Grand Landscape Photography: 9 Scenarios for Selecting Exposure, Part 1

By Cindy Beckett

One of the reasons that grand landscapes are so compelling is the range of light that can be captured. Exciting atmospheric conditions, storms, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and juxtaposition between light and shadow in strong midday light excites the senses and draws you to take the shot. However, these can also be challenging conditions to photograph. There is not a single right answer to how to correctly expose any landscape scene, as creative decisions as well as changing light conditions affect how you will want to capture your image data. Whenever possible you do want to capture all possible light values at the scene, and make final decisions about what to use in post processing. To give you some tools to think about how you might approach different types of scenes that you will likely run into during your landscape photography work, I’ve compiled a tutorial with real examples from a recent trip to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I’m assuming that you’re familiar with your basic camera operations and understand in general how to use shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to affect exposure. For this tutorial we will be concentrating on how to make exposure choices in the field for common landscape photography scenes. In all cases, I recommended shooting in RAW format for all landscape photography, with optional jpg images if you like to have both recorded.

While this article is primarily about capturing the exposure you want in the field, I’m providing some processing information for each scenario. I have used Adobe Lightroom for these edits but all of the same features are available in Adobe Camera Raw.

First, let’s review some basics on selecting exposure in the field, using histograms, and the dynamic range of your camera. 

Shooting mode: Aperture Priority or Manual 


Generally speaking, for landscape photography you’ll be shooting in either aperture priority or manual mode. I know some people have a strong preference for one or the other, but either is fine and it’s a matter of what you get used to working with. Once you’ve chosen an aperture for the scene based on your desired depth of field most of your exposure adjustments will be made by adjusting shutter speed. However, there are times when these suggestions will not apply and you’ll need to work with more than one of the 3 adjustments (shutter speed, aperture, ISO) to achieve correct exposure. We’ll look at some specific examples in the scenarios below. A common approach when setting up to shoot your landscape scene is to choose your subject and composition, select a focal length that represents your creative intent, and then choose an aperture appropriate for the scene (f/8 to f/11 is a good choice for many landscapes as this is a range that is very sharp on many of our most frequently used lenses for landscape work), and then focus your shot. Focusing and depth of field are beyond the scope of this tutorial, but a general rule of thumb is to focus either about ⅓ of the way into a scene for landscapes with foregrounds that are at least several feet away from you or to focus at a distance that is 2 x the distance of the closest object in your foreground. For long lens work where everything in the scene is more than 50 feet away from you, everything is effectively at infinity, but you’ll still want to set and check your focus. Regardless of your method, always check focus on your live image zoomed in at 100% and then double check after taking a shot, by zooming in on the replay image. For most purposes, you’ll want to set your ISO at the camera’s native ISO, or typically about ISO100. White Balance can be set to automatic mode or if you have a preferred mode you work with, that will be fine also as White Balance is easily adjusted in RAW image post processing.

 Dynamic Range

 Dynamic range describes the camera’s ability to capture light and is measured in stops of light. More dynamic range indicates that more stops of light can be captured in a single exposure, ie, you’ll have a greater range of light to dark capability with higher dynamic range. The maximum dynamic range that any camera can capture is dependent on the camera’s sensor (see field test information and ratings for different cameras at if interested in technical details). The limitations of your sensor will determine how many images you’ll need to take in order to capture the full dynamic range of light in extreme cases, such as those found

in some sunrise/sunset scenes where bright light remains in the sky but much of the land is in shadow. In cases where you can’t capture all of the range in 1 exposure, you’ll want to bracket your exposures either using an auto bracket setting on your camera or manually adjusting exposure settings and taking 2 to 3 images that provide a complete range of values.


Introduction to Histograms and “Clipping” of Image (Light) Data

The histogram is your best friend when it comes to getting your exposure correct because it is the visual representation of how your camera is interpreting the light in the scene. The better you understand your histogram, the better you will be able to achieve your exposure goals. The histogram is a graph representing the quantity of pixels (y-axis) that occur at each lightness value (x-axis) from 0 (black, left side) to 255 (white, right side). The quantity gives you a general idea where the majority of your image data is grouped, but the exact value is not important for our purposes. When you’re in the field shooting you want to pay the most attention to the far left and far right edges of the graph to make sure you do not have any data stacked against either edge, as this represents “lost” data (generally called “clipping”) which is data that the camera is not capturing and will not be available for you in post-processing. There is one minor caveat to this statement in that the image shown on your camera display is a jpg representation and not the actual RAW data. It is possible that you can have the jpg display show clipped highlights or shadows that you can actually recover in RAW processing, but I recommend that you do not count on this ability and that you shoot with the idea to keep your darkest shadows and brightest highlights away from the edges of the histogram.

