How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography


In this article, I will give you some tips on how to choose the right or best ISO for landscape photography.

The challenge as a beginner

Choosing the ideal settings in different scenarios is quite challenging as a photography beginner. We’ve all been there and I certainly know your frustration when your images don’t look as good as you want.

There’s so much to think about including; the composition, the perspective, the camera gear, do you need filters? And what about the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO? Don’t worry, though. It takes some trial and error but soon enough it will be a piece of cake!

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

Since my camera was mounted on a tripod I could use a low ISO of 80 for this image.

I hope to make one of these questions a little clearer through this article, though. Choosing the ideal ISO is crucial for the image quality, and it has a direct impact on both the shutter speed and aperture.

Always use the lowest possible ISO

I won’t go too much into detail regarding how the ISO works in this article, but to simplify, the ISO expresses your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive it is to light, while a lower ISO makes the camera less sensitive to light.

Please note: This is a simplification for beginners. It is actually much more complex than this but you don’t need to understand all the science behind the scenes to use ISO correctly.  

While a higher ISO is good when aiming for a quick shutter speed, it also introduces a significant amount of grain or digital noise into the image. That’s something you want to avoid, and it’s the reason that you’ll often hear that you should always use ISO100.

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

To achieve the longest possible exposure I could use an ISO of 64 here.

Now, I agree that you should aim to use ISO100 for most stationary landscapes, you shouldn’t make the mistake of only using that setting. It took me several years before I managed to accept that there’s not only one correct ISO in landscape photography. In fact, I was pretty much an ISO100-nazi, and except for night photography, I stuck to it.

In later years I’ve learned that this isn’t necessarily the best practice.

First of all, you aren’t always able to use ISO 100. Here are a few scenarios where you might need to bump up the ISO:

  • Photographing handheld.
  • When trying to freeze moving subjects.
  • When photographing at night.
How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

ISO 640 was the lowest ISO I could use here in order to achieve a quick enough shutter speed to get a sharp handheld image.

These are just some of the scenarios where ISO 100 might not be possible. However, there are other, and less talked about, times where you need to increase the ISO as well:

  • When adjusting the shutter speed for capturing the perfect motion/flow in water.
  • If you need to freeze elements moving in the wind (such as bushes, branches etc.).
  • When you’re using a telephoto lens handheld.

In other words, you should always aim to use the lowest ISO possible but that doesn’t always mean ISO 100 (even though that’s the “ideal” ISO quality-wise).

Adjusting the ISO at night

I briefly mentioned that ISO 100 is not ideal for night photography. Let’s look a little closer at that and find the best option. Remember that a higher ISO is more sensitive to light. In other words, that means you need less time (a shorter exposure) to achieve a correct exposure when it’s increased.

Now, at night there’s not a lot of light which means that you need more time to capture a well-exposed image. However, just setting the shutter speed to 30-seconds and leaving the ISO at 100, will still result in an underexposed image.

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

I had to increase the ISO to 4000 to get a well-exposed shot of this night scene.

Instead, you need to sacrifice some image-quality and increase the ISO. Exactly what ISO you need depends on the moon phase and overall brightness of your scene (for example, being close to city lights or other light sources will have an impact on your choice).

The first steps in my night photography workflow are to set the Aperture and Shutter Speed I’m going to use. Next, I use my base ISO for night photography, 1600.

However, just as with ISO 100, it’s not the only one you should use. ISO 1600 works as a starting point and after taking a test shot I’ll often make small adjustments. Most of the time you’ll use an ISO between 1200 and 3200 for night photography (though a full-moon or Aurora session might allow for an ISO as low as 800).

Adjusting the Aperture or ISO for a Quicker Shutter Speed

The most difficult part of manually adjusting settings is to learn what adjustments you need to make in certain situations. Should you adjust the ISO, Aperture, or Shutter Speed? I remember this being one of my biggest frustrations when first making the switch to Manual Mode.

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

ISO 100 – f/10 – 0.4 seconds.

While leading photography workshops I often tell the participants to adjust the settings as they normally would before I help them. I often notice that many are photographing with an aperture of f/22 and ISO 100. However, when they need a faster shutter speed, their first instinct is to increase the ISO.

That’s when I ask the question; “Do you really need an aperture of f/22? Will an aperture of f/16, f/11 or f/8 give you similar results? If so, then leave the ISO alone.

