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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

In my early days as a photographer, I made a lot of mistakes. We all do at the beginning. Here’s a secret. That never stops. You will keep making mistakes; lots of them. But hopefully, the mistakes you make at the beginning will be different than the ones you make years down the road.

Two decades ago, my errors were usually technical. They arose from a poor understanding of my equipment and how it all worked. Shooting modes, focus settings, white balance, ISO — it was all gibberish to me.

I recall my first trip to Alaska and how I struggled to make images of that grand space, the mountains, and the long sweet hours of summer light that lingered into the night. More often than not, I failed out of a simple lack of knowledge about my camera.

For the life of me, I could not understand the shooting modes for landscape photography. I couldn’t wrap my head around what those letters on the dial meant or how they would impact my image.

Fortunately, shooting modes for landscape photography are something we can learn. If you are new to landscape photography, here are the four primary modes and how to use them. 

Mt McKinley with vibrant flowers in the foreground with a mirror-surface lake.

The evening sun lights up Mt. McKinley (Denali), the higest peak in North America, as seen from Wonder Lake in Denali National Park AK. Fireweed flowers in the foreground.

Automatic Mode

Usually relegated to the “beginner” automatic is actually a usable and effective tool. Automatic (indicated by a P for “Program” on most camera systems) puts the camera in charge of everything but your composition. Exposure (aperture and shutter speed) is selected by the camera.

You simply point your camera, and shoot. This is the pitfall of automatic, as it can become a crutch.

Many cameras also have a full-auto setting indicated by a green rectangle on the dial. This is the point-and-shoot mode that usually only allows recording in .jpeg. The camera is in control of ISO as well as shutter speed and aperture. If you want to photograph in RAW be sure to use P not the rectangle.

When you need to work fast, when the light is shifting, or you are trying to grab a shot quickly, then by all means resort to auto. It’s easy, but you also have very little control. Most of the time, landscape photographers want control.

You will realize very quickly that Automatic, for all its ease, won’t give you what you want. That’s when you might migrate to one of the other modes.

Aperture Priority Mode

The rocky bed of an Alaskan river, looking on Mt McKinley

An aperture of f11 on my full-frame DSLR was enough to retain sharpness from the foreground all the way to the distant mountains in this image of the John River in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska.

Aperture priority mode is my personal default setting. In this mode, you control your aperture (f-stop) and the camera takes care of the shutter speed. The aperture of your lens controls the amount of light that reaches the sensor and the depth of field (DOF).

The DOF is the amount of your scene from front to back that falls into focus.

A fast Aperture, say f2.8, will have a relatively narrow DOF. A slow aperture of f22 will show most, if not all, of your scene in focus from foreground to background. The actual DOF depends on your lens and its focal length.

Stunning sun-rays striking a wild Alaskan national park

Aperture Priority mode allowed me to select a high aperture (f22) for this image that provided focus for the foreground flower and retained detail in the mountains, but also created the bright starburst in the sun.

In landscape photography, you often want to maximize DOF. That’s why Aperture Priority Mode is so important. With a spin of your camera’s dials, you can control the DOF, expanding or contracting it to meet your needs.

The drawback is that, as you adjust your aperture, your shutter speed will need to change to compensate. It’s important to understand shutter speed, and its impact on your image.

Shutter Priority Mode

Slower shutter speeds create the illusion of soft and stunning flows of water.

A 1/8 second shutter speed was enough to blur this fast-moving stream in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

Shutter Priority allows you to control the camera’s shutter speed, leaving aperture settings up to the camera. I use this setting less frequently than Aperture Priority, but it can be very useful.

Shutter speed is the length of time your shutter remains open during an exposure. In landscape photography, this interval can have a major impact on your final image. A slow shutter speed will cause moving objects to blur, while a fast shutter speed will freeze motion.

Smoothing the water creates a serene and awe inspiring image of the Charley National Preserve

A very slow shutter speed of 30 seconds required me to use a neutral density filter to create this smoothed water image of the Yukon River in Yukon-Charley National Park, Alaska.

I frequently use long shutter speeds to motion blur fast-moving rivers and streams. For most of my landscape images that involve motion, I use a slower shutter speed to emphasize that sense of movement. The longer exposure also means I can use a higher f-stop, allowing for a wide DOF.

Manual Mode

A jaw-dropping shot of the Aurora Borealis seen in Alaska.

When shooting the aurora, I’m constantly adjusting shutter speed, but I want the aperture to remain constant, so I use Manual Mode.

Manual mode puts everything in your control. I’ve encountered comments online saying professionals photographers only use manual settings. Rubbish. Manual Mode is useful, but it is also finicky, and more prone to error.

It is important to understand how to use it but it is not the end all, be all, of professional photography.

With both aperture and shutter speed in your control, there is no room for error. Rarely do I find the necessary fiddling up and down of settings to be a good use of my time. I find that I’ll use manual settings only in a few specific circumstances:

  1. Panoramas: After you select the proper exposure, set your camera to manual mode to avoid changes in brightness from one image to the next.
  2. Time lapse video: Automatic settings would change with each new image in the series, wrecking the continuity of the time-lapse.
  3. Bulb Exposures: Bulb is when you manually set your shutter speed open for an undetermined time, usually over 30 seconds. In such cases, your camera will not be able to meter effectively and you’ll need to find the appropriate aperture yourself.
  4. Night Photography: When I’m shooting the aurora borealis or star scenes in very dark conditions, I’m going to keep my aperture wide open. I can set the f-stop and then leave it, adjusting only shutter speed on the fly.

The Aurora over a settlement in the snowy fields of Alaska

Conclusion

Of the four modes I note here, most of my shooting happens in either Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. If you understand these two, and the impact they have on your photos, then you will have a strong grasp on the art of exposure. Experiment with the settings, practice, and play with them.

Once you understand how the different priority modes offer you control over your images, you’ll avoid the traps I fell into during my early days as a photographer. When the light is right, and your subjects come together, and the landscape is bright and beautiful before you, you won’t have to guess.

If you know your shooting modes for landscape photography, and how to use them, you’ll be on your way to better images.

Need a bit more detail on what each mode controls? We have a rundown of the details of shooting modes

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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David Shaw

is a professional conservation photographer, science writer, and photo educator based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

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