What is the Best Camera Mode for Landscape Photography?

For more than 30 years, I tried different camera settings for my landscape photography. With the settings I use today, I don’t only feel more flexible, but they allow me to nail each of my photographs technically.
In my latest YouTube video, I answered one of the questions I get asked a lot of the time: which camera mode and which settings do I use when I am out on location, photographing a fantastic landscape scene? Let me give you more insights here about how I came to the settings I have tried in the past and how I work today.

Having Eyes for the Scene

When I was 12 years young, my dad allowed me to use the family camera to take some photographs of the beautiful architecture in Venice. This was one of the best days I ever had in my life, and it was the start of a big passion. Back then, I had no idea about photography, but I fell in love with it from the first moment. My dad just told me to use the “P mode” on his Minolta SLR, which was the automatic mode. He said I should just think about the nice scenes around me and forget about all the buttons and settings the camera would offer. I didn’t understand that advice back then, but today, I know that it is indeed a fantastic way to get into photography. It is not difficult to use a camera to learn about all the different settings. Of course, it is important to know how to use your camera, but first of all, we should engage with what we want to photograph. This is why I think that it is not the worst idea to start with the P mode. The camera measures the light, and depending on that, it chooses a suitable aperture and shutter speed and possibly an ISO. This makes it easier for beginners to shoot in low-light situations freehand.

Lord of Your Camera

As I lived in a place surrounded by mountains, I learned to love nature through a lot of hiking tours. We tend to photograph what we love, and so, it was not random that I stumbled immediately into landscape photography. I still used the “P mode” in the beginning, as I wanted to engage with nature and work on compositions and not think about technical settings.

But I faced some problems.One of them was that I didn’t know what to change on my focusing to get the entire image sharp. It ended up that I shot a whole roll of film with different focus points, just to find out how it matters where I focused. This was an expensive project, especially because I had to repeat it multiple times, as the camera seemed to have its own behavior. The P mode simply didn't give me control over the depth of field.

As my grandfather was a painter and professor of art, I engaged with composition since I was a little boy. But there was no photography club in the village in which I lived. One of my classmates was also a photographer, and he was lucky to have a camera around him. My friend seemed to know everything about cameras and settings. And so, we brought each other’s photography mutually to the next level. My classmate told me to forget the P mode and to use the M mode instead. I learned how to master depth of field by using the right aperture, and I started to play around with different shutter speeds to get motion blur into my images, at least as much as my pocket money allowed me.

The Biggest Variable in Landscape Photography

I was quite happy with using the 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 are able to handle all the settings?

Now, the depth of field was not the only problem I faced in my first years of landscape photography. I massively struggled with getting the right exposure when I was photographing towards the light. I was a child of the 70s: my dad told me always to photograph with the sun on my back and I would never have trouble with underexposed images. This worked indeed, but the dilemma was that the landscape looked so much better in the other direction.

I learned that the only way it works was to measure the light, and based on that, I decided on the right aperture and shutter speed. The 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 seldom a difference of a whole stop within just a few seconds.

The Best Exposure Mode

This brought me to think about the other exposure modes on my camera. The S mode, which is known as the shutter priority mode, is useful if the shutter speed is the most important stylistic instrument for my photo. This can be quite useful in sports photography, for instance. But it is useless for most situations in landscape photography, in my experience.

In landscape photography, the aperture was always the most important stylistic instrument for me, because it allows me to nail the depth of field. In most cases, we usually want to get the entire scene sharp. 

This is why I finally thought about the A mode, which is aperture priority. With that, I can define the aperture for my scene and have control over the depth of field. Whenever the light changes, the camera goes for a longer or shorter shutter speed. And I have to say, using this mode helped me a lot to nail most of my images, at least from the technical side. I just had to use exposure compensation for adjusting the amount of light that hit the film, and today, it is even easier: digital photography allows me to use the ISO as a configurable component for every single exposure. So, whenever I need a shorter shutter speed, but I can’t open the aperture more, I simply choose a higher ISO. If I need a longer shutter speed, I use a neutral density filter and compensate for the shutter speed with the ISO again. I can’t remember when I ruined a photograph with the wrong settings.

How I Work Today

This is why aperture priority is my preferred exposure mode. I have still used manual mode for waterfall photography for some years, as shutter speed is elementary, and I usually prefer overcast or rainy weather there. But in weather like that, the amount of light always changes a bit. My Sony a7R IV supports a zebra function, which shows me if there are parts in my composition that are overexposed. But to be honest, this was never conspicuous enough for me, and sometimes, there are just small areas that get overexposed.

Generally, I have to say that there is no right or wrong. Other modes will lead to fantastic photographs. I know a lot of good photographers who use manual mode. I prefer aperture priority because of the mentioned reasons. 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.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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There are only 2 auto modes I use for landscape photography.....Aperture preferred or fully manual. And that's all folks.

