Landscape Photography Tips: 2. Settings

In this Post:

The first thing to say is that to better understand how to choose your settings for landscape photography, start shooting! Set your camera to manual and keep experimenting! Go out into the garden and take shots of birds, passing cars, anything and everything. Play around with the settings and try and understand what they do. Why is this image too dark? Can I open the iris? Why is that image blurred? Can I increase the shutter speed? Only by doing this will you be able to quickly pick the right settings when the perfect image appears in front of you. However, before you rush outside now to start experimenting, read the rest of this article, which will give you the necessary knowledge to start playing around and understanding the results.

This is the second article in my series ‘Landscape Photography Tips’ if you’ve not read my first, covering equipment, I would do that first. You can find it here.

Tutorial 2 – Settings for Landscape Photography

Once you have an understanding of your camera, its settings, and how to adjust them, you will want to know how best to use these settings in your Landscape Photography. A knowledge of these will give you control over the image and allow you to recreate what you see, and even create that image that you have in your minds-eye. I find there is nothing more satisfying than conceiving an image, researching where it might be possible, and heading out to try and capture it.


Settings for Astro And Landscape Photography


I sometimes think that photography is a bit like woodwork. A cabinet maker imagines the piece that he wants to achieve, researches the best wood to use, and then sets about creating it. If he has not mastered the use of his tools, he will fall short of the piece he has in his imagination. The camera is your tool to achieve your goal, but don’t forget:



Landscape Photography Tips - Ansel Adams



There are 4 essential elements to any photograph:


1. Aperture
2. Shutter Speed
3. ISO
4. Focal length


Of these, focal length is the easiest to understand for a beginner. The other three are more difficult to understand. Below you can see a ‘cheat sheet’ that I have created that you can download here . I am at the moment working on an article fully explaining how to use it. It covers the first three in the list above. Print it off and put it in your camera bag. After reading this article, the prompts should quickly jog your memory while out in the field.



Paddy Scott Photography Cheat Sheet



Another useful aid is the exposure triangle below. This is a visualisation of how aperture, shutter speed and ISO work together. In a controlled lighting situation (like a studio) you can often select whatever settings you want. In Landscape photography, you will usually be reacting to what light you have available.



Exposure triangle - aperture, shutter speed and ISO


Imagine your working in the last minutes of ‘Golden Hour’. The light is low, and you need a deep depth of field, (smaller aperture but bigger number), but you are working handheld requiring a faster shutter speed. Ideally, you want to shoot with as lower ISO as possible. In this situation, something has to give. So you might decide you can handle increasing the ISO to have the aperture and shutter speed you want.



Early Bird
In this image I pushed the ISO to 320 just to give me a little more shutterspeed



Literally meaning ‘opening’, is a mechanical apparatus that the lens uses to control the light entering into the lens and falling on the sensor. The smaller the aperture, the less light gets to the sensor and the longer exposure you need. Aperture is signified by f-stop, the scale typically starts at f1.4 and increases in increments up to f22 and sometimes beyond.


f / 1 – 1.4. – 2 – 2.8 – 4 – 5.6 – 8 – 11 – 16 – 22 – .


Looking at a lens with these parameters, what can be confusing for beginners is that, f1.4 is the maximum aperture and f22 the minimum. This can seem the wrong way round, but it is because f1.4 is the widest or maximum, the aperture can be opened and f22 the minimum.


Before we delve a little deeper, make sure you understand this. Maybe have a play with your camera changing just the aperture, to get a better understanding of what is going on.




Paddy Scott - Photography Cheat Sheet - Aperture
This is the Aperture section of my photography cheat sheet that you can download here.


Getting slightly more technical, as you change the aperture up or down in increments the light hitting the sensor halves or doubles. So if you change your aperture from f5.6 to f8, you will halve the light reaching your sensor. If you change it from f22 to f16, you will double the amount of light that reaches your sensor.


In older lenses or film lenses the aperture is controlled on the lens, using a rotating ring, allowing minute and smooth adjustments. In newer photography lenses the aperture is controlled using a dial on the camera body and changes in increments of a third of a stop.



Lens Aperture - Settings for Landscape Photography
You can see here the actual mechanical mechanism that controls aperture in a camera.


The higher-end lenses will have maximum apertures of f2.8 or f1.4 meaning that you can work in much lower light. More budget lenses will have maximum apertures of f4 or f5.6. Cheaper zoom lenses will not always have constant apertures so as you zoom in the maximum aperture available will change from say f2.8 to f5.6.


Landscape Photography Settings


It’s valuable to understand how aperture affects depth-of-field in your image. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth-of-field and vice versa. The depth-of-field is the area of the image that is in focus or sharp. If we look again at my’ cheat sheet’ below, you can see this. At the maximum aperture, only the tent is in focus, the campfire and mountains behind are not in focus. If we go to the minimum aperture, the greater depth-of-field will mean that the campfire and the mountains are in focus. Often in Landscape Photography, we are aiming to have the whole frame in focus, meaning we want as greater depth of field as possible. Meaning as much of the frame as possible will be sharp.



