Best camera settings for hand-held landscapes

Setting up your camera before you start shooting can save you time, effort and maybe even using the wrong camera settings. In the first of a new series, we’ll be running through our essential guide to setting up your camera for 10 of the most common photographic subjects and situations.

With all of the camera settings available on your camera, thinking about every one every time you shoot isn’t the best approach to getting great images. If only there were a shortcut to setting up your DSLR for any subject. Well, there is – as long as you know what type of subject you will be shooting, we can help!

There are lots of things that you can pre-set so you don’t have to worry about them when you start shooting. This will give you more time to focus on the camera settings you will need to change on the day, and will ultimately result in more successful images.

Setting up your camera in advance will enable you to think about the more creative decisions involved in taking a picture, such as photo composition, rather than which exposure mode to choose.

This week we take a look at the best camera settings for hand-held landscapes…

While you might think you have plenty of time to change the settings on your camera when shooting landscape photography, it can still be a good habit to have it pre-set to help you concentrate on the really important things when you’re on location.

Things you can pre-set

The settings you use for shooting landscapes handheld are different to those that you would use when using a tripod. The main thing you need to consider is the shutter speed dropping too low, as this increases the risk of camera shake.

That said, although the shutter speed is a concern, it’s still best to set your camera to aperture-priority mode, as the aim in most landscapes is to keep the whole scene sharp.

If you’re shooting hand-held, you will need to set an aperture like f/8 or f/11, which is a good compromise between getting enough depth of field to keep the scene sharp from front to back, while still being able to set a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld.

You can increase the ISO to enable faster shutter speeds, but with landscapes, where detail is everything, it’s best to keep the ISO as low as possible to maximise image quality, and to avoid unwanted noise, or banding in large areas of smooth tones, such as skies.

Setting the ISO to 200 will enable you to shoot hand-held in most daylight conditions. If your lens has a vibration reduction (VR) feature, it’s worth turning this one when hand-holding, too.

For most hand-held landscape shots you can set the focus mode to single-servo 
(AF-S), and the focus area to single point, as your subject will be static. Set your camera’s drive mode to single shot too.

Finally, you’ll get more consistent colours by selecting daylight white balance rather than the automatic setting.

Settings to change on the day

No matter how much you prepare your camera in advance, the light on a landscape can never be predicted, so you may need to adjust the exposure set by the camera.

In aperture-priority mode you can do this by pressing the exposure compensation button, and using the rear dial to increase or reduce the exposure (in other words, to lighten or darken your image).

In aperture-priority mode the aperture (in this case f/8 or 11) will stay unchanged, but the shutter speed will change, increasing to let in less light and so darken the exposure, or decreasing to let in more light and brighten up the exposure.

When it comes to keeping the whole scene sharp, you’ll need to move the AF point to an area of the scene that is around a third of the way between the closest subject you want sharp and the most distant one.

Take a test shot and check the sharpness by zooming in on the image on the LCD. If the subjects in the far distance aren’t sharp you may need greater depth of field than is available at f/8.

Try setting the aperture to f/13 or even f/16, but do remember to keep an eye on the shutter speed. If this drops below 1/30 sec when using, say, an 18mm lens on a crop-sensor camera (28mm on full-frame), you may need to raise the ISO to enable you to use a faster shutter speed to prevent camera shake.

If your lens has Vibration Reduction, you might get away with 1/15 sec or even 1/8, but if you go this slow, steady yourself as much as possible, and take a test shot to check sharpness.

Camera settings checklist for landscapes

File format 

RAW

Exposure mode
Aperture-priority

Aperture
f/8

ISO
200

Shutter speed 

Set by camera

Focus mode 

Single-servo

Drive mode
Single shot

White balance
Daylight

Avoiding camera shake

Even when using shutter speeds faster than 1/30 sec, camera shake can still affect your shots. Try shooting from a kneeling position to help to stabilise your camera, or if you are standing, look for a solid object such as a tree, wall or rock to lean against to steady yourself.