The Best Landscape Photography Settings: A Guide


In this article, you’ll discover the best landscape photography settings to take your photos to the next level.

Landscape photography is one of the most popular photographic genres, and it’s why many of us pick up a camera in the first place. However, determining the perfect settings for great results can be a struggle, which is where this article comes in handy.

Below, I share plenty of settings advice. I explain how to select the perfect camera mode, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance, plus plenty more – so if you’re ready to improve your landscape photography, then read on.

The best camera mode for landscape photography

Your camera has several modes, ranging from Automatic through to Manual. These are the common modes available to you:

  • Automatic: With Auto mode, your camera chooses the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. All you need to do is compose and take the photo.
  • Landscape: This is also a type of automatic mode, but is a step up from the standard Auto mode mentioned above. In Landscape mode, your camera knows you’re photographing a landscape, so it will choose a more standard “landscape” aperture.
  • Aperture Priority: Aperture Priority mode allows you to set your aperture and (if you wish) the ISO, while your camera selects the shutter speed. You can adjust the exposure value – to darken or lighten the photo – with your camera’s Exposure Compensation feature.
  • Shutter priority: Shutter Priority mode lets you choose a specific shutter speed while your camera picks the aperture. This can be useful for long exposure landscape images.
  • Manual: Manual mode lets you control all your settings – the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – to get the correct exposure. This will take longer, but in landscape photography, you have the time.

As a beginner, you maybe tempted to use the camera’s automatic features, but I highly recommend you learn your camera setting and use Manual. Your results will pretty much always be better!

river and blue sky
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/8 | 1/400s | ISO 100

The best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for landscape photography

The three key settings for any photographer, no matter the type of photo, are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Together, these settings determine the final exposure of your image, which is why they’re often referred to as the exposure triangle.

In landscape photography, you’ll want to adjust these settings very carefully. Let’s take a closer look, starting with:

Aperture

Aperture is arguably the most important setting in landscape photography. It controls sharpness, depth of field, and at smaller apertures can create a starburst effect.

  • Sharpness: Landscape photos are best when they’re both focused and sharp. Using the wrong aperture for your landscape can result in a softer image. You’ll want to select an ultra-sharp aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/11, but the specifics depend on the lens you have. Generally, your lens’s sharpest aperture is three stops down from its widest aperture, so feel free to use this as a guideline (though you can always do a few tests!).
  • Depth of field: When you have foreground elements close to the camera, depth of field is especially important. You’ll need a deeper depth of field to maintain sharpness across the frame, which is achieved in one of two ways: with a narrow aperture (around f/8 and beyond), or with focus stacking, where several photos are taken then merged in post-processing to produce focus throughout the photo.
  • Starburst effect: A small aperture can produce a pleasing starburst effect when you shoot toward points of light like street lights or a partially covered sun.
beautiful sunrise landscape photography
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/8 | 1/100s | ISO 500

Shutter speed

Another very important landscape photography setting is the shutter speed. In fact, it can dramatically change the type of landscape photo you capture. Based on your shutter speed, you can create a crisp photo (fast shutter speed) or a softer, long exposure (slow shutter speed). Note that any shutter speed over half a second is considered long exposure, and you’ll need a tripod for the best results.

The long exposure effect

Long exposure has a transformative effect on photos when applied in the right place and at the right time. You can easily carry out long exposures at night, thanks to the lack of light; during the day, you’ll need a strong neutral density filter to achieve a long shutter speed without overexposing the image. You might choose to use a long shutter speed in any of the following scenarios:

  • Coastlines: Use at least ten second exposures to flatten the water.
  • Moving water: Use exposures of one second or higher around white water for the “silk effect”
  • Traffic light trails: Use exposures long enough to capture car light trails along the length of the road you’re photographing. Aim to keep the shutter speed over 15 seconds or so.
  • Windy days: You can capture cloud movement across the sky with exposures of 30 seconds or longer.
  • Intentional camera movement: Try moving your camera body or adjusting the focal length during a long exposure. These type of photos can last anywhere between five to thirty seconds in length.
black and white landscape
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/8 | 20s | ISO 1000 | Hoya infrared filter

ISO

Your ISO setting will brighten your photo, but the higher the ISO, the worse the image quality.

As a landscape photographer, you should shoot with a tripod for the best results, so in most conditions you’ll be able to use an ISO of 100 (or your camera’s base ISO setting).

That said, there are times – especially at night – when you might want to use a higher ISO. For example, if you’re using an aperture of f/11 and you’re not getting enough light for a correct exposure even at 30 seconds, you may want to boost your ISO to get a reasonable shutter speed.

Also, if you do astrophotography, you’ll definitely need a high ISO, assuming you want to freeze the stars (which are always moving across the sky, or at least appear to be!). Consider shooting at ISO 12600 or even more, if your camera can handle it. In fact, standard Milky Way settings are an aperture of f/2.8, an exposure of 25 or 30 seconds, plus an ISO as high as you can reasonably go.

colorful orange and red trees in a landscape scene
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/16 | 1/200s | ISO 640

The best focusing settings for landscape photography

When it comes to landscape photography, you have two choices for the proper focusing mode:

Autofocus or manual focus.

