Creative Ways to Use Wide Apertures in Landscape Photography

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Your camera’s aperture has the ability to control your depth of field – which is a powerful creative tool that many photographers use to evoke depth, mystery, and intrigue. Not only is it one of the key components in creating bokeh, but your aperture has the power to transform the ordinary into an abstract, creating a surreal interpretation of what we normally see.

A small sapling grows under the towering pines at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine. This scene was found on the Cedar Ledge Trail in the early spring, not long after the winter thaw.
 

Isolation

The ability to quiet the distractions of your scene and isolate your focal point is a dynamic creative method. Beyond the visual attractiveness of a shallow depth of field, you can direct your audience to focus on elements that you find important in your landscape – whether it be the texture of a tree, small bits of foliage, or a field of wildflowers.

The first trees to change colors are usually the red maples, and this leaf lays silently on the stump of a forgotten relative - Georgetown, Maine.

When working wide open, even the smallest adjustment of your focus can completely change your focal point, and thus the overall mood and interpretation of your image.
 

Balance

Another way to think of “balance” is to think of weight – what parts of your image are heavy, and which ones are light? What draws the eyes in first, and do your eyes want to stay there? Are there other elements that call for your attention?

The ability to adjust your depth by moving your slice of focus is a powerful tool, one that allows you manipulate the weight of your image and redistribute it for a more balanced (or unbalanced) composition. Whichever you choose, your aperture can help you alter the weight of focal points and transform the flow of your landscape.

By selecting your point of focus considerately, you can manipulate the weight and balance of your image.

In the example above, I wanted to balance out the heaviness of the distant coastline and make the colorful foliage my main focal point. By using a very shallow depth of field (24mm @ f1.4), I shifted the weight onto the leaves, which would have been lost if I had used a deep depth of field.
 

Depth

Photographs are two-dimensional, so we rely on elements in the landscape to act as reference points for depth. When an image is taken with a wide aperture, you can heighten the depth by moving your slice of focus in from your immediate foreground. This will create a shallow focus in front and behind your focal point – a layered effect that adds depth to your photo, giving the viewer a more “three-dimensional” experience.

Selective focus can add depth, presenting a three-dimensional

For this image, I pushed the slice of focus back a bit from the immediate foreground, adding depth by blurring the areas in front of as well as behind my focal point.
 

Minimalism

The depth of your image can change a busy, complicated scene into a minimal composition with only a small portion in focus. A wide aperture can expand your creative boundaries for any location by allowing you to quiet the detail and bring out the inner serenity of a landscape.

A sharp focus and deep depth of field can capture much detail, but widening your aperture can create an entirely different mood. Minimalism photography is possible with a wide aperture, transforming any scene into a simple and mysterious creation.

The two images above were taken of the same tidal pool during the same evening, but resulted in two completely different moods by a simple adjustment in my depth of field and composition. By tightening my frame and widening my aperture, I was able to minimize the detail of the sunset sky and create a starker, simpler photo.
 

Transforming Light

If you know how to create bokeh in your landscapes, you know that wide apertures have the unique ability to transform your light sources (either direct or reflected) into defined, coarse shapes which can add layers of interest.

For well-defined bokeh, include light sources (either direct or reflected) in your composition.

For overcast days or other situations where light sources are not visible in your frame, a shallow depth of field produces a different effect for your landscape. A dream-like, painterly quality is applied where the colors and tones wash together, much like a watercolor painting.

A shallow depth of field under overcast lighting can provide a painterly photograph.

So the type of light you are photographing – whether overcast and soft, or direct and intense – can greatly change how it is interpreted by your aperture before it hits your sensor.
 

Leading Lines

Another fantastic way to use your aperture to create is to frame your image around prominent lines – such as boardwalks, trees, or any other line that travels across your frame – and allow them to lead the eye through your landscape. A thin slice of focus can soften the appearance of these lines, but still render them as a forceful component to your image – now with added intrigue from their abstract nature.

