Professional Landscape Techniques

Welcome to a detailed run-down of professional landscape techniques.

These techniques are required for the very best quality (resolution and clarity) needed for fine art landscape images.

because if its high quality needs, landscape photography is one of the most demanding styles of photography, but is deceptively easy to get right if you pay attention to some fundamental techniques. The basic principles go back to dawn of photography and are now, more achievable than ever.

Vibration is your enemy in high quality landscape imaging. This can come from several sources.

  • The most destructive on an SLR is the camera’s “mirror shock”.

  • The second is the camera’s shutter firing.

  • The process of firing off the shutter (pushing the shutter button).

  • Wind. Sometimes hard to spot, this can be a problem.

  • Ground Vibrations. Powerful water falls and shooting near busy roads are examples of things that can introduce vibrations, again sometimes hard to spot.

  • Using long lenses exaggerates all of the above, so avoid using them unless you are sure you can control these quality stealing issues.

Lets look at the basics.

ISO. Set an ISO setting from low to 200. You are looking for the best image quality and have time on your hands, so use the lowest ISO you can for the very best quality. Low ISO settings make the camera less sensitive to light, but give you the lowest noise (grain), sharpest details and cleanest colours. Low ISO sensitivity will be balanced out by giving the camera more time (slower shutter speeds), but often require a tripod.

Live view. Live view mode (mirrorless cameras always use live view, SLR’s need to have it engaged by activating the back screen, but not in video mode!). LV is very useful for several reasons;

  • It shows you the exact point of focus as the camera’s sensor sees it (i.e the actual end photo). You can magnify the image on the screen using the same buttons you use to look closer in at your review images, allowing very precise and accurate focus anywhere on the screen.

  • It shows you the exposure, again as the camera’s sensor sees it. In effect “what you see is what you will get” . This also applies to flare, filter or hood vignetting and other things that may be rendered differently in the eye piece compared to directly off the sensor.

  • Optionally the screen can show you a brighter image than the actual exposure to help when using strong ND filters as it can be set to let you see the image through an almost black filter.

  • On SLR cameras, the mirror raising and dropping is one of the primary causes of vibration, which robs you of sharpness (remember landscape images are the ones that often get blown up in big prints). In live view, the mirror is locked up, fixing one problem automatically.

  • It often allows you better angles to the camera, allowing for very low or high shots, that may be impossible or uncomfortable using the eye piece.

  • If you are using depth of field preview, which allows the camera to show you the depth of field of the photo before you take it, the screen on the back will be brighter and clearer. If you use the view finder on an SLR, it will darken right down to the taking aperture, making it nearly impossible to see the actual DOF.

Manual Focus (see live view). Use manual focus for accuracy and repeatability rather than subject tracking and speed. There is nothing more frustrating than setting your perfect point of focus only for it to jump to another spot every time you go to take the shot.

Aperture Priority mode. Aperture priority is chosen because lens apertures (among other things) control depth of field (note 1). Choose (usually) an aperture from f8 to f16 or sometimes f22, which will give you the maximum possible depth of field, but avoid quality robbing diffraction (note 2).

Depth of field is vitally important to landscape photographers, because most of the image needs to be in focus from front to back and the most common fault with landscape images is a soft (out of focus) and distracting foreground. To avoid this, focus on a foreground subject, letting Depth Of Field include the background in focus. Remember that depth of field falls 1/3rd in front and 2/3 behind the point of best focus.

There are apps available that can calculate your hyper focal distance which is the best focussing point for maximum depth of field you can get with any given lens/camera/aperture combination.

Tilt the camera downwards. If you are taking an image that has too much relative distance from the front to the back compared to the distance from you to the focussed subject, tilt the camera slightly forward to change the plane of focus (note 1).

Taken recently as an example at a workshop, this image uses a slightly tilted camera to add DOF. The focus point was the clump of rocks in the foreground with an aperture of f6.3 and the shutter speed roughly 1.5 seconds. Without tilting, the DOF would have only allowed focus from the foreground to half way up the stream or the waterfall only with a soft foreground. The catch with tilting is that anything in the top of the frame that is near to you will be out of focus.  This image would have been better balanced with wet rocks less wind and less sunlight, but time was poor.

Taken recently as an example at a workshop, this image uses a slightly tilted camera to add DOF. The focus point was the clump of rocks in the foreground with an aperture of f6.3 and the shutter speed roughly 1.5 seconds. Without tilting, the DOF would have only allowed focus from the foreground to half way up the stream or the waterfall only with a soft foreground. The catch with tilting is that anything in the top of the frame that is near to you will be out of focus. This image would have been better balanced with wet rocks less wind and less sunlight, but time was poor.

The shutter. We have looked at ways avoiding vibration by locking up the mirror (only relevant if you have an SLR), making sure file quality is at it’s best using a low ISO and getting enough Depth of Field from front to back. The final thing is to control shutter (fire) vibration.

This comes in two forms.

Firstly we have to try to tame the vibration caused just by the shutter firing. All moving parts cause vibrations and even the best made mechanical camera shutters are subject to this. At high shutter speeds it is not an issue as the vibration does not have time to register and at very long (1 minute+) shutter speeds it is less of an issue as the effect of the vibration is short lived over a long exposure time, but at shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second to 60 seconds, it can be image ruining.

If your camera has an electronic or “silent” shutter option, use it. If not you may need to experiment to see if your camera and lens combinations can produce critically sharp images over these times. Long lenses will be hardest to tame as they exaggerate all vibrations directly in proportion to their magnification and often unbalance the camera. If a long lens has a tripod collar, use it to for better balance. If you are still having trouble, a heavier, or artificially heavy (note 3) tripod or more stable tripod head (note 4) are the only answer.

The second source of shutter vibration is the process of actually activating (pushing) the shutter. If possible you should not touch your camera at all for a few seconds before you take the image. There are several ways of releasing the shutter without touching the camera. A hard wired cable release is best for very long or “Bulb” exposures as you can “lock it and leave it” for as long as you want. A cordless one is more convenient for shutter speeds you can set on the camera (often up to 60”) and often there is an app available for your camera so you can use your phone as a remote.

