The Ideal Aperture for Landscape Photography

what aperture to use in landscape photography?
Apertures for landscape photography

Whenever I teach a class on landscape photography, I can guarantee that one of the first questions asked will be what aperture photographers should use for landscape photography.  I wish it were so simple that I could say an aperture value and leave it at that.  The truth is that, for photographers who really want to improve their landscape photography, it depends on your lens and your composition.  If you've ever wondered what aperture to use for your landscapes, then read on…

We all know that aperture is one of four factors that control depth of field.  Almost all the time, landscape photographers want the entire scene to be in sharp focus, so high aperture values are used.

In addition to the aperture, the hyperfocal distance will also greatly impact the decision of what aperture is necessary.  Hyperfocal distance is a subject worthy of its own post, but you need to know that if your subject is far enough away, you can achieve full depth of field independent of what aperture is used.  So the first consideration is how far away the subject is.  If you're shooting a sunset and the closest part of the scene that you include in the frame is 200 feet away, you could probably get away with a high aperture value of f/11, for example.

But if you follow my advice on composition and include a clear foreground subject, you will need a higher aperture value to compensate for the fact that you will be focusing much closer to the camera.  If you have a foreground object very near to the camera and a wide scene in front of you, you might have to go as high as f/22 for full depth of field.

You might also remember having seen some of your lenses going much higher than f/22.  Some lenses allow an aperture as small as f/40!  So why limit yourself to f/22?  Diffraction.  At high aperture values, diffraction causes the photo to be soft.  Diffraction occurs when light passes around sharp edges (such as those of an aperture), which deflect the light rays and cause irregular light patterns.   All high apertures will cause some diffraction, but a general rule is that diffraction becomes too severe to control at f/22 on many lenses.

So why does your specific lens matter?  Because the focal length affects depth of field.  If you didn't know that, you should really read this post on depth of field from a few weeks ago.  Also, keep in mind that your camera will also affect the correct depth of field.  A so-called “crop” sensor camera will have more depth of field than a 35mm equivalent sensor camera if all else is equal.

Now that you understand SOME of the factors involved in determining what aperture should be used for landscape photography, let's set down a couple VERY GENERAL RULES THAT ARE NOT CORRECT IN EVERY SITUATION.

If you're using a wide lens (10-25mm) on a crop frame camera, and you have a foreground element close to the camera, you might consider an aperture of  f/18.  This will allow for solid depth-of-field and acceptable sharpness on many wide-angle lenses.

If you're using a wide lens (10-25mm) on a crop frame camera, and you do NOT have a foreground element, consider an aperture of around f/11 or f/16.

I hope this post gives you a good starting place to understand the what aperture to use for landscape photography.  Keep in mind that there are many factors involved in this decision, but I hope this at least lays a groundwork for your understanding.

If you are ready to dive into landscape photography, check out Nick's Advanced Techniques for Landscapes. In it, he covers everything from gear, to shooting, to post-processing EPIC landscape shots.

24 thoughts on “The Ideal Aperture for Landscape Photography”

  1. And yes, I know this post is going to stir some feathers. I guarantee someone is going to send me a comment today touting their scientific knowledge of diffraction. Looking forward to it.

    I realize, of course, that there isn’t really an ideal aperture in every situation for every lens. The purpose of this post is just to give amateur’s some knowledge on how to find the right aperture for their specific situation and lens.

    Comments welcomed anyway 🙂

    1. What I do not quiet understand is the fact that most lenses have their sweet point concerning the sharpnes about two stops below the max. aperture. So if I have a 2.8 lense the sweet spot should be around f4-f5.6.
      Nevertheless everybody is talking about f11 or higher for landscape photography. I know one agrgument is the depth of field. Just calculated that. When you use a 10mm lens on a crop camera (factor 1.5) the deep of field difference is at f5.6 0,81m to infinity and at f11 at around 0,40m to infinity. So the difference is not really much at least for 10mm.
      What I don’t understand now is if we are talking just about those 40cm out of focus area? And why leaving the physical determined sweet spot of the lense?

  2. How do I know if my camera has a crop sensor or not? My camera is a Nikon D3000, and s far as I was aware, it does not. However, I have no idea how to check for this.

    1. D3000 is a entry level crop frame camera. Generally you can tell this by the price. Most full frame cameras are professional level cameras and they cost above $2000.

  3. F8-F11 = Ideal without foreground elements. Going higher then F16 on crop camera’s you get diffraction on standard kit/zoom lenses.

  4. Very nice info, one question only. Does higher class lenses mean higher f without diffraction, and if so how high can i go with no foreground?

  5. First, I love your website with all the great tips for taking photos. I do have a question, I do mostly landscape photos. I understand that the best aperture for DOF would be 11-16. But often times i see professional photographers using f/4. I would think that not everything would be in focus.
    For example, one your your photos from Kirkjufellsfoss with the Northern lights you used f/4. I was wondering why you chose that? Thank-you

    1. Hey Linda, good question. I talked about that in the most recent newsletter, so check it out if you aren’t already subscribed. https://improvephotography.com/newsletter

      The reason that this happens is not really out of choice, but because of necessity. In night photography, you’re sacrificing depth of field in order to gather more light. If I would have shot that at f/16 then there is no way I could have properly exposed the scene. If there were something close to my lens in that shot, the shallow depth of field would have ruined the shot. But since I knew I would have to choose f/4, I framed the shot so that nothing was too close to the lens so I could get better sharpness.

  6. Hey Jim et al,

    I just wanted to thank you for what a huge resource and inspiration this website has been to me for the last several years and let you know that this article was super helpful to me just now. I was having trouble figuring out why my foregrounds in my landscape shots were so out of focus. I remembered your advice to find an interesting foreground element, and I try to employ that technique in my compositions as often as possible. I had also, however, been following another bit of advice that I’ve heard countless times: don’t use your smallest aperture—f/11 is a “sweet spot.”

    I’ve been making the mistake of combining these two practices for YEARS, and I was finally sick of having my photos come out less than sharp. I don’t know why it took me so long to search for the solution, but I just couldn’t stand it anymore. After a helpful but confusing Google search (lots of detailed charts on hyperfocal points), I decided to come here and ask the person who gave me the first bit of advice to begin with.

    I’m so glad I found this article, and I think this is exactly what I needed to take my work to the next level. Sometimes moving forward means unlearning a few things.

  7. When you say “high” or “low” aperture, it might be confusing to some of us e.g. f/22 might be a “high” aperture value according to your article but size wise it is smaller opening. Hence it would be more appropriate to either call f/22 a small aperture.

    Just an opinion, otherwise great info and appreciate your efforts.

  8. Sir,

    I am a beginner.

    While shooting landscapes or skylines what AF mode to use ? The spot focus, manual zone, or 19 point AF ? If spot or single point focus, then where do I put that point in my scene to get sharp skyline pics ? Should that point be on distant buildings or one third up from the bottom of the scene ?

    Kindly answer.
    Ps: I have canon 70d. I am using 10-22 or 17-40 mm.

  9. If aperture is f/11 and you say go to higher aperture, then you go to f/9 f/5 f/2 or higher f/1.2…

    F/22 is lower than F/11 not higher…

    1. What he meant is just a number. F/22 does not mean things like ‘1/22’ anyway. He could be more precise by stating aperture either wider or narrower.

  10. Your article contains this statement:
    A so-called “crop” sensor camera will have more depth of field than a 35mm equivalent sensor camera if all else is equal.
    Speaking as a beginner, I have always thought that the longer the focal length the less depth of depth of field you will have. Since focal length will be increased by the crop factor of the crop-sensor camera it would seem to me that it should be just the opposite.

    1. The true focal length of a lens does not change whether a crop or full frame sensor is used. What changes is the field of view. In order for a crop sensor to have a similar field of view as a full frame sensor, you need to use a shorter focal length lens or move further away from your subject. Doing either of these things will increase your depth of field.

      It can get a bit confusing because some manufacturers list equivalent focal lengths for lenses used on their cropped sensor cameras. These aren’t the true focal lengths but what the focal length of an equivalent lens (in terms of field of view) would be on a full frame camera. For instance, the camera on my smartphone has an equivalent focal length of 28mm and this is what’s usually quoted in specifications, but the actual focal length is about 4mm.

  11. Awesome Article this my advice for readers Do not expect to find the best natural places on the edge of the road. If that’s the case you’re wasting your time. Normal ever get splendid scenery portray that you want. Usually the best landscapes tend to be farther from the road , so that they can reach so you have to be prepared to make a small excursion. You can start your drive but from a given point is advisable to park the car and into nature walk, equipped with a map, GPS, or any reference to help you explore the place. Although not go following a particular point often you end up discovering a magnificent landscape that no one before had portrayed

  12. Excellent article for establishing the principles in one’s mind.
    Another suggestion that I adopt myself is that this photography lark is all about building on experience and so the more we do, the more we learn. As Landscape photographs are often taken at a more measured pace than other forms of photography I usually have time to try a few different Aperatures in each scenario. Try your intial gut feel Aperature, say f16, and then shoot the same shot at f11, f18, f22 and see what most closely matches what you were trying to achieve….the expereince will build.

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