In my opinion, the best results come from manual focus, though it is somewhat dependent on the equipment and the scenario. Let’s take a closer look at these two options:

Autofocus

With autofocus, your camera where automatically focus, though you do get the option to specify where you want your camera to focus.

So set your camera to its single-point focus mode (where it uses a single AF point to determine the proper focus). Then compose your shot, select an object in the middle ground, and position your single focus point over that object.

Press your shutter halfway to achieve focus, then take the shot.

river rushing water
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/11 | 13s | ISO 250 | ND1000 filter

Manual focus

Manual focus will often given you sharper images, though it’s a little trickier. You’ll need a tripod, or at least a steady location where the camera remains still. Here’s what you do:

  1. Place your camera on a tripod and compose your shot.
  2. If your lens has image stabilization, be sure to switch it off.
  3. Set your lens to manual focus; that way, you’ll be focusing the lens with your lens focus ring.
  4. Turn on your camera’s Live View function. If you’re using a DSLR, the mirror will lock up.
  5. Use your Live View’s zoom function to zoom in on an area of your composition. Note: Don’t zoom with your lens, only with the Live View zoom.
  6. Once you have zoomed in, use the lens focus ring and focus sharply on your desired object.
  7. Zoom back out, check your composition, and take your photo.
wheat with a city in the background
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/8 | 1/125s | ISO 100

The best white balance for landscape photography

White balance is an important setting for any photographic situation, and landscape photography is no different. You have a few choices, including a manual and an automatic option. But depending on your image file format, you can make further adjustments in post processing.

Why does white balance need adjusting?

When photographing during the day, you’ll likely get good results from the automatic settings on your camera. However, photographing at night with cold or warm street lights can cause the automatic option to fail, in which case you may prefer to use a semi-automatic or manual white balance option.

Automatic white balance

The Auto White Balance setting, or AWB for short, tells your camera to make the white balance decisions for you. It’s certainly usable during the day, and today’s cameras will give good AWB results.

White balance presets

Your camera will also have a number of preset white balances. These include settings like Tungsten and Fluorescent, which counteract he warm or cold light produced by the corresponding light sources. White balance presets are useful for nighttime cityscape photography, when you want to cool your image and remove the orange glow a city produces.

Manual white balance

The white balance can be quantified using Kelvin, a measure of temperature. Cameras generally offer a white balance Kelvin scale ranging from around 2500K to 15000K, where the lower the Kelvin number in your camera, the cooler the resulting image, and vice versa.

To set the white balance on your camera, you can use the camera’s custom white balance setting. Aim your camera at a gray or white card, then take a photo. Then use this photo to set your camera’s custom white balance. Alternatively, use the camera’s Kelvin adjustment buttons to choose the correct setting.

File type

There are two main file types to choose from when taking photos (TIFF is another popular option but is more relevant to post processing). These are RAW and JPEG:

JPEG

This file type is designed to be a finished product. If you’re not interested in a lot of editing work, a JPEG might suit you. The size of file is also a lot smaller than its RAW counterpart, which can be helpful in certain situations.

When capturing JPEGs, it’s best to get the image right in camera, because you have much less flexibility in post-processing. If you’re happy to work this way, then JPEGs are a good path.

RAW

The vast majority of landscape photographers photograph in RAW, also referred to as the digital negative. RAW file sizes are larger, but the ability to enhance your image in post processing is so much greater.

Adjusting settings after the fact, like temperature, sharpness, and exposure levels, give much better results when the file was shot in RAW. You’ll also find that adjusting (and recovering) shadows and highlights will be improved.

city at night
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 50mm f/1.2L | f/8 | 10s | ISO 100

Additional landscape photography settings to know

There are a handful of other landscape photography settings that can improve your results, including:

Mirror lock-up

Mirror lock-up only applies to cameras with mirrors (e.g., DSLRs). It can improve the sharpness of your photo if you’re using slow shutter speeds, because it prevents the camera mirror from causing vibrations when you hit the shutter button.

Image stabilization

If you’re taking a photo handheld and your lens or camera has image stabilization, it’s a good idea to turn it on. Stabilization technology counteracts camera shake, and will therefore allow you to photograph at a slower shutter speed.

However, when your camera is on a tripod and you’re shooting at slow shutter speeds, make sure to turn off all image stabilization technology; in such cases, the image stabilizer will actually cause image blur.

Bracketing

If you wish to do any HDR or digital blending in post-processing, then bracketing is an important setting to get right. When your camera is set up for bracketing, it will take three photos of the same scene (you should use a tripod for this) with different exposure values, typically +1, 0 and -1. Though you can vary the exposure values, the idea is to create a dark, normal, and light image, which you can later blend together for improved dynamic range.

long exposure beach rocks
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon 17-40mm f/4L | f/8 | 1/3s | ISO 400

Landscape photography settings: final words

Landscape photography is an exciting genre, and it’s great to get out and capture those epic scenes! Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be a landscape settings expert – so get out to some great places near you and apply your new knowledge.

Over to you:

What settings have you been using for your landscape photos? How will your workflow change in response to this article? Share your thoughts in the comments below!





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