How to shoot those shots beautiful landscapes you see in magazines
Ever wondered how professionals take such awe-inspiring landscape shots? Maybe you’ve been there yourself, camera in hand, but not had your photos turn out the way you wanted. There are many components to it: being in the right place at the right time and post-processing, to name a couple. But this article will focus on that moment when it all comes together, just before you press the shutter, and you need to decide what settings to use.
Click images for a larger version…and please respect the author’s copyright!
You’re in the right place at the right time – now what?
First, a word about control modes (Aperture/Shutter Priority, Portrait, Sport, etc.). If you don’t have the camera on manual or if your camera doesn’t have a manual setting, some or all of the settings discussed below are controlled by the camera.
When using these modes, all of the things I discuss in this article will still be helpful, as you will know which modes and settings to use to help the camera make the right decision. While these concepts are most useful when shooting with cameras with the highest level of control, such as (D)SLRs, they will also improve your result with point-and-shoot or even phone cameras.
There are three primary settings that affect how the camera operates: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO (or Film Speed).
All three of these affect the amount of light entering the camera, but also have other effects. A camera’s modes simply decide how these basic settings will be controlled.
While I will briefly mention what these settings physically do, I’m going to focus more on why you might choose to set them a particular way and what effect that can have.
In darker conditions, you will frequently need to choose in which area you can sacrifice in order to get an adequate exposure.
The first of the three that I’m going to focus on is the camera’s aperture setting. Aperture refers to the size of the hole that allows light into the camera and is measured as a ratio between the focal length and this size. Sometimes the fraction part is dropped and only the larger number is used, though. 1/2.8 is a relatively large aperture and allows the most light through, where 1/22 is the opposite. Aperture’s second major effect is depth of field, or how far both into/away from the scene is in focus beyond the target.
Note that this scale is not linear: The difference between f/2.8 and f/4 is the same as the difference between f/16 and f/22. The middle of the aperture range for a given lens is usually near f/8.
This control of the depth of field is primarily used to maintain the viewer’s attention on the subject. In portrait or macro photography, this might be a person, an insect, or a flower. In landscape photography, even though the subject is primarily distant, it can still be used in this way. What part, if any, of the foreground should be in focus?
Note that the best landscapes usually have an interesting foreground as well as the landscape itself. How small of an aperture (large depth of field) will you need to keep what you want in focus? A middle aperture (such as f/10 or f/12) is usually enough, when focused slightly beyond the foreground, to keep everything in focus.
Make sure both foreground and background elements are in focus
Why not simply have everything in focus with a tiny aperture like f/22? One major stylistic reason is that often times you do not want everything in focus. In landscape photography there might be distracting foreground elements that aren’t part of the story you want to tell, for example. There are two technical reasons as well.
First and foremost, lenses don’t perform as well near their extremes in apertures. Specifically, diffraction causes a loss of sharpness when stopped down. The larger you scale up your landscape photos, the more you will notice this loss in sharpness, although it may not be significant at smaller sizes.
A second reason to avoid stopping down is that the more narrow beam of light will cause significantly worse shadows under dust spots on your lens or sensor/film. Depending on your post-processing capabilities, this could be even worse than the first reason! (Let’s be honest, nobody enjoys fixing dust spots.)
Summary: Start with F/8 – F/12, smaller aperture (bigger number) if required to keep everything in focus, avoid extremes.
Shutter speed, as you’re probably either aware or could guess, controls the amount of time the camera is measuring or sensing the light, usually by controlling when the shutter opens and closes. Most cameras can control the shutter speed between 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second as the shortest and 15 or 30 whole seconds as the longest.
In most images, shutter speed is used to completely stop any motion, both of the subject and of the camera, if you’re not using a tripod. Just a little bit of motion in your photo will make it blurry, usually in an unintended and unappealing way.
To stop motion when hand-shooting, you will usually need to use a shutter speed of 1/x, where x is double the focal length you are shooting at (a common thumb rule, example: at 50mm use 1/100th of a second). You also need to consider motion of your subject. You can experiment a bit to find the necessary shutter speeds to stop different kinds of motion at various distances, but here’s a bit of my experience (not exact!):
|Prevent Star Trails||~ 20 seconds|
|People||~ 1/50th of a second|
|Stop water at a distance||~ 1/500th of a second|
|Stop water close-up or a Hummingbird’s Wings||~ 1/2000th of a second|
Stopping the movement of a wave can make for an exciting foreground element
Even the movement of the shutter or the mirror can vibrate the camera enough to be visible in the photo. If this becomes a problem, you can avoid this by using your camera’s “exposure delay mode”, if it has it. This causes the exposure to not start until a set time after the shutter opens. Similarly, your finger touching the camera to press the shutter can also vibrate the camera, even when using a tripod. You can use either a remote shutter or a timer mode to avoid this one!