The lens hood. The lens hood is important for keeping glare off the front of your lens, especially when using flat filters as opposed to curved lenses. Unfortunately, hoods can catch strong wind. If this is likely, you are better off removing the hood and using your hand to shield the lens from off angle sun light.

(Not so optional) Accessories

Tripods. This is not really an option. Any time you want the best quality images, using low ISO settings and deep depth of field, will require a tripod because the thing that will have to give is the shutter speed. Also, deliberate very long exposures (see ND filters) will be possible with a tripod.

Best user practices with a tripod are;

  • Always point one leg “down a hill” if used on a slope to avoid accidents.

  • Always test the tripod for stability before putting your camera on it.

  • Make sure the legs are at full spread and even as possible.

  • Always turn off the camera’s stabiliser (especially on lens ones) as it may try to shift as you are taking the image.

  • Use the thickest legs possible (go as low as you can, when you can).

  • Avoid using the centre column unless there is no other option.

  • Weigh the tripod down or brace it if possible***.

Anyone spot what is wrong here? The camera and lens are top of the line, the tripod, a very expensive heavy duty Gitzo, but all of the quality the expensive gear promises is at the mercy of a centre column at full extension, the least stable section of any tripod. In all fairness it is probably being used instead of the last leg sections to keep the tripod’s foot print smaller (but easier to knock over!). and probably just for a “group selfie”, but still a good example of what  not  to do.

Anyone spot what is wrong here? The camera and lens are top of the line, the tripod, a very expensive heavy duty Gitzo, but all of the quality the expensive gear promises is at the mercy of a centre column at full extension, the least stable section of any tripod. In all fairness it is probably being used instead of the last leg sections to keep the tripod’s foot print smaller (but easier to knock over!). and probably just for a “group selfie”, but still a good example of what not to do.

Polarisers. Polarising filters remove the wave lengths water vapour inhabit. This has the effect of removing glare from surfaces making them cleaner and punchier, removing the “blue haze” often encountered in shaded, wet places and can see through the surface of water. These things cannot easily be fixed in post processing.

Neutral Density filters. If you want a really slow shutter speed in bright light, a Neutral Density filter is a must. Even using the lowest ISO setting, and a small aperture, the slowest shutter speed you may be able to get will be 1 or 2 seconds. This is enough to blur water, but gives you little control over how much.

Your first option is to wait until the sun goes down, but for those of us who do not like to stumble around in the dark, an ND filter is a must. Available in fixed value or variable models and also in split types for graduated effect, they can block out as many as 10 shutter speeds of light, making a 1/30th of a second shutter speed a 30 second one. When purchasing them the terminology can be confusing (and unfortunately not standardised through brands). Some use the # of stops (shutter speeds) they block, others use multiples of exposure like 400x or 1000x. Think about how many shutter speeds you will most likely need and you will know what to look for, or just get a variable one.

A detail shot of the waterfall above shot at 40 seconds. This shot without an ND filter would have been 1 to 2 seconds at most and would have looked different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

A detail shot of the waterfall above shot at 40 seconds. This shot without an ND filter would have been 1 to 2 seconds at most and would have looked different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

Things you cannot fully control

Light and environment. The food that sustains photographers is light. the quality of light is hard to control, often meaning you have to apply plenty of time and perseverance for best results. Early morning and late evening (the so called “golden hour”), can help add colour and drama. Overcast is better for some subjects where excessive contrast will be uncontrollable, such as waterfall shots in deep ravines or macro shots and even bad weather can help add drama to a dull sky. Good light is always better than over processing.

Wet things have better colour saturation and are generally more contrasty than dry, dusty ones, but a polariser may be needed to avoid colour robbing water glare.

Learn to read how the light adds drama, how it effects shadows (stronger the light, stronger the shadows for better or worse) and how different shooting angles can create different effects.

The images below are the same leaf taken at the same time, but from two different angles to the sun.

A lot to deal with? It probably seems so now, but as soon as you start to get on top of these things, your images will reach the stars.

*

(1) For a full explanation of depth of field see the “Explaining Depth of Field” article further down.

(2) Diffraction, which is one law of physics that we cannot fight, may rob you of some quality if you use apertures smaller than f8-11 (Crop sensor or micro 43) or f16 (Full frame). Diffraction is where light passing through a hole (the lens aperture in this case) scatters around the holes edges. At wide apertures, a lens is a large hole with a lot of clean, sharp, non diffracted light. At smaller apertures, the ratio of edge to hole is greater meaning the image is made up of more diffracted or scattered light and looks less sharp. Most common lens resolution tests will give you an idea of your lenses diffraction limit.

(3) Tricks for making your tripod effectively heavier include;

  • Leaning your bag on a leg or hang your camera bag from it’s centre column.

  • Hanging a string bag off of it and putting a rock in the bag.

  • Connecting an elastic strap to the tripods centre column, running it under your foot and pulling it tight.

  • Using a bean bag or your camera bag instead of the tripod as a soft support.

  • Creating a “cup” that your bean bag can sit in on the tripod can help tame long lenses.

  • A brace arm or gimbol for heavy lenses can help also.

    One of my personal favourite lenses, the Canon 200mm f2.8L refused to settle for me on a 5D mk2 until I braced the lens with a small metal ruler running from the base of the camera to the front of the lens with a little blue tack to hold it still.

(4) The tripod head is often a cause for confusion. Ball heads are very popular as they are low profile and easy to use, but small ones add a thin neck that can be too small for proper stability (see “avoid the tripod centre column” above). The best ball heads are short and broad necked.

Non ball heads are more stable and better at load bearing, but are less popular as they often have adjustment arms poking out in multiple directions. An old favourite of mine is the Manfrotto 460 MG. This cheap and light head had similar movements and profile to a ball head and short knob style controls. Any vibrations had to turn a corner, making it more stable, unlike the direct transmission ball head neck.

Before buying a new tripod, check to make sure the head is not going to be a stability problem.




Explaining Exposure Compensation.

Light is the life-blood of photography. Quantity and quality are both important.

