Basic Photography

Photographic Basics

Camera Settings

In spite of the advanced automation in modern cameras, there are still many settings you need to have control over. Maybe you can try to survive on an auto mode programmed for landscapes; but then why not save more effort and buy postcards instead. Auto modes might be handy in panic situations, but the “fine” in fine art photography doesn’t normally result from automation.

Camera Presets and Custom Functions

A custom function sets the camera to whatever presets you define. I am prone to absentmindedness and using custom functions reduce my chances of shooting with an unintended camera setting. All three of my Canon custom functions have a common set of presets that are listed below. The only difference between the custom functions is a different auto-exposure bracket setting.

Exposure bracketing

I have a different auto-exposure bracketing mode assigned to each custom function. One is set to auto-bracket three, one-third stop exposures and is my default for normal shots. A second is set to auto-bracket three, two-stop exposures (my primary HDR setting). A third is set to auto-bracket five, 1.5-stop exposures (my secondary HDR setting). These HDR settings will be covered in later chapters on HDR.

Auto White Balance

I set my white balance to Auto White Balance (AWB). This doesn’t change the raw file but provides a starting point when using the raw converter. There’s no point in using any of the presets (Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, et al.) unless you are shooting exclusively JPEG. I carry a small set of DGK white-balance cards (white, gray, and black) that I shoot at every site. This provides an accurate neutral reference for setting the white balance in the raw converter.

ISO 100

With my mindset of extracting the best image quality possible and that I habitually use a tripod, there is no reason to shoot higher than ISO 100. I bump up the ISO only when I need a faster shutter speed while still retaining a small aperture for increased depth-of-field.

Aperture-Preferred and f/16

I default to aperture-preferred because in landscape photography, unless you never use a tripod, depth-of-field is usually more important than shutter speed. Also, when auto-bracketing or varying the exposure compensation, you do not want the depth-of-field to vary or each shot will have a different focus depth. That obviously would be a problem when combining multiple exposures in software to control contrast, such as for HDR. I use a default aperture setting of f/16, which has proven to be a good balance between maximum depth-of-field and tolerable resolution loss due to diffraction. I’m not concerned what shutter speed results from the selected aperture because I always use a tripod. If I need to control shutter speed for flowing water or wind movement, I just override the preset aperture or ISO as needed.

2-Second self-timer

I enable the 2-second self-timer to avoid using a cable release unless my shutter time exceeds the camera’s maximum of 30 seconds. I usually don’t find the 2-second lag a problem unless I’m timing shots between wind gusts.

Record Raw

Coming from a large format camera background, I endeavor to achieve the best image quality that’s within the capability of my equipment. So choosing between raw or JPEG is a no-brainer: always shoot raw! In a nutshell, you want to work with all your image data, not the subset you get with a JPEG file.

Neutral picture style and RGB color space

If your camera has selectable picture styles (or whatever term your camera brand uses) like Landscape, Vivid, or Natural, I recommend you set it to the most neutral setting that does the least image manipulation (check your manual). The reason is any manipulation affects the JPEG-based histogram displayed on your camera’s LCD and may erroneously display clipping that doesn’t exist in the raw image. Also, select the widest color space (usually Adobe RGB) for the same reason. Note that whatever color space is selected, it is not actually applied to the raw file. In fact, in most cases the raw file is outputted in ProPhotoRGB (a higher gamut range than Adobe RGB).

Evaluative metering

Today’s camera metering is very sophisticated and I have never found it necessary to use other modes.

Single-shot mode

I only shoot landscapes, so I only need one shot at a time and I don’t want to accidentally rattle off a lot of unintended shots. On the other hand, if you’re shooting wildlife or sports, you’ll need the continuous shot mode.

Bracketing sequence set to longest exposure first

When shooting bracketed exposures with long exposure times, it’s possible to exceed the 30-second limit without realizing it (it will truncate to 30-seconds). When the longest exposure is set first, the time will show up in the viewfinder when you part-way depress the shutter release, so you may catch the problem beforehand.

