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How to Focus in Landscape Photography: A Comprehensive Guide

How to focus for sharp landscapes

You set up your camera, find the perfect composition, and press the shutter button. Simple, right? Not so fast! While you might think that focusing is a trivial part of landscape photography, it’s far from it. Achieving crystal-clear sharpness from the front to the back of a scene is a goal many of us strive for but often find elusive.

This article is designed to demystify the art of focusing in landscape photography. While the art of focusing can seem complicated, it’s a skill you can master with some attention to detail and a willingness to experiment. In the following sections, you’ll learn why focusing is so crucial in landscape photography, and how to employ techniques like focus bracketing and manual focusing to your advantage. That way, the next time you’re faced with a tricky landscape scene, you’ll be able to come away with stunningly sharp results!

Why is focusing in landscape photography so important?

How to Focus in Landscape Photography: A Comprehensive Guide

The sheer beauty of a landscape photo lies in its details – the craggy mountain peak in the distance, the delicate flower in the foreground, and everything in between. The goal is to capture this complexity with as much clarity as possible. For that, you need a keen understanding of how to focus your lens and how to adjust your settings to maximize the window of sharpness (i.e., the depth of field).

A major hurdle is the aperture. You might already know that a narrow aperture, say f/11, allows you to keep more of your scene in focus. But that also means less light is hitting the sensor, which often forces you to use a tripod.

You might think, “If I do have a tripod, why can’t I just narrow the aperture as much as possible?” For one, even an ultra-narrow aperture won’t keep every scene sharp; where you focus matters, too. Additionally, lenses tend to perform poorly at their smallest apertures due to an effect called diffraction, which can make your photos appear soft rather than sharp.

So how do you ensure that your focus is on point? You’ll need to be very deliberate about where you place your focus point in the scene. Many photographers make the mistake of focusing too far into the distance, leaving the foreground unsharp. The idea is to place your focus point so that it maximizes the area that stays sharp. This often means focusing not on the most prominent element in the scene, but rather the element that’s about a third of the way into the scene (more on that later!).

Bottom line: Focusing dramatically affects the level of sharpness in your images, and the difference between a well-focused and a poorly-focused landscape photograph can be staggering. An impeccably sharp image draws the viewer into the scene, letting them explore every nuance from front to back. On the other hand, a photo with a muddled focus can be jarring, turning what could have been a captivating image into a missed opportunity.

Navigating the intricacies of focusing can be intimidating, but trust me, the effort pays off. A solid grasp of how to accurately set your lens’s focus point will empower you to capture stunning, sharp landscapes consistently. Here are some tips to help you out:

1. Don’t just set the focus at infinity

In landscape photography, you are trying to capture a scene, not a solitary thing. And many times, the scene you are trying to capture is far away from you (i.e., a distant mountain at sunset).

Now, most lenses have a range of focus values, and once you get beyond a certain distance (often 20-30 feet, or 8-10 meters) the focus will be set at infinity.

Therefore, if you are taking a picture where most of the scene is far away, you might guess that you should just set the focus at infinity. And if everything in the frame is truly at infinity, then this is not a bad idea. If there is nothing close to you, then there is just no need to do anything else; you don’t need to overly complicate things.

But the best compositions often include aspects of the scene that are closer to you than infinity. For instance, this shot below has a strong midground subject, which you’ll want to keep sharp:

Derryclare landscape

If you set the focus on the distant sky (i.e., to infinity), the grass and lake will turn out soft. So in scenes with closer elements – like the landscape above – where should you set the focus?

You can get into the hyperfocal distance – we’ll talk more about that in a minute! – and make this as technical as you want. But when out shooting, your time is often precious. The light is changing and things are moving. So you probably don’t want to spend time doing calculations.

Instead, consider this rule of thumb:

Set the focus at infinity. Then just turn it back a little bit.

Of course, there’s an obvious question: How do you define a little bit?

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you. It will vary from lens to lens, but it will usually be about a 5- or 10-degree turn or to the highest distance number printed on the lens (if your lens has these numbers, that is).

focusing rings

That way, you can have a bit of leeway. You’ll still get distant subjects in focus, but you’ll also maintain sharpness on midground objects, such as a lake (assuming you’re using a narrow aperture).

Unfortunately, this guideline won’t be a big help if you’re faced with close foreground subjects, as I discuss in the next section:

2. Try focusing a third of the way into the picture

Many pictures are ruined because the foreground is not sharp. It happens all the time.

And while the trick discussed above – focusing at infinity, then pulling the focus back slightly – will ensure a sharp background and a sharp midground, it probably won’t keep close foreground objects sharp.

So what do you do if your scene has close foreground elements?

Focus about a third of the way into the frame.