Quality of light is at the core of creative photography, but light quantity is also required for an image to be exposed correctly, so it is no less important.

The light meter in your camera is a clever device, but it can be tricked in some circumstances, or maybe the “correct” exposure reading may not be to your liking creatively.

The reason the light meter makes mistakes is because it has to be calibrated to a “zero point”, based on some basic assumptions. The designer sets the light meter to read light for a normal exposure in daylight with a scene containing “average” reflected light values. This average is called 18% grey and is the average reflectivity of all of the things that make up our world in normal sunlight.

If the camera encounters a scene made up of too many non average tones (a sunlit white sandy beach, a snow field or lots of deep shadows in a stage performance for example), it will usually* assume that it must compensate to “put things right” by bringing the reflected light values back to it’s normal or “zero point” setting. This results in predominantly white or black scenes becoming grey or average. Not ideal.

Think of a black and white chess board. The camera will have no trouble metering the normal board because it is an even balance of light and dark tones, but if you turn most of the black squares white, the camera will not understand the tones have changed, it will think that the scene is just too light, so it will (over) compensate by darkening it, making the board more grey looking. The same is true if more squares are black. The camera will “fix” the dark scene by making it lighter.

There are two*** ways to avoid this.

The first and often least feasible is to take an “incident” light reading using a light meter that reads the amount of light coming from the light source (the sun, a lamp etc), rather that the light reflected from the subject. This cannot be tricked as it is literally a measure of the light coming from the light source, although it is no guarantee of creative success. A way of doing this with a reflected (camera) light camera meter is to take a reading off an area that you believe has an average reflective tonal value in the light you are intending to use (green grass, low angle blue sky or road tarmac is often ok, or ideally a portable grey card), then set the camera to this setting manually, so it will not then change when you point the camera at something else. An example situation for this would be photographing white water rafting. The light meter will be fooled by bright sunlight sparkle off the water, sometimes shaded faces of the competitors and “normal” backgrounds so you would not be able to let the camera decide and compensate constantly.

Above is an old, but still working incident light meter and three sheets of paper that would all be roughly “average” tones (as is grass, tarmac, blue denim, low angle blue sky, medium brown hair etc). The light meter would be pointed towards the light source  from  the subject, giving the photographer an accurate measure of actual light falling on the subject (not reflected off of it). The paper on the other hand can be placed in open light, then a camera, reflected light meter measurement taken off of it, giving you an accurate “average” reading. Either way, the reading would be technically accurate. For the sake of consistency, the colour usually used is “18%  grey” or a grey card, but any medium tone colours have an identical effect.

Above is an old, but still working incident light meter and three sheets of paper that would all be roughly “average” tones (as is grass, tarmac, blue denim, low angle blue sky, medium brown hair etc). The light meter would be pointed towards the light source from the subject, giving the photographer an accurate measure of actual light falling on the subject (not reflected off of it). The paper on the other hand can be placed in open light, then a camera, reflected light meter measurement taken off of it, giving you an accurate “average” reading. Either way, the reading would be technically accurate. For the sake of consistency, the colour usually used is “18% grey” or a grey card, but any medium tone colours have an identical effect.

The second and more common method is to correct the cameras reflected light settings yourself. There are many ways you can do this and with modern digital cameras you can often do it before you make the exposure, without guess work or having fix it by retaking a image again after.

This is especially useful with a mirrorless camera or SLR using live view, because you can see the effect before taking the image.

Setting the exposure compensation setting on the camera (+/- symbol or sometimes a wheel activated control) will allow corrections of +/- 3 stops or more by changing the shutter speeds/aperture settings or The ISO setting. Exposure compensation is usually not available in any automatic modes, only Programme and Aperture or Shutter Priority modes will allow it’s use.

Manual mode is also ideal for this, but it is applied simply by deliberately setting the wrong settings. Although manual is cumbersome and difficult to use for some subjects, if you have time or need to set the camera so it’s exposure settings cannot be over-ridden by the camera then it is the best setting. In manual the camera will suggest settings it thinks are right, but it cannot set any for you.

Now the tricky bit is to remember that dark scenes need to be made darker and light ones lighter.

This is because of the way the light meter compensates for what it thinks is an error (making light things darker and dark things lighter) and you are putting it back to where you need it.

In the two examples above, the first image of each set is the camera’s metering of the scene (a happy average). The second of each of the images is taken with -1 exposure compensation applied. In both of the adjusted images, the colours have deepened and there is added drama and mystery. There is not necessarily a right or wrong here and post processing could change the image quality a fair bit, but the closer you can get to the exposure you want at the start of the process the stronger the image and the less harm you will do to the file with processing.

In this set, the camera’s metered image was the middle one. The darker (-1) adjusted one is more accurate to the actual scene and the last image (+1) is a brighter and friendlier one. The left image has plenty of latitude to salvage detail in the bright area in the front of the image, but lifting detail out of the shadows would likely lead to more noise (digital noise and film grain hide in the shadows). The other two have sacrificed highlight detail lifting shadow detail.

Exposed at -1.5 in filtered midday sun to retain highlight detail and colour depth, this compensation has created a lot of “negative space” (black) areas. If properly balanced this is not an issue and can even be deliberately creative.

Exposed at -1.5 in filtered midday sun to retain highlight detail and colour depth, this compensation has created a lot of “negative space” (black) areas. If properly balanced this is not an issue and can even be deliberately creative.

Sometimes there is no perfect answer. If an image has too wide a range of contrast (dynamic range) you will either have to use a technique like High Dynamic Range or HDR, which uses multiple exposures at different values and merges them together, or sacrifice either the highlight or shadow end of the exposure. It often is ok to loose detail to solid areas of bright white highlight or inky black shadow, if that is how they really would look.

The original above was taken using -1 1/2 exposure compensation. This retained detail in the highlights at the expense of the shadows. Even thought the highlights were heavily compensated for, they are still a little “blown out” or over exposed. The right hand image is the same one processed back up to the exposure the camera wanted to set. In the shadow areas, noise has become apparent, even ugly and the highlights would need to be selectively bought back or protected as they have blown out again.

Possibly taking the image a little lighter and trying to salvage the highlights in processing would have resulted in a cleaner file, but highlight recovery can be tricky**. This back and forth is also reducing the image file’s quality as all processing does some harm.

*

*Many modern light meters will evaluate the whole scene including distance and colour making them more accurate and harder to trick, but they are never infallible. To test yours, take a series of images of average coloured subjects (a tarmac road, green grass, midday clear sky), then photograph a white sheet of paper making sure you fill the frame with the dominant colour. The camera will likely get most of the images right except the white paper one.

**It is important to remember that most digital camera sensors will loose highlight detail more easily and permanently than shadow detail, but digital “noise” hides in the shadows.

*** There is a third called the “sunny 16 rule” which used to be in every film box. It goes like this; If you set your ISO and shutter speed to the same settings, then f16 in bright daylight will be correct, f11 in slightly cloudy conditions, f8 in late afternoon light or heavy overcast etc. The only issue with this is it assumes you are ok to either live with the aperture setting you are forced to use or you are ok making a conversion chart so you can use different shutter speed and aperture settings.


JPEG or RAW?

One of the most commonly asked questions when starting out is what quality setting should you use, or more specifically, should you use RAW or JPEG file format?

Like a lot of things, there is no easy answer. It is a choice based purely on the work flow you wish to use which is in turn based on the amount of post processing control you want to have over your image files.

First up some basics.

All images taken by all cameras, phones etc are RAW data to start with. RAW data is just that, data, not an image. 

All useable images for printing, viewing and sharing are JPEG files (or similar such as TIFF’s), so the end product is the same (just the journey is different).

Choosing RAW format means you do not want the RAW to JPEG conversion to be done by the camera, (usually based on choices made pre-shot*), but want to do it yourself using a relevant RAW conversion programme.

Why?

JPEG files use the camera's pre-set settings to create the image*. JPEG files can be effectively anything you want within the limits of the settings available in your camera, but once taken, the JPEG becomes "fixed" and far less flexible for post processing. All unused data is discarded (literally dumped) to save space. RAW files can be up to 4 times the size of processed JPEG files. 

*sharpening, colour saturation, tone, contrast, white balance, exposure and any special effects applied. None of these are applied in a RAW image with the assumption you will process to your needs. When you look at a RAW image on the camera screen or during processing, you are looking at a JPEG created for viewing called a thumb nail or preview image, not a full sized image.

The one on the camera back will also look like the camera's JPEG settings have been applied, while the one you upload into your RAW processing programme will often look flat and unexciting as it does not have any of the JPEG settings applied to it. It is a blank canvas waiting for you to process or to put it another way, it is an unbaked cake.

Lets pretend your RAW file looks like this (in reality the "jelly beans" would be mostly green with a few blue and red making up the sensor's Bayer array).

Lets pretend your RAW file looks like this (in reality the "jelly beans" would be mostly green with a few blue and red making up the sensor's Bayer array).

The JPEG is created from the RAW data to make a usable (or visual) file.

After the JPEG is processed, all of the unused "jelly beans" around the outside would be dumped, leaving you with a much smaller file to process. What is left is complete, but lean and less flexible.

After the JPEG is processed, all of the unused "jelly beans" around the outside would be dumped, leaving you with a much smaller file to process. What is left is complete, but lean and less flexible.

If the image is what you want or is close enough that minor fixes can perfect it, then you do not need to process a RAW image file. Many brands brag about the quality of their JPEG files and rightfully so, as they are the effort of many years of development.

If however you want to push the file a bit further, manipulate it or recover lost highlight or shadow detail from poor exposure, the RAW file has a lot more room for processing (all of the unused jellybeans are on "standby").

Below is a file badly over exposed, but recovered reasonably well in RAW. A JPEG file would be less successful as the lost detail would be out of it's range to retrieve. 

In effect, you can only easily subtract from a JPEG, not add new data (without some serious photoshop work). For example you could successfully convert a colour JPEG into a black and white one (subtracting colour), but not the other way around.

Users of RAW will tell you that RAW processing is also gentler and more natural looking than the common JPEG file, but that is often in comparison to JPEG's straight out of the camera and is only noticeable at very high magnifications. The manufacturers put an enormous amount of effort and time into their JPEG processors on the assumption that many people will use them regularly or exclusively.

This is a high magnification crop of a sharpened and noise reduced (and contrasty) JPEG file. At this magnification, the detail looks very processed and harsh. Not much could be done to fix this except to soften the effect (reduce sharpness), but the camera settings could have been better set to avoid this happening in the first place. At normal size, this file actually looks snappier and richer than the unprocessed RAW file and printing it would smooth out the harshness.

This is a high magnification crop of a sharpened and noise reduced (and contrasty) JPEG file. At this magnification, the detail looks very processed and harsh. Not much could be done to fix this except to soften the effect (reduce sharpness), but the camera settings could have been better set to avoid this happening in the first place. At normal size, this file actually looks snappier and richer than the unprocessed RAW file and printing it would smooth out the harshness.

This is the unprocessed RAW file. From here gentler processing can be applied to the more natural looking file. Although it looks much smoother at this size, the original size is quite flat looking.

This is the unprocessed RAW file. From here gentler processing can be applied to the more natural looking file. Although it looks much smoother at this size, the original size is quite flat looking.

So, JPEG or RAW?

Still up to you, but here is a suggestion.

Use JPEG's anytime;                                                                                                                          

  • the images are safe to shoot as is (no difficult lighting, colour or dynamic range issues and you have had time to do test files if needed),

  • the images are to be done in bulk quantities and are not going to be manipulated,

  • you are using a special effect or look only available through the camera's JPEG settings,

  • it is only casual shooting,

  • you want an easy work flow (see below),

  • the file will not be enlarged to extreme sizes,

  • storage space is at a premium.

Use Raw if;

  • the files may need heavy manipulation to retrieve lost shadow or highlight data,

  • you intend to treat them like fine art images where the most complete control in processing is desired and big enlargements are desired,

  • you wish to explore the limits of the file creatively,

  • you may want to revisit the image now or later and develop it differently,

  • you do not know what you may need now or in the future (especially client images).

