Getting out into nature is one of the things I love most about photography. I become an explorer hiking to hidden waterfalls. I feel invincible when photographing the first rays of the sun rising over rolling hills.
But it is often challenging to know how to photograph these fantastic scenes. The light changes with the weather and time of day and so do my camera settings.
In this article, I’ll give you the best landscape photography settings for your camera.
The Best F-Stop for Landscape Photography Settings
Aperture (f-stop) is essential in landscape photography. I often start photographing a scene in Aperture Priority mode. This option may be labelled with an A or an AV on your camera. In Aperture Priority mode, I set the f-stop I want, and the camera chooses the best shutter speed.
Aperture determines how much of the world in front of me is in focus. I usually want everything in focus, this means that I want a wide depth of field. I want my camera to focus to infinity if possible.
One of the features of Landscape Mode is to choose settings that maximise focus. As a general rule, the larger the aperture number, the more in focus the scene will be front-to-back. Depending on the scene, anything from f11 to f16 will work. I select a focus point about 1/3 of the way into the image. In Aperture Priority mode, I dial in f16
If I need more light, f11 works fine, especially when the foreground is not too far away from the background.
For this photo taken in the Smokey Mountains, my aperture was at f11. The day was overcast, and the scene was in the shade. The furthest trees were relatively close to the trees in the foreground, so I didn’t need a wide depth of field.
I usually don’t use f-stops higher than f16. Higher numbered f-stops sometimes create diffraction (an imperfection in the image). So, even though my camera can photograph at f32, I don’t choose that aperture.
Think of f16 as the best compromise. It’s the aperture that gives me the most focus but doesn’t risk distorting my image.
At sunrise or sunset, when the light is changing, I set my aperture at f16 and my camera figures out the best shutter speed. I almost always have my camera on a tripod because the shutter speeds may be as long as 30 seconds.
The Best Shutter Speed to Use for Landscape Photography
In landscape photography, I sometimes want to freeze motion or blur motion. What I want to do effects which shutter speed I choose.
In Aperture Priority mode, my camera selects the shutter speed. This is fine if nothing is moving and I have lots of light. If I’m photographing a waterfall or if the wind is blowing leaves around, my camera may not choose the shutter speed I want.
Any motion in my landscape blurs if my shutter speed is too slow. Motion blur can be an interesting effect, and I’ll talk about this in a minute.
I want to freeze motion if the wind is blowing the leaves or there is wildlife in the scene. To freeze the movement, I need a fast shutter speed.
In Manual mode, I dial in f16 with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.
For many landscape scenes, 1/250th of a second is fast enough, but some wildlife, like birds in flight, requires a faster shutter speed.
Most landscape photographers love the effect of intentionally blurring moving water or clouds.
To blur motion, I choose a slow shutter speed, usually between 1/10 of a second and 10 seconds. What shutter speed I choose depends on how fast the water is moving and how much texture I want.
For a fast-moving waterfall, I may choose 1/10th of a second. For slower moving water, I’ll need a slower shutter speed.
I like the silky water effect, but I don’t want to lose all the texture in the water. If I choose a shutter speed that is too slow, the water will go completely white and smooth.
I may have blurred this moving water too much at a shutter speed of 3.2 seconds. The water starts looking a little too hazy for my taste. Sony A7R3 100mm@ f11 ISO100.
The speed of the clouds or water affects my shutter speed, so I take many photos at different shutter speeds. I can choose the texture I like best later.
In Manual mode, I dial in f16 with a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. I then change my shutter speed to 0.5 seconds or 1 second and take another photo. I can often tell on the back of my camera when the water is starting to blur and when it starts getting too creamy.
I changed my shutter speed between these two images. I shot the image on the left at 1/3 of a second and the image on the right at 2 seconds. There’s not much difference in the fast-moving water, but the river smooths out in the foreground at 2 seconds.
For fast-moving clouds, 10 seconds will blur their motion. If the clouds are moving very slowly, then my shutter speed may be more than a minute.
When photographing at slow shutter speeds, I use a tripod to stabilise my camera. I also use the 2-second built-in timer, so I’m not shaking my camera when I push the shutter button.
For this image, I set my camera on “bulb” mode, which allows me to take photos longer than 30 seconds. I used a remote control to open my shutter for 107 seconds. This allowed me to blur the clouds at sunrise at Busch Conservation Area near St. Louis, Missouri.
Neutral Density (ND) Filters for Bright Light
I’ve been talking about my ideal shutter speeds as if they are possible in every lighting condition.
On a sunny day, there is too much light to set my shutter speed at 1/10th of a second to blur the waterfall motion. The camera will let in too much sun, and the image will be much too bright.
