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.