This is part 1 of my series The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Landscape Photography. This guide will also be available for download as a free PDF. Subscribe to my mailing list to get notified when the FREE ebook is available!
Part 1: Depth of Field and Exposure Triangle
- Depth of Field
Is photography art?
Why do we go out and take photos?
What makes us love staring at a beautiful landscape photograph?
Photography can be a profession, a hobby, a passion, it’s how you tell the story of what you’ve seen through your lenses and how you were feeling in a particular moment and place.
Photography has the ability, like no other medium, of capturing a moment and its essence. It’s how you tell others your point of view on something through images of reality, how you give others access to the places you visit, how you bring them with you to a piece of what you’ve experienced.
Sometimes it’s just about pulling out your smartphone in front of a beautiful landscape and trying to capture that magical atmosphere, that magical mood. More often than not when you go home and transfer that picture to your computer you realize that the image you’ve captured is not quite giving you the same emotions you’d expected.
It doesn’t look as memorable as the place you were when you took that shot.
How do professional photographers capture those spectacular landscape images that take your breath away?
I’ve written this guide hoping that I can help you improve your knowledge of landscape photography. But it will be helpful for any photography style if you’re a beginner.
I was gathering the concepts I’ve learned so far and while I was working on my notes I realized I could make a good piece of content with all I was writing for myself and share it on my blog with you.
I’ve also recently published another important guide that I hope can be helpful to you. It’s a photo editing guide and you can find it at How to Edit Photos Like a Pro in Lightroom.
My intent is to make sure you grasp all those basic to intermediate concepts that will make you able to show off your photos and why not, reach a point where you can go even further without assistance, develop your skills and, maybe even start a career in photography.
This guide is a complete intro to landscape photography. One of the most complete guides you can find. I couldn’t avoid touching on the very basics of photography and mention some technicalities, you will find an exhaustive explanation of basic concepts and intro to advanced ones, navigate each section depending on your knowledge level.
Don’t hesitate to jump in the comments section below and ask me questions or leave your feedback, I really care about your opinion.
Oh! And don’t forget to share it on social media!
If instead it just happens that you’ve stumbled on this blog, or you’re simply curious and want to learn more about landscape photography or photography in general, read through and you might discover how to start a journey into landscape photography.
Why should you read this guide
First of all what this blog post is not:
– It’s not a generic write up where I’ll tell you boring stuff like many other guides
– It’s not about telling you how good I am or about my journey as a photographer
So what are you going to find here?
– Basic to intermediate photography concepts explained like you’ve never seen before
– A lot of examples
– An outstanding collection of tips both for beginners and more experienced photographers
In the first part, I’ll assume that you have little to no experience with photography, a DSLR or Mirrorless camera and that you’re not acquainted with basic photography concepts either. Where I can, I’m going to include camera settings of more than one brand so that you’ll be able to apply what you learn without necessarily open your camera’s manual.
Just don’t get stuck when you realize that different brands use different terminology for their settings, what matters is that you understand how your camera works and what it’s capable of. All the rest is a habit. Your camera is just a tool.
You can find a lot of resources on the Internet related to this topic, but my goal is to give you something that no matter what your level is, you can take with you as a reference, bring with you and read again when you are in the field.
We’ll touch on the basics of depth of field, how to shoot in manual mode and aperture priority.
We’ll touch on compositional techniques, being in the right place and at the right time.
Exposure, Shutter speed, aperture, focus, ISO, Image format, white balance, bracketing, focus stacking and so on.
2. Depth of field
Ok ok I promised that it wasn’t going to be too difficult or too technical, but I cannot teach you how to take a beautiful photo of a landscape before introducing you to the basics. Please keep reading this is important.
To keep it as simple as possible, Depth of Field (DoF) is the area between two points that are in focus. It’s the distance between two points of acceptable sharpness within a photo, the space between the nearest and furthest in-focus point.
Cameras have a thin focal plane, so thin that we need depth of field to add perceived three dimensions and depth to a photograph. Without DoF we would have a huge issue in our photos, it means that only the nearest edge of our subject would be in focus, but the rest would be blurry.
The image below is pretty helpful to understand what I’m saying.
As you can see from the illustration you can have shallow or large depth of field, taking advantage of depth of field in your photos and you can create various effects.
Here’s an example
In the photo above you can see a shallow DoF, the in-focus zone is very short.
Let’s see some other examples of shallow depth of field.
And here’s some examples of very large depth of field.
In every picture, there’s a certain area of your image in front of, and behind the subject that will appear in focus. The ones with a large depth of field present the whole scene in focus. That should be your goal in landscape photography with 90% of your photos. Having a large DoF.
2.1 What is Depth of Field influenced from?
There are three main factors that influence Depth of Field: Aperture, focal length, and distance to subject.
2.1.1 Aperture (f-stop or f-number)
I’m really happy that you’re learning this from me. These concepts will stay with you for the rest of your journey as a photographer. I’m really thankful that you’re reading through! Remember to use the comments below if you want me to explain something better or you think that I’m saying something incorrectly.
Let’s try to understand Aperture.
