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Finding the right Camera Settings for City- and Landscape Photography

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
28.06.2018 · 8 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

It’s often much easier than you might think to find and set the best camera settings for a specific scene. Especially for beginners terms like ISO, exposure time, f-stop and focal length may feel too complicated at first. So lets dive a little bit deeper into the possibilities you have and which few settings you should really care about.

Particularly for anybody who just started photographing with a "bigger" camera, all these settings might be overwhelming at the beginning. Switching from smartphone photography to a DSLR or a mirrorless camera suddenly gives you way more opportunities, but often makes it also harder to decide for the best available settings. This is why I still see quite a lot of people shooting in auto-mode, which is fine to get a better feeling for the camera handling itself, but if you want to keep shooting like that, the current generations of smartphones are surprisingly often a better choice.

The reason why I am saying this is, that in my opinion the big cameras still have the better image quality, but if you want to take a snapshot during the day, smartphones are definitely not a bad choice for 3 underrated reasons:

  • Price - they are usually way cheaper for what you get
  • Weight - The best camera is the one you currently have with you
  • Effort - Using a smartphone to share or edit photos is just so much easier and faster

On the other hand, you will gain a lot of freedom by using a separate camera, but only if you start learning and using individual settings. I am drawing so much attention to this, because it’s important to understand when which tools might be the best choice, which also means that buying a big camera won’t automatically get you better pictures. So lets talk about the settings that will definitely improve your photos and which ones you might pay less attention to at the beginning.

Common camera settings

In this article we will focus on the usual settings you will have to pay attention to when starting photography. If you have a look into the EXIF details in Adobe Lightroom for example, the following 4 terms are the most important ones you need to know and to understand. I will only describe them with a few easy words and pay more attention to the importance for landscape photography.

ISO

The ISO defines the light sensitivity of your sensor. The higher the value, the more sensitive it is to light, which comes at the cost of image quality. Increasing the ISO results in grain, which highly depends on the camera you are using.

My advice: In landscape photography, we are usually using a tripod. Increasing the ISO to achieve a lower exposure time is therefore in most cases not necessary. Set this value nearly always to the lowest value, which is usually ISO 100 or 200. Some cameras even offer ISO 50, but make sure first if this setting is the lowest default or if the camera is faking the ISO (this is for example the case for the Sony A7 series, where ISO 50 is possible, but it’s not gaining a better quality - quite the opposite is true).

TL;DR: ISO 100 and you are good to go.

Exceptions: Astro Photography is only possible with higher ISO values and you might need a higher ISO if you want to capture motion without blur during low light conditions.

Finding the right Camera Settings for City- and Landscape Photography

This photo from Haifoss, Iceland was taken with the following settings: 15 sec at f-8, ISO 50 with 16 mm. Probably better would have been ISO 100 at f-9, but the difference is often not even visible. Because this photo was taken during daylight I had to use a ND filter to force a longer exposure to get that soft shape of the water and the clouds.

Exposure Time

The exposure time is the amount of time the sensor is gathering light through your lens. The longer the exposure time, the brighter your photo will be. Moving objects will blur with longer exposure times, so this setting depends on what you are shooting and how you want it to look like.

My advice: Landscape photographers usually like longer exposure times for a good reason. It gives you the opportunity to soften parts of your image that are moving (water, clouds, cars etc). This doesn’t only provide a better focus on the detailed parts of your photo, but it also makes sure that it won’t look so much like a snapshot you took with your smartphone. If you are not shooting a very specific scene during hard lighting conditions and as long as you are not photographing before sunrise or after sunset, you should set your camera to „Aperture Priority“ (often marked with an A on the settings wheel). This means, that the camera is choosing the perfect exposure time automatically for you and this is totally fine, because in most of the cases it’s just important to capture all the light information within the scene without under- or overexposing the result. Learn more about that in How to get perfect exposures for every photo you take.

TL;DR: Use the A-Mode (Aperture Priority) of your camera to get a good exposure time and don’t set it manually if you don’t need to.

