Foreground and Depth of Field, Part 1

Using depth of field is one of the most important skills
of landscape photography.


Depth of field used in a canonlands shotIf there is one single technique that is most important for taking dramatic, professional looking photographs of all kinds it is the proper use of foreground and depth of field. Look at these two pictures. The picture of Mesa Arch on the left is doubly dramatic becasuse it is framed by very close foreground on both the top and bottom of the picture. Without this foreground frame it would be a just another blah picture of a hazy Canyonland's scene with no real interest. The same is true of the wildflower picture. It's the close up flowers that really give this picture zing. Wildflowers in the distance are tiny specks of color in a big boring monochrome background and add little to a photograph.

Close foreground that is very sharp, along with a background that is also sharp is a technique that I use in almost every picture that I shoot. Photographers call this sharpness at both near and far distances Depth of Field.

Take a look at that batch of pictures you took on your last vaction trip to the mountains and I'll bet most of them are all distant background with no foreground or even middle ground. This is something we all instinctively do. Even I do it once in a while when I'm not thinking. When I see a pretty scene I pick up my camera and snap it and think, "Wow, that'll be a great picture." But it never is. These are the pictures that look so great when we take them but turn out dull and boring. We've all done this. This happens because our eye/brain and a camera see a scene differently.

Your eye/brain sees that pretty forground and middle ground and background all at once and thinks wow, great. Actually eyes are very superior cameras. The camera can't see the scene all at once, sharp all the way through, when you just pick the camera up and snap away without much care or thought. You have to think and know basic photographic technique and have some experience to get the whole scene that looked so great to your eye.

So, how do you take pictures with both sharp foreground and sharp background?

Depth of field used in a wildflower shotLook at the pictures on this page. Notice that both the foreground and the back ground are very sharp at the same time. It is very important that both are sharp at the same time. If you just pick up your camera and get good and close to a nice bunch of wildflowers and fire away the result is a picture of either very sharp flowers and very blurry background or very sharp background and blurry foregroud.

A short aside: Actually, sometimes when the foreground is sharp and back ground is blurry it can be very nice; the difference in focus isolates the foreground from the background and the result can be beautiful. This works well with really, really close foreground. I do this once in a while, but it gets old fast. It's not a technique that you can use over and over.

What if you want the very close foreground and distant background to both be razor sharp? Now you're thinking like a pro. There are several distinct things you need to do. This gets a tiny bit technical here, but don't worry it doesn't last long and once you get your head around it, it is really very, very easy. After a while you will do it without even thinking about it.

In the following discussion I am assuming you are shooting with a simple point and shoot digital camera that has a built in zoom lens that so many people shoot with today. I'm also assuming you don't know a lot of the technical stuff about photography. Don't despair, you can take some fantastic pictures with this simple camera and just a little bit of knowledge. Hang in here for a few more paragraphs and we'll be there.

First of all, shoot with the widest zoom position that you have. Most folks today will be shooting with a digtal camera with a built in zoom. OK, zoom out so that you are seeing as much territory as possible and the background looks small and far away. You are now shooting with the widest zoom position that your lens is capable of.

Shrine Pass wildflowersThe second thing to do is set your f-stop at its smallest aperature. This means the hole in the lens that the light comes through (the aperature) is very small. Phtographers call this stopping down. Illogically, the smallest aperature has the largest number. f-22 is a lot smaller hole than f-2.

How do you set this small apperatue on your camera? It's easy. First of all you have to be in the proper shooting mode. Most digital cameras can operate in several shooting modes: the most common are aperature priority and shutter priority. You want aperature priority. This mode lets you choose the f-stop (the aperature size), and the camera will then automatically choose the correct shutter speed. There is probably a knob on top of your camera that you can set to A, this stands for aperture priority, as opposed to P which stands for program or S which stands for shutter priority or M which stants for manual. So, set your priority mode to A (aperture priority) and then choose the smallest f-stop possible.

If you are lucky you might be able to choose a very small aperture like f-22, but most simple digital cameras usually don't have such small aperaures, the smallest aperature you are likely to find will probably be f-8 or maybe f-7. Remember the largest number means it is the smallest aperature. You choose this aperature by looking through the camera and watching the aperature scale and turning a wheel on top of the camera. So, set your priority dial to A for aperture priority, and chose the smallest aperture you can.

Now, if you are paying attention, you will notice that since you chose a small aperature, only a little bit of light is coming into the camera and the shutter speed has compensated by becoming very long. If it's not very bright outside, your shutter speed may have dropped to 1/4 second or 1/2 second or maybe even to a second or longer. Oh-oh, now you have a problem. It really isn't practical to try to hand-hold a camera at speeds slower than 1/125 or maybe 1/60 of a second. If you try, the picture will be blurred unless the kids used to call you Mr. Granite.

Don't try handholding your camera at very slow slow speeds, it won't work unless you paid a lot of money for your camera. If you have a very good, fairly expensive camera, you may be able to increase your ISO speed, which will also increase your shutter speed and allow you to handhold the camera. If you can get your ISO speed up to 1000 or 2000 without digital noise you are all set. Set your aperture at a very small size, set your ISO to a high speed and shoot away.

