Finding the right settings for landscape photography can be rather daunting but there are a few critical settings you might want to consider
RAW or JPEG
If your camera will shoot RAW files, it’s worth considering this. A RAW file will give you more flexibility after the shot, especially if the light is very contrasty. Slight overexposures can be rescued in post-processing and you can make more edits (if you wish to) without degrading the image. All RAW files need some processing to bring out the best in them but ultimately it gives you more control over the final image.
If you’d rather avoid doing much (or any) post-processing, then JPEG format is a better choice as the camera gives you a finished image. If you choose to shoot JPEG, expose your pictures carefully to avoid blowing out highlight areas. Many cameras give you the opportunity to shoot the same scene at different exposures so check your user manual for ‘exposure bracketing’ to find out if yours does.
I always recommend landscape photography novices select Aperture mode. This allows you to choose how great the depth of field is (more on this in a moment) while not having to worry about the shutter speed. You can, of course, use fully automatic mode, but here you are giving all the control to your camera!
Aperture Choice for Maximizing Depth of Field
The depth of field is the term used to describe how much of the scene is acceptably sharp and crisp. For a portrait, you may wish to blur the background, to focus your viewer’s attention on the subject. To do this you would use a large aperture, with a small f-number such as f2.8.
In landscapes, it is often more desirable to ensure as much of the scene as possible is sharply in focus. To do this you should select a small aperture, with a large f-number – say, f11 or f16. More on aperture.
If you want to get really geeky, you can also explore the concept of hyperfocal distance. Here, you select a particular aperture and focus as a set distance to maximize your depth of field.
There are plenty of apps and websites that will help you with this, but I recommend Martin Bailey’s Photographer’s Friend smartphone app. By selecting your camera, aperture and focal length the app does the rest for you, telling you where to focus. It’s currently available for iOS devices, with an Android version on the way.
I would suggest sticking with average or evaluative mode (depending on your camera manufacturer) here. This mode scans the whole scene, setting the exposure accordingly. You can always adjust the settings your camera selects by adding some exposure compensation if necessary.
Given that most landscape photography is fairly static I would recommend single autofocus mode. After all, your subject is unlikely to get up and run away! The only occasion I tend to vary from this is if I’m shooting at a slow shutter speed without a tripod. In that situation, continuous autofocus can help compensate for any small movements you may make as you breathe. More on camera focusing here.
Magical Compositions for Landscape Photography
Composition refers to the visual arrangement of elements within your frame. It is important in any kind of photography but more so in landscape photography. You are tasked with capturing vast landscapes in the 2D format in a way that draws viewers eye to your subject.
Adding a Sense of Depth
In all types of photography, we are trying to capture a three-dimensional form using a two-dimensional medium. In landscape photography, this can be particularly challenging. This is why the scene that leaves you lost for words can look less stunning in a photo.
A good way to avoid this is to try and create depth in your images. When planning your composition, look for interest in more than one zone in the scene. This could be an interesting rock in the foreground, a band of trees in the midground and rolling hills in the background. You don’t necessarily need to fill all three zones with interest, but certainly, aim for a sense of layering.
Including foreground, midground, and background elements in your photo is a great way to introduce a sense of depth in landscape photography
Don’t Make Your Subject the Center of Attention!
A rookie mistake is to put the main subject of your image slap, bang in the middle of the photo. Occasionally this will work, but it can also lead to a bland composition. A better approach is to place your subject off-center.
Imagine for a moment, a grid placed over the scene, with two equally spaced lines of both the horizontal and vertical axis. These lines and the points where they intersect can be great places to place your subject. Because the lines cut the image into thirds this is called the ‘Rule of Thirds’. It’s a guideline more than a fixed rule but well worth trying.
Putting the focus of this landscape to one side of the frame makes for a much more dynamic and interesting image.
Symmetry – Good or Bad?
If your photo has a definite horizon, it’s often a good idea to place it on one of the thirds. However, there are times when symmetry can work, placing the horizon on the center line of the picture. This is particularly worth trying if you’re shooting a scene with reflections.
Leading lines do exactly what the name suggests – they lead your eye through the image. This could be a line in the most literal sense, such as a footpath. Or it could be something else, such as a line of trees or a series of other objects in the landscape.
Leading lines can help draw the viewer’s eye to your subject
Use of Light and Shade
This one ties in with the direction of the light falling on your scene. Look out for pools of light on the landscape, often created by sunshine through the clouds, or the way shadows can sculpt the lay of the land.
The side light streaking across this landscape creates so much depth. Photo by Jörg Peter
Have a Focal Point
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty of a scene and forget that the human eye needs a subject to alight upon. Aim to have a focal point in your images – perhaps a lone tree, or a geographical feature, such as a river or lake. This way you show your viewer where you would like them to look.
The single tree gives this image a definite focal point. Photo by Bess Hamiti
How Much Sky Should I Include?
This can be a tricky one and often depends on the weather conditions. If you have a dramatic sky, say storm clouds or white puffy clouds on a deep blue sky, you might choose to make a feature of the sky. However, if it’s a grey day and the sky is a bland shade of white, it’s best to include as little of it as you can. Don’t overlook the possibility of excluding the sky altogether!
Allocate more room to interesting subjects in your landscape photographs
It’s worth experimenting with the placement of the horizon at different levels in your image. The golden rule though is to make sure your horizon is always straight. It only needs to be a few degrees off and it’ll make your viewer feel uncomfortable.
A great example of a nice leveled horizon from our friend Christina Felschen. p.s. You can purchase this image here
You can buy cheap spirit levels to slot into your camera’s hot shoe, although many cameras have an electronic level built in these days. Failing that, adjusting the horizon in post-processing is very simple if you do get it wrong.
A level horizon adds visual balance to your photographs.
Point of View
Don’t forget to shoot from different positions and heights to see what effect that has. Photographing from a worm’s eye view can change vastly a composition, compared to a photo taken from head height.
A landscape photo taken from a low angle can bring attention to foreground elements as well as portray a unique point of view.
Read this comprehensive guide for more on general composition tips
Making the Best of Your Photos When You Get Home
If you’ve chosen to shoot in RAW format, you’ll need to do some post-processing when you get home to bring out the best in them. RAW files often look rather flat, so you’ll probably need to increase the contrast and sharpening a little. RAW files also give you the opportunity to rescue any overexposed areas if you got your exposure settings wrong, much more so than in JPEG files.
All that remains now is to get you out there shooting your own landscape photos. Remember, with digital cameras there’s no direct cost associated with taking lots of shots so don’t be afraid to experiment.