I once heard someone describe landscape photography as nothing more than “going out and capturing data with their camera.” This seems like a rather sad definition for an art form that I have so much passion for.
I guess if you remove all the creative expression, the stories we are trying to tell and the emotional impact we are trying to invoke with our photographs, as much as it hurts to say it, that is actually what it is: data.
When we go out in the field and press that shutter button, that’s exactly what happens: The camera captures data. Of course, there is a whole lot that leads up to that moment. There’s a lot of planning and know-how required to confidently hit that button and “capture the data.” There are both creative and technical elements involved.
From a creative perspective, we need to consider composition, light, location, and all that stuff we use to create a beautiful and impactful photograph.
From a technical standpoint, we need to know how to use all the tools available to us to capture the data in a way that will give us the best results in post-processing. We want a well-exposed, sharp, and detailed image of the scene we are photographing.
The Question of Sharpness
A lot of us landscape photographers can be rather snobbish when it comes to the quality of our images. It’s easy to fall into the “is our gear good enough” trap. We start to look at our photographs, and I mean REALLY look at them. We zoom in like 5000% and examine every pixel to answer the inevitable question…”is this sharp??” which is a very loaded question.
So, what do we mean by “sharpness?” Sharpness refers to the clarity and detail of the image. A sharp image is one that is in focus and has clear, well-defined edges and textures. It means that the details in the photograph are crisp and not blurry. This prompts two questions; how is that different from focus, and how does depth of field fit in to this?
Well…all three of these are related.
First, it important to understand that the entire frame of a landscape must be in focus. Meaning, everything from the foreground to the background must have visual clarity. This is why we typically use those smaller apertures. Smaller apertures like f/11 and f/16 give us more depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of the scene is in focus. A larger or wider depth of field will result in more of the scene being in focus, while a shallow depth of field will result in only a portion of the scene being in focus.
A landscape photograph will always have the entire frame in focus (lots of depth of field). As much as I hate to use the word rule, it is a general rule for landscape photography. Reason being, if we use a shallower depth of field, by default, the focus will be on a particular part of the scene and thus, take away from the actual landscape we are trying to share with our viewer. A wide depth of field can create a sense of depth and can really create a sense of realism that draws the viewer into the photograph.
Taking a look at the example below, we can see that the photograph is really more about the leaf than it is the landscape. Here we have a very shallow depth of field and a focus on that leaf. I would even go as far to say that this is an environmental portrait of this leaf. We’ve taken the attention away from the landscape itself and put it on a particular subject.
Again, with a landscape photograph we need to have everything in focus, from the foreground to the background.
Sharpness differs from focus and depth of field. I think of sharpness as the quality of focus. We can have a photograph that is in perfect focus, but not necessarily sharp. Meaning, we may have achieved perfect focus with our camera, but the image still looks a little bit soft.
There are a lot of factors that play into sharpness such as:
- Shutter Speed: The shutter speed can affect the sharpness of an image by introducing camera shake. A slow shutter speed can result in blurred images if the camera moves during the exposure.
- Aperture: Every lens has a sweet spot as far as which apertures are the sharpest.
- ISO: A higher ISO setting can introduce noise into the image, which can affect sharpness. It’s best to use the lowest ISO setting possible to minimize the risk of noise.
- Lens Quality: The quality of the lens can also affect the sharpness of an image. Higher quality glass tends to produce sharper images.
If you want more detailed information on how to get sharp photos right out of the camera, there are 2 videos on the RMSP YouTube worth checking out!
RMSP YouTube Channel:
The quest for sharpness can be a difficult and frustrating one. There may be times the proper camera settings and the appropriate gear are just not capable of getting the sharpness results we desire. This is where focus stacking may be a viable option.
What Exactly is Focus Stacking?
Focus stacking in landscape photography is a technique used to extend the depth of field in an image by combining multiple images taken at different focus points. The result is a single, sharp image with a greater range of focus from the foreground all the way to the background. Essentially, focus stacking ensures the best possible sharpness throughout the entire frame of the photograph.
The overall process is very simple:
- Take the Photographs: We take multiple images at various focus points in the scene. Normally, depending on the aperture being used, we take one focused on the foreground, one on the middle-ground, and one on the background.
- Combine the Images: Using software such as Adobe Photoshop we combine the multiple images into a single final image. The software will automatically align and blend the images to produce a final, sharp photograph.
- Post-Process: We edit the final focus stacked image in our favorite post-processing software.
Taking the Photographs
The process, of course, starts with the taking of the photographs. Typically, when we are discussing focus stacking in the context of landscape photography, we are referring to a situation where we have something very close in the foreground we want in focus as well as something way off in the background. In this context of landscape photography, we are typically using a wide-angle lens for the scene. Focus stacking is a technique used in many other genres of photography, but for the purpose of this article we are limiting it to wide-angle landscape.
