Eric Stoner
Eric Stoner

Eric's professional photographic career spans over 25 years specializing in portraits, weddings and commercial photography using everything from simple lighting to very complex.

Show me the SHARPNESS! Tools for sharp landscape photos

September 10, 2013

If your parents are anything like mine, you probably remember some things they said to you as a kid that stuck in your mind. And if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t appreciate what was said until you were much older or found yourself saying the very same things to your kids.

One thing my father always said to me was, “Son, you’ve got to use the right tool for the job.” That kind of stuck in my head and I then found myself trying to cut a steak with a spoon. “Doesn’t work so well does it?” he’d say to me. My father is a fanatic about sharp knives. I am a fanatic about other sharp things . . . LENSES. There’s nothing better than a nice sharp lens and for me, I need to know the gear in my bag is the best I can afford so I can “get the sharpness” where I want it. I have to be confident in my gear, otherwise I’m just spinning my wheels.

My latest trip for Canon Live Learning took me to the beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine with Tyler Stableford. This is one of the most beautiful places on the East Coast and what better way to celebrate it than to photograph it? This place begs for maximum sharpness all the way through the image.

When it comes to landscape photography, one of the first general things you may notice is how sharp the images are. As the viewer of an image, one’s eye tends to travel to two areas: the area of greatest contrast and sharpest focus. If everything is sharp, the viewer has nowhere else to go but the area of greatest contrast. Think carefully about the composition of your image with regards to contrast if everything is sharp. Ansel Adams was a big inspiration to me and many others, so take a look at his work and you’ll see what I mean about contrast playing a huge role in composition.

There are many factors that contribute to sharpness in an image including proper lens choice, aperture and focus distance. Let’s look at some of those items now.

1. Lens choice

Typically when we think of landscape photography, we think of wide-angle lenses. Surely, they are a great asset to have in your bag. However, telephoto lenses can produce some beautiful imagery as well so don’t limit yourself to thinking wide angle is the only way to go.

One nice characteristic of wide-angle lenses is that they produce a wider depth of field (foreground to background sharpness) by the very nature of their design, versus a telephoto lens. Telephoto lenses allow the background to compress, therefore further emphasizing your main subject.

Choosing a high quality lens is the first step to creating sharper images. If you’re familiar with Canon’s L Series lenses, you may already know that these lenses (with the trade marked red stripe) represent the best we offer. That’s not to say that you won’t get sharp images from other lenses in our system, rather to advise you that this lens series sits at the top of the class for reasons I can explain in a future article.

2. Aperture

Simply choosing the smallest aperture, for maximum depth of field, may not always be the best choice. In fact, it can cause sharpness issues. As light travels through the lens using a wide aperture, say f/2.8, it can travel in more of a straight line to the sensor with very little interference. As you close the aperture down beyond f/11, the light has to “bend” more coming in through the front of the lens, travel through the small aperture hole and project back out the rear of the lens to strike the sensor. This “bending” of light can cause a phenomenon called “refraction” and it ultimately leads to images that aren’t as sharp as you had hoped. Here’s a tip: you will notice the sharpest area of a lens usually resides a few stops down from wide open. On many lenses, this ends up being around f/8.

3. Use high quality filters

In my last blog post, I mentioned that lenses are only as good as the last piece of glass on it. Investing $1,500 on a lens and putting a $15 filter on it is taking a serious step backward when it comes to sharpness so be prepared to invest in good quality filters. There are many forums out there to help you on this topic.

Some filters I can’t live without are circular polarizers, neutral density and gradual neutral density filters. The circular polarizer is my go-to almost every time because of the way it handles light by taking reflections off of shiny surfaces such as glass or water, cutting down on haze, increasing color saturation and improving contrast just by turning the filter to polarize the light coming in the lens! Be careful not to over do it, as the result can tend to look overdone. They are critical pieces of gear in my opinion and I’ll pay dearly for them!

4. Tilt-Shift lenses

These lenses are specialized in such a way that they can literally change the plane of focus and perspective, similar to that of a view camera. Using a traditional lens, subjects at the same distance from the camera are in focus. Tilt shift lenses like the TS-E 17mm f/4L, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, TS-E 45mm f/2.8 and TS-E 90mm f/2.8 allow the user to change that plane of focus to achieve different effects. One of those effects could be to change the plane of focus to allow for extraordinary sharpness from foreground to background while even using wide apertures.

5. Hyperfocal Distance

The technique, “hyperfocal distance,” is nothing new and has been used by photographers for quite some time. You don’t necessarily need to understand it, but know how to use it to your advantage. The ultimate benefit is to achieve maximum depth of field or sharpness from foreground to background. The easiest way to use this technique is to have a reference chart easily available, like those found on the App Store for your smart phone (see below). There are also physical charts available too, if you prefer. The idea is to focus on the closest distance possible while still maintaining acceptable sharpness in the background. The chart and camera does most of the work while you bask in the glory of your mad skills. Nobody has to know you had some help!

6. Tripod and Electronic Cable Release

I’ll lump these last two items together because they are related to camera shake. Get yourself a good and sturdy tripod so you leave nothing to chance. Sure, it’s easier to shoot hand-held but anything worth doing is worth doing right! Right? That’s another thing my father said to me I didn’t quite get at the time!

You might be surprised by how little camera shake it takes to soften an image. The simple act of the mirror slap inside the camera is enough to cause slight image degradation, so an electronic cable release or intervalometer like the TC-80N3 (or similar) is my last defense against out of focus images.

At the end of the day, one will never learn all there is to know about photography but it’s nice to learn a little bit each day. The key is retaining what you’ve learned. We accomplish that by putting what we learn into practice -- lots of practice!

Until next time… Happy SHARP shooting!

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