In photography, Aperture is the opening in the lens that controls how much light hits the camera sensor it’s a setting on your camera, called f-stop. Easy right?
Aperture will affect not only the depth of field but also the exposure.
But we’ll come back to exposure later, let’s step back for a second and see how it affects Depth of Field.
For now, let’s just say that aperture is the amount of light your lens allows through.
An easy way to remember how aperture affects DoF is that a small aperture will correspond to a larger depth of field, vice versa a larger aperture will correspond to a shallower depth of field.
Since the aperture value is expressed by a camera setting called f-stop, it will be even easier to remember if we say that a small f-number (eg: f/2.8) will give you a small (shallow) depth of field. A large f-number (f/22) will give you a large (deep) depth of field.
We can write:
Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallower (small) depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field
Warning Intermediate to Advanced concept feel free to skip
Seriously feel free to skip this if you want, you don’t need to understand this technicality to kickstart your landscape photography journey. Obviously the deeper your knowledge of these concepts the better is the artistic control you’re going to have of your images.
First of all, it’s important to know that depth of field is not equally distributed in front and back of the focus point.
It’s actually one third in front and two thirds behind the focal point.
The longer the focal length the more the depth of field becomes equally distributed.
This leads to the introduction of a concept called Hyperfocal Distance, which represents the closest point at which you can focus and still keep the furthest edge of your background acceptably sharp.
So as a general rule of thumb, you want to focus about one-third of the way into your scene, but it’s not as simple as setting the largest f-number in order to obtain a larger depth of field and have your background perfectly sharp. When you set the smallest aperture (large f-number eg. f/22) you’ll get softer results due to how light is affected by diffraction when traversing small apertures in a lens.
So you’ll get progressively less sharp images beyond a certain aperture. This varies depending on the lens, but in general, different lenses will give you sharper results at an aperture between f/11 and f/16 which is why hyperfocal distance is so important.
You’ll need to know what depth of field you want for maximum results, without narrowing your aperture so much that you’ll start to lose sharpness.
You can find several websites that provide depth of field charts for your lenses, or calculators like this one
Remember that your camera has a DoF preview button too, we’ll see this later in discover your camera settings.
End of boring stuff… for now
2.1.2 Focal length
The focal length is the primary measurement of a lens. It’s described in millimeters (mm) and it tells you the angle of view and the magnification (not the actual length of a lens).
The longer the focal length the narrower the angle of view and higher the magnification. Viceversa the shorter the focal length the wider the angle of view and the lower the magnification.
As I said the focal length is not a measurement of the actual length of a lens, it’s the distance from the lens’s optical center (or nodal point) to the image plane in the camera (often illustrated by a “” on the top plate of a camera body) when the lens is focused at infinity. The image plane in the camera is where you will find your digital sensor or film plate.
But wait a second, we said that focal length affects DoF, how so? This can get complicated, but the simple answer is that the longer the focal length the shallower the depth of field.
So this leads us to distance.
2.1.3 How is the depth of field affected by distance?
Yeah as you can guess now, the closer you are to the subject the shallower the depth of field. Easy right? And that’s why in landscape photography you always aim for a deeper depth of field since your subject is usually further away from you.
Exercise: go out and take at least 2 photos with shallow DoF and 2 with a larger DoF. Come on go! What you’ve learned so far should already be enough for you to hit the ground with your DSLR or Mirrorless camera and start shooting. You don’t need to know everything about photography before you can start creating something. Learn by doing, learn by failing a bit before you can succeed!
For the other settings try to copy the values you read in the photos above and if you don’t know how to change those settings, jump to the section where I dig into that and learn how to do it. Once you’re done feel free to send your photos to me at this link, and I’ll give you feedback, let’s discuss together and if you allow me to I’ll share them here on my blog.
Let’s keep rolling!
What is exposure?
Well, we’ve seen that aperture is what controls the amount of light that hits the sensor and it has the “double edge effect” of determining depth of field. But what that amount of light hitting the sensor does is change the exposure, affecting how bright or dark an image will be when it’s been captured by your camera.
Images can be overexposed or underexposed.
Exposure is controlled by the opening of the lens, the aperture. But it isn’t the only thing, please keep going.
We need to introduce a couple of new concepts. Yes because aperture is not the only camera control affecting exposure, shutter speed and ISO are the other two other aspects of the so-called exposure triangle.
We’ve seen what aperture is and we’ll talk about ISO and shutter speed in a moment. For now, let’s discuss a few more things about exposure in general.
It’s important for you to know that there are lenses with a fixed exposure and others with a variable exposure.
Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field
Let’s add something to it. If we could only set aperture and exposure, this would be the result
Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) depth of field = Higher Exposure
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field = Lower Exposure
Now, take a look at this image
So what does the f/number or f/stop value we’ve introduced before actually represent? Well to speak in mathematical terms (feel free to completely forget this) it’s a ratio describing the opening of a lens compared to its size, focal length/diameter of the aperture.
This gives us the so-called f/stop value and it affects the exposure in the measure of what represented in the graph above.
“Stops” are Exposure Values (EV).
