It can all seem a little daunting when you are taking your first steps in to the world of landscape photography, but it really doesn't need to be. If you learn about the basic camera settings you need and some knowledge of exposure, then you have all you need to move forward with your photography. Obviously it is difficult to predict exactly what settings you will need as your circumstances will change all the time when out in the field, however, the settings I'm going to talk about should cover most bases and give you a strong foundation to build upon. So in this blog I'm going to talk about the best setttings to use for landscape photography and illustrate with a couple of images I've recently taken and the settings I used to capture them.
Landscape photography - The objective:
So what is our objective when we go out with the camera? Our objective is to capture a correctly exposed image which is in sharp focus across the frame. So how do we achieve this? Well photography is all about light and how much light we allow to hit the sensor, we use three key elements to control how much light hits the sensor...our exposure. The elements combined are known as the 'exposure triangle'. This is a relationship between all the different elements in this triangle, each has a part to play, but in turn each will impact on the others. So we need to continually balance all these elements in order to create a correctly exposed image (not to light or dark). The three elements are Aperture, ISO and Shutterspeed.
The aperture is an opening within the lens, which controls the amount of light which hits the sensor. The wider the aperture the more light we let into the sensor and the smaller the aperture the less light we let into the sensor. Aperture also has another really important job as it controls the depth of field within our images. What is depth of field? Well depth of field is how much of the scene is in sharp focus. This is particularly important as landscape photographers want as much of the image in sharp focus as possible, from foreground to background. Smaller apertures like f8, f11 and f16 are ideal for landscapes and should cover you for most circumstances, which I will illustrate later in the blog. One thing to note is with the smaller the aperture we use, like f16 and above, we are likely to see a drop in sharpness due to something called diffraction, I won't go into too much detail but this is an optical effect which causes loss in resolution at narrow apertures. So this is why I wouldn't go higher than f/16. So a range of between f/8 to f/16 is a good compromise between depth of field and exceptible sharpness.
Your ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. In its uber basic terms, the ISO controls how bright or dark your image will be. If we increase the ISO we essentially brighten the photo, this allows us to shoot in darker scenes buy exposing the sensor to more light. Sounds perfect but there is something to bare in mind. As you increase the ISO the more you introduce noise into images. Whats noise? Well this is visible artifacts which make your images look grainy. Modern cameras are pretty good at controlling noise but a general rule of thumb is to keep your ISO as low as possible, I usually set it at base level which is ISO 100 on my camera, unless I'm shooting handheld, in windy conditions or using a telephoto lens and need to achieve a quicker shutter speed.
Shutterspeed, simply put, is the length of time that the sensor is exposed to the light. A quicker shutter speed allows you to freeze the action and elimate any movement in your image. A slower shutter speed will record all the movement in the scene for the amount of time it is open, generally speaking we want our images to be sharp and free of moment......unless we are trying to do creative effects like long exposures or trying to introduce cloud or water movement. Usually I shoot using a tripod to keep the camera steady, as I often shoot when there is less light to play with. If you are hand holding then ideally you would need a shutter speed of around 1/100 sec and above so we can handhold without getting any movement in the image.
There are lots of different modes on your camera from Auto (where the camera takes contol) to fully manual (you take contol). I shoot on Manual mode, as this allows me to take full control of my camera. However if you are a beginner I would start off on Aperture priority mode. This allows you to have control and select your aperture, ISO and white balance, while the camera will set the shutterspeed for you. This is a great mode to start to move you off Auto as I believe apeture is easier to understand than shutterspeed initially and it really gets you to start taking the majority of control over the camera. This also afords you a little more time when setting up with one less thing to worry about.
White balance is used to adjust colours to match the colour of the light source so that white objects appear white. Basically we set the whie balance to get an accurate representation of the colour in the scene. Auto white balance, in most circumstances, would do an adequate job. However if shooting sunrise or sunsets I would set my while balance to something a little warmer, in order to really pick up those lovely colours. I tend to have my camera set to 'shade' as this does offer an overall warmer feel, which I like. If you shoot in RAW, then this isn't so much an issue, as you can set your white balance during post processing.
Focusing could be a whole article in its self and we can get pretty complex if we want. However for the purpose of this I'm gonna give you the basics. I use a single focus point. I go between manual focus and auto focus, both are fine and do the job. If I was a beginner I would definiely start off on auto focus, using a single focus point. So where do I focus, in basic terms;
1. If you have a main subject in your image then focus on that, eg a tree.
2. If you have an image with prominant foreground then focus on the foreground or roughly a third of the way into the image. This combined with the correct aperture should give you enough sharpness throughout the frame.
3. If you don't have any foreground or a single point of interest then focus to infinity.....this means you focus on the furthest point in your image, as there is no major depth to your images this should be good enough to render the scene in focus.
