It’s part of the photographers job when composing the photo to make sure whoever views your photographs is “seeing” them exactly as you want them to. That means using a point of focus to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject of your image. One of the most common points of focus in landscape photography is the horizon, which makes perfect sense at first thought, but the horizon may not actually be the best point of focus for some landscapes.
While most landscape photographers prefer to keep as much of the image in focus as possible, you still need a point of focus from which you’ll work from. And now that we know we don’t have to automatically lock your focus onto the horizon, I’ll let you in on three little tips you can use to decide just where you should be setting your focus to.
Point Of Interest
One of the most obvious points of focus when taking any kind of photo is an actual point of interest. As I mentioned earlier, this is often the horizon when shooting landscapes, but thinking outside the horizon for moment, this can actually be any number of things. For example, perhaps you’re incorporating the human element into your landscape, or a monument or landmark of some sort, perhaps an old barn tucked away on a rolling pasture–take a good look at everything in your composition and decide what your “subject” is. Once you’ve pinpointed the subject, or where you want the viewer’s eye to look, use that as your point of focus.
Of course, in some cases, you’ll still end up deciding the horizon is still the star of the show, in which case you can just stick with it as your point of focus, but it never hurts to look at a scene in several different ways before shooting.
Use The Rule Of Thirds
Well, at least use the bottom third of it as your focus point! Again, landscapes usually have deep depth of fields with as much in focus as possible. However, if you’re using the horizon line as your focal point and there is a lot of distance between you and the horizon, objects that are close to you may not be very sharp. This can be a disadvantage in many instances since us landscape photographers like things to be tack sharp.
As a quick fix, you can imagine a rule of thirds grid over your composition, then set your focus point to the horizontal line that’s at the bottom of the grid. In other words, about a third of the way up from the bottom of your composition. This will help you maximize your depth of field, leaving more of the foreground in focus without having to sacrifice the horizon being focus. It may sound like magic, but this tip is actually based off of a much more technical approach called hyperfocal distance….
To really explain hyperfocal distance and how it works would probably require me to write an article dedicated solely to the topic. So, while I work on that, here’s a more abridged version to get you started. In a nutshell, hyperfocal distance is the point closest to the camera a photographer can use as a focus point without losing any sharpness in the background (assuming you have your lens set to focus at infinity). As an added bonus to this awesome technique, everything that falls between the halfway point from your camera to the hyperfocal distance will also be in focus.
Hyperfocal distance is the most precise way to maximize your depth of field, but it does require a little math (see the equation in the graphic above). As an alternative, there are a lot of apps available for smartphones and tablets that will calculate hyperfocal distance for you. A quick Google search will provide you with plenty of free web apps that will do the heavy lifting as well.
Test Them Out
When it’s not very obvious where the best focus point should be, a good way to discover which method works best is to try them all out. Experimenting with different approaches is a great way to learn and the more you practice the easier it will become to recognize the sweet spot–eventually you’ll see it without even having to put any thought into it!