Ok, now you know that exposure is expressed in f/stops or EV, that it’s not only influenced by aperture but also ISO and shutter speed, let’s examine those two.
3.1 Shutter Speed
Another “edge” of the exposure triangle is Shutter Speed
Shutter speed affects exposure by controlling the length of time the camera shutter stays open and lets the light coming from the lens through on to the camera sensor. It not only has an impact on the brightness of an image, but it’s also responsible for creating either a motion blur or frozen effect in a photo.
In seascape photography, as you can see in the image above you can create amazing effects in the water by controlling motion blur.
The shutter of your camera is like a curtain in front of the camera sensor that stays closed until the camera fires. When it opens, it exposes the sensor to the light that passes through the lens. It lets the sensor ‘see’ the scene you’re shooting. The sensor then collects all the information carried by the light and the shutter closes immediately.
Done. You have your photo at that point. Oh and one more thing, the button you use to shoot is called, guess what? Shutter.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of it, 1/25 will be slower than 1/2000. The smaller the denominator the “slower the speed” (the longer the time the shutter is open).
Let’s see how shutter speed affects exposure. The following image is self-explanatory.
Shutter speed as you can see affects the brightness of an image by letting the camera gather more or less light.
You’ll need to judge when lowering or increasing the shutter speed, by taking into consideration mainly two things, the light conditions of the environment you’re shooting in and the parts moving in the scene.
In low light conditions, if you’re forced to lower the speed to get more light into the sensor, you won’t be able to handhold your camera since the image will be shaky and blurry.
So you’ll need the help of a tripod to achieve that stability you need in order to capture the right amount of light and obtain the desired brightness without a shaky and blurred image.
Setting your camera so that the shutter stays open for more time, it’s at the base of a technique called long exposure photography.
In landscape photography, slow shutter speed is a widely used technique to achieve a motion blur effect in the water.
It’s also used for astrophotography.
Since it deserves its own section, I’m not going into the details of how long exposure works, I think you get the idea. But if you want to know more here’s an article I wrote a while ago on how to take long exposure photos.
Read the article Tips to improve your long exposure photography
Time to complete the exposure triangle. The third edge, ISO, is a camera setting that controls how bright an image is.
Increasing the ISO will increase the brightness of your photo, as simple as that. It would be convenient to think that ISO is the sensor sensitivity, but this is a bit of a misconception. In fact, in digital cameras, the sensor has only one single fixed sensitivity. You will find that a lot of websites explain ISO as the sensor sensitivity for convenience, but I’d like to tell you what ISO really is.
ISO in old film cameras
Back in the good old days of film photography, ISO, introduced by International Organization for Standardization or before it ASA, introduced by the American Standards Association, was the measurement of the film speed. High ISO films offered a higher level of light sensitivity and gave photographers the ability to shoot with faster shutter speeds or at higher f-stops. So in order to adjust the ISO, photographers had the only option of changing to a different speed film.
ISO in modern digital cameras
The ISO setting of your digital camera is emulating the same effect of old film cameras. It’s conveniently an electronic setting that can be changed with the turn of a dial or just pressing a button. Explaining how technically, increasing ISO increases the exposure of a photo is complicated and probably useless to most photographers, but we can say that it’s a mapping that tells your camera how bright your photo should be given a particular value. As I’ve said before, for convenience most photographers say that ISO is the sensor sensitivity.
Your photos will get progressively brighter as you increase the ISO number. So in low light conditions, you might want to increase the ISO but be aware that ISO has side effects on your image. High ISO will not only mean more brightness but also more grain in your image, also known as noise. You always need to find a balance when increasing the ISO.
The lowest ISO setting for most digital cameras is 100 (some cameras go down to 50).
Related Article: What is ISO? Understanding ISO in Photography
3.3 Exposure Compensation
In the exposure section, I’m not going to talk about aperture again since we’ve seen it in the Depth of Field section.
But it’s important to know another way of affecting the exposure.
Exposure compensation lets you override the exposure when you are shooting in-camera modes other than manual. Such as aperture priority, shutter priority or program. When shooting in one of those modes, the camera will set at least one of the three settings of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).
You might think why would I want to override the exposure calculated by the camera? That’s a great question.
The camera light meter picks an exposure in order to darken or brighten the image before it’s captured. But you need to take into account that the internal light meter can give overexposed or underexposed results in challenging light conditions. So that’s why exposure compensation is helpful.
In the image above the camera underexposed the scene, but with the exposure compensation feature, I was able to obtain the result below.
To use exposure compensation, you need to use Aperture priority mode, Shutter priority or program mode. All my examples are made by using aperture priority since it’s my go-to mode when shooting landscapes.
The illustration above shows you the symbol used for the exposure compensation button on your camera. Unfortunately, all cameras place this button or dial in a different position. It can be on the top of your camera or at the back, or it can even be a dial instead of a button.
Usually, exposure compensation values go from -3 to +3 EV.
Intuitively, if an image is too dark you will increase the number of Exposure Compensation (+EV) and vice versa if an image is too bright you’ll decrease the number (-EV).
End of Part 1
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.