Even though our wide-angle lenses inherently have more depth of field than longer focal lengths, sometimes the range of distance between the foreground and background is just too great to capture it all in focus and sharp. With focus stacking we are really moving beyond what we call acceptable sharpness. When focus stacking the result is a single image that is TACK sharp front to back.
It’s important to note that since we are taking multiple photographs to achieve maximum depth of field, we no longer need to be that concerned with using those real small apertures. We may be able to get away with using f/8 instead of using f/16 or f/22. F/8 is a much sharper aperture. So not only are we going to achieve sharpness by focusing on the separate elements in the scene and blending them (foreground, middle-ground, and background), we are using a much sharper aperture to do so.
Let’s setup to take the photographs! It is important to note that we need to stay in Manual Exposure Mode as we do not want any difference in exposure between the frames. It is also important to use a tripod as to not have any shift in composition between the images.
Below is our scene:
The foreground here is very close. It is close enough that there is really no way to get all the depth of field I want and have everything front to back in focus and sharp. My only option is to focus stack if that is the result I’m after.
I do this with 3 separate images. First, I focus on the very close foreground and take the photo.
Next, with everything else staying constant, I focus on the middle-ground and take the photograph.
Lastly, I take another photograph with my focus on the background. This is the farthest point of the scene I want sharp.
IMPORTANT: For this example, 3 images were enough to get me all the depth of field I needed. Meaning, focusing at those distances using an aperture of f/8 didn’t leave any gaps in focus between the 3 shots. You need to be certain every part of the scene is captured in focus in at least one of the photos. If you are not sure, it is absolutely fine to take more than 3 images and combine them. You will not get a good result if there is a gap in the coverage.
The next step in the process is to blend the photos together using a post-processing software. For this example, I will show how to do it step-by-step in Adobe Photoshop. Just know, there are other products (Zerene Stacker, Helicon Focus, etc.) out there that also specialize in focus stacking. Keep in mind, focus stacking is not available in Adobe Lightroom (Cloud) or Adobe Lightroom Classic.
- Load the individual images as separate layers in Photoshop.
- Align the images (layers). Aligning the images is a crucial step in focus stacking because it ensures that the final stacked photograph is sharp and without any visible artifacts or distortion. Even though, in this case, all the images were taken with the camera mounted on a tripod, there still may be slight misalignment caused by the change in focus distance.
To align the layers in Photoshop, make sure all the layers are selected and then from the top menu bar select Edit/Auto-Align Layers.
Select the Projection option of “Auto” and hit “Ok”
- Blend the images (layers). Once the layers are correctly aligned the next step is to blend them together to create a single, sharp image.
With all the layers selected, from the top menu bar select Edit/Auto Blend Layers
For the Blending Method choose “Stack Images” and hit “Ok”
This process may take some time to finish depending on the size and number of layers being blended.
- Merged layers. Once the blending process is complete there will be a newly merged layer created. This layer is essentially the final product of the focus stack. An image in focus and sharp front to back.
- Refine the result. Once the focus stacking process is completed inspect the final image. There may be some areas where the blending did not work perfectly so an additional manual masking may be required to get a better result.
- Final adjustments. When we are satisfied with the focus stacking results, we can make any final edits and finish the photograph. The only step remaining is to export the final image using the appropriate file format and share it with the world!
Do We Really Need to Focus Stack Our Landscape Photographs?
So, the big question…is this something we really need to do? It’s really easy after seeing the results to think that we should or need to do this every single photograph.
The answer to this questions is, maybe? It really depends on the intended use of the photograph and what the situation is.
Honestly, there are only 3 reasons I focus stack my landscape photographs:
- Range of Distance. When the composition is one that has a very close foreground element that needs to be in focus in addition to the background. There may be those situations where the range is just too great and both elements cannot be captured even with what we call acceptable sharpness.
Below is an example. The rocks are so close that it is impossible to get them in focus as well as the mountains in the background.
- Large prints. If I know the photograph will be printed large I will consider focus stacking. Especially, if I know the viewer will be in close proximity to the print and I know the focus fall off will be obvious. What if I don’t know whether I will be printing large at the time I’m taking the photograph? This begs me to consider this 3rd situation.
- The “Once in a Lifetime Moments.” Sometimes the scene is just too good that I don’t want to chance it. There are those times when I’m at the right place at the right time and something special happens. Or maybe it’s a location that I know I may never get back to again. In those moments I will consider focus stacking just because I want to make sure I capture the best possible data.
Outside of those reasons I don’t see a need for going through the effort of photo stacking. In my opinion, we can sometimes get a little too obsessed with the idea of sharpness. Most of us are just posting our images to social media and this level of sharpness just isn’t needed or noticed.
It’s also important to note that a little drop off in focus towards the background seems normal to our eyes. It’s a natural way of creating depth.
So, this is a great tool and it’s helpful to know it’s there as an option if we need it. Just don’t let the process or the obsession of sharpness get in the way of capturing and enjoying the moment. Get out there and enjoy it!