Add a sense of depth to your landscape shots using a shallow depth-of-field to blur the foreground and get that trending look for your landscape shots
Landscapes must be pin-sharp from the foreground to the distant horizon, right? In most cases this is true, but many of the rules of photography can and should be broken creatively when the time is right. And when it comes to landscapes, shooting with the aperture wide open to capture a shallow depth-of-field where the foreground blurs can create an increased sense of depth thanks to differential focus.
"The closer you are to the foreground interest, the more blurred it will be captured."
Differential focus is simply a technique where you shoot at a wide aperture and focus on the most important part of the image, whether that’s the eyes in a portrait, an area of interest in a documentary image or the focal point in a landscape. The foreground and background will then naturally blur to add greater emphasis to the subject and point of focus.
This approach to shooting has become increasingly popular in landscape photography in recent years, just look at Instagram and you'll see an abundance of images centred on this technique. And although a large depth-of-field is commonly associated with creating a sense of depth in this genre of photography, not all scenes require everything to be in focus and sometimes foreground interest can detract from the main subject if it’s too detailed.
In this situation, allowing the foreground to blur directs the viewers’ eye to the focal point because it’s the sharpest part of the image. And not only does the blur increase apparent depth because it creates layers within the scene, it can also be used to fill empty space and can create an aesthetically pleasing natural framing device.
Maximum aperture comparison
In the image above, the scene was shot at f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6 to show what you can achieve in terms of foreground bokeh depending on the maximum aperture of your lens. Faster prime lenses with f/1.4 or f/1.8 apertures undoubtedly produce the most pleasing results, but you can still blur the foreground interest reasonably well with an f/5.6 maximum aperture.
Learn more on the bokeh technique in photography with our dedicated guide
1 Set up the camera
To get started, attach any filters that you may need to use to control exposure to the front of the lens. If using drop-in filters such as ND grads, it’s easier to attach the camera to a tripod because the camera will be locked in position making it easier to adjust the filter. For this shot, only a polariser was needed because it was taken just after sunrise with the sun behind the camera.
Learn more about how to use lens filters to control exposure with our guide
2 Camera settings
Set your camera to aperture priority mode with the aperture set to the maximum setting, which is f/1.8 with the lens used here. Set ISO to 100 and apply exposure compensation if required to lighten or darken the image. Set metering to Evaluative/Matrix, and select daylight white balance because when shooting around golden hour, this will capture the natural colour of the light.
3 Compose your image
This technique requires a natural feature such as flowers, grass or leaf-covered tree branches to be close to the camera with a distant focal point. The closer you are to the foreground interest, the more blurred it will be captured. One thing to consider is that natural features such as flowers and grass will be low to the ground, so you will often need to shoot from a low viewpoint.
4 Focus on the main subject
Make sure that autofocus is set to single shot (not continuous) with just a single small focus point active. Use the D-pad on the back of the camera to move the active point so that it sits above the focal point/main subject in the scene. In the image here, the focal point is the castle ruin, so the active point was placed here when viewing the LCD screen.
Examples of blurred foregrounds
Capturing a steam train crossing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct is a classic image, and one that grew in popularity after the Harry Potter movies were released. And with uninteresting fields in the foreground of the scene, allowing the flowers to blur out of focus fills the space effectively without detracting from the focal point. Capturing them in focus could have resulted in the foreground interest fighting for the viewers’ attention.
King's College Chapel from The Backs
By capturing the flowers in the foreground out of focus, the photographer has filled green space and increased the layers in the image from two to three to add a greater sense of depth. The trees to the side of the image also create a natural framing device for the chapel, which altogether draw more attention to it and the surrounding buildings.
A gloomy day at Bass Rock
This coastal image looks like it was taken from a clifftop looking down onto the sea with the small island and lighthouse in the distance. The result is that while there are smaller rocks in the foreground, they’re not visually strong enough to act as foreground interest that fills the empty space at the bottom of the frame. To remedy this, the photographer has blurred grass in the foreground to create a hazy foreground that breaks up the space and adds a sense of depth.
This may not be a landscape image, but the use of an out of focus foreground works perfectly to add depth to the scene while maintaining a sense of context for the perfectly sharp highland cow in the background. An out of focus foreground and background is common with wildlife photography, simply as a side effect of the lenses and apertures used, but the technique has clearly been applied consciously here with the use of a wide-angle lens and to great effect.
More landscape photography guides:
Develop your skills in landscape photography with our dedicated guides covering a range of different landscape photography techniques.
A reminder of the basics
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles