Emmental in autumn. Slawek Staszczuk Photography.

What camera settings should I use for landscape photography?

What camera settings to use for landscape photography

I’ve compiled a simple list of essential camera settings that I use in my landscape photography on a regular basis. But if you’re anything like me and you like to know not only what, but also why and how… read on. Or click on a specific setting for explanation.

Besides, I’m not recommending specific focal lengths, because you can take landscape photos with any of them. From super-wide fisheye, to 400mm and longer (look at the examples in this article). And it’s a subject for another article, possibly more than one.

So here are my “Ten Commandments” (accidentally):

Shooting Mode

My recommendation: APERTURE PRIORITY

WHY?

When photographing landscape we typically want to have control over the depth of field, DoF, first and foremost. And aperture is one of the factors which determine DoF (the other two being the focusing distance and focal length).

In the Av mode you set the aperture, and the camera will calculate and apply the shutter speed, based on what the light metering system tells it.

Some photographers use the Manual mode (M), because it gives an illusion of more control. But in practice Av gives you enough control and at the same time can save you a lot of time and possibly missed opportunities. Sometimes you’ll have a split second to capture something amazing. And if you’re in manual mode, you simply may not have enough time to change the shutter speed and correctly expose your frame.

If you do long exposures, you may have use the Bulb mode (B). The range of available shutter speeds is limited, and for most cameras the slowest setting is 30 seconds. If you want to expose your frame for longer, you need to do it B mode, where you decide when the shutter closes, “by hand”.

Brighton Seafront. Landscape Photography Courses in Sussex

Brighton seafront seen from the Palace Pier

Settings:

Focal length: 17mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/13
Shutter speed: 1/10s
ISO: 100
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Shot from a tripod with a neutral density graduated filter and a remote cable release.

Aperture

My recommendation: keep it within the f/8-f/11 range

WHY?

We are usually concerned with getting everything in our landscape scene within the depth of field (DoF). So that all the details appear sharp, from top to bottom, and from left to right. For most situations the f/8 to f/11 range will do the trick, if you only focus at the correct distance (hyperfocal distance).

As you increase the aperture number, and thus decrease the aperture size, the DoF increases. Which might lead you to believe that using a very high f-number, like f/22, should be the way to go, as it guarantees maximum depth. However, while the apparent sharpness across the image typically also increases as you stop down the aperture. Once you cross a certain point on the scale, the sharpness actually starts to deteriorate due to diffraction.

This “point of no return” is different for every lens, and the resulting fuzziness is also more or less severe depending on the lens. But the f/8-f/11 range is generally a safe zone, which offers the best of both worlds: you get optimal sharpness and sufficient DoF to work with.For smaller sensors, like in many compact or bridge cameras, you can usually achieve sufficient depth of field with larger apertures (around f/5.6 or even lower).

Landscape Photography Courses led by a Freelance Photographer in Sussex

June evening on the South Downs, East Sussex

Settings:

Focal length: 126mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/10
Shutter speed: 1/30s
ISO: 320
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: Yes

Shot from a tripod with a remote cable release.

ISO (light sensitivity)

My recommendation: always keep it as low as you can

WHY?

The higher the ISO setting, the faster the shutter speed that you need to properly expose your frame. Which can be crucial when you can’t use a tripod, or have some fast moving objects in your frame.

But this comes at a cost. As you increase the ISO, more and more noise appears in the image. Besides, the dynamic range of the camera also suffers. Both of these factors are very important for us, landscape photographers, as we usually want good clear detail and well rendered tonal nuances across the frame.

So unless the circumstances force you to do otherwise (eg. it’s very windy and you don’t want to risk camera shake), keep it at 100. Or if for your camera the lowest setting is expressed with a number higher than 100, keep it at the lowest.

Dolomites. Landscape Photography Courses UK.

Church of San Leonardo in the village of Casamazzagno, Dolomites, Italy

Settings:

Focal length: 28mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/8
Shutter speed: 1/250s
ISO: 400
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Shot hand held. I used higher ISO to ensure I’d get sharp images. It was drizzling and I didn’t set up the tripod.

Light Metering Mode

My recommendation: Evaluative (Matrix)

WHY?

This setting goes by different name on different cameras. But the important thing is that it’s the one which looks at the largest possible portion of the frame when calculating the exposure.

Most landscape scenes are typically fairly balanced tonally. Meaning that different tonal ranges – shadows, mid tones and highlights – are evenly distributed across the frame. If there is a slight, or even significant, imbalance, you will need to use compensation (having checked your Histogram) to achieve the correct exposure.

Of course, you can set your camera to any metering mode, spot metering for instance, and arrive at the same correct exposure through the use of compensation. My point is that the “Matrix” mode is the best starting point for most situations, as it will usually bring you closest to the correct exposure.

St Botolph's Church. Sussex Landscape Photography.

St Botolph’s church near Steyning, West Sussex

Settings:

Focal length: 17mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/10
Shutter speed: 1/40s
ISO: 400
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Taken hand held with a ND graduated filter.

Auto-focus mode

My recommendation: (remember to switch to) Single Shot

WHY?

This is probably self-explanatory. AI and servo modes are used for tracking moving objects, useful for sports, wildlife, action photography, where you often work with shallow depth of field. Because in landscape we work  with very large DoF, for the most part, we don’t need to worry about it and keep refocusing.

Once you’ve set your focus at the right distance, you can often take a series of shots without having to focus again between them.

Sunset in Dartmoor. Slawek Staszczuk Photography.

Sunset at West Mill Tor, Dartmoor National Park

Settings:

Focal length: 19mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/13
Shutter speed: 0.8s
ISO: 100
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Taken from a tripod with an ND graduated filter.

Auto-Focus Points

My recommendation: use ONE POINT only

WHY?

Control… If you have multiple auto-focus points enabled, the camera will latch on to whatever feels most “comfortable” for it in your image. And that means it will look for a contrasty edge in the scene and set the focus there. Which isn’t always where you actually should be focusing…

Have you noticed how the auto-focus “hunts” when you’re trying to shoot at an empty sky, or when it’s dark? That’s because the system can’t find any defined, contrasty edges and can’t lock the focus.

So, choose one auto-focus point, I’d suggest the centre. And if you need to focus on something that isn’t at the centre, as you often will, point the camera at the area where you want to focus. And then reframe it to take the composition you actually want. This approach will work best when combined with back button focusing. If your camera doesn’t offer this setting, you can work around it by pointing the camera where you want to focus on, and then switching to manual focus and reframing to the target scene.

Canary Wharf, London

Settings:

Focal length: 30mm
Shooting mode: Bulb
Aperture: f/11
Shutter speed: 101 s
ISO: 160
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

A long exposure taken from a tripod with and 10-stop ND filter and a graduated ND filter.

RAW or JPG?

My recommendation: always shoot RAW

WHY?

Image quality and dynamic range. Not to get to technical, RAW files register a lot more colour information than JPG. In fact, there is a lot more information in a RAW file than your monitor can display at once. You can access this information when developing your RAW files in an image processor and squeeze more detail and dynamic range, without much, if any, discernible image quality loss.

You can edit a JPG files as well, but at a huge cost in terms of quality. Even if you apply just one simple edit, like a contrast correction, the drop in quality will be often noticeable. After a few edits you’ll notice stair-stepping in areas which should have smooth tonal transitions, and other ugly artefacts.

If you don’t have any image editing software, it’s probably good to shoot both RAW and JPG. Most cameras allow it, and you’ll be able to work on better input material in the future.I know there are purists out there how see value in images “as the camera captured”. However, when set to JPG only, the camera will automatically apply certain corrections, or embellishments, like saturation boost, contrast, sharpening, based on its algorithms. So why leave those potentially important aesthetic decisions to a soulless machine?…

Tallinn Estonia. Slawek Staszczuk Landscape Photography & Workshops.

Winter evening at Tallinn town hall, Estonia

Settings:

Focal length: 24mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/8
Shutter speed: 8s
ISO: 200
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Auto
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Taken from a tripod, no filters.

White Balance

My recommendation: Daylight (or Sunlight)

WHY?

If you shoot RAW, you can, and often need to, tweak the white balance when developing the file afterwards anyway. So I prefer to keep the WB on Daylight for another reason, relevant during the shoot. Namely, if it’s set to Auto, the camera can apply significantly different WB between shots. This will lead to different looking Histograms, which are harder to compare when you decide whether the image is properly exposed, or needs tweaking. And it’s potentially confusing.

So for the sake of consistency it’s better to use one specific WB setting. And since we take most of our landscape images in daylight, this is the most obvious setting. But you could use Cloudy, or a Custom setting instead. As long as it’s a set WB, it will serve the same purpose.

I only switch to automatic WB occasionally when shooting Blue Hour. In those situations, depending on the mixture of light from different sources, Daylight can result in seriously whacky colours.

South Downs Landscape Photography. Photographer in Sussex.

June evening on the South Downs, East Sussex

Settings:

Focal length: 420mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/11
Shutter speed: 1/80s
ISO: 200
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: Yes

Taken from a tripod, no filters. Even though at 420mm the DoF is really shallow, the distance offset it. There was a few hundred metres between the camera and the nearest object in the scene. Which was enough to create sufficient depth of field at f/11 to encompass everything.

Mirror Lock-up

My recommendation: enable it for Telephoto Lenses

WHY?

This only applies to DSLR cameras. When you press the shutter release button, two things happen in swift succession. First, the mirror inside the camera goes up, second the shutter opens up (and when the exposure is finished, the shutter closes and the mirror goes down). It happens so fast, that you usually hear just one sound.

When the mirror goes up it produces a “clap” which sends vibrations through the camera and lens. In most situations it’s inconsequential, especially with wide angle to mid range focal lengths. However, when using a telephoto lens, it can sometimes have detrimental consequences. The clap may cause the lens to tremble slightly, imperceptibly for us, but it can translate to a blurry image. And no amount of weight hung from under the tripod will help. You could weld the camera to a steel mast, and the lens will still tremble.

When the camera is set to mirror lock-up, the first press of the button only lifts the mirror. The second one actually opens the shutter. If you wait a second or so between the two presses, it’s usually enough time for the vibrations to dampen.

 

South Downs Photography.

May morning on the South Downs, East Sussex

Settings:

Focal length: 90mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/10
Shutter speed: 1/500s
ISO: 200
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Taken with a tripod, no filters.

Back Button Focusing

While it’s not a must, I find it to be a much more robust way to work, and thousands of landscape photographers agree!

THE PROBLEM

When you half-press the shutter release button on a “traditionally” configured camera, typically two things happen: you lock the focus and you lock the light metering. Although some cameras are configured by default not to do the latter. (So the camera continues to meter the light as you pan around with the shutter button half-pressed)

If you “sample” the focus from one area and then reframe it to the actual scene you want to take, you need to keep the button half-pressed all the time. Consequently, if the light metering is locked, you may get a mis-exposed image. Because the light intensity in your sample scene is often different from your target scene.

Even if light metering isn’t locked, you can easily let go of the button for a split second. Then, when you press it again all the way, the camera will focus again before it takes the picture. And it will focus not where you want it to.

THE SOLUTION

What back button focusing allows us to do is to assign the focusing function to another button at the back of the camera, under your thumb. And to remove it from the front button. As a result, the camera will no longer focus when you half-, or fully, press the nominal shutter release button. Thus these two functions are now separated.

This doesn’t sound very intuitive at first, but after a couple of days of practice at the most, it will become a second nature for you. And it can be quite liberating. Often times, you’ll find yourself waiting for the perfect moment, with your camera set on a tripod and your focus where it should be. When the moment comes, you’ll be able to keep shooting without having to refocus after every shot (unless you significantly change the composition and point the camera at something much closer or much farther away). And without having to worry that you’ll accidentally focus at the wrong distance in the fervor of snapping.

Vrtba Garden in Prague. Slawek Staszczuk Photography.

Noon at Vrtba Garden in Prague, Czechia

Settings:

Focal length: 24mm
Shooting mode: Aperture priority
Aperture: f/8
Shutter speed: 1/200s
ISO: 200
Metering: Evaluative
Focusing: Single shot
Auto-Focus points: 1 in the centre
Image quality: RAW
White Balance: Daylight
Back button focus: Yes
Mirror lock-up: No

Hand held with a ND graduated and a polarising filter.

Thank you for reading. I hope you found my list of recommended camera settings, and explanations for them, useful.

Read other similar articles in my Landscape Photography is Simple “blog”. Or click on a random post below.

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