For over 30 years I tried different camera settings for my landscape photography. With the settings I use today, not only do I feel more flexible, but they allow me to technically nail each of my photos.
In my latest YouTube video, I answered one of the questions I often get asked: what camera mode and what settings should I use when I’m outdoors shooting a fantastic landscape? Let me give you more information here on how I arrived at the settings I tried in the past and how I work today.
Have eyes for the stage
When I was 12, my father allowed me to use the family camera to take pictures of the beautiful architecture of Venice. It was one of the best days of my life and it was the start of a great passion. At the time, I had no idea of photography, but I fell in love with it from the first moment. My dad just told me to use “P mode” on his Minolta SLR, which was the automatic mode. He said I should just think of the beautiful scenes around me and forget about all the buttons and settings the camera would offer. I didn’t understand this advice at the time, but today I know that it is indeed a fantastic way to get into photography. It’s not hard to use a camera to get familiar with all the different settings. Of course, it is important to know how to use your camera, but first of all, you have to tackle what you want to photograph. That’s why I think it’s not the worst idea to start with P mode. The camera measures the light, and based on that it chooses an appropriate aperture and shutter speed and possibly a ISO sensitivity. This makes it easier for beginners to take handheld shots in low light situations.
Lord of your camera
As I lived in a place surrounded by mountains, I learned to love nature through many hikes. We tend to photograph what we love, and so it was no coincidence that I immediately came across landscape photography. I was still using “P mode” at first, because I wanted to engage with nature and work on compositions and not think about technical settings.
But I encountered some problems. One of them was that I didn’t know what to change on my focus to get a sharp image. In the end, I shot a whole film with different focus points, just to know how important where I was focusing was. It was an expensive project, especially because I had to repeat it several times, because the camera seemed to have its own behavior. P mode just didn’t let me control the depth of field.
As my grandfather was a painter and art teacher, I practiced composition from an early age. But there was no photography club in the village where I lived. One of my classmates was also a photographer, and he was lucky enough to have a camera around him. My friend seemed to know everything about cameras and settings. And so, we mutually took each other’s photography to the next level. My classmate told me to forget P mode and use M mode instead. I learned to master depth of field by using the right aperture and started playing around with different shutter speeds to achieve motion blur in my images, at least as much as my pocket money would allow.
The biggest variable in landscape photography
I was quite happy with using M mode as it allowed me to have one hundred percent control over my camera. For years I was convinced that this would be the only exposure mode a professional photographer would use as well. Who needs modes with automation when they can handle all the settings?
Now, depth of field wasn’t the only issue I faced during my early years of landscape photography. I struggled tremendously with getting the right exposure when shooting towards the light. I was a child of the 70s: my father told me to always shoot with the sun on your back and I would never have a problem with underexposed images. It actually worked, but the dilemma was that the scenery was so much better the other way around.
I learned that the only way it worked was to meter the light, and based on that I decided on the right aperture and shutter speed. Light is the biggest variable we have in landscape photography. However, around sunrise or sunset, the amount of light changes so rapidly that there is not rarely a difference of a full stop in just a few seconds.
The best mode of exposure
This got me thinking about other exposure modes for my camera. S mode, known as shutter priority mode, is useful if shutter speed is the most important stylistic instrument for my photo. This can be very useful in sports photography, for example. But it’s useless for most situations in landscape photography, in my experience.
In landscape photography, the aperture has always been the most important stylistic instrument for me, because it allows me to clearly identify the depth of field. In most cases, we generally want the whole scene to look sharp.
That’s why I finally thought of mode A, which is aperture priority. With this I can set the aperture of my scene and control the depth of field. Each time the light changes, the camera goes for a longer or shorter shutter speed. And I have to say that using this mode helped me a lot in nailing most of my images, at least on the technical side. I just had to use exposure compensation to adjust the amount of light hitting the film, and today it’s even simpler: digital photography allows me to use ISO as a configurable component for each exposure. So whenever I need a shorter shutter speed, but can’t open the aperture any further, I just choose a higher ISO. If I need a longer shutter speed, I use a neutral density filter and again compensate the shutter speed with the ISO. I can’t remember when I messed up a photo with the wrong settings.
How I work today
This is why aperture priority is my preferred exposure mode. I’ve still been using the manual mode for waterfall photography for a few years, since shutter speed is basic, and I usually prefer overcast or rainy weather there. But in weather like this, the amount of light always changes a bit. My Sony a7R IV supports a zebra feature, which shows me if there are parts of my composition that are overexposed. But to be honest, it was never noticeable enough for me, and sometimes there are only small areas that are overexposed.
Generally, I must say that there is no right or wrong. Other modes will lead to fantastic photographs. I know many good photographers who use the manual mode. I prefer aperture priority for the reasons mentioned. Leave me a comment below on which mode you prefer for your landscape photography. To learn more about my camera settings, feel free to watch the video above.