The examples below show:

  1. Histogram shows space between left and right edges and the data
  2. Data is stacked up against the left edge; this is referred to as blocked shadows and indicates that some shadow areas will be pure black and not contain any detail.
  3. Data is stacked up against the right edge; this is referred to as blown highlights andindicates that some highlight areas will be pure white and not contain any detail.

1. All data available, there is empty space between data and left/right edges of histogram

2. Clipped (also called “blocked”) shadows- part of data is touching left side of histogram

3. Clipped (also called “blown”) highlights – part of data is touching right side of histogram

Clipped data is not recoverable in post processing. Your goal in shooting is to avoid losing data. You want to come home with all of the data from the scene whenever possible. Now let’s look at some example scenarios that you can run into while out shooting landscapes  and how you might manage your exposure to capture the needed dynamic range of the scenes.

 A Note About Color Layers in the Histograms

 In live view shooting on your camera, you will see a histogram with white data in the graph. White represents an aggregation of the red, green, and blue data. When you switch to replay mode and choose a display option to see the histogram, you should be able to see the White data plus 3 more graphs for the red, green, and blue data, depending on your camera’s
features. The White channel still represents the aggregate data while the color channels represent each separate color and the amount of “light” data captured for that color. The first image below in Scenario 1 shows the back of the camera view with the White and 3 color channels.

However, in Lightroom histograms, as seen in the clipped data snapshots above, the aggregate data displays in a light gray tone, not white. And in addition to the red, green, and blue data, you’ll also notice magenta, cyan, and yellow data. All of the colors are displayed “behind” the gray data, since gray represents the mix of the colors.

 Scenario 1 – Soft Light Dawn at Norbeck Pass 

This image taken at Norbeck Pass was shot at 25 minutes past sunrise on a morning that was partly cloudy, with clouds obscuring some of the morning sunlight. The camera was positioned in a shadowy area of the valley below and on the west side of the peaks and the warm sunlight was just starting to hit the highest peaks. With light this soft, a single exposure will frequently work well as is the case here. In the image below showing the live view of the camera exposure at the scene (as taken with an iPhone and not edited) you can see that the RGB channel (white histogram) as well as each individual channel (red, green, blue) has data well within the boundaries of the histogram. 

IPhone image taken at scene, not edited (with blow up of camera histogram detail)

Although all of the light data fit within a single shot, I took a bracketed set of 3 images while maintaining the aperture at f/9.0 and the ISO at 100. All 3 images had complete data, but upon viewing each image in Lightroom I was able to gather some information about how I might post-process the scene. Below are the 3 bracketed images as seen in Lightroom, with no edits of the RAW data. The lightest image is almost but not quite clipped at the highlight end; this exposure was at 0.4 seconds. The middle image (⅙ second) has good highlight and shadow detail mostly throughout the middle of the exposure range. The darkest image (1/13 second) shows a bit of data loss in the cyan channel at the shadow end, but otherwise all the rest of the data is available to work with.

Lightroom, RAW images not edited, lightest, middle, and darkest valued bracketed set

By looking at the 3 images above I can quickly see that the middle image does a good job of representing the color and value of the sunrise light on the mountain peaks and the color and highlights of the clouds in the scene without losing any detail in the foreground shadow areas. I wanted to preserve and enhance the light-dark contrast of the shadow area versus the highlighted peaks, so I chose to work with the middle value image, which had both. I made exposure adjustments in Lightroom to create further contrast between the shadow and light and I set the profile mode to Adobe Landscape. The finished image is below.