Close Shutter at Power Off

This was mainly a Canon feature, but other brands are now catching on. Most mirrorless cameras have their sensor exposed when changing lens, which is an open invitation to dirt and dust. With this feature enabled on my Canon R5, I simply power off the camera when changing lens to cover the sensor. Note that the shutter is closer to the lens mount than in a DSLR, so exercise caution.

Electronic 1st-curtain (or shutter)

Despite the lack of a mirror, I still detect vibration at long focal lengths. This is due in part to the shutter having to first close before the exposure starts and then reopen to start the exposure. Electronic 1st-curtain begins the exposure with the shutter remaining open and terminates it with the second shutter. As far as I’m able to detect, this eliminates any noticeable shutter vibration at long focal lengths. Since the coordination between sensor readout and the closing shutter is a tricky affair, this mode has some limitations, mainly at very-high shutter speeds. However for landscape work, I find it the perfect default.

Field Backup

You should always continually backup your photos while out shooting, otherwise you’re courting disaster. There are many backup options and the one easiest for me is to use the dual memory slots in my camera. My Canon R5 has two memory slots (CFexpress and SD) that I configured to record simultaneously as a way of automatic backup. To reduce any added recording delay, I use the fastest available SanDisk memory cards to where I barely notice the difference when recording 45-megapixel images. Another benefit is any images I delete are deleted only on the selected playback card and not on the other card. That way if I accidentally deleted a good image, I can retrieve it from the second card.

Setting the Focus and Aperture

There are situations when a shallow depth-of-field is desirable, such as in flower shots or wildlife. With those exceptions aside, most landscape scenes I shoot are for maximum foreground-to-background sharpness. There are three ways to control depth-of-field: a tilt-shift lens, focus stacking in software, and aperture setting. If you have the extra cash and are willing to work with a manual lens, the tilt-shift lens is the best option. As for focus stacking, it works — sort of (more on that later). But for the vast majority, aperture control is what we use and that makes selecting the correct aperture setting and positioning the focus point important.


The dominant factor in the formula to calculate depth-of-field is the focal length: the smaller the focal length, the greater the depth-of-field. The smaller APS-C sensor needs a shorter focal length to achieve the same relative coverage as a full-frame sensor; thus it has greater depth-of-field. A 50mm full-frame lens at f/16 and focused at its hyperfocal distance has an in-focus range from 8.6-feet to infinity. The APS-C sensor’s equivalent focal length is about 31mm (for a Nikon), and at f/16 has a wider in-focus range that is 5-feet to infinity (3.6-feet closer in).

The preceding may mislead you to believe that APS-C sensors have an advantage in depth-of-field over full-frame; but there is a major caveat called optical diffraction. Diffraction is the bending of lightwaves around an edge, or lens aperture in this case, that blurs the image. The problem worsens as the aperture hole is reduced. Since the smaller APS-C sensor requires greater enlargement than a full-frame for a same-sized print, the lens’ diffraction blur is also proportionally enlarged. My preferred aperture setting on my full-frame camera is f/16. Beyond that, the loss in sharpness due to diffraction can become an issue. For an APS-C sensor, f/11 is approximately equivalent to a full-frame at f/16 in both depth-of-field and diffraction performance (when you consider the enlargement).

Now to confuse matters

There is one confounding point on the relationship between focal length and depth-of-field. It is that, technically, focal length doesn’t really affect depth-of-field. However, that only applies when the image size is kept constant. For example, say you took a telephoto shot of a scene at a certain aperture and then switched to a wide-angle lens set to the same aperture. Of course you now have a wider depth-of-field, but when you move forward to achieve the same image size, the depth-of-field is the same as the telephoto lens. While this is an interesting tidbit of information, it has no practical meaning other than another way to state the obvious: for any given focal length and aperture, as you move closer to the subject, the depth-of-field decreases relative to that subject.

Are all f-stops created equal?

For a set aperture, say f/11, varying the focal length obviously affects the depth-of-field. But, is the diffraction performance also affected? In other words, do you need to readjust the aperture setting at different focal lengths to maintain the same image quality. The quick answer is generally no.

