As with all genres of photography, landscapes can be incredibly varied in the way that we photograph them and the camera settings we use. There is no right way to photograph landscapes, but I have found over the years that I have settings that I keep going back to. They’re default camera settings that I use as a starting point for almost all my landscape photos. I often adjust them as I shoot, but they are a great place to start. Although there is no ‘best’, these are my recommended camera settings for landscape photography.
To start, always shoot in RAW. If you’re not shooting in RAW, you’re throwing away valuable data from your photos and limiting what you can do with them in post-production. This applies no matter what you’re photographing.
I also recommend always using Manual (M) or Aperture Priority (A/Av) mode. These modes give you far more control over your exposure than any of the automatic modes. Especially avoid P (no, it doesn’t stand for ‘Professional’), and anything called ‘Auto’, ‘Scene’, ‘Landscape’, etc. They will make decisions about your photos that you want to be making yourself.
The key to learning how to expose landscape photos well is in the histogram. The histogram gives you all the information you need about the light that is reaching your camera’s sensor. When you look at the histogram, you can see if you will be able to capture the entire dynamic range of light in one exposure or not.
Adjust your exposure so that the information in the histogram is pushed as far to the right as possible without going too far and overexposing the highlights. This is called “expose to the right”, or ETTR. As long as you haven’t blown out the highlights, you can recover an overexposed image in post-production without losing image quality. Trying to recover darker parts of the image by increasing exposure in post will result in much lower image quality, which is why exposing to the right is better than the left.
Your camera will have a choice of metering modes. The most useful for landscape photography is matrix metering. This means when the camera is metering the scene it analyzes the light in the entire image. Spot or centre-weighted metering modes aren’t as useful unless you’re photographing extreme lighting situations such as snow.
Your aperture is a critical camera setting for landscape photography because it affects multiple elements of the image. Firstly, it affects depth-of-field (DOF), which dictates how much of your image will be in focus. Secondly, your aperture affects your exposure by controlling how much light comes through as it opens and closes. Finally, sharpness can be affected by your aperture. These things are all important for creating well exposed, in-focus, sharp landscape photos.
My default aperture is always f/11 when photographing landscapes. I will sometimes stop up or down if I need to for exposure reasons, but I rarely shoot below f/8 or above f/16. This aperture range gives a large DOF that keeps most of the image in focus from foreground to background. It also keeps the image sharp by preventing the image softness that occurs at the extreme ends of the aperture range.
Because aperture is the most important camera setting in landscape photography, shutter speed is usually secondary. Shutter speed doesn’t have as much effect on a landscape photo unless there are moving elements in the image like water, clouds, or people. Once I’ve set my aperture, I generally leave the shutter speed at whatever I need to get a good exposure.
The exception is when shooting long exposure photography. If I’m shooting in low light or using a neutral density (ND) filter, I use Manual mode, and set my aperture first. I then play around with the shutter speed until I get the look I want, adjusting ISO as I go to get a good exposure.
As a rule, the lower your ISO the better. Always start with your ISO set to 100 then raise it if necessary. The higher you push your ISO the more you will see digital noise and lose image quality. High-ISO performance in modern cameras continues to improve, but I would still recommend trying to keep it as low as possible. The only time I will start with a higher ISO is for astrophotography, which can see you using ISO settings over 3200.
Unless you’re using a manual-focus lens, you’ll need to choose between manual (MF) and auto-focus (AF). I use a combination of both. I usually start with AF and use MF to fine-tune focus if necessary. If AF isn’t performing well due to low light or low contrast, I’ll switch to MF.
You will need to make a couple of decisions about your AF settings for landscape photography. The first is focus mode. As you won’t be focusing on any moving subjects, stick to One-Shot/Single-Servo focus mode. Various camera manufacturers call it different things.
The second thing you need to decide is which of the focus points you’re going to use. Most cameras will allow you to choose between using a single focus point, a group of focus points, or all the available focus points. I always use a single point and focus about one-third of the distance between the camera and the furthest element in the scene.
Most of the time I prefer to have my big clumsy hands clear of the camera when the shutter opens to reduce the chance of camera movement. I have used a remote shutter release cable in the past, but these days I usually use a 2-second timer. This works for almost all landscape photography situations.
Because you’re shooting in RAW (don’t make me say it again), your white balance (WB) settings aren’t critical. You can change WB easily in post-production. That said, you may like to use one of your camera’s WB presets to give you a better starting point when you upload your photos. I leave my WB to auto as I find it gives me pretty good results and I always change it in post anyway.
As a color-blind photographer, I’ve found that using the ColorChecker Passport is useful in tricky situations with different light sources. I haven’t found it necessary for landscape photography, though.
In situations where you can’t capture the entire dynamic range of light in one exposure, you’ll need to bracket your exposures. There are various ways of doing this. One of the most common ways to do it is to use the exposure bracketing feature that most cameras have now. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I suggest you take a little more control over the process by using your histogram and capturing each exposure manually.
Using either Manual or Aperture Priority, take a base exposure that’s exposed well for the majority of the scene. You then adjust the exposure manually if you’re using Manual mode or with the exposure compensation function in Aperture Priority mode. Increase your exposure until you have an image that captures all the highlights (look at your histogram), then repeat for the shadows by lowering your exposure.
There are various methods you can use to stabilize your gear, including tripods, monopods, and image stabilization technology. If you’re using the image stabilization that’s built into your camera or lens, I would suggest only turning it on when shooting handheld and when really necessary. Always turn it off when using a tripod.
Know Your Gear
All these recommended camera settings for landscape photography can be used no matter what camera system you’re using, but they’re only defaults. I will always change some of them as I photograph a particular scene. You’ll learn what works for you and your photography style.
Learn how to change the settings on your camera and practice changing them. You don’t want to get caught out trying to figure it out while your camera is set up in front of a gorgeous landscape. The more you do it, the quicker you’ll get, and it will become second-nature. The more decisions you learn to make yourself, the more control you’ll have over your camera and your photography.
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