By combining a thin slice of focus with a leading line through your frame, you can direct the eyes through your photo in a unique way. Leading lines can direct a viewer throughout your frame.

Structures

Shooting wide open allows you to lighten the weight of “heavy” subjects, which you can use to compliment your landscape. I will often frame my image with a small and unnoticeable subject in sharp focus, and use my aperture to throw a well-defined, prominent structure – one that would otherwise overpower my focal point – into obscurity. Strong, isolated structures like bridges, buildings, and trees work well for this method.

Strong structures, such as bridges and buildings - make an interesting background for shallow depths.

Not only does this help to balance out the weight of your photo, but it creates a surreal image by softening the appearance of a subject just enough to make it painterly, but still be able to identify it based on the shape.
 

Framing

When shooting wide, you can frame your image with elements thrown completely out of focus – such as bits of foliage surrounding your lens. This can add interest, filter out distractions, and create depth and intrique by framing your image with soft, saturated colors.

Framing with foliage is a fantastic way to add depth to your photo by using a wide aperture.

By pushing your focus to the background and composing your image with foliage (or other elements) overlapping the foreground, you can capture your landscape with a natural, complimentary frame.

And sometimes, you don’t need a specific plan or workflow when shooting with a wide aperture, and will find much enjoyment with experiementing to see what creations you can come up with. The key is to shoot often, and keep pursuing the methods you enjoy, and discard the ones that do not compliment your creative style.

For more information about creating bokeh and working with a shallow depth of field in the landscape, click here to read about The Art of Bokeh eBook.

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  • Comments
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  1. Sarah C.

    This is so inspiring. I love nature and these shots are amazing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
  2. Picture This

    Wow. I love the dream-like effect. It does indeed convey a watercolour painting feel. Thanks for sharing and insight.

    • Reply
  3. Enivea

    You are able to explain your art in a very understandable manner, and I really appreciate this. Inspiring sums it up!

    • Reply
  4. Oliver Rice

    Some wonderful images on show and an interesting look at a different technique. I am thinking of new ways to expand my gallery and expand on the type of photography used to capture London landscapes.

    • Reply
  5. Tony Staples

    These images are great Christopher but are they straight out of the camera? You must surely have used some external lighting at least?
    If not, then I just don’t know how you got them without some dark room processing.

    • Reply
    • Christopher O'Donnell

      Hi Tony – Thanks for the kind words. No external lighting – my post process workflow involves color adjustments, exposure blending, and dodging/burning. When you shoot wide open, the light can really transform the landscape, and the 24mmL also adds a natural vignette.

      • Reply
  6. Carmela

    Beautiful photographs. I really admire your work and your writing style makes it easy to learn these techniques.

    • Reply
  7. Bruce MacNeil

    I really like your photography and hope one day to master the concepts that you propose. You haven’t mentioned a lens except for the 24mm in an earlier post. Do you use any lens or do you lean more to wide angle fast lenses?

    • Reply
    • Christopher O'Donnell

      Hi Bruce –

      Thank you for the kind words. For most of my work, I use the 24mm f1.4. At times though, the wide angle of this focal length exaggerates my distances too much, so I have two other lenses that give me fantastic shallow depths – the 300mm f4 and the 85mm f1.8. Hope this helps :)

      • Reply
  8. N.K.Tiwari.

    Very nice photography of nature

    • Reply
  9. N.K.Tiwari.

    Very nice photography of nature.Good for collection

    • Reply
  10. Steven K

    Thanks for sharing, great images and tutorial, are you doing much post photo processing via Photoshop? What camera and lens combination are you using?

    • Reply
  11. GYAMAR KARMEY

    It’s true, “To click indelible is of focus,talent,hard work,passion and love.” And i have seen all those in these photos, great….i love it..!!!!

    • Reply
  12. Adam DG

    Nice photos, but unfortunatelly over cooked

    • Reply

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