Essential Settings for Landscape Photography

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(An HDR image of Salamanca harbour in Tasmania)

I have been asked about what settings I use when shooting landscapes. It’s no secret but depending on the camera and lens that you use, you may have to use different configurations.

Let me start by saying that I use my Pentax K5 for most of my landscape shots because it does everything I needed it to do. My lens of choice is a cheap Sigma 17-70/2.8-4.5 which you can buy brand new for about $300. I like it’s very flexible range and the focus markings in the barrel.

Without further delay, let me go through my camera settings.

0. Always use a tripod. It will slow you down to think about proper composition. You want to get it right the first time if you can. Of course it will also allow you to shoot at low ISOs and smaller apertures. If you decide to be lazy then stop here; landscape photography isn’t for you.

1. I use aperture priority mode when shooting landscapes. It allows me to keep on shooting even when the light conditions are changing fast without the need to constantly adjust my exposure settings. The only time I use full manual mode is when I’m stitching panos or when doing exposures longer than my camera can handle (i.e. more than 30 seconds).

— Aperture priority mode does not always get the exposure right. When the luminance of the sky and land are almost the same or when there’s only a stop or two of difference between them, say, after the sun is down, I tend to do exposure compensation of +1 stop to maximize the available light (ETTR concept). I also do this during blue hour. If unsure, check your histogram.

2. Set your camera to the lowest NATIVE ISO required to make the shot. Native ISO is not thefake extended ISO values. Most cameras have ISO 100 or 200 with extended ISOs being 50 and 100 respectively. Extended ISOs use some whacky tricks inside the camera that may be detrimental to the images that you capture.

— ISO values are a bit tricky to manage and how you handle them depends on your camera. Note that noise is affected by ISO sensitivity and length of exposure. You will have to test this with your camera. Do not be afraid to shoot at a higher ISO if the scene calls for it. I have been in situations where I have pushed my camera to the limits by shooting at ISO 6400 for 30 seconds. The result was worth it:

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3. Know your lens’es sharpest aperture. It’s usually around f8 when shooting wide or f11 when zoomed in. The difference in aperture compensates for the focal length. At f11, APS-C sensors will start to experience softness due to diffraction but by zooming in, you force the aperture blade to open up to maintain the same f-stop thus allowing you to maximize the center of your lens without suffering from diffraction issues.

— Having said this, don’t be afraid to shoot at f16 or f22 if the scene requires it, say, you want to force a longer exposure to blur the water. If your shot is good enough, people won’t notice the insignificant blur caused by diffraction.

4. Manually focus to your hyperfocal distance. This is something that even experts tend to ignore. Most people rely on autofocus. Learn to hyperfocus because it will save you when your lens starts hunting when the light drops or when you use very dark ND filters. If your lens does not have focal distance markings then you will have to estimate. Read my tutorial on hyperfocusing here.

5. Turn off any image stabilization feature of your lens and/or camera. This means Canon IS, Nikon VR, Pentax SR, Sony SSS and so on. Image stabilization will cause blur because it will try to compensate for movement that isn’t there. This is a feature that is meant for handheld shots and is destructive when shooting on a tripod.

6. There are several choices on how to release the shutter but the best option is to use mirror lock up mode (MUP). MUP will flip the mirror up before opening the shutter curtain to avoid camera shake. Especially that sensors are getting denser, the effects of mirror shake become more noticeable. When using MUP mode, use a shutter release cable to avoid touching the camera. You will have to click the shutter twice: once to flip the mirror and then to open the shutter curtain.

— Your second option is to use the camera timer. This is handy in the absence of a shutter release cable. Set your timer to two seconds or whatever option is available for your camera. This will allow any movement in the camera to settle down after you press the shutter before taking the shot.

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The rest of the settings I will outline below are entirely optional and might be very subjective.

7. If you need to bracket, set the exposure intervals to at least 2 stops. That means -2, 0 +2 for a three-shot bracket. Anything narrower than that is kinda useless because a one-stop gap can easily be recovered from a properly exposed single RAW image.

8. Save both RAW and JPG copies of your shot. Although RAW is very flexible, JPG will save you a lot of retouching time later on. This assumes that you get it right in the camera as close as possible to your intended result. Shooting JPG benefits those who would rather spend time shooting than being in front of the computer.

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(JPG capture looks fantastic if you get it right in camera.)

9. That UV filter is useless unless you are shooting film. Digital sensors have built-in UV filters. UV filters will only cause unnecessary flare and prevent you from using filters that do matter like a CPL or an ND filter for example. If you really want to protect your lens, use a hood instead; it will also protect you from flare instead of causing flare.

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(CPL filters will give you nice saturated colors. This is straight JPG from camera.)

So that’s it. Very easy to follow settings that will hopefully make a difference to your landscape photos. Until next time.

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