In this article I’m going to introduce you to the fundamental camera settings that are going to allow you to become an excellent landscape photographer.
This is part 2 of my series The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Landscape Photography
At the end of this series, The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Landscape Photography will be available for download as a FREE ebook. Subscribe to my mailing list to get notified when the FREE ebook is available.
To read part 1 go to The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Landscape Photography
Part 1: Depth of Field and Exposure Triangle
Part 2: Understanding your Camera Settings
Understanding your camera settings
Welcome back to my Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Landscape Photography. In part 1 we’ve seen two fundamental aspects of photography. Depth of Field and the Exposure Triangle.
As a brief recap:
The Depth of Field is the distance between the nearest and the furthest point of acceptable focus in your image.
The Exposure Triangle is the representation of the three variables that determine the exposure of a photo. Aperture (it also affects depth of field), shutter speed and ISO.
Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or if you want me to explain more deeply some of the concepts treated in this series.
Now that you gained enough knowledge and hopefully experimented a bit with your camera trying to match the settings you’ve seen in the examples of part 1, it’s time to see in detail how your camera works.
We’re going to delve into your camera settings, so that you will feel more comfortable when using your camera on the field and put everything you’re learning in practice.
So where do we begin? First of all grab your camera manual and start reading… Just kidding 😀
I know how intimidating (and boring) it is to read a camera manual. But this is also the reason why most people put it away and set their camera to “Auto” mode and never really master their photography.
Understanding how your gear work is really important. You need maximum artistic control over your photos and to achieve that you need to know ins and outs of your camera, mirrorless or DSLR.
1 Camera shooting modes
These are fundamental settings that surprisingly too many photographers don’t really understand. Since we are focusing on Landscape Photography the most important setting I’m going to talk about is Aperture Priority and you’ll understand why in a moment.
But I will also explain in detail Shutter priority and Manual mode since they can be also used in several different scenarios when you’re outdoor.
These settings are your first step to abandon the Auto mode. If you spent money to buy an interchangeable lenses mirrorless or DSLR camera you should forget about Auto mode. You want full control over the powerful gear you have and shooting in Auto mode is not really what’s going to take you there.
So in part 1 we’ve seen what Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are. It’s really important to know what they actually do and so here’s a quick refresh:
Aperture: it affects the depth of field and the exposure. It’s a hole within your lens that controls the amount of light hitting the sensor of your camera. The aperture value expressed by a camera setting is called f-stop.
Shutter speed: it controls how long the camera shutter stays open and lets the light coming from the lens hit the camera sensor. The shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of it.
ISO: it affects the brightness. Increasing the ISO setting will increase the exposure and vice versa decreasing the ISO will make your image darker. Even though for convenience it’s considered to be the sensitivity of your camera sensor, ISO is in reality a mapping that emulates electronically what in old film cameras was the sensitivity to light of the film itself.
1.1 Mode A: Aperture Priority Mode
Called A or Av (on Canon cameras). Make of Aperture priority mode your best friend if you want to improve fast your landscape photography skills. Let’s see why.
Aperture Priority Mode is a semi-manual mode that let you set the f-number (aperture) and your camera will decide what shutter speed to use to get an optimal exposure, keeping the ISO value constant. Remember, that the aperture is a fundamental aspect to control your depth of field, hence the portion of image with acceptable sharpness. So Aperture Priority Mode is mainly used when you want to have great control of DOF.
For example if you want a shallow depth of field you can choose a wide aperture of f/2.8 or even f/4.0 (depending on your distance from the subject) like in the image above and the camera will choose the right shutter speed to balance the exposure.
In landscape photography a very common and basic rule is to put everything in focus, no blurred areas. You also want to have distinguishable and sharp elements on the foreground, middle ground and background. In this case you have to choose aperture values from f/8 and let the camera set the proper shutter speed. In the image above I was shooting at f/16 to have maximum depth of field without having a too slow shutter speed. If I had set the aperture to f/22 the camera would have slowed down the shutter speed and I could risk having a slightly blurred background since I wasn’t using a tripod.
An exception to this rule is long exposure photography. Long exposure photography is a technique used to blur in-motion areas of your photo to obtain a dreamy smooth effect. In-motions objects can be water of a waterfall, or river for example. In the case of long exposure you will first of all use a tripod, since by using special ND filters on your lens, and a small aperture on your camera, you’ll obtain very slow shutter speed of 10 or even 20 seconds. This will make sure to get photos like the image below.
