Landscape Photography Settings: Get The Most From Your Photographs

Given I’m a professional landscape photographer I may be a tad biased, but landscape photography is simply a brilliant pastime, the perfect way to get outdoors, relax and exercise your creative bones. The get the most out of your photos however you will need to use the right landscape photography settings. Read on to learn more about landscape photography and the settings which will help give you quality photos.

Landscape Photography

Light & Location

It would be remiss of me to not begin by letting you know that light and location are what set brilliant landscape photographs apart from average snaps. Take the photograph below as an example, captured in the desert at sunset I used the low angle of the sun to sweep across the sand dunes, emphasising texture whilst creating leading lines. The warmth of the light creates saturated tones and beautiful colors as it illuminates the clouds from beneath. Essentially I had a window of approximately 10 minutes in which the light was perfect, had I captured the same angle at any other time during the day the light would have been much flatter and the vivid colors non existent. So always remember, no matter what landscape photography settings you are using there is no substitute for great light, and great light most typically comes from chasing sunrises and sunsets. Great light simply takes commitment and persistence.

landscape photography sand dunes

Landscape Photography Settings: Camera Mode

If you’re serious about learning landscape photography I highly recommend learning to shoot in manual mode. Whilst it may seem daunting at first photography really comes down to three settings, all of which work together to achieve the correct exposure, a suitable depth of field and a sharp image free of motion blur. These settings are ISO, aperture and shutter speed, more on these later.

Shooting in manual mode will allow the most control over your images, once you understand what each setting does and how to make informed decisions in regards to your settings manual mode will allow you to achieve perfect exposures whilst controlling your depth of field and shutter speed depending on your subject.

If shooting in manual sounds all too daunting the next best option is either aperture priority or shutter priority, which one should you choose? Well, that depends.

“think of learning to shoot manual as an investment in your photography”

Landscape Photography Settings: Aperture Priority

Aperture priority mode will allow you to select the aperture you wish to use, the camera will then alter the shutter speed and, depending on your settings potentially the ISO in order to obtain what it thinks is the correct exposure. In very simple terms aperture is the size of the opening in your lens through which light enters. A larger aperture will let in more light, a smaller aperture will let in less light, makes sense right? After all, more light can pass through a larger opening. The size of the aperture is measured in f-stops, where some people may get confused is that the larger the aperture the smaller the number (f-stop). So an aperture of f 5.6 will be a larger opening and let in more light than f16 for example. Full details are not within the scope of this article but keep in mind that the aperture will determine your depth of field, that’s how far the area in focus extends in front of and beyond the point of focus. Generally for landscape photography you will want a large depth of field so that most of the scene is in focus. In order to obtain a large depth of field you will need to use a small aperture (large number, such as f8-f16)

Landscape Photography Settings
An aperture of f16 gives a depth of field large enough to get the foreground and background in focus.

Landscape Photography Settings: Shutter Priority

Shutter priority will allow you to select the shutter speed you wish to use, your camera will then alter the aperture and potentially the ISO in order to alter the exposure. Shutter speed refers to how long the shutter is open, the longer it is open the more time the sensor has to collect light. Keep in mind if your subject is in motion or if you are shooting without a tripod you may get a blurry photograph if you don’t use a fast enough shutter speed. The general rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of at least 1/focal length. For example, if you have a 30mm lens the minimum shutter speed you could use in order to achieve sharp images hand held is 1/30th of a second. If you use a 200mm lens the slowest shutter speed would be 1/200th of a second. If you shoot with a tripod you can obtain sharp images at any shutter speed, for landscape photography a tripod is almost an essential piece of equipment, it will allow you to shoot in lower light and will ensure your images are as sharp as possible.

Using a shutter speed of 1/30th sec I was able to freeze the motion of the waves.

Landscape Photography Settings: ISO

ISO is a measure of how sensitive your cameras sensor is to light. You should always aim to use the lowest ISO possible, most cameras perform best at around ISO 100. The reason being that as you increase your cameras ISO, or sensitivity to light the amount of digital ‘noise’ in your photographs will also increase leading to lower quality files. It’s worth experimenting with your cameras ISO, take the same photo at different ISO’s and look at each of the images on your computer, in doing so you will begin to learn the highest ISO your camera can shoot at whilst maintaining quality you find acceptable.

I almost always use ISO 100 and I always shoot with a tripod. If I’m spending time chasing light I want the sharpest, highest quality photograph my camera can deliver and a tripod and low ISO play a huge role in making this so! The only real exception to using a low ISO is for astrophotography, but that’s a whole different kettle of stars!

My Typical Landscape Photography Settings

For a typical landscape photograph I will almost always use an ISO of 100 and an aperture of f8 or f11. As I mentioned using a low ISO will ensure noise free images, so selecting a low ISO whenever possible is a no brainer. Most lenses are sharpest at an aperture of around f8, at really small apertures such as f22 images start to become a little soft due to a phenomenon known as diffraction. With that in mind f8 and f11 tend to be the sweet spot which offers a good depth of field along with tack sharp, diffraction free images. I rarely shoot at apertures larger than f8 as the wider you open the aperture the shallower the depth of field becomes, and I almost always want the entire landscape to be in focus. Remember, a larger aperture would be f 5.6, f4, f2.8 etc. An example of when a wide aperture may be of great use is in shooting portraiture, in order to obtain a shallow depth of field, thus isolating the subject from the background. Astro photography also makes use of wide apertures as we try to collect as much light as possible.

Landscape photographer Samuel Burns taking a photo on a salt lake.

This Is How I Approach A Landscape Photograph

With that all said here’s how I approach most landscape photographs:

  1. Put the camera on a tripod
  2. Set the camera to manual
  3. Set the ISO to 100
  4. Set the aperture to f8 or f11 if I want slightly more depth of field
  5. Adjust the shutter speed until the exposure meter is in the middle
  6. Take a test shot, check the image and the histogram. If things are a little dark I extend the shutter speed and re test. If things are too bright shorten the shutter speed and re test.
  7. As the light changes you will need to keep checking and adjusting the shutter speed as in manual mode YOU will be in control of the exposure, not the camera.

These basic settings will serve you well in most situations. If you put the time into shooting in manual mode you will soon start to gain a feel for how different apertures, shutter speeds and ISO’s affect your images. Whilst it may take you a little longer to get set up at first think of learning to shoot manual as an investment in your photography, an investment which opens the doors to advanced techniques such as focus stacking and exposure blending. Ahh landscape photography, there’s so much you can learn!

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