Use both if;

  • you have the space and are not sure which to use,

  • need a speedy turn around, but may need to fix errors on some files that JPEG's cannot handle,

  • would like a JPEG effect only the camera can provide, but would like the option of a clean file for later processing.

Work Flow

Once you have decided to use RAW or JPEG, your work flow can be established.

JPEG users will have the benefits of a file format that is not specialised RAW programme dependant and is smaller and "ready to go". Any device or computer can process and store the files and copies can be made as needed. For every 10 gb of storage you will be able to store 2-3,000 images and they are effectively future proof. This is why most low end devices and cameras are set to produce JPEG's only, as the decision to use RAW is really a photographers choice, not a casual shooters one. 

Importing and sorting can be straight forward and posting to web sites etc a breeze. 

RAW users have a couple of extra steps to make.

The RAW file must at some point go into a RAW processing programme (you can see the RAW image on your screen, but that is a preview JPEG only). The process could be as simple as importing to a programme using pre-set settings and exporting out as a useable file type (JPEG, TIFF etc) and some programmes give you the option of "batch" processing on import or after, but the point of using RAW is to be able to process images more precisely and to suit the intended purpose, so batch processing should only be seen as a starting point. The original RAW file should be left untouched for later processing*.

*This is very important. Some programmes such as Photoshop will process your RAW files permanently unless you first make a copy, while specialist RAW file processors like Lightroom, DXO, Capture 1, only ever processes a copy file, never touching the original so you can re-visit them as needed.

Storage is more problematic now as 10 gb only holds hundreds, not thousands of files and these are only accessible using a RAW processing programme. If you choose to shoot both RAW and JPEG, you get the best of both worlds, but your storage issues are greater and may require two steps.

Another long term issue is each RAW file type is specific to each model of camera (not brand). Eventually support of older models may drop away or the programme will only give passing support to them, although this has not happened yet. New models of camera can also suffer from lack of RAW support early in their life, leaving the user with JPEGs only for the first few months after release, unless you wish to chance the manufacturer's often clumsy and limited RAW processing programme supplied with the camera.

One solution is to convert and re-file your RAW images as DNG conversions. DNG or Digital Negative is a simple RAW storage file that Adobe created to help future proof RAW files. It's main down side is you need for an Adobe or Adobe sanctioned product to open them, but the base programme is deliberately very simple so in future it will be easily possible to resurrect it even if Adobe disappears.

Depth Of Field Explained

One of the most important creative considerations in photography, if not the most important, is control of Depth of Field.

What is Depth of Field?

When making an image you must focus on something. A certain amount of the image behind and in front of the point of focus is also reasonably sharp until it becomes blurry. This is called the zone of “Depth of Field” (DoF). DoF is used to determine the most important point in the image, but also to control the amount of the image that is also sharp (and how much) and the amount of and speed of transition to blur.

DoF is made up of three parts;

1) The fully sharp zone, also known as the plane of best focus,

The focus point is pretty clear in this image. The thin plane of focus and strong blurring of the background add a sense of subject separation.

The focus point is pretty clear in this image. The thin plane of focus and strong blurring of the background add a sense of subject separation.

2) The zone of transition, where fully focussed sharpness starts to become less sharp (softer), and how quickly, depends on the distance to the subject, the subjects distance to their background and the aperture chosen (most transitional DoF falls behind the point of focus).

In this image, the transition of DoF is as important as the point of perfect focus. The point of best focus is the back of the man's Kimono, but more important to the image is the woman facing us, who is not fully in or out of focus. She is caught well enough in the  transition  between the two.  This use of transitional DoF is often referred to as "Bokeh" (see below) or the "character" of focus transition and blur and will vary by lens, aperture, distance and light.

In this image, the transition of DoF is as important as the point of perfect focus. The point of best focus is the back of the man's Kimono, but more important to the image is the woman facing us, who is not fully in or out of focus. She is caught well enough in the transition between the two. This use of transitional DoF is often referred to as "Bokeh" (see below) or the "character" of focus transition and blur and will vary by lens, aperture, distance and light.

3) The out of focus area, where sharpness is lost, becoming true blur. This is often mistaken as the only place where “Bokeh” shows up in an image. Bokeh (see below) is actually the character of both the transitional and out of focus areas and how they relate.

This image made up of mostly sharply focussed detail and soft out of focus blur with very little transition. Close-up images often transition very quickly as close focus distance DoF decreases dramatically (becomes shallower) due to increased magnification.

This image made up of mostly sharply focussed detail and soft out of focus blur with very little transition. Close-up images often transition very quickly as close focus distance DoF decreases dramatically (becomes shallower) due to increased magnification.

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How strongly a subject stands out from their background is called subject separation. Strong subject separation is what we usually define as “portrait style” photography. This makes a hero of the focussed subject and blurs the rest away into smooth softness.

Although this image is not an obviously strong example of a subject "jumping out" against it's background, it still heavily relies on clear  subject separation  to work.

Although this image is not an obviously strong example of a subject "jumping out" against it's background, it still heavily relies on clear subject separation to work.

Good (or strong) separation is usually the result of shallow or very shallow DoF, but light, texture, contrast and colour can also help to separate the subject from their surroundings.

The 3D look of this image comes as much from shallow DoF as it does from the contrast of the well lit, textural, main subject to the darker background and surroundings.

The 3D look of this image comes as much from shallow DoF as it does from the contrast of the well lit, textural, main subject to the darker background and surroundings.

How much depth of field sharpness, subject separation, focus transition and full blur is present in an image, depends on a few elements that are (usually) under your control;

  1. The lens Aperture value you select is the first and often most powerful.

  2. Changing magnification by changing the distance you are from your subject or/and “zooming in or out” with the lens. Increasing magnification either way reduces perceived DoF and visa-versa.

  3. The distance your subject is from their background** is also important here. Increasing the distance the subject is from their background increases DoF and visa-versa*.

  4. Perceived compression or expansion of perspective. This does not necessarily change the actual DoF of an image but it heavily influences how we perceive it.

    *Relative distance control is really important. if you are closer to your subject than they are their background, you will increase perceived subject separation and the reverse is true.