To learn more about the long exposure technique read my articles:
11 Tips To Improve Your Long Exposure Photography
Long Exposure Photography Tips
In the images you’re seeing the ISO value is always 200 because I use a Micro Four Thirds camera and that’s the base ISO value of my camera. Also, my Olympus Camera has an excellent 5 axis in-body stabilization, which means I can set very slow shutter speed without using a tripod.
For this guide I decided to use settings as similar as possible to a camera without a stellar stabilization to avoid confusion.
1.2 Mode S: Shutter Priority Mode
Called S or Tv (on Canon Cameras)
Another semi-manual (or semi-automatic) mode similar to Aperture-priority. Using this mode, in order to get an optimal exposure, the camera sets the aperture depending on the shutter speed you choose, keeping the ISO constant. It’s mostly useful for subjects in movement and action photography, since you have maximum control over the shutter speed and you’re able to “freeze” the movement of your subject.
As we’ve seen in Part 1 of this guide the Shutter affects not only the exposure, but it also has a huge impact on how objects in movement are captured by your camera. You can create a blurred effect of a moving object by decreasing the shutter speed or in most cases you will want to have your moving subject in complete focus and sharp. So you’ll want to freeze the movement to have no motion blur.
To get good results with Shutter Priority Mode and avoid camera shake, you need to consider that on a normal daylight, about 1/30 sec is approximately the slowest acceptable speed. I’m not considering any special in-body stabilization here.
One common rule used by photographers is called the Reciprocal Rule.
According to this rule essentially the shutter speed needs to be the inverse of the focal lens to obtain maximum sharpness.
So for example if on a 35mm equivalent sensor you are shooting at a focal length of 200mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/200 sec. If you are shooting with a 50mm focal length, your shutter speed should be 1/50 sec and so forth.
Remember that to freeze the subject, you need to set the shutter speed faster than the subject you are photographing. So in certain situations you might need to set it as fast as 1/2000 sec for example. Similarly, if you’re using a telephoto lens to shoot moving objects, often you might require a tripod or set a very high shutter speed to avoid camera shake.
Please note: nowadays thanks to digital cameras, you can shoot hundreds of photos without worrying too much about costs of printing like in the old film days.
Thankfully you can try and adjust your camera shutter speed to find your optimal settings after just a couple of shots.
Just keep shooting and trying different settings, it’s free!
Keep always in mind that:
High shutter speed -> Frozen movement
Slow shutter speed -> Blurred movement
1.3 Mode P: Programmed Auto Mode
I honestly don’t use this mode and I’m pretty sure you rarely will. But since it’s there you might as well play with it and see if there are cases where this mode is useful for you. In Programmed auto Mode the camera sets aperture and shutter speed to have a balanced exposure. You are able to choose from different combinations of aperture and shutter speed that will produce the same exposure. It’s a good setting to start with, to see how different combinations of shutter speed and aperture affect the exposure. It’s a middle ground between automatic, semi automatic modes and full manual control.
1.4 Mode M: Manual Mode
As you can imagine by shooting manual you can choose both aperture and shutter speed independently. This provides the greatest control for creative expression. But be aware that it requires a very good experience because it’s very easy to choose the wrong combination and get either overexposed or underexposed images (too bright or too dark).
There are good reasons to shoot manual. Having total control of your camera means to have mastered the Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority modes. It means having full control over the exposure triangle with great knowledge of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.
Shooting in Manual Mode requires more time to prepare a shot compared to the other modes. A professional photographer knows exactly when to rely on a semi-manual mode or when to shoot fully manual. As a rule of thumb, if you have more time to shoot you can use Manual mode, otherwise I recommend using either Aperture priority (the one I use 90% of the time) or Shutter Priority.
My suggestion if you want to start using manual mode for your landscape photos is to start by setting the ISO to the base value of 100 (or 200 if like me you have an Olympus camera). In good light condition ISO 100 is going to be your value almost always.
We are trying to take a photo of a landscape remember? So Depth of Field is really important and you want to choose an aperture value that gives a long enough DoF. Start by setting your camera to f/8 and go up from there. I would suggest choosing a distance subject so to work with a large Depth of Field.
Always set your shutter speed last because it depends on ISO and Aperture. Now that you have those two values set, you know how much light your lens is going to let through thanks to the aperture and how the sensor will react to that amount of light thanks to the ISO value. To get help in setting your shutter speed you need to take a look at the exposure meter on your LCD display (or some cameras have the metering bar on the side of the viewfinder). The exposure meter is represented by that group of vertical lines on the LCD of your camera like those you see in the image below.
The way those bars can help you is by telling you when the exposure is balanced. If the bars are to the left your image is underexposed and you need to lower the shutter speed, if the bars are on the right you image will be overexposed and you’ll need to choose a faster shutter speed.