That way, you get the foreground elements sharp, but you get the background elements sharp, too.

So if your shot has rocks in the foreground, set your focus slightly past the first few rocks:

Connemara deep landscape
A sharp foreground makes the viewer feel like they can walk into the picture.

And if you have interesting vegetation in the foreground, focus just past it:

Mullaghmore focusing in landscape photography

The goal is simple: focus a third of the way into the scene, even if it means setting the focus only a few feet in front of the lens.

“But wait a second!” you might say. “What about the background? If I focus on close foreground elements, won’t the background end up out of focus? Won’t it be blurry?”

Probably not! If you’re using a wide-angle lens and you’re using a decently narrow aperture (such as f/8 or f/11), then your background will still be in focus, even as the foreground remains tack-sharp.

3. Focus on the subject matter

In the previous tips, I’ve talked about setting focus to keep the entire shot sharp – but it’s important to remember the obvious:

When you have a definite subject or center of interest in your photo, just focus on that. It’s the most important part of your picture, you absolutely need it in focus, and nothing else (mostly) matters.

Don’t worry about your foreground, and don’t worry about your background. Just make sure the subject is in focus.

Yes, the foreground and/or background might end up blurry. But if there is a little fall-off in sharpness from your subject, that’s not a big deal; it may even look good!

Dingle sheep in focus
Sometimes, you just want a definite subject in focus. In fact, background blur might not even be bad, such as in this sheep photo.

4. Don’t narrow your aperture too much

There are no free lunches in photography. You may already know that using a smaller aperture to get a larger depth of field will cost you light.

(Remember: In landscape photography, you’ll often need a small aperture to maximize depth of field. But because the small aperture lets in less light, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed – which risks blur unless you’re using a tripod.)

But ultra-small apertures come with another problem:


While the details are a bit technical, diffraction is essentially softness due to a too-small aperture. Shooting at f/8 is usually fine – but push your aperture to f/16, f/18, or f/22, and you’ll start to get a lot of softness. (Diffraction is especially problematic in cameras with small sensors and lots of megapixels.)

Therefore, just using the smallest aperture possible – even if you have a tripod to handle the increased shutter speed – isn’t always the answer. You cannot just set your focus anywhere and rely on a super-deep depth of field to save you.

There are two ways around this issue, though, which we’ll talk about in the final sections.

Kinbane Head wide aperture landscape

5. Don’t be afraid to try focus bracketing

So you’ve set up your camera. The sun is setting, casting golden light across the landscape. You aim your lens at the mesmerizing scene, but something’s off. The focus isn’t quite right, and you’re running out of time.

In situations like this, focus bracketing is your friend. This technique involves taking several photos of the same scene, adjusting the focus slightly for each shot. In the end, only one or two of the files will look good – but one good file is enough!

Here’s how to do it:

First, set your camera on a tripod. The next step is to set your focus point for the first shot. After taking that shot, move the focus point slightly forward or backward for the second shot. Keep going until you feel you’ve covered the entire depth of the scene.

Once you’re back in the comfort of your home, open these images on your computer. Scrutinize them for sharpness. With any luck, at least one of those shots will be the sharp, detailed image you were aiming for.

6. Know your hyperfocal distance

Focusing in landscape photography

Hyperfocal distance is just a fancy name for determining how close you can set your focus while keeping your entire background acceptably sharp. There are apps and calculators that will tell you this distance; you just type in your aperture and focal length, then hit “Calculate.”

Using the hyperfocal distance is the most fail-safe method of keeping an entire landscape photo sharp. So when you’re dealing with a tricky scene – one with a very close foreground element as well as distant background elements – it’s often worth doing a hyperfocal distance calculation.

Then, once you know the hyperfocal distance for a particular focal length and aperture, you can tweak your settings and composition to get the best possible result. For instance, remember how I said that a too-small aperture will result in diffraction? If you need an aperture of f/22 to keep the scene sharp, you can always widen your focal length (and widen your aperture at the same time). Or you can take a few steps back to decrease the necessary aperture.

In other words: Knowing the hyperfocal distance lets you maximize depth of field with precision. You don’t have to use a narrow aperture in the hopes of getting everything sharp; instead, you’ll know exactly what aperture, focal length, and point of focus is necessary to get a perfect result.

Make sense?

For instance, if you’re using a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera with an aperture of f/11, your hyperfocal distance will be 2.5 ft (76 cm). That means you can set the focus on a point just in front of you, while still keeping everything behind that point (all the way to infinity!) sharp.

7. Manual focus is your friend

Focusing in landscape photography

Autofocus is pretty handy. We’ve all been there: you point your camera, press halfway down on the shutter button, and voila, your camera focuses. But sometimes, especially in landscape photography, autofocus just doesn’t cut it.