**It is important to remember that the majority DoF falls behind the point of focus, not in front of it.

1. Aperture Settings

Lens aperture settings are the most important, direct and practical DoF control.

Aperture settings come in full value settings of f1.4, 1.8, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, each one halving DOF (as you use smaller numerical values) and double the amount of light let through to the sensor (they are part of the exposure control triangle of Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture).  Thanks to modern electrical camera controls, there are also 1/2 or 1/3 settings available between these full settings, but it is generally best to just think in full value settings at this stage.

Below is an example of some of these settings in action (these are only some of the full aperture settings, ignoring the third and half values also).

(If you use a zoom lens you will probably not have these first two apertures available)

                                                                         f 1.8                                                                                

The focus point is the face of the first statue and that is basically all that is sharp. The rest of the image is pleasingly smooth and soft, making the front statue the clear "focus point" of the image. This is true  portrait  style technique emphasising maximum  subject separation .

The focus point is the face of the first statue and that is basically all that is sharp. The rest of the image is pleasingly smooth and soft, making the front statue the clear "focus point" of the image. This is true portrait style technique emphasising maximum subject separation.

f 2.8       

The first statue is still the obvious focus point and is now fully in focus, but the other statues are starting to become more coherent. This aperture is starting to include more background detail (reducing separation and increasing transition), but this is still a shallow DoF  portrait  style image. The  Bokeh  characteristics of the lens are important i this style of image.

The first statue is still the obvious focus point and is now fully in focus, but the other statues are starting to become more coherent. This aperture is starting to include more background detail (reducing separation and increasing transition), but this is still a shallow DoF portrait style image. The Bokeh characteristics of the lens are important i this style of image.

(All lenses will have the following settings)        

f 5.6

The image is now starting to tell a story now, showing all of it's elements, even if they are not all completely sharp. This is probably the least effective aperture value for this type of photo as it neither separates one element (a  portrait  style photo), nor shows all of them in sharp focus (a  landscape  style photo). The  transition  from sharp to soft is important here.  If you have a zoom lens and cannot use a wider aperture than this, there are other techniques you can use to make increase separation (see below).

The image is now starting to tell a story now, showing all of it's elements, even if they are not all completely sharp. This is probably the least effective aperture value for this type of photo as it neither separates one element (a portrait style photo), nor shows all of them in sharp focus (a landscape style photo). The transition from sharp to soft is important here. If you have a zoom lens and cannot use a wider aperture than this, there are other techniques you can use to make increase separation (see below).

f 11           

Almost all of the statues are now reasonably sharp. The image is starting to become a true  landscape  style image. Even though the village in the background is not fully sharp, the viewer will now accept it as part of the overall image.  Because DoF falls mostly behind the point of focus, focussing on the last statue would likely render the front one as fully soft, which is why landscape photographers usually pick out a foreground subject to focus on, letting the transition of deep DoF capture the background.

Almost all of the statues are now reasonably sharp. The image is starting to become a true landscape style image. Even though the village in the background is not fully sharp, the viewer will now accept it as part of the overall image. Because DoF falls mostly behind the point of focus, focussing on the last statue would likely render the front one as fully soft, which is why landscape photographers usually pick out a foreground subject to focus on, letting the transition of deep DoF capture the background.

f 22

Now even the little town in the background is starting to look in focus. These photos were taken of small (5cm tall) statues  up close , exaggerating the effect of shallow DoF by increasing magnification. The aperture will often slightly soften an image through Diffraction (see lens aberrations below).  This image is using true    landscape    technique although the very close focussing distance (see below) has not allowed all of the elements to be fully sharp. Now scroll back up to the top, looking at the village in the background as you go.

Now even the little town in the background is starting to look in focus. These photos were taken of small (5cm tall) statues up close, exaggerating the effect of shallow DoF by increasing magnification. The aperture will often slightly soften an image through Diffraction (see lens aberrations below). This image is using true landscape technique although the very close focussing distance (see below) has not allowed all of the elements to be fully sharp. Now scroll back up to the top, looking at the village in the background as you go.

Most depth of field falls behind the point of focus, so if the nearest foreground does not look very sharp until apertures f5.6 or smaller, that is normal.

Looking at the images, you will see a clear pattern emerging. 

When you use a wide aperture (small number values like f1.8 to f2.8), the depth of field will be very shallow. At f1.8 it will look razor thin, making accurate focussing difficult and very important, especially at very close focussing distances. 

As the aperture values become smaller (bigger numbers like f8 to f22), the depth of field increases or becomes “deeper”. The terminology is confusing I know, but it is what it is.

Tip. An easy way of remembering the aperture values and how they effect depth of field is to think of them as measurements of DoF distance or of the number of bottles/feet/fence posts/inches/trees that are in focus when focussing down a line of them. A bigger number is more DoF or more “in focus” distance (f2.8 could be 2.8 bottles sharp, f11 is 11 bottles etc). This actually has nothing to do with what the numbers mean, but it helps to remember which way they work.

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2. Magnification

If you increase magnification by either changing the strength of your lens or actually moving, you reduce DoF and the reverse is true. The more magnification/closer you get, the shallower the DoF will be. The further away you move or more you zoom out the greater the DoF. These methods can help control DoF, but they both act a little differently (see also point 3 below).

  • If you move physically closer to the subject, using the same lens focal length, your DoF will get shallower because you are increasing magnification and at the same time increasing the relative distance between the subject and their background. This increases subject separation. The opposite is also true, moving further away from the focussed subject reduces magnification and decreases the relative distance from the subject to their background (see relative distance below).

  • If you zoom in using a longer lens, the DoF will look shallower and the image more compressed (flatter), but the distance from subject to it's background will not change. Using a wide angle lens will decrease magnification and expand perspective (see below), making effective DoF deeper, but again the actual distance from the subject to their background does not actually change (see relative distance below).

A combination of a long lens and close shooting distance has created very shallow depth of field and strong, clean subject separation.

A combination of a long lens and close shooting distance has created very shallow depth of field and strong, clean subject separation.

