Do Camera Settings Actually Matter in Landscape Photography?

As a photographer with a decent following on both YouTube and Instagram, you start to see certain patterns in the comments and direct messages. One question I see repeatedly is about camera settings. “What is the EXIF data of X or Y photo?”. I always wonder why people want that information.

I have no issues with sharing the EXIF data of a photo for several reasons. Firstly, I am not trying to hide anything. Secondly, you cannot copy my photo by copying my EXIF data. Thirdly, if you are an experienced photographer, the EXIF data tells you more about the conditions I was photographing in, than how I actually got the photo. Fourth, the EXIF data does not tell you why I decided to photograph a certain scene. For these reasons, the EXIF data is next to worthless for beginners.

In my latest video, I share my approach to camera settings in landscape photography and I can spoil the ending right now by saying that settings do not really matter as much as you might think they do. It all comes down to the individual scene, what you want to photograph, how you want to photograph it, if you use a tripod, and the amount of available light.

The classic “best” camera settings for full frame landscape photography is an aperture between f/8 and f/11 to get the photos as sharp as possible. However, most lenses are plenty sharp from f/5.6 all the way through to f/16, where after they start to lose sharpness due to diffraction. The ISO should also be kept as low as possible to get as clean a photo as possible, but many modern cameras can handle ISO values up to ISO1600. The shutter speed only matters if there is some kind of movement in your scene.

1/50 | f/9 | ISO100 | 16mm

In this first example, the camera settings are optimized to the above statement but I could have used almost any combination to get the photo. All you need is an aperture above f/5.6 as to have the foreground grass in focus (if you so desire). Aperture and shutter speed could be anything, and you, of course, want the ISO to be as low as possible to get a clean photo.

1.6 | f/2.8 | ISO100 | 24mm x3

When I got the above photo, which is a panorama of three photos, I was standing on a 2-meter tall, slippery rock with big waves coming straight at me and sporadic rain being blown around by the wind. It was rather hard conditions to photograph. I had attached a 10-stop filter to get some nice ethereal long exposures and at one point, I decided to go for a shorter long exposure to catch the streaks in the waves. In a combination of practicality and inexperience I decided against removing the 10-stop filter, and just photograph at f/2.8 instead as to get a faster shutter speed.

It lacks a little sharpness because of the wide-open aperture, but everything is in focus and the photo works. It goes to show I could have used any aperture to get this photo and just used different filters to get the desired shutter speed.

1/10 | f/20 | ISO100 | 12mm x4

Aperture matters if you have a relatively deep depth of field in your photo. In the above photo, I had to focus stack the image to get everything in focus. When you focus stack you generally might as well use the sharpest part of your lens, so why did I use f/20? Because I did not want to fiddle around with the camera too much. This was to lessen the risk of breaking the very thin sheet of ice the tripod was resting on. Shooting at f/20, I compromised the sharpness a bit, but I needed fewer photos to get the entire scene in focus and thereby lessened the risk of destroying the scene. Yes, the aperture mattered, but not in the way, you would initially think and because of the lack of movement in the scene, the shutter speed did not matter.

The two last photos are great examples of showing how little you can deduce from EXIF data and how they might even end up confusing you. All three photos are also great examples to show how rarely you need exact settings for landscape photography. As long as the parts you want to show are in focus and the photo is sharp enough for whatever you want to accomplish with it you are fine. In the video above, I share my philosophy regarding settings and I share many different photos where I had to deviate from the “best” landscape photography settings because the scene demanded it.

Check out the video, and let me know your relation concerning settings.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Danish Fine Art Landscape Photographer and YouTuber. He is taking photos all over the world but the main focus is the cold, rough, northern part of Europe. His style is somewhere in between dramatic and colorful fantasy and Scandinavian minimalism. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel for epic landscape photography videos from around the world.

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I would guess that wanting the settings just gives them a detailed example of how to, or how not to, take a similar photo.

You forgot the part where the photographer also states what camera and lens they used.

