Camera Settings – Landscape Photography

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

There have been more than a few days when I’ve wondered if I travel to do photography or if the camera is just an excuse to get outside amidst inspiring landscapes. Actually, there is no wondering about it. It’s the latter. I have a deep, soulful connection to nature. Truth be told, if faced with the choice of spending my remaining years alone in a magnificent wilderness or amongst the beehive of activity in a major city, I might choose the wild.

It should come as no surprise, then, that landscape imaging is my first love in photographry. Since a move from the Midwest to northern Arizona nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been blessed to have ready access to some of the most dramatic and iconic landscapes of the American West. Grand Canyon, Monument Valley,  Arches, Canyonlands – these are nature’s cathedrals. These are the places where I hone my craft and renew a spiritual connection with the world.

This blog continues the series in which I share the camera settings I use for specific genres of photography. Today’s genre is landscapes and these are the settings:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture:  f/13 to f/22
  • ISO: 100 to 200
  • Image Format: RAW
  • Focus: Back Button or Live View
  • Shutter Release: Timed with a 5-second delay
  • Essential Gear: Tripod
Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Great light is the first element of a great landscape. While it is absolutely possible to make a fantastic landscape exposure in midday light, the golden hour times of sunrise and sunset are the most prized. The soft earthy glow adds a dramatic feel and reveals the inner beauty of a place. Weather, is the second key element. Clouds, rain and lightning put passion on display. Snow reveals the essence of a place and hints at possibilities to come.

A common theme connecting the above, is the relatively low light levels one encounters when shooting under such conditions. Unlike other genres (e.g. sports, wildlife and portraiture), short exposures and shallow depths of field are not necessarily desirable when shooting landscapes. More typically, you want great depth of field. Also, since your subject is mostly static, exposure times can be longer without compromising image sharpness.

An f/13 to f/22 aperture will deliver an in-focus, sharp image through the fore-, mid- and backgrounds. (APS-C bodies can achieve the same at f/9 to f/16.) With depth of field being so critical to achieving the desired result, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode and dial in an aperture – more accurately, a focal ratio – of f/13. Depending on the lighting and composition, I’ll go as large (in focal ratio) as f/22 or more.

Of course, I always shoot in RAW to allow as much latitude as possible during processing.

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

To maximize image quality and minimize noise, I typically use the base ISO of the camera body. In the case of the Nikon D610, the base ISO is 100. This combination of low light, small aperture and low ISO forces the camera to use relatively slow shutter speeds to make a properly exposed image. When shooting just before sunrise or shortly after sunset, an exposure of 1-second or longer may be needed.

Long exposures demand a solid, stable platform to ensure good sharpness in the resulting image. This makes a tripod essential gear for the landscape photographer. I use a Benro model tripod. It is designed to be lightweight and portable, while still providing good stability. It is not as rock solid as other beefier designs, which means I’m always in need of a sheltered location when doing photography in a strong wind.

A technique I use to minimize vibration, is setting a 5-second delay on the shutter release. This allows any vibration introduced when I push the shutter release to dampen before the exposure begins. I also use either back button focus or contrast detection focus in Live View to help ensure best focus. Contrast detection, while slower, is sometimes a bit more accurate than phase detection. Moving focus control off the shutter release button minimizes the risk of a last second focus change when an exposure is made.

Using these settings, allows me to take full advantage of the spectacular landscapes populating the Desert  Southwest. If you are a landscape enthusiast, I hope you find they help your results, as well.

So, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | April 2015

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