A more distant subject and less powerful lens has given this image deeper DoF. The front of the building and the distant clouds are both in sharp focus.

A more distant subject and less powerful lens has given this image deeper DoF. The front of the building and the distant clouds are both in sharp focus.

3. Relative Distance

If you are closer to your subject than it is to it’s background, you will be able to separate it from the background more easily. If the subject is close to it’s background (i.E. nearly on the same plane of focus), then separating it from the background, even with a very wide aperture, will be harder.

The two images above were taken using the same lens settings (f2.8, 40mm) and the same shooting distance. In the right image the second camera was moved back to show the effect of increasing the relative distance of the subject to their background and how it strengthens subject separation. The photographer to subject distance is now shorter than the distance between the subject and the rear camera.

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4. Controlling the Perception of DoF using Lens Perspective

The last way of controlling the perception of DoF and separation (but not actual DoF) is by using different lens perspectives. Wide angle lenses expand perspective, increasing the perceived distances between objects. Longer lenses compress perspective seemingly “squashing” things together. This is not actually changing DoF, only the perception of it.

Portrait photographers use the compression of longer lenses to make their subject jump out. landscape photographers often use the wider angle lenses to increase the perception of deep depth of field.

If an object photographed to be the same size in any two images, taken on any lens and any format camera but using the same aperture, the DoF is basically the same (the math is not exact, but basically holds true). The perception of separation is however very different.


In the two images above, the same aperture was used (f5.6) and the same focussing point. Every effort was made to keep the main subject the same size in the view finder by moving in closer with the wide angle lens. The left Image was taken at 40mm and the right at 12mm. Even though the left image is more compressed, increasing the perception of shallower DoF and better subject separation (also changing how the blurring looks), the actual DoF is about the same. It is just stretched out, making the transition less obvious.

For this image, a medium long lens (75mm) and very wide (f1.8) aperture were used. The distance to the focus point was about 3 meters and there is about a meter between each row of poles. The actual sharp DoF is about 2-3cm and the transition is minimal. This image is magnified by a close shooting distance and  compressed   and a longer than standard lens focal length.  It would be technically possible to create exactly the same effective DoF using a different focal length lens (as long as the magnification is kept the same by moving closer or further away), but the perspective and the relative distance to the background would change, making the poles look more or less "flattened".

For this image, a medium long lens (75mm) and very wide (f1.8) aperture were used. The distance to the focus point was about 3 meters and there is about a meter between each row of poles. The actual sharp DoF is about 2-3cm and the transition is minimal. This image is magnified by a close shooting distance and compressed and a longer than standard lens focal length. It would be technically possible to create exactly the same effective DoF using a different focal length lens (as long as the magnification is kept the same by moving closer or further away), but the perspective and the relative distance to the background would change, making the poles look more or less "flattened".

By contrast, this image used a wider lens, and a smaller f5.6 aperture from a similar distance. The wider lens decreased   the   magnification and  expands  the perspective, to help increase perceived DoF. These poles were actually closer together than the ones in the image above, but look further away.

By contrast, this image used a wider lens, and a smaller f5.6 aperture from a similar distance. The wider lens decreased the magnification and expands the perspective, to help increase perceived DoF. These poles were actually closer together than the ones in the image above, but look further away.

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As you have probably already worked out, most photographic situations will be a compromise of all of the techniques discussed above.

This image was taken with a slightly  wide  focal length lens (  decreased magnification  ), but at  close  distance (  increased magnification  ) and with a reasonably  wide f2.8 aperture  (  decreased DoF  ). The overall effect is of fairly shallow DoF due mainly to the short focussing distance and wide aperture being the strongest pair of elements.  In images such as this the quality of transition (Bokeh) becomes important.

This image was taken with a slightly wide focal length lens (decreased magnification), but at close distance (increased magnification) and with a reasonably wide f2.8 aperture (decreased DoF). The overall effect is of fairly shallow DoF due mainly to the short focussing distance and wide aperture being the strongest pair of elements. In images such as this the quality of transition (Bokeh) becomes important.

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In a nutshell;

  • For the most dramatic shallow DoF looks, use a wide (small number) aperture value and increase magnification by using a long lens and/or getting very close, especially if this exaggerates the distance from subject to it’s background.

  • For the strongest deep DoF effect, use wider angle lenses and small (large number) aperture values and don't get too close to the main subject relative to it’s background.

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Astro Photography

The rules we looked at above can be applied to great effect on astronomical photography.

Because the stars are so far away, it is possible to use a very wide aperture setting and still get everything in focus. This is really handy because time is your enemy with astro images. The more time you give the image, the better the colour and depth in the image, but because of the earth's rotation, (depending on the lens used- the wider the better), you will have from 1 to 30 seconds before movement blur ruins the image, unless you are after deliberately blurred star-trails that is.

The only things to keep in mind is the extra DoF needed to include foreground or earth bound elements in the image and possible lens aberrations* that appear when the widest apertures are used. Wider lenses are usually used as they give you more time, because they "push" things further away.

*Lenses used at their very widest apertures tend to show softness in the corners and chromatic aberration (colour fringing) or coma (smears) which may be obvious in your images. The newest batch of lenses are highly corrected, but older lenses will often show these flaws to some extent.  

Close-up Photography

The opposite is true for close-up photography. When you get into the macro (technically this is images that are reproduced in "life size"* or smaller, DoF drops off severely in response to the strong magnification and very small relative distances used. At focussing distances of only a few cm, even f22 will only give you a few mm of DoF. There are a few tricks you can use to increase DoF discussed in Tips and Tricks below. 

*Life size means reproducing the subject on the sensor the same size as it actually is, so a 1" camera sensor would cover 1" of actual subject.

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Tips and Tricks

1. Something you can do to increase useful DoF is to change the angle by "tilting" the lens/camera forward,  or downward (using vertical-portrait orientation helps) or sideways (along a fence line or wall) to match the angle of the focussing plane to the subject better. 

This is especially useful when you are placing a small subject like the head of a flower in the foreground and still want the distant horizon sharp or you are photographing a group of objects on one plane such as a table top, fence line or field of flowers. Some photographers use "Tilt/Shift" lenses to allow them to change the focal plane without moving the camera.

