One of the questions I get asked most often about my landscapes is “What settings did you use?” Beginner photographers often feel that there is some magic combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO that will make their photos amazing. While there’s a lot more to it than that, understanding what settings to use makes it easier to take photos that match your vision. Let’s dig in.
Landscape photography is incredibly accessible. All you need is a camera, any lens, and a landscape for your subject. Most landscape photographers favor a wide angle lens since it lets you better show the scale of the landscapes you’re photographing.
The good news is that the 18-55mm kit lens that comes with most DSLRs is, at the wide end, pretty firmly in the range of focal lengths that work really well. It’s equivalent to about 28mm on a full frame camera. If you get really into landscape photography, you can invest in a wider lens but, at least to start with, any standard lens will do.
With that said, you can even take landscape shots with long telephoto lenses. They will have a different look, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great shots.
When you’re taking landscapes, you are often working in the low light around dawn or dusk with narrow apertures. This means, as we’ll see in a moment, you can use a slower shutter speed than you can use handheld without getting blurry shots. Your first purchase if you get into landscape photography should be a good, stable tripod. It will open up a wide range of shots you otherwise wouldn’t be able to take.
There are lots of other smaller accessories for landscape photography like remote shutter releases and neutral density filters that you may want to investigate as you get better, but you certainly don’t need them when you’re starting out.
Like with lenses, there aren’t as many hard and fast rules when it comes to camera settings as there are with some other areas of photography, like portraiture. There are circumstances where pretty much every aperture will be appropriate. In general, however, with landscape photography, you’re trying to maximize the depth of field and sharpness, and this means working in a very specific aperture range.
Most of the time when you’re taking landscape shots and using a tripod, you should use an aperture of between f/16. In most cases, it strikes a great balance between depth of field and sharpness. Almost everything in an image you shoot at f/16 will be sharp.
This isn’t to say you can only use f/16. Both f/11 and even f/8 give a deep depth of field with wide angle lenses while letting in more light so you can use a faster shutter speed. This is important if you’re handholding your camera or don’t want things to move in the frame.
In landscape photography, shutter speed determines how moving objects look. If you’re using a tripod, you can extend your shutter speed far beyond what you could use handheld. This lets you creatively blur water, people, and anything else that moves in a static landscape.
If you are not using a tripod, then you’re limited by the reciprocal rule: you should use a shutter speed no slower than 1/[the full frame equivalent focal length of your lens]. For example, if you’re using an 18mm lens on a crop sensor camera, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/30th of a second (18 x 1.5 crop factor = 27; for more check out our guide to sensor size).
If you are using a tripod, then the only limit is the light. In broad daylight, you won’t be able to use super long shutter speeds without the neutral density filters I mentioned earlier.
My go-to working range for landscapes when I’m using a tripod and not trying to do any creative long exposures is between about 1/10th of a second and 3 seconds. At f/16 and ISO 100, these are the values you’ll normally need to use for a good exposure around sunrise or sunset.
ISO selection rarely comes into play in landscape photography unless you don’t have a tripod or are shooting at night. If you do have a tripod, the best thing to do is just set your camera to ISO 100 and use longer shutter speeds if you need brighter images.
Landscape photography is pretty flexible when it comes to what camera settings you use. A good general guideline, however, is to use a tripod, a shutter speed between 1/10th of a second and three seconds, an aperture of between f/11 and f/16, and an ISO of 100. Those are the settings I have in my head any time I start to set up my camera.