If I want to blur the motion of a waterfall on a sunny day, I need some help. I need a neutral density (ND) filter.
ND filters cut the amount of light coming into my camera. This allows me to choose a camera setting for a darker condition.
Standard ND filters are 3-stop, 6-stop and 10-stops. The more stops, the less light is getting into the lens. I use the type of filter that screws onto the front of my lens, though there are other systems.
If you look at my camera settings, there is nothing to tell you that I used an ND filter or not.
Nothing in my camera settings will tell you that I used a 3-stop ND filter to capture this photo. North Clear Creek Falls in Colorado on a sunny day. Sony A7R3 35mm, 3.2 seconds @ f16, ISO 100.
The Secret Power of ISO
The two most important settings in landscape photography are aperture and shutter speed. Aperture determines how much of the scene is in focus while shutter speed either freezes or blurs motion.
But what about the third setting in the exposure triangle, ISO?
ISO adjusts the sensitivity of my sensor. Lower numbers (ISO 100) mean the camera is less sensitive to light and higher ISOs allow more light to be captured. More light is a good thing, right? Except that with more light comes more grain. At higher ISOs, image clarity suffers.
In the film days, the ISO was baked into the film, but with a digital camera, I can adjust my ISO from picture to picture. Most landscape photographers use ISO 100. We want the cleanest image we can get with no grain. I will default to ISO 100 if all conditions are perfect, but sometimes circumstances aren’t ideal, and I need a bit more light.
The secret is that most modern cameras can shoot at ISO 800-1600 with no perceptible grain. I can usually reduce any grain introduced at ISOs as high as 5000 with a few tweaks in post-processing. Of course, the performance of your camera at higher ISOs depends on the age and quality of your camera.
This means I can dial in the best aperture and shutter speed even when conditions are darker than I’d like. For instance, on a stormy day or in shaded conditions, I don’t have to sacrifice focus by using a wide aperture.
I used an aperture of f11 to capture this scene, but it was still too dark. There was a breeze, so I didn’t want my shutter speed to be too slow and show the leaves moving. Instead, I increased my ISO to 2500.
The best ISO setting to use for landscape photography is ISO 100, but don’t be afraid of increasing your ISO a bit to gather more light if you need it.
When I’m in changing lighting conditions, I set my ISO on auto and then put my maximum ISO at 5000. I’m ok with my camera adjusting the ISO to compensate for low lighting, but I’ve set a limit.
When to Use HDR in Landscape Photography
HDR stands for “high dynamic range”. I use this feature when the scene in front of me has a significant difference between the lights and darks. If I use one camera setting, some parts of the image will be too dark and others too light.
For instance, at sunrise, I’m sometimes shooting straight into the sun coming up over the horizon. The sun is very bright, but my foreground may still be in shadow. To get the best exposure for the sun, I need one camera setting. For the foreground, I need a different setting. HDR is ideal for these situations.
This image benefits from the HDR setting. The sun is peaking out of the clouds, and the mountains in the foreground are much darker. The sky can easily be overexposed or the mountains in the foreground underexposed.
Most mid- to high-end digital cameras have HDR built-in. It can also be on smartphone cameras. The option is usually a menu setting rather than a button or dial. Many cameras allow you to set one of your function buttons to HDR if you want for easy access.
When using the HDR setting, my camera takes multiple images at different exposures. I can set how many photos to make (3, 5, or 7) and how far apart the exposures are (1 stop, 2 stops). This process is called “bracketing”. If you look at the individual images, some will seem underexposed, some overexposed.
In post-processing, I combine the multiple images into one. This image takes the best exposure from different parts of the scene. My post-processing program makes the choices for me. In Lightroom, for instance, I choose the photos and select Photo Merge – HDR. There are also programs designed to merge HDR images like the HDR Efex Pro in the Nik collection.
For more information on how to take HDR photos, go to Anton Gorlin’s article “What is Bracketing and How to Use it in HDR Photography”.
The bracketed images must have the same composition, so using a tripod is a must when using HDR.
HDR images can have a specific look to them. Some photographers love the look of HDR and others don’t.
The dynamic range of digital cameras improves with each generation, and this reduces the need for HDR bracketing.
The best setting for landscape photography depends on the time of day, the weather, and what I’m photographing. Knowing the best camera setting to capture the amazing world in front of me is not always easy.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you one perfect landscape photography camera setting. In general, choose an aperture between f11 and f16. Set your shutter speed to 1/250th of a second to freeze motion or 1/10th of a second or slower to blur motion. Set your ISO on 100, but don’t be afraid to select a higher ISO if you need more light.
Use this infographic to help you choose the best camera settings for different landscape photography situations.