for my landscape photos. Alternatively, you can invest in a shutter release (typically very affordable) so you don’t have to touch the shutter button on your camera at all. All you need to do is to fire the shutter from your shutter release device attached to your camera.
5. Lower the ISO
This might be counter-intuitive or opposite to what you know. Normally we increase ISO in order to speed up the shutter and thus get sharper image. However, this trick has its cost. Depending on your camera, when reaching certain level of ISO - it could be ISO800 for certain non-full-frame camera or ISO5000 for some professional full frame camera - higher ISO results in more digital noise in your photo and causes sharp details to appear fuzzy with colored pixels. Try to use lowest ISO setting – I typically use ISO100 for my landscape photos except in very dim light situations, eg. in the end of twilight, or photographing night scenes or milky way etc.
6. Adjust the diopter properly
The diopter is a very small wheel next to the viewfinder on almost all DSLRs that allows you to make minor adjustments to the focus of view so you see in the view finder exactly how well focused the image is. Technically this will not affect the sharpness of your image but will help you make better judgment when you look through your viewfinder. This is the first thing I’d suggest you to do after getting a new DSLR camera. You simply “personalize” your camera’s viewfinder according to your own sight.
7. Live view zoom in to check the sharpness
New technologies in the digital cameras allow you to examine your composition or photo results on your LCD screen in addition to the viewfinder. It’s worthwhile to use live-view mode (if you are shooting stars at night) and zoom in large to check the sharpness of your main focused subject. Photos appearing sharp on the small LCD screen at the back of your DSLR camera might not always be sharp when enlarged to computer screen or print size. Therefore, it's important to examine if get the tack sharp focus in the field.
In addition to the above, many tack sharp landscape photos you see online might have been post processed in photo software as well. Oftentimes professional photographers take photos in RAW file format. When the RAW files are imported to the computer, they typically will lose the contrast, sharpness, and saturation no matter how you set your photo profile in the camera. It's an essential job for professional photographers to restore their images by increasing the clarity and sharpness in the post processing workflow. This is by no means a complicated job. In fact I typically spend only 5-10 seconds retouching my landscape photos.