Remember that f-stop is defined as the ratio of focal length to aperture. A telephoto lens has a larger aperture hole than a wider-angle lens at the same f-stop. It may seem logical that the telephoto’s larger aperture hole means less diffraction, thus making higher f-numbers more usable. But due to the longer focal length, the image plane is further away from the aperture and that allows the diffraction blur to widen more. For that reason, a given f-stop has pretty-much the same diffraction performance regardless of focal length.

Positioning the Focus Point

Many landscape photos incorporate dominant foreground subjects, and they should be tack-sharp to provide the intended visual impact. Because it’s also desirable to keep the background sharp, now comes the problem of where to set the focus point. That means you need to understand the depth-of-field capability of your chosen focal length and aperture setting. Many depth-of-field scales on today’s lenses are either hard to decipher or nonexistent. The alternative is smart phone apps (for example, PhotoPills) or online sources that provide depth-of-field information. DOFMaster is a popular site that is a one-stop shop for all things concerning depth-of-field.

Typical scenario

The following is a textbook (and admittedly tedious) drill for determining the appropriate aperture setting and placement of the focus point:

Compose the image at the desired focal length. For this exercise, we’ll use a 50mm full-frame lens.

Measure or estimate the distance to the nearest object you want in focus. You can use your lens’ distance scale to measure the distance. For this exercise, say the closest object is 9-feet away.

Double that near distance to calculate the required hyperlocal distance: 2 x 9 = 18 feet. Use this as your “subject distance.”

One way to determine the required aperture is a DOF Chart. The better way is to open Photo Pills and tap ‘DOF Table.' Enter sensor format and focal length. Then, referencing 18’ in the ‘Subject distance (ft)’ column, scroll the f-stop table until you see a ‘DoF Near’ closest to 9 feet. At the top of that column is the required f-stop (f/16 in this case). Note that each box indicates the DoF Near (top) and the far limit (bottom).

PhotoPills DoF Table: In the 18’ Subject distance row, 8’10” (center) is closest to 9-ft, which corresponds to f/16 at the top. Note that the far limit is infinity in this case.

Now, either manually set the lens focus at the hyperlocal distance (18 feet), or estimate the 18-foot distance and place the autofocus point there.

If the required f-stop is beyond your lens’ capability, then either give up foreground or background sharpness, or shorten the focal length.

DOF Chart for APS-C: A chart is another fast way to work out DOF problems The above chart shows the result for an APS-C sensor under the same scenario (50mm lens, 18ft. hyperfocal), which is f/22 in this case.

Kentucky windage

I may bias the focus point for a variety of reasons. One is depth-of-field is an arbitrary definition based on viewing a print at a certain distance (typically an 8x10 at roughly a foot away). There is certainly a “sweeter” spot within that range that I may want to apply towards a more important aspect of the composition. Compositions vary in nature and focusing priorities are affected accordingly. For example, if my foreground is a rippling lake reflection against a stunning backdrop, it’s better to favor the background since a rippling lake reflection is not likely to benefit from a critical focus. In short, the critical focus range is less than the depth-of-field and you want to place it where it matters most.

The image below represents a typical situation that you normally would want complete fore-to-background sharpness. But if the lens’ depth-of-field doesn’t cover the span, you’ll need to select the best focus point compromise. For this scene, the fore and mid-ground would be my highest priorities since the far background will be slightly soft anyway due to haze. In this case, I would bias the focus a bit closer in to make sure the foreground rock stayed tack-sharp.

Canyonlands NP

Keep it simple

If looking at charts or using apps to calculate depth-of-field seems too cumbersome, then relax and simply use the one-third rule. Set the aperture at f/16 (or f/11 for an APS-C camera) and focus on a point one-third the way into the scene. This works for the majority of scenes for maximum focus coverage and is my usual approach. This approach does have its risks, especially at longer focal lengths, so it helps to memorize a few near-focus distances at the focal lengths you commonly use just to be safe. Typical in-focus ranges at f/16 are:

24mm: 2 ft to infinity

28mm: 2.8 ft to infinity

35mm: 4.3 ft to infinity

50mm: 8.8 ft to infinity

70mm: 16.9 ft to infinity

You could use the camera’s depth-of-field preview, but unless you’re using a mirrorless camera, a DSLR viewfinder is usually too dark to be useful. The better option for a DSLR is the live-view mode, if it has that feature. You zoom in on the LCD display and make either focus and/or f-stop tweaks in realtime while holding down the depth-of-field preview button. Personally, when I check the focus, I take a test shot and zoom in on the LCD display. Prolong use of live-view not only robs battery power, it increases the sensor’s temperature and may increase noise.