My bad ;)

That is not necessarily a bad thing. On some sites the EXIF data is not accessible.

It all depends what you are after. But yes there is a myth in general, that a landscape photo has to be pin sharp from corner to corner. f8-f16.
Typically I don’t want that and when you’re out and about focus more on what you want to express and don’t care so much about camera settings, it should just come natural by experimenting. And sure, when you find that epic foreground and background on the hike, pull out your tripod and spend the extra time. But 1.4-5.6 can also create unique images where u can blur out the foreground to lead the eyes to the main subject. Alex Strohl is a great example here.
There is definitely not a right and wrong here but for people who just started shooting travel and landscape photos. This is probably the first thing I would tell them.

Yeah, tell them that f/8-16 is probably what works the best in most examples, but it utterly depends on the scene. What I was taught was f/8, end of discussion.

That last photo at f20, spreadsheet photographers will be crying at the sight lol.

Awesome shots Mads, enjoy seeing your work.

I know, I can just hear their heads explode ;)

I liked this piece, I have had the same situations throughout the years where I used a less desirable settings for an specific photo due to necessity or lack of experience but the photos turned out fine nevertheless.

Happy to hear that, Celso :)

Let the scene dictate the settings :)

Settings are overrated 😊

Good stuff Mads! I get these questions quite often as well. I always tell people that the EXIF is one thing, but the post-process is what created the photo in the last end :-)

You are exactly right 👍🏼 That made me write a blog article a few months ago about how little I care for exifs

Thank you. Couldn't agree more. The real truth beyond camera settings is, every photo has a story. We'd all benefit more from those stories vice just camera/lens brand and settings.

I think you're right, but it all adds to the story.

Thinking process behind the shot is important than the settings.

Not really. It's like a recipe that tells you to bake at 375º without the ingredients. All of it contributed to the outcome. It all matters!

I appreciate your article’s goal to get photographers to think more about creative control, experimentation and adapting the camera to the conditions rather than hard fast settings. Those of us that practice photography often recognize the wisdom and satisfaction of this approach. What I find interesting though is how even you reverted to tried and true landscape settings as part of the discussion. The answer is that a firm understanding of the settings and their proven effect on successful photos is equally as important as the decision making that goes into when, where and how we apply them. I remember having a hard time with sunbursts until someone recommended small apertures. No matter how I approached the situation without that key setting suggestion which later created a deeper understanding of its principles my results would be unsatisfying. So I encourage folks to look at their favorite photos’ or photographer’s settings, try to emulate them, and then discover either through negative or positive reinforcement what worked and why it did or did not. That is part of how we’re learn. But be mindful of this author’s lesson also; the landscape like a block of marble is telling you what it or you wants it to be; your job is to remove all the unnecessary stuff so that the story comes out.

Advice for smartphone users.

get out with your phone and take photos

OK, I'll bite. The answer to the article title is clearly "Yes". Settings do matter, as demonstrated in the article when the author explains why he used the settings he did and the reasons for that.

Having said that, the *precise* settings don't matter as much as people think. Worrying about f8 vs f6.7 is a waste of time. I prefer to think in terms of 'lots of DOF' vs 'not much'.

For shutter speeds, the setting can be critical. Relating the most appropriate shutter speed to the subject's movement and how you want that to appear is very important, and in this case the difference between 1/4 and 1/8 is a lot.

But as the great AA said, "nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept".

I'll rephrase the title : "Settings matter less than you think" :-)

And yet there are still FB groups where they will not post the photo or complain about missing exif :D
Having said that, shot, point on article

I´m always interested in knowing the settings used when looking at photos, in the interest of learning something, although would never ask anyone for it... too discreet for that.

Experienced photographers like us really don't care. We can probably figure it out on our own even without the EXIF. And if not we can ask a specific question. People who ask those questions are either newbies or people who are more tied up in the gear then they are the image. Give the former a little slack and pay no attention to the latter.

More data is nearly always better than less data.