I’ve been exploring how developing your landscape photography can be good for you in terms of all genres of photography – you can improve your understanding of light, composition and so much more. In this post I will dive into some nitty-gritty technical stuff, namely how to make your choices regarding aperture, shutter speed and ISO when photographing landscapes.
Why start with ISO? Because landscape photography is about getting the highest image quality possible, and this usually means getting your ISO as low as possible, preferably in the ISO-100 range. There are, of course, exceptions and I don’t hesitate to bump up the ISO if it means I can nail the shot. Herewith a few examples of when to increase your ISO above the 200 mark.
– When photographing at night: this is a bit of an obvious one – but if you are planning to capture any detail in the stars you will struggle at ISO 100 even if you trip the shutter for a very, very long exposure. Even for startrails when you do use long exposures, you often end up going for the ISO-400 range to maximise the variables in the exposure triangle. When you are photographing the Milky Way, even going as high as 2500, 3200 or 6400 is the norm (combined with the correct aperture and shutter speed settings, of course).
– When shooting handheld in low light: this might seem like an unlikely situation for a landscape photographer to be in, but I’ve now had 2 such situations in one month (December 2014). This first one was quite understandable – I was photographing a massive storm moving over the dunes of the Kalahari, and the wind was so strong that the tripod couldn’t remain still enough, so I opted to bump the ISO and shoot handheld in order to capture what I was seeing. The second situation is more of a noob error – I misplaced my tripod camera foot (the attachment that screws into the bottom of your DSLR and is then used to clamp the camera to the ballhead on the tripod), and I had to make due for 4 days on a camping trip in the mountains without it.
The common perception in landscape photography is that you need as “deep” depth-of-field as you can achieve, in other words, as high an aperture number as your lens allows. This is a bit of a misnomer, as it will depend on the lens you use and the effect you want to achieve. In general, it is understood that landscape photographers more often than not want the entire scene in focus (also known as the lens’ hyperfocal distance, be sure to know this term). Be that as it may, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to roll your aperture dial all the way to f22 or f32. Factors that will determine your aperture choice could be the following:
– The focal length you are using: wider focal lengths will achieve hyperfocal distance at shorter focusing distances and smaller apertures. At 14mm to 30mm f8 is quite often enough, whereas at 35mm or more, you’ll probably need f11 to f16. Remember that you can plot/calculate potential focusing distances for specific shooting combinations/scenarios using the free online DOF calculator.
– The time of day you are photographing in: daytime photography provides more light (obviously) and you can push the aperture higher into the f16-f22 range often without having to sacrifice ISO. For nighttime photography you typically need to stay at the wide end of your aperture range and therefore you need to determine your focusing distance carefully (think f4 or 5.6 for startrails and f2.8 or even lower for “starscapes”).
– Diffraction of your lens: not a one-sentence topic, but a quick overview with examples is found here – suffice to say that the higher your aperture, the more diffraction comes into play and this means reduction in critical sharpness! For this reason f11 is probably a better option than f16/f22 from a sharpness vs DOF point of view.
– The need for a starburst effect: shooting into the sun has its advantages and disadvantages for the landscape photographer – one of the advantages is certainly the ability to obtain a starburst effect on the sun. You’ll need to set your aperture at around f16 (preferably f22) for this effect to be optimal. Also take into account diffraction (mentioned above) and whether you will rather need to capture one exposure just for the starburst and blend this back into the main exposure taken at a wider aperture.
3. Shutter Speed
Although shutter speed is normally not a big concern for a landscape photographer when using a tripod, there are times when you want to control this element specifically. In general, in cases where your shutter speed will not exceed 30 seconds, I would set the camera on Aperture Priority and play around with my aperture at a fixed ISO and let the camera worry about the shutter speed specifically for each exposure. Slower shutter speeds generally allow the landscape photographer to capture something of the dynamic of the earth’s weather and geocentric properties. Some instances where shutter speed becomes critically important are:
– Photographing moving bodies of water: in other words, the ocean or rivers…getting the texture of the water just right takes lots of practice, and also doesn’t mean that there’s one look that fits all…on a rough shoreline you might want to “freeze” the massive waves breaking over the rocks, and at other times you want that milky smooth water texture as the waves come and go.
– Photographing moving clouds: depending on the time of day, you may need to invest in an expensive darkening filter like a Lee Big Stopper to be able to pull this off in bright daylight, but needless to say in low light or at night it’s much easier.
– Photographing the night sky: I’ve mentioned this a couple of times in this post, but here goes again…for star trails (capturing the earth’s rotation around its axis by photographing towards the north or south) you will need a LONG exposure. Some people prefer taking a multitude of 10-15 minute exposures (set using a remote timer) and then blending them to avoid noise from excessive sensor overheating, while others like to capture it in one shot – a 4 hour exposure for example that requires immense planning and calculations and knowledge of the craft. For “Milky Way starscapes” you actually want to minimise the effect of the earth’s rotation, and at wide angles you will need to shoot for 30 seconds or less (which will obviously affect your other settings too).
Again, I hope this post has been inspirational to you, at the very least making you think and igniting your interest in landscape photography.
This series is not over yet, so keep your eyes on the blog for future editions…
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