Aperture Settings for Landscape Photography


This can be confusing and difficult to remember at first. The way I teach people to remember it is to think of someone who has lost their glasses. Often to compensate for not having their glasses, they will squint, or narrow their eyes to see better. The more they squint (smaller aperture), the better they can see (greater depth of field).

It is important to note that, as you decrease the aperture (to get maximum depth of field), you also decrease the amount of light that is reaching the sensor. This means you have to adjust other settings like ISO or shutter speed to compensate.


Something else to be aware of that is not often explained is diffraction. To put it simply, as you reduce the aperture more light is diffracted (bounced around) within the lens and this can lead to a “softness” in the image, even if everything is in focus. All lenses have a different ‘sweet spot’. Still, as a general rule, this ‘sweet spot’ is around 3 stops below the maximum (widest) aperture. Therefore, if you have a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8, then f8 is likely to be your sweet spot.


Landscape Photography Lens
This is what is called ‘lens flare’ it is caused by light bouncing around the inside of the lens.


There are a number of tools that are very useful for calculating depth of field. Online Depth of field Master is excellent and easy to use. However, it’s most valuable to have a tool on your phone, so you have it with you all the time. I would highly recommend the PhotoPills App, which has a great Depth of Field calculator amongst its many useful tools. Stay tuned as I am in the process of writing a review/user guide of it. A cheaper option is Photo Buddy, but I have not used this myself.


Shutter Speed

Exposure time indicates how long the shutter of your camera remains open to let light on the sensor. Shutter speed is a crucial element in both the exposure and the sharpness of your image. It helps to visualise what is going by imagining a tap. The longer the tap is open, the more water flows through the pipe. The same is true of your shutter, the longer it is open, the more light can flow through and reach the sensor.



Rio at Night - Settings for Landscape Photography
The settings for this image of Rio at night were – ISO100, 35mm, f22, and the shutter was open for 15sec. This is why you can see the car lights as one long streak, and in the sky you can see the light of a plane that comes out as a streak of light.


Shutter speed is usually controlled using a rotary knob on the camera body. At the fastest speeds it is expressed as a fraction of a second, for example, 1/250 or 1/250 the fastest speed will normally be something like 1/8000. The slowest shutter speed will be around 30seconds, so as you can see the slower speed are expressed as whole seconds. Your camera might have a Bulb Mode, denoted by B. This allows you to achieve longer shutter speeds. You click the shutter release once to open the shutter and then again to close the shutter. A shutter release cable is vital for this to stop camera shake.


Probably the most important thing that relates to shutter speed is motion. Firstly motion of the subject you are photographing and secondly your motion. Before we come on to talk about the motion of the subject you are photographing, let’s address the second. The shutter speed you need or can select determines whether you can shoot handheld, with a monopod, or need a tripod.



Shutter Speed - Landscape Photography Tips
This section of my ‘cheat sheet’ explains shutter speed settings for landscape photography.


In my experience, you do not want to be shooting handheld with shutter speeds any slower than 1/80sec or 1/50 at a push. It is important to realise, though that the actual figure is very dependent on your focal length. A simple rule to remember is not to shoot with a shutter speed slower than your focal length. So if you are using a 600mm telephoto lens, keep your shutter speed faster than 1/600sec, if you are using a 50mm lens, keep your shutter speed faster than 1/50sec.


You will have noticed the contradiction and be asking “If I am using a 17mm lens, then surely I can use a shutter speed of 1/17sec.” That is correct, you can. However, before using speeds slower than 1/80sec when it matters, I would go out and experiment and get an idea of how steady you can hold the camera. As with anything, there is variation from person to person.



ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor. The lower the ISO number, the more sensitive to light the sensor will be and visa versa. If we go back to our water analogy, imagine the sensor like a sponge, the higher the ISO, the more absorbent the sponge is and it ‘sucks in’ more water or light. However, you pay for that extra sensitivity with grain in the image, or ‘noise’ as it is often known.


So by increasing the ISO, making the sensor more sensitive to light, you can increase the shutter speed or decrease aperture for your image. As I explained before, using your camera manually, you are continually tweaking all three sides of the exposure triangle to find the compromise for your ideal image.



ISO - Landscape Photography Tips
This section of my ‘cheat sheet’ shows how film grain will increase as the ISO is increased.


Of all of your settings for landscape photography ISO is easiest to get your head around as you always want to be picking the lowest possible ISO to achieve the sharpest image with minimal grain.


You should able to set your ISO to auto so that the camera will automatically pick the lowest ISO depending on your aperture and shutter speed selections. While this is useful, at first, I would recommend choosing your ISO manually as this will force you to think more about what is going on within the exposure triangle.


Focal Length

As I mentioned above, focal length is probably the easiest to master. In its simplest form, the focal length indicates how ‘zoomed in’ we are. The higher the number, the more zoomed-in we are. Together with sensor size determines the angle of view and thus how much of our scene the sensor sees.



Focal Length Settings Example
Two images taken a few seconds apart showing different focal lengths.


Choosing your settings for Landscape Photography is a lot about experience, once you have the foundation of knowledge that I have explained here, you need to get out and start shooting in different conditions.


In the next article we go from choosing the right settings for Landscape Photography to planning a Landscape Photography shoot and the best way to go about it. Watch this space!



Paddy Scott