This image was taken with the same lens and at the same distance as the above images using f1.8 aperture,. It has both a wide aperture and close focussing distance severely reducing DoF. By placing all of the statues on the  same focus plane  (i.e. directly flat on to the camera), even a wide aperture can get (most) of them in focus (but nothing in front or behind). Shooting length-ways down a subject exaggerates shallow DoF effects, "tilting" to get closer to the same plane of focus reduces that effect.

This image was taken with the same lens and at the same distance as the above images using f1.8 aperture,. It has both a wide aperture and close focussing distance severely reducing DoF. By placing all of the statues on the same focus plane (i.e. directly flat on to the camera), even a wide aperture can get (most) of them in focus (but nothing in front or behind). Shooting length-ways down a subject exaggerates shallow DoF effects, "tilting" to get closer to the same plane of focus reduces that effect.

2. Another trick is to take multiple images at different focussing points and combine them in post processing or in camera with some models. This is called “Focus Stacking”, but it only works if your subject and camera stay still. Just like panoramic style images, the programme or camera used can only "stitch" the images together if they all match in framing.

3. For maximum possible DoF you can work out the "Hyper-focal Distance" focussing point. This can be done by  using either the lens markings if there are any (increasingly rare) or there are Apps available. This will tell you the best distance to focus at each aperture to guarantee the most DoF for your lens focal length and camera format. 

4. If you are finding it hard to achieve good DoF and quality in poor light or when doing close ups, use a tripod and/or flash. These will allow you to use f11-32 in combination with low ISO settings without slower shutter speed blur. Macro is also a good time to apply the tilting method to shoot side on or above your subject.

Lens Aberrations

If f16 or smaller are used, be aware that they will be limited in sharpness by “diffraction”. Diffraction occurs around the edge of any hole light passes through, bending light waves and degrading the quality of that light. As the aperture gets smaller and smaller, diffraction becomes dominant, until eventually most of the light is degraded (diffracted). Extremely good lenses are sometimes called "Diffraction limited" lenses , meaning the only optical flaw they have is the only one that cannot be avoided.

When a “fast” or very wide aperture lens is at it’s widest settings, there may be some form of image flaw visible such as chromatic aberration (colour fringing- often green or purple and most obvious in high contrast images) or corner softness. Only the very best lenses avoid these issues (see "Diffraction limited" above). 

A word on Bokeh

The transition from sharp to soft areas is often referred to as “Bokeh” (Bo as in bone - Ke as in kettle, the H is there to help with pronunciation, not that it always helps!) or more correctly Boke-Aji which is literally "the flavour or character of blur".

There is no such thing as good or bad Bokeh (although everyone has personal preferences). Every lens will render the out of focus and transitional areas of an image differently, some lenses even varying at different focal lengths and distances. Zoom lenses can be complicated here as they can vary with every focal length.

Some lenses have messy or busy Bokeh, some feathery or smeary, others smooth and blotchy (there are more "official" terms like Ni-Sen or cross-eyed Bokeh, but these more general terms get the point across and you do not need to learn Japanese). Some lenses have more coherent transition to out of focus areas and others, often modern designs, drop off smoothly and quickly for better portrait applications. Get to know your lenses Bokeh characteristics as they can be as important as sharpness when used often. 

The Bokeh in this image is smooth enough to be reasonably un-distracting. This allows the photo to be made up is mostly out of out of focus elements, adding creative options. Using another lens may change the character of the image for better or for worse. The nose of the pony is a little "nervous" or busy looking compared to other lens renderings, but is pleasant enough.

The Bokeh in this image is smooth enough to be reasonably un-distracting. This allows the photo to be made up is mostly out of out of focus elements, adding creative options. Using another lens may change the character of the image for better or for worse. The nose of the pony is a little "nervous" or busy looking compared to other lens renderings, but is pleasant enough.

Taken on the same day, with the same lens, this image again relies heavily on the quality of it's Bokeh. If the Bokeh was too messy looking it would distract from the point of the image and make the sharp point of focus less clear and important in image. Again this is slightly "nervous" looking Bokeh, but the long focal length and shallow DoF has separated the focussing point clearly.

Taken on the same day, with the same lens, this image again relies heavily on the quality of it's Bokeh. If the Bokeh was too messy looking it would distract from the point of the image and make the sharp point of focus less clear and important in image. Again this is slightly "nervous" looking Bokeh, but the long focal length and shallow DoF has separated the focussing point clearly.

Another example of Bokeh being an important element in a shallow DoF image. Poor Bokeh can effect the strength of an image. The only way to really know is to try out your lenses and compare their effects. If it feels/looks right, then go with it.

Another example of Bokeh being an important element in a shallow DoF image. Poor Bokeh can effect the strength of an image. The only way to really know is to try out your lenses and compare their effects. If it feels/looks right, then go with it.

Sometimes, la less fast drop-off Bokeh is desired. The lens that took this image as focussed (by mistake) at 2 meters and f2 aperture was selected (you can see the point of best focus is the first poster). The Bokeh characteristic of the lens was a more old fashioned "long transition" or coherent Bokeh, not as popular as the smooth and fast drop-of of most modern lenses, but very useful when the focus misses or DoF is limited. The people in the background are still clearly formed even though they are well out of focus and the   transition   from fully sharp to out of focus is almost invisible. Other lenses in the same situation (like the one used for the image above) may tend to make anything past the point of focus quickly look blobby or smeared and make this image pointless.

Sometimes, la less fast drop-off Bokeh is desired. The lens that took this image as focussed (by mistake) at 2 meters and f2 aperture was selected (you can see the point of best focus is the first poster). The Bokeh characteristic of the lens was a more old fashioned "long transition" or coherent Bokeh, not as popular as the smooth and fast drop-of of most modern lenses, but very useful when the focus misses or DoF is limited. The people in the background are still clearly formed even though they are well out of focus and the transition from fully sharp to out of focus is almost invisible. Other lenses in the same situation (like the one used for the image above) may tend to make anything past the point of focus quickly look blobby or smeared and make this image pointless.