Try to make so that by setting your shutter speed the line is set to the center. That’s a good starting point and as you progress and gain more experience, you’ll be able to decide what shutter speed to use almost without looking at the metering bars. You will notice that sometimes depending on the light condition you are going to choose a shutter speed so that the metering bar is slightly to the left or right because you want a slightly underexposed or overexposed image. It’s a matter of what result you like to obtain. That’s when you really know you’ve gained more creative control.
So I said that you should experiment with a subject far from you since we are sort of talking about landscape photography, but these rules apply to any type of photography really, so if instead you want to work with a shallow depth of field, read my article Bokeh. How To Blur The Background Of a Photo?
1.5 AUTO: Auto Mode
AUTO (auto mode) last on the list, but probably the first one you’ll use to play with your camera. It will control aperture, shutter speed and exposure for you under any condition with good results, but you don’t have much creative control other then compose your shot.
I’ve left this mode to the end because I really want you to avoid using it. But at the same time I don’t want to omit it from this guide because if you are like me you might want to jump straight to start taking photos without needing to learn all the settings first.
So if you want to switch back to auto mode every now and then what I might suggest to you in order to make the most out of it is to see what settings your camera is choosing while shooting auto and then switch to either one of the semi-manual or full manual mode and try to replicate those settings you’ve seen while shooting in auto mode. Or you can use them as a starting point and see how changing one of the three components of the exposure triangle will give you different results.
2 Metering Modes
I briefly mentioned the exposure metering in the previous section. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this setting.
First of all I don’t consider Metering or Camera Metering a beginner concept, but since you made it this far it’s worth talking about it.
If you don’t change the metering mode of your camera at all it will already give by default very good results. I don’t want you to necessarily get stuck on understanding how it works before even starting your adventure as a landscape (or whatever) photographer. With all we’ve talked about so far, in this article and in part 1 of this series, you can definitely go outdoor and start taking great photos.
Learning on the field, practicing instead of waiting until you know all the rules, all the settings and information is the way I prefer and I’ve always found it really efficient.
Back to metering now.
Metering is how your camera measures the light in a scene and from that measurement it “suggests” what are the values of the exposure triangle you should set in order to obtain a correct exposure.
We can also say that it’s how shutter speed and aperture should be set depending on the light of the environment you’re in, taking in consideration the ISO value.
Unlike old cameras, modern Digital SLRs and Mirrorless cameras are able to determine metering without you being forced to use a light meter like in the old days of film photography. Yes a light meter would still find its use today, but for the sake of this tutorial we’ll touch on the in body camera meters only.
The most common Metering Modes are:
- Matrix or Multi zone metering
- Centre-weighted metering
- Spot Metering
2.1 Matrix Metering
Multi zone also called Matrix by Nikon, Evaluative by Canon and ESP by Olympus is the default metering mode in most cameras. It measures thousands of pixels and takes light information from the entire scene by dividing the frame into multiple areas. The camera’s sensor considers the light of the whole scene and comes up with the suggested exposure. The focus point affects the matrix/evaluative metering mode, since the metering system will consider the in focus area more important than others.
For landscape photos you should use this mode as it does a pretty good job at automatically determine the correct exposure.
2.2 Centre-weighted metering
In this mode the camera gives more importance to the scene in the centre of the frame, it considers its surroundings, but it ignores the corners. Centre-weighted metering does not take into consideration the focus point but only the central area of the frame. It’s especially useful for portraits or large subjects in the middle of the scene. If for example you want to take a photo of a person with sun behind, with this metering mode the face will be exposed correctly.
2.3 Spot metering
Spot metering contrary to centre-weighted metering takes into consideration only your focus point and it ignores the rest. It evaluates and calculates the exposure based on a single zone and ignore everything else. This mode is useful for small subjects not occupying the middle of your scene, that you want to make sure to be correctly exposed. In birds photography for example, your small subject represented by the bird might be positioned at the edge or a corner of your frame, hence spot metering would help calculating the correct exposure for that point obviously assuming your focusing on it.
What metering should you use?
This depends on the type of photos your taking and really it depends on your taste too.
Again I suggest to start with Matrix metering especially since you’re doing landscape photography.
Understanding the basic settings of your camera will give you the ability to start taking photos from today.
In Part 1 of this series I’ve introduced fundamental concepts such as depth of field and the exposure triangle.
In this article we’ve explored basic but very important settings of your camera.
Stay tuned because in the next articles I’m going to teach you how to focus your camera, we’re going to talk about the ofter overlooked aspect of White Balance, rules of composition and more.
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.