How to control lighting in scenic photos

A blog reader actually asked me for this post—she specifically asked me how to control lighting in scenic photos…ask and you shall receive.

This particular blog reader is going on a trip and took my free course how to get off auto mode on her camera…so now she is already one step closer to perfecting the images on her upcoming trip. Are you going on a trip somewhere amazing and want to be able to take the best landscape photos so you can add them to your gallery wall (or just impress people with your photographic prowess)? Alright then, let’s get into this!

(Oh, and if you want to check out the free mini course on how to get off auto mode sign up below.)

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Set your aperture accordingly

Alright, first things first. The aperture is going to be the first and most important setting you’ll need to control to get the photo you want. Most of the time you want to have a closed down aperture to get the sharpness you want for a landscape photo. Landscape photographers use very small aperture openings in order to get everything in focus. If you know of Ansel Adams (the premier American landscape photographer) then maybe you know what I mean. If you don’t know who Adams is, he actually helped found Group f/64 in 1932, which was a set of photographers who wanted to shoot at such a closed down f-stop of 64, so that almost everything was perfectly in focus. This image on the right was taken in Yosemite and you’ll notice how perfectly sharp everything is here.

Ansel Adams :: The Moon & Half Dome

Most cameras that you will be traveling with will not have f/64—which was reserved for large format cameras—but the average 35mm equivalent camera will have a lens that should go to f/16 or f/22, which is plenty closed down enough for most photographer’s purposes. If you are properly metering your camera with such a low aperture then you may need to set the camera down on a steady surface, or bring along a small tripod to keep the camera still. That is only if your shutter speed is getting lower than 60.

Don’t forget about ISO

I talk a bit about ISO in this blog post, but in this case you’ll likely want that ISO pretty low to get a sharp image. But—and this is a big but—you’re ISO will depend on how much light is coming into that camera. If this is a night shot then having a low ISO will be tough to control. But if this is a reasonably bright day you can likely keep your ISO between 200-400 and get a clean sharp image with an f-stop that is up around f/11-f/22. Again, this will all depend on the actual light you are looking at. In the below photo my settings were ISO 200, F/22, and shutter speed of 1/20. Although my shutter speed was low, the lower ISO and higher f/stop helped me to control the lighting in this scenic photo.

Where is the sun in the sky?

What time of day is it? Is the sun shining right into your camera lens (not good). Just changing your view slightly can make a huge difference in the photo. I usually suggest not to visit any scenic point on a sunny day at noon. It is just really tough to get a good shot if the sun is right above your head and doesn’t show depth to the scene in front of you. It is possible to get a good shot but it is definitely more difficult.

Since you cannot fully control the lighting in scenic photos (unless you have special weather capabilities) then I suggest you find yourself a slightly shady spot. A shady area will afford you a better view because the camera lens is not in direct view of the sun (this is why early in the morning and later in the evening tend to work so well for great landscape images). But shading the camera lens can allow you to get a great image even if you cannot control the lighting or time of day you arrive to a vista point. You can also use natural framing to help hold together an image and even shade it if needed. Natural framing is when you use natural elements to literally frame the object your are photographing. The below images are examples of natural framing.

Timing is everything

Okay, so I know we can’t control the weather and can’t always control timing on our trips with other people. But back in this blog post I explained how my sister and I drove almost an hour to see the sun set on half dome in Yosemite, and how I walked up to a vista point in the rain just to wait until it broke and the sun came out. Some of my most memorable and beautiful landscape images were because I planned them out. Many bloggers and travel photographers get up VERY early in the morning to arrive somewhere when there are no people around (as in driving to a location before sunset). I am not an early riser so this is usually not my choice, but it works!

I’ve also pulled over on the side of the road while driving just to get the perfect shot, you have to be willing to jump at a photo if you see it and the moment is perfect. In the below photo we were driving away from a hotel in Glacier National Park and I saw this moment of the sun streaming through the clouds and had to pull over. This view lasted only a few minutes before the clouds broke and was totally worth the stop to get this amazing shot. This is the last photo I took on the trip and I remember the moment so well.


Hopefully these quick pointers give you a better idea of how to better control the lighting in your own scenic photos. Here are the main points:

  • Use the correct ISO and aperture for the scene in front of you (usually low ISO and higher f/stop)
  • Pay attention to where the light is (and make sure it is not directly on the lens glass)
  • Timing is everything (you need to give yourself some wiggle room with time and/or wait until the light is better for your photo)

In the top photo in this post with the sun setting on the mountain, we actually waited for nearly 40 minutes for the sun to be in the perfect spot and light the mountain accordingly. With such a beautiful view it was really not hard to do, but if you are in a rush and not focused on the view in front of you then it might be a little harder to get. Patience is key to great lighting and great landscape images.



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I am a professional photographer & photo educator. I’m here to share with you my best (and easiest) tips and tricks for taking amazing photos. I’m sharing years of knowledge as a teaching artist to help you find a way to share your unique point of view with the world. Welcome to The Photo Method.

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