Often, we think a landscape has to be photographed with a wide angle lens and a large depth of field. Some think it is even better to use extreme wide angles and always in combination with a maximum depth of field. But have you ever thought of photographing a landscape with a minimum depth of field?
Although nowadays, it has become more common to use longer focal lengths for landscapes, the majority still seem to believe the best landscape photo is made with a wide angle to get as much of the surroundings in frame as possible. Of course, it is mandatory to have a maximum depth of field. At least, that is the impression I still have when listening to tutorials and articles all over the internet. But it is not always necessary to acquire that maximum depth of field.
On most occasions, a shallow depth of field is associated with something like portrait photography, with focus on the eye and a razor-thin depth of field. It can give a photo a great sense of depth. When combined with a longer focal length, we can bring this effect into extremes, especially when using apertures of f/2.8, f/2.0, or even f/1.4. In nature photography, we can also see the use of large apertures and razor-thin depth of field when photographing toad stool, flowers, or other (semi) macro objects. These are often made with tele lenses to acquire that much wanted smooth out of focus rendering in the image. It can even result in a complete loss of detail in the background, leaving nothing more than a smooth, silky color gradient.
But for landscapes, a small depth of field is not that common. Mostly, you see photos of impressive landscapes with a nice foreground that leads the eye into the scenery and everything razor sharp from a centimeter distance out to infinity. But when everything is in focus, it can be difficult to find a clear subject in the picture. In other words, you need to build up the photo extra carefully, with leading lines and all the other composition guidelines to make the photo visually attractive. This is one of the most difficult things to do in landscape photography, and all too often, a photo of a fantastic landscape results into an overabundance of sharply focused details that all scream for attention. The viewer will be jumping from one point in the photo to another without ever getting real focus. You can get lost in an image like that.
When you are photographing a landscape, you need to choose a single point of interest, a clear subject. You need to make sure the viewer will see that subject without having to search for it or without getting distracted too much by other elements in the photo. The subject has to stand out from its surroundings. Of course, these surroundings are really important to the photo, simply because it is the landscape in which the subject is situated. But it is also important that it is not getting more attention than our subject. A good composition and guiding lines in a photo will lead all attention to that subject. But sometimes, it helps when you remove all redundant points of attention simply by blurring the background and foreground. In other words, use a small depth of field. At the same time, it can give the photo that sense of depth or even a nice 3D effect.
As you can see in the before after example above, a large depth of field will make the background (almost) in focus. But the thing I want to show, the subject, is the grass situated in the foreground. The surroundings and background are important and need to be present, but do not need too much attention. They just have to be there. By introducing a small depth of field, the background is put to the background — literally — while it still is recognizable. I find the photo has gained a real 3D effect in the process.
Below are two other examples of how much difference a smaller depth of field can make regarding the point of attention in a landscape. Also, notice how the photo gains that 3D effect.
When using smaller depth of field, it is always important to keep the landscape present in the photo, or better said: you need to keep the landscape recognizable. If you remove the landscape from your photo, you end up with that semi macro shot that has no connection with its surroundings anymore. So, be careful not to blur the background too much. In other words, don’t automatically use the largest aperture available, but use the one that gives you the best effect.
If you think that a small depth of field can only be accomplished with a longer focal length, you are mistaken. Extreme wide angle lenses can also be used for a small depth of field. Lenses like the Laowa 15mm macro are a good example, but also, a 16mm wide angle can be used for this goal, especially when a large aperture is possible. You need to close in on your subject as much as possible for the best effect when using these wide angle lenses.
If you really love a small depth of field, you can always consider a tilt-shift lens. You won't get a smaller depth of field with these lenses, but you can replace the position of the focus plane through the tilt function. Although the depth of field doesn't change, it looks like the depth of field has become even smaller than normally possible with that combination of focal length and aperture. This is also called the miniature effect.
Let me know if you ever considered a small depth of field for your landscapes, or if you already use these technique for you landscape photos.