Remember, always use the lowest ISO possible. In this scenario, the image will benefit from using a wider aperture and maintaining a low ISO.

Let’s Summarize

I hope that I haven’t made you even more confused than what you were before. Understanding the ISO and choosing the correct one is a little tricky, as there isn’t always one correct choice. However, what I hope you take away from this article is that you should aim to use the lowest ISO possible in each given scenario.

For regular daytime photography, I typically use an ISO between 64 and 400 – the latter is when I’m using a telephoto lens handheld, which requires a quicker shutter speed to keep sharp. For night photography, I typically use an ISO between 1200 and 3200.

How to Choose the Right ISO for Landscape Photography

I used ISO 400 to capture this sharp handheld shot with my 200mm.

Most DSLR cameras are able to take relatively noise-free images at ISO 400 but I recommend spending some time getting used to your camera and finding its limit.

So, as the final word, there isn’t one single correct ISO for each and every scenario but aim to use the lowest possible.

Learning how to choose the ideal settings takes some trial and error to learn. In my eBook, A Comprehensive Introduction to Landscape Photography, I teach the techniques you need to know in order to capture beautiful images, and how you easily can master them. 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Christian Hoiberg Christian Hoiberg is a full-time landscape photographer who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. Visit his website to get a free download of his eBook 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography.

  • Great beginning guide to ISO. I’m a photographer in the Cayman Islands and taking photos of sunsets have me constantly adjusting my ISO to make sure I just get it right.

  • Manjit Boro John

    That is also amazing for special effects

  • fzdp

    Not lowest possible, but “native” to your sensor. E.g Fuji native iso is 200, and using 100 will you get less dynamic range…

  • CEpheide

    It seems at DPS that you are acting like teenager who does not want to admit and correct his little-not-important mistake. Many has told you in previous articles that your description of iso is not only a simplification for beginner, it is a simplification completely wrong, actually the contrary to how it works.

    Yes, as this article said : beginners “don’t need to understand all the science behind the scenes to use ISO “, exact, but beginner does not need to be told the inverse of reality neither. If beginner does not need to know the science it is better if you do not give any explanation than to give an explanation which is the contrary of reality.

    So, to be constructive:
    – “The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive it is to light, while a lower ISO makes the camera less sensitive to light.”
    No, in the real world the iso never change the detector sensitivity to light. This is simply wrong and does not help anybody to understand how it work or how to use it, beginner includes.
    A correct simplification: “ISO is use to brighten your picture like the slider ‘exposure’ on your software, except that it does it in a slightly better way”.

    – “[ISO] it also introduces a significant amount of grain or digital noise into the image.”
    No. Again in the real world this is completely wrong, iso does not introduce digital noise at all. Photographic noise come mostly from the fact that their is little amount of light. Brightening the photo in post (exposure slider) or with the body, with iso, will show about the same amount of noise (even less with iso).
    A correct simplification : “The less you collect light, the more you will see noise in your picture”.

    Hope it helps, or will help,

  • Daniel Cadaret

    I am not sure exactly what you are trying to get at, ISO as a measure of sensitivity is perfectly reasonable for a beginner. That’s how we used to explain is o in film to people, and it’s my understanding it’s basically the same in digital. Back when we used film faster film was trained because they literally had larger grains of silver, so saying it modifies sensitivity is correct. As far as the noise complaint goes, faster is o does add more noise because less grains of silver or sensors are being iluminated, you don’t get the same amount of noise in post processing by increasing exposure because s a lower is o in either film or digital means more data is being collected.

  • CEpheide

    Hi Daniel,
    The Magazin is called Digital Photography School and obviously talks about digital sensors, so did I. Saying that increasing iso, increase the (digital) detector sensitivity to light is simply wrong. Photosite of digital sensor are staying the same what ever the iso is. iso (gain) is just a conversion between the number of photon collected in a pixel and the number written in your memory card, that it. (You collect 20,000 photons, 5,000 photons or 50 photons you can ‘spread’ them to your 14bit memory by using different iso.)
    If you think about it the whole article is twisted by a miss-understanding of what is iso in digital sensor and the fact that it is different to film. To the question ‘what iso should you use to landscape’, the answer is, it does not matter. What matter is to maximise the quantity of light you can capture for the best quality. Putting a low iso just allows you to capture more light in one shot. What makes a high iso picture noisy is the lack of light, by nature. It is that simple. No need for un-true simplifications. If on your small camera the lowest iso is not enough to capture enough light, just stack pictures to increase the quantity of light. Stacking together 8 pictures taken at iso 800 and you will get about the same noise quality than a iso 100 picture on the same body, because the same amount of light is collected.
    There is a correlation between iso and noise quality, obviously, but there is absolutely no causality relationship between them. ISO does not introduce ‘visible noise’, less light does. And this is a much more valuable message to beginners.