Finally, let’s not forget that motion can be a good thing! A landscape photographer’s favorite thing to photograph in motion is probably moving water such as waves, waterfalls, or streams and rivers. I’ve created the stringy waterfall effect using ~1/10th of a second and shooting handheld, taking a bunch of photos to ensure I get one where my hand was steady.
Obviously using a tripod is generally preferred. 1/2 or 1/4 can make for a very interesting shot of waves – just enough to capture the motion without blurring it too much. (Note: Daytime shots at these shutter speeds might be over-exposed, which you can compensate for by using a neutral density filter)
Longer exposures can cause the “cotton candy” effect for falling water or streams and remove ripples from flat surfaces.
Summary: Prevent unwanted blur by using a fast enough shutter speed (Thumb Rule of doubling focal length if handheld). Use a tripod when necessary. Experiment with special effects at long shutter speeds!
ISO / Film Speed
The ISO setting on a digital camera controls how sensitive to light the camera will be. It is the equivalent of the film speed for a traditional camera and uses the same numbers to describe it. It usually ranges from around 100 to 6400 or higher, sometimes much higher.
Before the advent of digital, a photographer had to choose how sensitive he wanted the film to be when preparing for a time/location. Luckily, with digital cameras we can control this on the fly, but this does come with a cost. With traditional films, the size of the light-sensitive crystals on the film changed in order to provide the changes in sensitivity, and this could lead to some aesthetically pleasing film grain. Unfortunately, digital amplification of the signals from the CCD in a digital camera creates noise that is not usually aesthetically pleasing. To prevent this, you should always prefer your camera’s native ISO, which is usually the lowest one.
Especially at night, balancing exposure and minimizing noise are both difficult and important.
Even in manual, your camera can still control ISO automatically if it is set to. As always, be careful what you let the camera control automatically, as you might not always like what you get. One trick I use is to let the camera control ISO automatically, but minimize the downside by underexposing all of my pictures and fixing them later on the computer.
Summary: Minimize your ISO to minimize digital noise.
Image Quality: As a fine art photographer, I always want the largest, most detailed photographs I can create with my equipment. Shooting on anything less than a lossless RAW format will cause a loss in image quality. If you are limited by memory or processing power and you don’t need the image quality, you can choose an appropriately compressed format (JPEG).
Exposure Bias: Exposure Bias tells the camera’s algorithms how to control the exposure. While the camera has an ideal average brightness value “in mind”, you can use this setting to tell it to purposely under- or overshoot this value. I frequently use this setting to underexpose my photos since, when shooting in RAW, data is much more recoverable from underexposed areas than overexposed areas and this also causes the camera to use a lower ISO value if ISO is being controlled automatically.
Exposure Bracketing (HDR): Bracketing allows you to have the camera shoot various levels of exposure in a sequence of photos. This is very useful when you don’t have the time to retake mistakes and you want to ensure you get the right exposure. Another use of bracketing is to combine multiple images of different exposure to increase the dynamic range of the photo, known as High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.
White Balance: If you are shooting in RAW, as I recommend, white balance is one of the most easily fixed elements in post-processing, so I do not worry much about getting it right beforehand. I usually leave the camera on auto and fix it later. However, if you are shooting JPEGs, it can be significantly more difficult to fix in post.
To accurately guess the best setting to use, you will need to understand the color of light that each setting is designed for and match that to your scene. Another strategy involves test photos of a neutral grey card and then using the setting that gets you closest to grey in the photo. While this gives you a technically accurate result, white balance can be a stylistic choice and technically accurate is not always best.
Putting it Together
What you’ve learned from this article so far will certainly help you to capture an amazing image… under the right circumstances. Nature, however, won’t always provide you with enough light or the right conditions to use ideal settings.
You will need to experiment and use your expertise as a photographer to decide where to sacrifice in order to get an adequate exposure. Can you slow down your shutter speed without causing blur? Can you use a wider aperture while keeping the scene in focus? Is higher noise acceptable?
Thanks to digital photography, you can test your choices in the moment to a certain degree. Use the live preview on your camera and zoom in to look for noise, motion blur, or focus issues. The more you experiment and practice, the more you learn and the faster you will be able to choose the right settings for any given scene, so get out there and shoot!
About the Author:
Jacob Newell is a professional fine-art photographer from Kailua, Hawaii, specializing in colorful landscapes and nature images.
He has been honing his craft for over 10 years.
His favorite part of photography is conveying to viewers the beauty and the story behind his adventures.