Top 10 Steps Workflow & Camera Setting For Best Landscape Photos

  • Focus: Most of the time I compose an image and change the focus point in the camera, instead of focusing first and re-composing the image.  (The former method is much more precise than the latter particularly if you shoot in shallow depth of field or your f stop is smaller).  I typically focus on the foreground, roughly 1/3 of the way between the closest subject I want to be in focus and infinity.
  • Take test shot with basic settings.  Use Aperture Priority, ISO100, set aperture at least at f/8 or smaller (I typically set between f/11-20).  I also turn on the 2 second delayed shutter in order to avoid camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button.
  • Check histogram: After the first test shot, I always check on the camera histogram to see whether the photo is exposed correctly.  For example, if most of the curve chart is located on the left side of histogram, I double or sometimes triple the exposure time.   If most of the curve chart is located on the right side of histogram, I reduce the shutter speed accordingly.  Adjust exposure compensation to increase/decrease exposure.  There are a number of different ways to adjust exposure but this is the quickest when using a tripod.  Take the 2nd or 3rd test shot and check on histogram, until the image is exposed correctly.  Note, if most of your image is exposed correctly, but your sky is completely washed out, that means you select the suboptimal time to take landscape photos, or your composition is simply, bad.
  • Use additional equipment to further improve exposure: Make sure to choose the right equipment.  For example:
    • Before sunset (and sometimes also right after sunset), the sky typically is too bright, I would install a graduated ND filter to cover the sky.
    • After sunset when the light darkens further (typically at least 15 minutes after sunset), till a point a longer than 30 second shutter speed is needed, I will have to use a shutter release cable (or intervalometer) and use Bulb mode on the camera.  I normally install shutter release on the camera at the very beginning instead of waiting till now to do it, because color and light change very fast at this moment.  You might miss some shots if you fumble around your bag and install equipment right now
  • Get ideal shutter speed: Depending on the subjects, I’ll adjust the aperture and / or ISO to achieve the ideal shutter speed, even the above steps already give me the perfect exposure.
    • For example seascape or waterfalls require a bit slower shutter than a mountain shot.  So I need to decrease the aperture (ie. increase f stop) to lengthen the exposure time
    • At some other occasions, for example photographing night scenes, I would increase ISO in order to shorten the exposure time, provided the long exposure effect is not compromised.  For instance, photographing light trail of cars could take 30 seconds or 3 minutes (depending on how heavy the traffic is).  I can choose a higher ISO for faster shutter speed for heavy traffic in order to save time
    • Sometimes getting the right shutter speed involves remixing the following: aperture, ISO, exposure compensation.  You need to have a solid understanding how each of these adjustment affect on your image.  During the time when colors/light change fast, you want to adjust fast instead of fumbling around.  This of course requires practice
    • In case I use 10-stop filter (typically for long exposure for seascape), I need to calculate the right shutter speed.  I use an iPhone app called ND Timer for shutter speed reference when I use 10-stop filter.  In fact, I calculate myself many times – my math is pretty good.
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