Taking a landscape photograph that really wows your audience involves much more than pointing and shooting. There are specific steps you need to take when setting up your camera, from dialing in an appropriate aperture and ISO to knowing where in the scene you should focus for the best depth of field.
In this comprehensive step-by-step guide, we will walk you through the basic camera settings you need to take incredible landscape photos.
Step 1: Set a Low ISO and Small Aperture
The higher you push your ISO, the more noisy or grainy your images get. As a result, a low ISO is critical for landscape images that are free from noise. When shooting landscapes, an ISO of 100 or 200 is preferred to get the rich, noise-free images you seek.
Next, put your camera in aperture priority mode (which is typically indicated as A or AV on your camera) and dial in a small aperture. Remember, aperture values have an inverse relationship with their size, so the larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture. An aperture of f/11 or f/16 is usually recommended for landscapes. These values are sufficiently small enough that you will have a good depth of field, as seen in the image above, but they are also large enough that you will most likely stay in the sweet spot of your lens which will get you the sharpest image possible. Pushing your aperture to its smallest value, which is f/22 for most cameras, may result in an image that is a bit soft.
Step 2: Set Up Your Gear
In many situations, shooting landscapes can be done by handholding your camera, so long as your shutter speed is sufficiently fast to avoid camera shake. However, there will be times that call for some support tools to help you get images that are clear and sharp.
Take a sturdy tripod with you in case you need to slow your shutter down. Extend the thickest sections of the tripod’s legs first, as these will give you the most stable base. If equipped with a center column hook, hang your backpack or camera bag to weigh the tripod down, making it even more stable and secure. Then pop your camera onto the tripod, ensuring it is securely fastened, and then work to level the tripod such that the horizon line in the viewfinder is level.
Next, set your camera’s timer function or use a remote or shutter release to fire the image. This will give you added protection from camera shake and result in a tack-sharp image. If you find that you still have a little blurriness, check your camera to see if there is a mirror lock-up function. If so equipped, engage this setting to lock the mirror in place. This adds yet another layer of protection from blurry or shaky images.
Step 3: Compose the Shot
How you compose your landscape images is ultimately up to you. Some situations call for the main subject to be off center. Other times, like when photographing a reflection like the one above, it looks best to have the subject smack in the middle of the frame. Similarly, sometimes you’ll need to shift the horizon upward, like when the sky adds visual interest to the shot. Other times, shifting the horizon downward will allow you to highlight areas of foreground interest in the shot.
Other compositional elements to look for are leading lines that will draw your viewers deeper into the image. Roads, fence lines, rows of trees, and other such subject matter are perfect leading lines for a landscape shot. Also inspect the scene for opportunities to layer elements in the frame. Repeating shapes or patterns, such as the rolling hills pictured above, give a landscape more depth and dimension, both because of their shape and because of the areas of shadow they create in the image. Textures can also add a powerful element of interest to your landscape images, be that cracks in the earth in the desert or wheat stalks waving in the wind on the plains.
Step 4: Find Your Focus Point
To find the point at which you maximize depth of field, you can either calculate the hyperfocal distance, which, for beginners (and many pros!) is hard to do. You can also download an app for your smartphone that will calculate the hyperfocal distance for you and tell you precisely how many feet away you need to focus given the specific camera gear you have. These apps are handy, but if you don’t have cellular service, they won’t work.
The easiest method to find the best spot to focus is simply by setting your focus point one-third the way up from the bottom of the frame. In the image above, that would be roughly where the nearest chunk of ice is in the middle of the shot. Chances are your camera’s viewfinder has a rule of thirds grid superimposed over it (and if it isn’t displayed you should be able to turn it on). Just use that grid as a guide, focusing the lens on a point near the horizontal line running along the bottom one-third of the scene. Doing so will mean that you get an image with everything from foreground to background in sharp focus.
Step 5: Fire Off a Test Shot and Adjust Exposure
Now that you have all the camera settings dialed in, your camera mounted to your tripod, and your focus point selected, it’s time to take a test shot. Remember to use the camera’s timer, a remote, or a shutter release, and fire away! Check your camera’s histogram to determine if you’ve got an image that’s well exposed, which is indicated by bars in the mid-tone area of the graph. If you see spikes on the right, which indicates overexposure, or spikes on the left, which indicates underexposure, you will need to make adjustments to bring down the highlights or open up the shadows.
To do this, you can manipulate your camera settings, such as speeding up the shutter if you’ve got an overexposed image or slowing it down if your image is underexposed. You can also use your camera’s exposure compensation adjustment to shift the exposure. Find the +/- button on your camera and press the plus sign once to shift the exposure one stop to the right, which makes it brighter, or press the minus sign once to make the image one stop darker. If one stop isn’t enough, work with the exposure compensation until you find the number of stops that get you a well-exposed image.
Step 6: Shoot Lots of Photos
No matter whether you’re a beginner just learning how to use your camera or an enthusiast photographer that has been taking photos for years, the same rule applies: the more you practice, the better your images will be. It can be a bit overwhelming at first trying to remember all the necessary settings and adjustments that need to be made in order to get a breathtaking landscape image, but simply going out and shooting will make those adjustments and settings second nature in due course.
Don’t worry about taking photos of the most stunning subjects, and try not to think too much about all the photos you take that aren’t quite right. The point is to get out there and practice, even if it’s in your backyard! The more chances you give yourself to learn, the better off your images will be in the long run.
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