I always refer to the Histogram and it is a really good tool to get into the habbit of using. The Histogram is a digital representation of the tones within your images and helps you to establish if you have the correct exposure. Looking at the histogram we have shadows to the left, mid tones in the middle and highlights to the right. Basically we want the graph to roughly sit in the middle and not be too far to either the left or right, this would mean we have either have an under exposed or over exposed image and the extemity of either means a loss of detail in these areas, which we don't want.
I would highly recommend shooting in RAW. A RAW file is an unprocessed file which holds all the image data that the sensor captures. Unlike a JPEG, the file is unaltered and uncompressed, so we are able to pull out bags of detail in the shadows, mid tones and highlights and produce very high quality images. We also have the ability to rescue files which we have under or over exposed or set the incorrect white balance, which you would be unable to do with a JPEG. RAW files are easy to process these days with software like Adobe Lightroom, which is very user friendly and shouldn't take to long master. If you are wanting to take the best quality images then RAW is definitely the way forward.
In the field:
Below are a series of images I've recently taken and the settings I've used and my thought process behind the images. I've tried to pick a shot for the following scenario's; 1. A shot with a prominent foreground, 2. One with a particuar subject and 3. One which features no foreground. I believe this will cover the majority of landscape photography scenarios. All images where shot in manual mode, in RAW and edited in Adobe Lightroom.
Gowbarrow Fell - taking the shot:
I really liked the foreground and think it worked really well and balanced the image with Ullswater leading in from the left. I composed the shot into thirds, so the foreground on the bottom third and the mountains and sky on the upper third, this helps to move you through the image. I used an aperture of f/13 as the rocks were a couple of feet away from me and I wanted to get these in sharp focus along with the background. This was the perfect balance between depth of field and over all sharpness from front to back. I tried f/11 but the mountains were a little more soft so I increased to f/13. I focused on the top of the rocks using a single focus point and auto focus, this enabled me to get my foreground and mid ground really sharp, with my background acceptibly sharp. At first I focused on the middle of the rock, however this again left the background a little soft. I set my ISO to 100, as I was shooting on a tripod and it wasn't too windy, so I wasn't getting any movement in the scene. My shutterspeed was at 1/8 sec, this was on the slower side, but this in part was due to me having my polarising and a graduated neutral density filters on, I used the polariser to take the glare off the water and the ND filter to pull back the exposure of sky, as it was on the brighter side. Using these two filters will decrease the amount of light hitting the sensor and why the shutter speed is slower, however as I was shooting on a tripod this wasn't an issue. My white balance was set to shade, which helped pick up the warm tones in the golden light. The historam was nicely exposed and leaning to the left, which is my personal preference, as I like my images to be on the darker side as it helps add texture and contrast.
Eskdale Needle - taking the shot:
My main subject in this shot was the Eskdale Needle, which was placed to the right of the frame, I also wanted to capture the light hitting the Scafell mountain range beyond, so I put the Needle on the right third of the frame and the moutains to fill the other 2/3rds. I included a little of the hillside below the needle as the light was catching it quite nicely and I liked how it sloped down out of frame and helped to add a little more depth. My ISO was at 100, again I was shooting on a tripod and the wind had dropped. Shutterspeed at 1/15 second as I had the filters on, but again as shooting with the tripod it wasn't an issue. I focused on the top of the Needle, as it was the main subject and wanted this critically sharp. I used an aperture of f/11, as there was no major foreground and depth in the image and most of the interest in the scene was in the mid ground. This aperture allowed sharpness in the Needle, mountains and foreground to be sharp. White balance was set to 'shade' to enhance the warm tones and then exposed slightly to the left again, to help with the mood of the scene.
Borrowdale Valley - taking the shot:
This shot was taken looking into the Borrowdale Valley from Kings How. In terms of the composition, the main aim was to catch the light across the snow capped fells and the light in the valley, no foreground was needed as I believe the textures in the landscape and the play off between the light shade worked a treat. I used a longer focal length to help get closer to the area of interest. As there was no foreground or no single point of interest apart from the scene itself, I didn't need to use a large aperture, so I opted for f/8, which is the 'sweet' spot on the lens, so I would get great overall sharpness throughout the image. I focused to infinity and on Great Gable which was the furthest point in my image, again as no foreground or obvious points of interest. The ISO was set at 100 as this was taken about an hour and a half after sunrise and it was a sunny day, so plenty of light hitting the sensor, this also shows in my shutterspeed which was 1/500 sec, no filters used and shot on a tripod, however I could have easily shot handheld, with a shutterspeed this fast. White balance was set to 'shade' and exposed to the left to add to the contrast of the scene.
I hope this information helps and gives you a little more understanding behind some of the settings we use as landscape photographers and also see them put into application. Of course this is just a guide and won't be applicable to all circumstances you will come across, but as I've mentioned already, this should cover a lot of the types of photography scenarios we find ourselves in as landscape photographers.