Photography Brief: How to Shoot Awesome Landscapes

Lake Mackenzie on the south island of New Zealand shot with an f stop of 11

I get the question often, how did you shoot that landscape shot?  This is a short guide to go about getting the best out of your camera while shooting landscapes.  This is no secret.  There are many posts on the subject, but I thought I'd put my own spin on it to get those of you shooting in Auto mode out of that mindset.

  1. Get out of the automatic setting!  I know it's scary, you've got to make decisions on the fly and the camera isn't doing everything for you any longer.  New cameras these days are very smart, but you can learn to be smarter and get the shots you want how you want them by getting out of the Auto mode.
  2. Go to one of the modes that may scare you.  The A Mode.  This is aperture priority.  In this case, we're going to tell your camera how wide the diaphragm (in essence like your cornea – it gathers all external light) opens.  This will translate to a depth of field for your photo.  What is that you ask?  Depth of field is the area of the image that is sharp and in focus.  When you set the aperture in A mode, your camera calculates the shutter speed to coordinate with that aperture such that the photo is well exposed.
  3. With the Aperture mode, set your aperture (often called f-stop) to between f7 and f11.  What is this doing?  This will mean that a large depth of the scene will be in focus.  The larger the number, the more depth of the image will be in sharp focus.  For landscapes, it is often desirable to have a number in this range so that the scene is in sharp focus, while the parts you don't want in focus (perhaps in the close foreground) will be blurred.  The number you pick for your f-stop is up to you and you can play around with the number to see the difference in the results.
  4. Check the shutter speed your camera is using.  Is the shutter speed faster than 1/60th of a second?  If the answer is no, lower the aperture until this is so.  Why 1/60th?  Generally speaking, any shutter speed slower than 1/60 sec will result in a blur because we can't stand still enough while holding the camera.  Faster shutter speeds will be crisp while slower ones will have a bit of blur when we are holding the camera.
  5. If you have a tripod, use it!  With a tripod, #4 above won't matter and can be skipped.  Set your shot up in aperture mode the way you want it, and click away.  You shouldn't have any blur due to the shot being handheld.  You may also want to have a 2 second delay in your shot to avoid any shake whatsoever.

Optional Settings:

  1. During a beautiful, sunny or partly cloudy day, set your ISO (your digital camera's sensitivity to light) to as low as it can go.  This will make your camera pull in light slowly resulting in a smoother, less pixelated photo.  The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light it is yet generally this comes with a downside - more noise and pixellation.  On a nice day we can lower this number so the photo has very little noise.  Thankfully, with newer cameras these days this noise is being reduced.
  2. Depending on your scene, zooming can be helpful.  Use your zoom to find a nice frame for your shot or even move around.  Generally speaking though, try to have a nice horizontal horizon line when framing your shot. 
  3. Rule of thirds maybe? Our eyes are drawn to photos that aren't symmetrical and put the subject in a cross section of the thirds of the frame.

Examples with Settings

Blue Lakes in the San Juans of Colorado shot with an f stop of 9

Looking toward Crested Butte in Colorado with an f stop of 9

The many aguilles from Chamonix, France shot at an f stop of 11

Random waterfall on the way up to Ice Lakes in Colorado shot at f stop 22 with an ND filter to extend the exposure to 8 seconds