What are the best camera settings for landscape photography?

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with modern cameras, I’ll admit. For one thing, they are far more complex than they need to be to shoot landscapes. It seems that there is no end of buttons, menus and controls that perform functions which vary from the gimmicky to the downright arcane.

The reality is that most of these controls are completely unnecessary. Whenever I have a new camera to work with I usually spend a few hours figuring out what they all do simply so I can understand why to leave them alone. Or, to put it another way, I do it to understand exactly how they will wreck my images if I mess with them.

Above: fleeting light that lasted mere seconds. When the perfect conditions can be here and gone so quickly you want your camera to be correctly set up so you don’t waste time fiddling with controls. In this case it would have been the difference between getting the shot or not. It turned out to be the best shot I took that year.

Why we need to set the camera up:

When we shoot landscapes we want to set up our camera in such a way that it does two things for us:

  1. Reduce the work load. We want the camera to be able to do as much of the thinking as possible for us, so we can concentrate on actually enjoying ourselves.
  2. Remains set on useful, predictable settings. The last thing I want is to transfer my images to the computer only to find that the camera has ruined a shot by getting the exposure totally wrong.

I tend to think of my camera as an eager but slightly stupid animal. It really wants to help and get things right, but it tends to get things wrong if left to itself. It needs to be told very clearly what to do.

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How I Set My Camera Up:

  • Aperture Priority Mode
  • Exposure Compensation between -1/3EV and -1EV
  • Lowest Possible ISO
  • Colour Mode (vivid etc) set to neutral
  • White Balance set to Auto
  • Display Histogram

What this all means:

Aperture Priority:

This means that I can tell the camera to always use the same aperture setting, and simply let it figure out the correct shutter speed for itself. That means I don’t need to manually set the correct exposure every time I compose a shot.

I set the Aperture at around f8, as this number on most lenses allows for the optimum balance between sharpness and depth of field. But you choose what works for you. It will vary depending on the scene.

Exposure Compensation:

I’ve got the camera figuring out the correct exposure for me, which is great. Except that it’s almost always wrong. For landscapes, the automatic exposure calculation tends to be a bit too bright, which leads to blown-out skies. This is why the camera is a slightly stupid beast that needs correcting.

By setting the Exposure Compensation to somewhere between -1/3EV (Exposure Value) and -1EV I’m simply instructing it to shoot a little darker all the time. Between these values is usually correct, though I will adjust on a shot by shot basis.

Lowest Possible ISO Setting:

ISO Setting is the third variable in setting the exposure, along with Aperture and Shutter. Since I want the camera to use the shutter speed to alter the exposure, I therefore also want the ISO to remain constant, as well as the Aperture.

I want the ISO to be set as low as possible (100 or 200 normally) because this gives the highest possible image quality. Higher ISO settings can lead to a grainy, noisy image. This actually depends on the camera, and is one area where the price of the camera actually correlates pretty well with high ISO performance. The more you spend the less noise you get at higher ISO settings, which makes this issue less important.

Colour Mode

Almost all cameras let you select some sort of colour mode depending on whether you want the images to look really contrasty, highly saturated with colour, or flat and less saturated. They are usually called things like ‘Vivid’, ‘Flat’ etc. Some cameras also have settings that let you mimic the look of classic film stocks.

I always choose whatever setting corresponds to ‘neutral’. These modes are basically the camera doing some post processing before the file ever touches the computer. I don’t want that. I’ll process each image and decide on the final look for myself, thanks very much.

It’s worth noting that these settings are usually nothing that can’t be undone, but I still don’t want the hassle. Every image is different, so I don’t want to apply any uniform processing to them all.

White Balance

Our brains are superb at adjusting the colours we perceive depending on the colour of light we are experiencing. Direct sunlight, for instance, is very different in colour to fluorescent bulbs. Nevertheless we still think our clothes are the same colour when we go outside.

The camera isn’t quite as good at doing this. It needs to be told what colour light it is working in, or the results can look quite… unexpected.

Even the difference between direct sunshine vs a cloudy sky can make a difference to what colours the camera records. As colour is so nuanced and important in photography, you therefore don’t want to get it wrong.

Fortunately the camera is quite good at figuring this bit out, so I leave mine set to auto. Very occasionally it gets it wrong, or it unexpectedly changes to a different mode, meaning the photos suddenly don’t look consistent with what went before. However, this one can also be changed in post-processing, so it’s not a big deal to me.

Display Histogram

Every time I take a shot and review it, the first thing I want to see is the histogram. This tells me, definitively, whether the exposure is correct or not. When the sun is bright and shining on the screen, a purely visual check might be wrong. By reviewing the histogram I can see straight away if the shot is overexposed, or how much leeway I have to adjust the exposure for the next shot.

Once I see the histogram is right, I’ll then zoom in on the focal point to make sure it’s sharp. If both of these are good then the shot will be fine.

I hope this helps you get your camera set up to make landscape photography nice and easy. If you have any questions then leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

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