What about focus peaking?

Focus peaking is a common video camera feature that is now finding its way into still cameras, mainly with mirrorless. A few DSLRs do support it in live view, and it can be added to some Canon models with third-party firmware from Magic Lantern.

Focus peaking highlights the edges of objects that are in focus. You could stop down the aperture and judge the depth-of-field by observing those areas with highlighted edges. Then in realtime, readjust the aperture and focus position for the desired depth-of-field. Results, however, can be a mixed bag. Depending on camera model, aperture setting and scene structure, the display can in some cases either be confusing or erroneous. Nevertheless, if your camera has this feature, it’s worthwhile to familiarize yourself with it since it may be a useful focusing aid.

Setting Exposure

If there are no red herrings that will fool the meter, I routinely use autoexposure and shoot three shots bracketed by one-third stops. The reason I use one-third over one-half stops for bracketing is because I rarely see exposures off by more than a third-stop. Furthermore, I can make at least a one-third stop correction in the raw converter without degradation (and likely more). This gives me at least a two-thirds stop exposure safety margin.

One thing to stress is never trust your LCD display to judge exposure. The viewed image may be misleading due to the LCD’s auto brightness control and the surrounding ambient light. Instead, I rely on the display as a quick indicator of clipped highlights by enabling the LCD highlight warning feature that blinks the clipped highlights. I find it handy, but not all cameras may have this feature.


The histogram is more informative than the LCD image in judging exposure, especially to assess clipping which is my main concern. My priority is to ensure there is no clipping of the non-specular highlights or the darker shadows of interest. If I can’t correct the clipping, then I’ll resort to one of the techniques to be covered later on controlling high contrast.

Histogram shape

The shape of a histogram can vary all over the map, so by itself isn’t always a clear indication of a correct exposure. In a very general sense, you want a distribution of tones that span most of the histogram range (without clipping) with the main bulk (or midpoint) of the histogram slightly left of center. If I see a large chunk of highlights or shadows scrunched up against their respective ends, I’ll adjust the exposure compensation dial if it doesn’t create clipping at the other end.

Bracket your exposures

I believe you should always bracket. Many books have been written on how to nail exposures, but don’t think of that as a required badge of honor. When I was using a large format camera, it cost several dollars in film and processing for every shot, so I had to be fairly good at nailing it the first time. That was then and now with digital cameras, bracketing is free and there is no shame to bracket as much as you want. Instead of wrestling with confusing histograms or misleading LCD images, picking the best bracketed shot on your home computer is the surest way to nail the perfect exposure.

Lower noise

If the histogram is skewed to the left and there’s some empty room at the highlight end, I’ll increase the exposure to move it to the right nearer the midtone position, even if the first exposure was technically correct. I do this to have more editing latitude in the software and also to reduce noise in the shadows. To explain why this is so sans the technical babble, it’s suffice to say that your image’s “digital information” diminishes as the tones darken; thus, less data means less editing range. (If you’re interested in the technical babble, see Exposing to the Right at the end of this chapter.)

Exposure Red Herrings

Overcast sky

Regardless how good the camera’s exposure meter is, it still can be fooled. Notorious are overcast skies that cause the camera to underexpose. In those situations, I meter away from the sky, then either I lock the exposure or recompose and use the exposure compensation control to correct the exposure. Although this provides a more accurate exposure, the overcast sky may likely be blown out. That’s why you want as little overcast sky in the frame as possible.


This is another notorious deceiver and a bit trickier to deal with. Metering with a large amount of snow in the scene typically creates about a two-stop underexposure. That can easily vary either way by one-stop depending if the snow is in direct sunlight, overcast, or shade.

