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Best Camera Settings for Landscape Photography

It’s no wonder that landscape photography is so popular…

For starters, it’s an accessible given that we’re surrounded by landscapes big and small that we can photograph.

It also doesn’t really require any special gear – you can take high-quality landscape photos with nothing more than your smartphone.

And compared to other types of photography, landscapes are relatively “easy” to master. By that I mean a stone cold beginning photographer will likely have an easier time learning landscape photography than, say, portrait photography.

Having said that, it’s not as simple as pointing your camera at something pretty and pressing the shutter button.

I’ve put together a few suggestions to help you get better landscape photos. Follow along and see what you can do to take your landscapes to the next level.

Getting an ideal shot of a sunrise or sunset is probably one of the most complicated landscape photography tasks.

Not only do you have to consider how to capture the gorgeous colors of the moment, but you also have very challenging lighting conditions to consider. That is, the sky is very bright and the landscape is very dark.

The first issue – getting all that great color to pop – is the simpler of the two tasks.

Mastering White Balance

Your camera has various white balance settings, including auto white balance (AWB). When set to AWB, the camera essentially makes its best guess about how the colors should look.

In many situations, this works out okay. But when photographing a sunrise or sunset, AWB does a poor job of rendering the colors because its job is to remove color casts. That means that AWB actually minimizes the colors of the sunrise or sunset – that’s not what you want!

The daylight white balance preset has a very subtle warming effect. Since sunrises and sunsets are usually dominated by warmer tones, this will enhance those tones ever so slightly.

If your camera doesn’t have a daylight preset, you can also use the shade or cloudy presets. Each has a more significant warming effect than the daylight setting and will accentuate the warm tones present in the sunrise or sunset.

See how these changes to white balance impact a landscape photo in the video above from Professional Photography Tips.

Overcoming Dynamic Range

The larger problem when shooting sunrise and sunset photos is that there is an incredible dynamic range – the range of light values in the image.

As noted earlier, the sky is quite bright at sunrise or sunset, but the landscape is very dark. Often the difference between these areas of brightness and shadow is too much for the camera to handle.

The result is usually an image that’s well-exposed for the sky, but with a dark landscape (as seen above), or an image that’s well-exposed for the landscape with a very overexposed sky.

There are a couple of ways to handle this situation:

  • Get a meter reading off the brightest area of the foreground landscape and shoot in RAW. This results in a photo that’s close enough to a sky and foreground that’s well-exposed that you can recover any lost details when you process the image.
  • Use a reverse neutral density filter to even out the dynamic range. These filters have very little filtering power on the bottom so that the landscape is brightened up. At the top is more filtering power to bring down the brightness of the sky. And in the middle is the strongest filtering power, because at sunrise and sunset, the brightest area of the photo is at the horizon.

Suggested Camera Settings

Every sunrise and sunset is different, so there will be a bit of trial and error when it comes to dialing in the settings that get you the best result. It will also take a lot of practice over the years to perfect your approach.

However, by dialing in the settings outlined below, you at least have a starting point from which to experiment each time you go out to shoot:

  • Exposure mode: Manual
  • Drive mode: Single shot
  • Aperture: f/11
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: Varies
  • White balance: Daylight, shade, or cloudy

Indicating Motion

There are instances in landscape photography when using a long exposure to show motion enhances the impact of the shot.

Blurring the motion of a waterfall or river comes to mind, as does blurring the movement of clouds or stars, as seen in the image above.

The most important camera setting when capturing motion is shutter speed.

As a result, shutter speed should be the first exposure setting that you select. Then choose an aperture and ISO value to get a well-exposed shot.

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