I agree completely. I use aperture priority mode 90% percent of the time, followed by manual mode for the remaining 10%. Unless I'm going for a certain look or shooting in tricky conditions, the camera usually does a great job at determining the correct shutter speed for the job. Everything else can be either corrected or improved in post editing.

As another child of the 70s (and early 80s) and remember getting similar advice from my dad, "always keep the sun behind your left shoulder". Not bad advice to keep it behind you, but I could never to this day understand the left shoulder stipulation - maybe shadows going towards the right are more appealing?

Similarly, my first proper camera was a Minolta Dynax 7000i that my parents bought for me. I also kept it on P mode most of the time or used one of the feature cards - a forerunner to things like 'sports' or 'portrait' shooting modes on today's cameras. It wasn't until many years later using digital did I start to really understand the technical aspects of photography. I still don't get it right all of the time. I still had that Minolta until a couple of years ago. It was only recently that I discovered how awful the kit lens was. Seriously, it was regarded as one of the worst lenses Minolta ever produced. No wonder my old negatives look so soft!

Greg Edwards Supposed you used your right eye for taking the picture with an SLR, keeping the sun behind your left shoulder would minimize the chance of sunlight entering your viewfinder and influencing your exposure meter.

I have always thought "Get Out and Shoot" mode was the best.

Another "best settings for <insert broad situation>" tutorial. Maybe it is better to explain all the modes, and when to compensate when the light meter won't give you what you want. If you use exposure compensation with aperture and shutter priority, you are essentially shooting in manual mode where the camera gets you in the ballpark quickly, and you fine tune the other setting via EC. Also learn about light. As alluded to in the post, know when to compensate for backlight or any other light.

There are too many "best setting for" tutorials that fail, because they can't cover all the possible situations you might come up against. They also don't address situations, for artistic reasons, when you don't won't a technically "proper" setting. For instance you can photograph waterfalls with slow or fast shutter speed. Neither is "correct." Depends on how you want to portray the waterfall. In some situations, compensating for backlight is not the "right" thing to do all the time. Maybe a silhouette makes for a more artistically intriguing image. Just learn all the modes and how to use them to achieve "your vision."

I use Manual, with an emphasis on Aperture, get it close, geeesh, it's in raw.

I think the easiest way to have an article published in media like this is to talk - endlessly - about "the right way to..." (insert subject here - and exposure is always a winner) And whatever your preference is - Manual, Shutter/Aperture Priority - whatever position you take, there'll always be an expert that'll disagree with you.

Being older than dirt, and having learned photography back in the Dark(room) Ages, I adopted that old Ansel Adams maxim of "Begin with the end in mind." Consider this - if you only have 1 sheet/frame/ space on your memory card left, and knew you couldn't "fix it in Photoshop," how would approach that shot. Yeah, I'm one of those "get it right in camera" guys, and I don't spend hours in post production/editing trying to fix a mistake. Which means I'm shooting in manual.

I've shot weddings, children's portraits, pets, landscapes, etc in that mode for decades. And in digital mode since I took my studios into the 21st Century in 2002. Always right on the money. And now that I'm semi-retired, I've returned to my first love - landscapes. It gets me out of the house, and I get to explore strange new places.

Learn to see light, learn your craft and then enjoy your art.

I also am mainly a "A" shooter! BUT the Auto mode " that you paid for as part of the cost of the camera", you get both raw and jpeg out of it. On a Sony there are two auto modes that cover everything from night to bright and portrait night with added flash. Oh! And the settings that only affect jpegs that are hard to get the same results in raw post processing. There are some good instruction books that are never covered on YouTube that are must reads. Brian Smith in 2014/2015 wrote some great books that cover some things no one ever thinks about that can be done with the Sony cameras when they first came out. Sony A7 / A7R: From Snapshots to Great Shots, Sony a7 Series: From Snapshots to Great Shots. Another is on the older A7's upto 7ii is the on camera apps, it makes them kinda valuable if you get your hands on one, one app is the filter app that processes in camera and allows you to change things before sending to an SD card no need to carry big filter glass everywhere. And for panos did you know there is a selection on the dail for that! One thing not mentioned is bracketing, called HDR (still ugly name) but whether or not using 3 @ +/- 2 ev or a sunrise/set 5 @ +/- 2ev or for a focused moon with a bright foreground 5 @ +/- 3ev. the main thing is you get so many more captures to use if your original settings are not good. 1st using filter app, 2nd bracketed 5 @ +/- 2 ev, 3rd Bracketed without tripod 3 @ +/- 2ev, 4th using filter app. A mod i or ii is good to have.