Most point and shoot cameras will have high ISO speeds built in, but unfortunately they are usually pretty worthless since cheap cameras shot at high ISO's usually result in very, very noisy pictures. The only way to see if you can do this is to try it. Shoot a picture at ISO 1000 or 1500 or 2000 and blow it up to a the biggest size you think you will ever print at and see it it's noisy. At noise picture will have tons of little colored dots in the shadows. Or the pictures may look like they are covered with semi-transparent fish scales.

So, you've discoved that your camera won't shoot at high ISOs. You won't be able to shoot at fast enough speeds to handhold your camera. Now what?

Unfortunately, now comes the part most folks don't like. You are going to have to get some kind of a tripod.

This is a very important step. A tripod is what makes the difference between an amateur and a serious photographer. Actually a tripod is a very subtle tool. It does much more than hold your camera still. For one thing it forces you to slow down and actually look at the picture you are about to take. This is a much more important step than anyone realizes. It's a very important threshold; if you resist buying a tripod, you will never be a good landscape photographer. However, you don't have to pay a lot of money for a tripod; all camera stores and big box stores like Walmart, Target etc sell pretty decent tripods for under $40.00. If you want to get a fancy tripod, Bogan is a nice choice. Most pros use Gitzos for their solidness and durability.

Having said all that, if it is a bright day you may have a fast enough shutter speed to shoot without a tripod. If you are shooting at faster than 1/30 you MIGHT be able to get away with bracing the camera carefully and gently releasing the shutter. Probably not though. Anyway, shooting in bright enough light to make a tripod unnecessary really isn't a good idea anyway.

This is because bright direct sunlight is the worst possible light in which to shoot one of the best foregrounds around, wildflowers. Unfortunately photography is pretty unforgiving, it's hard to cheat and still get great pictures; in the long run it works much better to grit your teeth and use that tripod unless you have a really great camera that will shoot a very high ISO speeds with no noise.

Anyway, now you have the camera set at its widest zoom and its smallest aperature and the camera is mounted on a tripod, or you are shooting at a very high ISO.

The next step is deciding how close to get to the foreground. If you get too close, you can't get both the foreground and background in focus at the same time. If you are too far away the foreground won't be close enough to look dramatic. The proper distance depends on two things: how small your smallest f-stop actually is and how wide your widest angle actually is.

Most point and shoot digital cameras will stop down to about f-7 and zoom to about 28mm. For these average settings, the best distance from the front of the lens to that closest flower should be about 2 feet. Focus directly on the flower or whatver is the closest object in the frame and very carefully trip the shutter and that's all there is to it. Both the foreground and the distance will be in sharp focus. Try a few shots like this and see what they actually look like. If the close foreground and the far distance are not both sharp, increase the distance between the camera and the foreground to maybe 2 1/2 to three feet; that should be plenty.

After you take a few pictures you will probably run into a few of the inevitable complications that always arise. What if the focus brackets in the middle of the viewfinder don't fall on that close up columbine you want to foccus on? Simple: loosen the tripod knob that allows you to move your camera on the tripod, rotate the camera so the foccus bracket is over the flower, depress the shutter half way to lock the focus, rotate the camera back to the composition you want while holding the button half way down, when the frame looks good, push the button all the way down to take the picture.

The next little problem you are bound to run into is wind. You are stopped way down and thus shooting at a very slow speed. As soon as you get a great shot all lined up, the wind will start to blow and the flowers will move all over the place. The result is a blurry picture. You have just run into the problem that drives all professional landscape photographers to drink, insanity and probably an early death.

The one quick fix for this problem is dialing in a high ISO speed, if your camera is good enough to do this without creating a lot of noise.

If your camera isn't good enough to shoot at high ISO's….. Well, you can buy a better camera or you can rely on patience. Patience actually works pretty well, but you have to have a lot of it. However, it doesn't take long to discover that If you wait long enough, you will almost always get a lull in the wind and the flowers will stop moving for long enough to get a quick shot. Unfortunately though, by the time the wind dies down, the light will probably be wrong. So it goes. Great photographs don't come easily. You just have to persevere.

Another solution to the wind problem is to shoot very early in the morning or late in the evening when the wind has dropped. This can be a great solution as the light is always far better at these times also. There you go, when you find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to go out and take pictures you'll know you're well on your way to becoming a serious photograher.

It is possible to get a little more precise about using depth of field, especially if you have a manual camera with manual focus or an SLR type of camera that has interchangeble lenses with depth of field markings. You can figure out what is called the hyperfocal distance which is the precise focusing distance to give you the maximum depth of field for the specific aperature and the exact focal lenth of lens you are using.

This is the subject of my next article on depth of field. It will be along very shortly. In this second article on depth of field I discuss getting even better depth of field when using larger SLR digital cameras. This is a little more complicated but not much.

Good luck with all this. If you have questions don't hesitate to email me.

Fred Hanselmann
Edited and republished, Nov 30, 2013

Purple Pond in Gothic Valley, Colorado



Yankee Boy Creek, Colorado