Norbeck Pass Sunrise, Badlands National Park South Dakota Focal length 70 mm, f/9.0, ⅙ second, ISO 100

Scenario 2 – Late Sunrise, clear sky without clouds, bright light

This image was taken on the Door Trail which is an area that gets great sunrise light on the rock formations. The actual sunrise on this morning was obscured by a heavy cloud layer and the rocks did not light up until the sun rose above the clouds, which was about 1 hour after the actual sunrise. Nonetheless, the light angle was still low enough on the horizon that warm light was hitting the rocky outcroppings. The initial exposure was f/13 at 1/80 of a second and ISO 100. It’s difficult to see the histogram on the camera in the Iphone image below, but despite the bright light, all of the light data fit within the histogram, thus a single exposure was possible for this scene. However, there was heavy shadow data, as seen in the first Lightroom version of the image and histogram. So, I manually adjusted the shutter speed at the scene, watching the histogram, until the shadow data was well contained within the histogram but the highlight data was just up to and not against the right end of the histogram, resulting in the image and histogram as seen in the second Lightroom version below.

iPhone image taken at scene

Lightroom version of image, RAW data, not edited f/13, 1/80 second, ISO 100

Lightroom version of image, RAW data, not edited f/13, 1/20 second, ISO100

For post-processing, I have the option of combining the 2 images, for example in Photoshop using a gradient mask, where I would keep the sky from the darker image and the foreground from the lighter image. However, as both images have all of the data available either can be processed as a single image without combining. For my final version, I decided to edit the lightest (1/20 second) image and reduce the overall exposure somewhat to enhance the warm tones on the rocks. I also used the sky selection mask feature in Lightroom and darkened the sky exposure by a little more than ½ stop, brought down the highlights until the sky felt correct for the foreground, and then added a little white back in to keep the cloud highlights as seen in the edit below

Sky mask added and adjusted for exposure in Lightroom

Door Trail Sunrise, Badlands National Park South Dakota 35 mm, f/13, 1/20 second, ISO 100

Scenario 3 – Late Afternoon, mostly sunny with some high streaky clouds 

This image was taken in the Yellow Mounds area of the park, which has some of the best and most colorful rock striations in the park. Late afternoon conditions are frequently challenging for shooting especially in terrain that may contain deep shadows, for example in valleys or in wooded areas. However, in this situation with the light cloud cover, the image was able to be captured in a single exposure. 

The first image below, an iPhone shot, shows the live scene as viewed through my camera and the second shows the same image in Lightroom, prior to any processing of the RAW data. Although the image data appears well contained within the histograms, this image is instructive, as the blue channel is closer to clipping highlights than the rest of the data.

Looking at the histogram in the Lightroom image above, you can see that there is more “blue” data near the right end of the histogram. These are blue highlights and they represent the sky. The more bright sky you have in a daytime image like this, the more you will see a large bunching of blue data in your highlights. The thing to be aware of is as you adjust the exposure. For example, say you increase the exposure, highlights, or white values, you will experience clipping in the blue channel before the overall values are clipped. If you turn on the Show Clipping Indicators on your Lightroom histogram, the channel that clips will show its color in the little triangle in the box at the upper right (see histogram image below). This will make you aware that your adjustment is causing loss of detail in an area of the image. To see which area(s) of the image are impacted, hold down the Option key while moving the Whites slider. White, blue, red, or green areas will appear on your image and this indicates the places in the image where the data is being lost. (This same function is available with the Blacks slider if you have shadow detail that is being lost as indicated by the Clipping Indicator over the left edge of the histogram lighting up).

To post process this image, I start by creating a mask with a sky selection and bring down the highlights for the sky. This will give me more “room” to work with the overall image adjustments without risking losing those blue sky details. As you can see in the histogram below, the blue is still the strongest area of highlight, as is to be expected with a bright sky, but it’s much further from the right edge after the adjustment

To finish processing the image, I converted the profile to Adobe Landscape mode, adjusted the lights and shadows slightly to get the desired balance of tones in the image and created a darker area in the lower left corner using a gradient mask. I also added a slight vignette.

Yellow Mounds Afternoon, Badlands National Park, South Dakota 35 mm, f/9.0, 1/25 second, ISO 100

This is the end of Part 1 of this article. For Parts 2 and 3 I will continue with additional scenarios
including discussing more challenging lighting conditions where multiple exposures might be
needed to capture the entire dynamic range, as well as looking at when you might add neutral
density filters in the field and when you might make adjustments to aperture and/or ISO values
for exposure adjustments