Exceptions: Sometimes you want longer exposures, for example when shooting flowing water. Instead of increasing the exposure time manually and risking overexposed images, you should use ND filters instead. Read more about that in my article This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers.

Finding the right Camera Settings for Landscape Photography

For this photo at Big Ben, London I used the following settings: 8 sec at f-11, ISO 100 with a focal length of 17mm. Because I wanted that typical passing bus lights, I just needed to show up at this spot at the right time, which was around blue hour. Because of the low light situation, the exposure time went automatically up to 8 seconds, which was needed anyway to capture the light trails.

F-Stop

The f-stop depends on your lens. For example I am using the Zeiss FE 16-35mm F4 lens. In this case the "F4" in the naming of the lens tells you, that this is the lowest value you can set the f-stop to with this specific lens. The lower this number is set to, the more light can pass through your lens onto the sensor. Using a low number allows a shorter exposure time, but also adds unsharpness (bokeh) to your photo, depending on the focal length. The higher the focal length and the lower your f-stop value is, the smaller your sharp area will be and the more bokeh you will have.

My advice: In landscape photography you usually want to capture everything as sharp as possible and I am not talking about moving objects here, but just about the actual focus within your scene. You will achieve the best results here if you have a look at the test results of lens testing websites and see where your lens has the sweet spot. This is the f-stop when the lens will result in the sharpest possible image quality, which varies quite a lot from lens to lens. In general you should choose a value between f-8 and f-11 here. This is usually the area where most of the lenses will result in a great quality, but you will also ensure to have everything in focus. Try different settings and play around with this value to understand the changes, because this is probably the most important setting you need to understand, because it changes the result in a way that can’t be fixed in post processing. If you exposed your photo too short and it’s too dark, it’s still easy to fix that with just a small or even none decrease in image quality, but you can’t regain the details from a blurry photo.
You might think that increasing the value even higher will result in even sharper photos, but after f-11 most of the lenses will decrease in sharpness due to something that is called lens diffraction.

TL;DR: Set your f-stop between f-8 and f-11 to get an overall sharp photo.

Exceptions: Sometimes you want to have a nice bokeh in your landscape photos, something that is essential for every portrait photographer. Another exception depends on the camera you are using, because especially full frame cameras and very wide angled photos often require a technique that is called focus stacking. This is the case, when the f-stop around f-11 is still not resulting in a photo that is sharp from the fore- to the background.

Finding the right Camera Settings for Landscape Photography

Just as the image above, this photo from Jubelpark, Brussels was taken with the same f-stop at f-11 and the same ISO, which was 100. The focal length was set to 33mm, the only difference was the exposure time of around 42 seconds, which isn't possible in A-mode, because most of the cameras will allow a max of 30 seconds. If that's not enough, you might want to switch to bulb in manual mode and control the exposure time with your remote control to a length that fits best for the current light situation. A great alternative could have been to set the f-stop to f-9, which would have been fine as well and which would require a shorter exposure time to get the same result.

Focal Length

The focal length is basically the zoom of your lens. The lower the value, the wider your angle of view will be. If you come back to my lens, the Zeiss FE 16-35mm F4, the naming already tells us that it has a focal length between 16 and 35mm, which is pretty wide, but something most of the landscape photographers will use as their standard. Beginner camera bundles usually have a 18-55mm lens, which is usually a decent one to get started. The actual zoom you can achieve with your lens is also depending on the sensor size of your camera, but lets keep it simple and stay with the following take home message.

TL;DR: The higher the value, the more zoomed in you are. Use whatever suits best for your specific scene and what looks best for you.

Exceptions: In general there is no universal advice and therefore no exception here for this setting, because it fully depends on the scene and the parts you want to include in your final photo.