That’s where manual focus comes into play. When you’re facing a complex scene with different elements scattered at various distances, manual focus gives you the control you need. You decide where the focus plane sits, not the camera.

Now, if you’re worried that manual focusing sounds tricky, take a deep breath. Your camera comes with tools to make it easier. Most modern cameras have an LCD screen that can magnify the area where you’re focusing. Use it. This will help you pinpoint the exact location where you want to set the focus.

Some cameras also come equipped with focus-peaking features. These handy tools highlight the in-focus areas right on your camera’s screen. You’ll see exactly where your lens is focusing, making it easier than ever to get that tack-sharp photo.

Practice makes perfect, so give manual focusing a try during your next shoot. With a little time and experimentation, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it!

8. Take a test shot and view it large

So, you’ve set up your tripod, dialed in your settings, and you think you’ve nailed the focus. What’s next? Don’t rush to capture your final shot just yet. Instead, take a test image!

Then, once you’ve captured a good test file, spend time reviewing it. Resist the temptation to glance at the thumbnail on your camera’s LCD screen and call it a day. (Those tiny previews can be deceiving!)

Instead, use your camera’s zoom function to view the image larger. Zoom in on those key areas: the foreground elements and the distant background. Are the leaves on the ground in the foreground as crisp as the mountain range in the back?

If something seems off, you’ve just saved yourself from a disappointing end result. Tweak your settings or adjust your focus point, and try another test shot.

Make it a habit to review your shots this way, especially when you’re just getting started. Your future self, scrolling through a gallery of sharp, stunning photos, will thank you!

9. Consider focus stacking

Say you’re faced with a very deep scene, like the one below:

Ballintoy Arch focusing in landscape photography

After doing some calculations, you may find that you need an aperture of f/22 or beyond to get everything sharp from the nearest foreground subject to the most distant background elements. And as I discussed above, that will cause blur due to diffraction.

Of course, you can accept the blur…

…or you can use another method, called focus stacking.

Here, you take multiple pictures of the same scene using different focus points. Then you blend them together in a program such as Photoshop.

(This is also a good strategy if you don’t have a hyperfocal distance calculator on hand or you don’t have time to calculate the hyperfocal distance, yet you want to make sure everything in your scene is sharp.)

Start by setting your lens to its sharpest aperture (generally in the range of f/5.6 to f/8). Mount your camera on a tripod to ensure the framing remains consistent.

Then take a series of shots while subtly adjusting the focus. The first image should have the focus set on your closest foreground subject. The next image should have its focus point beyond the foreground subject, the third image should have its focus point beyond that, and so on.

Note that you can set the focus manually – where you twist the manual focus ring with each shot – or you can change the autofocus point before shooting. Personally, I’m a fan of using manual focus for this type of work, but feel free to try both methods and see which you prefer.

You may be wondering:

How many shots do you need for a focus stack?

It depends on your scene. But landscape photographers will often use two shots for the most basic scenes (one for the foreground and one for the background), three shots when things get slightly deeper (one for the foreground, one for the midground, and one for the background), and five or more shots when things get deeper still.

Then, when you get back home, you can blend the shots in a post-processing program.

This method is not a cure-all. It can get tricky when photographing moving subjects, and it requires a tripod plus a lot of patience, especially if you’re shooting in low light.

Still, focus stacking can be a powerful tool for maintaining focus and sharpness throughout an entire landscape picture.

Setting the focus in landscape photography: final words

Focusing in landscape photography

Achieving perfect focus in landscape photography isn’t just for the pixel-peepers among us. It’s a skill that can significantly elevate your photographs.

Remember, the objective is to capture a scene where everything, from the leaves in the foreground to the mountains in the distance, is crisp and clear. Your lens’s focus point, whether set manually or through bracketing, plays a critical role in this.

Among the tools at your disposal are focus bracketing for complex scenes and manual focus for precision. Add to that the practice of taking test shots, and you’re armed with a solid strategy.

But like any skill, mastering focus takes practice. So don’t get disheartened if your first few attempts don’t produce gallery-worthy results. Keep at it.

The bottom line? Proper focus can turn a good photo into a masterpiece. And here’s the good news: this is a skill that’s entirely within your grasp to master. So go out and test your newfound focusing skills!

Now over to you:

Do you struggle to focus when shooting landscapes? Which of these strategies do you plan to try first? Share your thoughts (and images!) in the comments below.

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Jim Hamel
Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel excels in showing aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. He is the creator of several courses here at Digital Photography School, including the popular 31 Days to Becoming a Better Photographer course. His book Getting Started in Photography has helped many begin their photographic journey. You can see his work on his website: JimHamelPhotography.com

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