While metering off a grey card or using an incident light meter is a good starting point, you may still clip a good portion of the highlights depending on how extreme the contrast is. The best approach is to start at 2-stops overexposure (or at whatever your incident reading indicates) and auto-bracket in half-stops. You can inspect the histogram, but some clipping is inevitable and may be difficult to judge if it’s excessive or not. In that case, magnify the LCD image and visually judge if you’re capturing sufficient detail in the highlights.


Another situation is dominant areas of “near” midtones that will throw the meter slightly off. This is more a problem with close-in shots since wider shots increase the variety of subjects that collectively average out the reflectance. A common situation for me is strolling through desert rock formations. Sometimes, I misjudge the rock’s tone value and end up with a small under or over exposure error. Though bracketing is key, a onetime metering off a grey card can alert you to any exposure bias.


While green and red will bias slightly towards over-exposure, as a practical matter you can usually ignore most (but not all) colors. Just remember to bracket and check the RGB histograms (if your camera supports it) for any color-channel clipping that may not show in the luminance histogram.

The color to watch for is yellow that is the brightest color in the spectrum. Yellow can cause up to a one-stop under exposure. This was sometimes my experience when shooting autumn colors and the yellow leaves appeared a little too dark. Just as with an overcast sky, I try to meter away from dominate patches of yellow. If you’re in the middle of an aspen forest during October, then bracket widely and carefully study your histogram.

Trust, but verify

Not all camera meters behave the same. Some camera meters now recognize color and scene structure and will compensate accordingly. I recommend metering various atypical scenes using a grey card as a reference to get a general feel for how far to trust your camera’s metering.

Wandering eye

There was one absentminded mistake I often made when using the 2-second self-timer or a remote shutter on my DSLR. It was my natural tendency to look away from the viewfinder when the timer was running or before I triggered the remote shutter. The problem was the camera’s meter picking up light through the viewfinder and causing random under exposures. Some Nikons have a built-in viewfinder blind, but just cupping your hand over the viewfinder (without touching the camera) is more than sufficient. Of course, you can ignore all of this if you’re using a mirrorless camera.

If you are particularly paranoid, you may also want to keep the viewfinder shielded during the entire exposure, especially during very-long exposures. The reason, as claimed by some, is that light from the viewfinder can leak past the locked-up mirror to the sensor. In all my years of photography, I have never experienced this; yet, admittedly it’s plausible. You can check your camera by removing the lens in a totally dark room and shine a small flashlight into the camera body with the mirror locked up and see if there’s any light leaking into the viewfinder.

Exposing to the Right (ETTR)

A challenge in digital photography is recording detail in the darker tones. The problem is noise and reduced tonal information. Noise is relatively straightforward, less signal (that is, less light) and the noise becomes more dominant. Then on top of that, the darker tones are represented by fewer bits than the upper tones.

To explain that, consider a camera with a 12-bit output (4,096 different tones for each color) that has an honest 12-stop dynamic range. Thus, each bit should represent 1-stop difference in light. The first stop of highlights is represented by the most significant bit that represents 2,048 tone values. The least significant bits, representing the darker tones, have fewer tone values. This also illustrates why it’s important to edit with 16-bit files rather than 8-bit files. (Note that all the tone values are subsequently altered exponentially when gamma correction is applied.)

When trying to lighten dark tones in Photoshop, “stretching” them into a higher luminance region begins to pull apart the minimally defined (and noisier) tones, and that creates posterization and exaggerated noise. One way to improve the dark tones is simply increase the camera’s exposure. That means moving the histogram to the right, and thus the expression ETTR.

Go to the light!

The main idea of ETTR is to keep increasing the exposure until you observe highlight clipping in the histogram. Around 1-stop overexposure should suit most situations. Then, in Camera Raw (not Photoshop), adjust the Exposure slider down by the exposure difference and fine tune as needed. You’ll be surprised how even a one-stop overexposure will appear identical to a normally exposed shot. Zoom into a dark area and you’ll observe a noticeable improvement in noise.