Summary

As you saw, finding the correct settings for landscape photography is pretty simple, because you usually will use the lowest ISO and set the f-stop between f-8 and f-11. The exposure time gets calculated automatically and the only thing you want to change based on the scene is the focal length of your lens. This is of course a very simplified view on the basic technique, but that’s all you need in the beginning to get a good photo. This approach is already better than the automatic mode of your camera, which might crank up the ISO or will set the f-stop to a value that will result in a partially blurry photo.

The only thing that is definitely important for this basic setup is a good tripod and ideally a remote control, because when you are taking a photo that way you don’t need to care about your own movement and that you need a short exposure time to get sharp photos without any blur.

Let me know about your thoughts or questions in the comments below!

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Comments (6)

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Alona Azaria
Alona Azaria 01.07.2018
Excellent article Manuel, what a fantastic job you have done!!! I would however recommend to start right away with M mode and believe me, in a few weeks one will get used to it. The day I bought my DSLR 5 years ago, a good soul told me "set the camera on M mode, set on RAW, adjust your metering before taking the shot and look at the histogram". I am since forever indebted to him. It gets used to in the beginning, since you don't have the scene modes anymore. but I personally find that this is the only way that works for me - adjust right from the start :-)
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 02.07.2018
Hey dear Alona, great to hear from you, really appreciate your opinion! I fully agree on the M mode. As always there are multiple ways and since I also did quite a lot of different types of photography where you maybe don't have the time to set the exposure time manually, I thought it would be best to get familiar with this mode and using exposure compensation to control the brightness / histogram. In landscape photography I am using both modes, depending on how difficult the light situation is and how often I am switching my spot / the framing. I will think about adding your way as an alternative to the article though, because you are definitely right that everybody should be aware of this as well. Thank you again for adding your thoughts. Manuel
Alona Azaria
Alona Azaria 02.07.2018
With great pleasure Manuel, and the one does absolutely not contradict the other... this is another thing that novices will learn very soon in photography, that you may have diverse techniques and both are right, all depending what one wants to achieve in photography. I myself have yet A LOT to learn, each day and each photography session, and also to accept that opposing methods do not mean one is wrong and the other is right :-)
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 02.07.2018
Couldn't agree more and I guess we are all learning all the time. I am learning more about emotional and storytelling photography right now, because that's something that impressed me quite a lot in the last few months. Luckily there is always room to improve for anybody I guess and that's why I love conversations like this one, because we can improve together :-)
Edward
Edward 08.07.2018
Great article and interesting discussion from two really good photographers. I confess, I came late to fully manual. Until a trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, I’d always gone for semi-automatic. My photo tour guide kept suggesting I try manual and I did but it was so much slower than my old semi-automatic approach. I tried one shot using both and the difference was so marked, I decided, I would never use semi-automatic again unless absolutely necessary. Then I thought, I’d let the camera choose just the ISO; I would do the rest. Canon’s software engineers had been too cautious: the result was an ISO setting of 8000. I took over and manually got away with 2000, which should equate to a bit less noise. RAW vs JPG… again, the engineers who designed the camera are trying to do a reasonable job for every unknown situation. Doing my own translation into JPG is invariably much better. Again, I discovered this very late. To do a decent job of shooting so many places around the world, I want to go back and take RAWs. But that isn’t always possible; the world is changing fast and the original view no longer exists as it did when it caught my eye.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 08.07.2018
Hey Edward, thanks for joining the conversation and of course for the compliment! :) Setting the ISO is something I definitely nearly always want to do manually. Some cameras though have the option to set a range, which might be nice for a wedding or something where you need to be very fast. You said that the results were so much better, but what did the camera wrong? Most of the time I let the camera decide for the exposure time, but nearly always use the exposure compensation to make sure that I get everything if possible within one RAW. The only other thing I really like when I have the chance for a little longer exposures is, that I use bulb mode and take photos based on my gut feeling, because in this way I can exactly control the exact time I want to shoot. Using a fixed exposure time made it sometimes impossible to stop and start exposing again, which is often nice with waves in the water, so that you can exactly get that one moment when the wave looks perfect.

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