  • dabhand

    Daniel – a beginner is extremely unlikely to have any knowledge of the film days and the explanation is incorrect – Unlike film, digital sensors have a single sensitivity. Changing the ISO on a digital camera doesn’t make the sensor any more sensitive (i.e. capture more photons) nor does it mean any more or less data is being captured, instead think of it as similar to turning up the volume on a low quality audio recording ie: amplifying a weak signal (gain) and the accompanying noise, so whilst you can hear (see) it, it sounds (looks) lousy. That said, with today’s cameras using up to ISO 400 and even 800 for some, is unlikely to have any negative impact.

  • Madhukumar Veluthekkil

    Daniel is already confused with ISO, and niw he made others also in confusion…

  • Gord Roberts

    Thank you for this extremely clear explanation of digital ISO. Best 2 paragraph explanation I’ve read.

  • Spike Hodge

    Thank You for an excellent article with nice real-life examples.
    You commented; “Please note: This is a simplification for beginners.etc” and you were right as pointed out by a couple of people!
    And while your explanation is technically wrong it is an ideal, and a quick, explanation for beginners who are actually reading the article to learn how to choose the right ISO – not pass a science test. They will get to know the in’s an out’s of modern sensor design; just not in this very informative article on using ISO camera settings in landscape photography. article
    Keep up the good work.

  • David Gee

    This old chestnut out again. In the real world a higher ISO will result in more noise. OK you are increasing the ISO because there is less light, but the fact remains that if you uses higher ISO to allow a faster shutter speed, smaller aperture, because it is fairly dark outside or in my case recently simply forgot to lower the ISO back to 100 after a previous night’s shoot there will be an increase in noise.

  • CEpheide

    I am pretty sure David, that you can makes the difference in between “Photography with higher iso are more noisy” and “ISO introduces a significant amount of grain or digital noise into the image.”
    The first one is a constatation, functional description perfectly correct and necessary to take picture and does not try to explain.
    The second one is a attempt of description of how it work, how iso and grain work and is simply wrong.
    If at DPS they do not know how noise and iso work they should limit themselves to the functional description and it is pretty fine. So why trying to explain with false statement ?

  • CEpheide

    If the goal of the article is NOT to explain how iso and noise work, why should the article try to do it ? It is something to say that the sun is moving on the sky during the day it is an other thing to explain that this is due to fact that the sun is rotating around earth.
    The excuse of “This is a simplification for beginners. It is actually much more complex than this but you don’t need to understand all the science behind the scenes to use ISO correctly.”
    Is perfectly understandable and a good excuse to not inter in detailed un-necessary explanation. It is a very bad excuse when the simplification is the inverse of the reality.
    That it, it does not mean that it makes the article bad. The author should only describe constatation instead of giving false explanation. Or try to give right explanation, it is not complicated: “iso is use to brighten your picture”, “grain on your picture is due to the lack of light and usually when you shoot high iso is because there is a little amount of light”. How that is more complicate to understand for beginner ?

  • David Gee

    Sorry. your explanations are wrong and show a complete misunderstanding of the physics. The explanations given in the article with the provided caveats are accurate and in accordance with the physics.

  • David Gee

    I feel that the article is consistent with the physics in a simplified way. Your explanations are not consistent with the physics and are simply pedantic.
    The concept of an exposure triangle is both simple, accurate and useful. Explanations given in camera manuals such as those provided by Nikon are consistent with the physics and the article in dps. It would be more constructive if the pedants could keep out of this and allow the excellent contributors to dps to provide their helpful articles unhindered by the confusion that you create.

  • CEpheide

    Sounds that your comment is ‘in the air’ of modern time where physics, physician, historian, sociologues, are just ‘pedantic’ because they do not let people having any kind of opinions without criticism. This is called, I think, relativism where any argument is valid as long as somebody express them.
    The concept of exposure triangle is useful indeed. The explanation given here on how the triangle works is wrong. That it.
    I never seen an explanation of the physics of noise and iso in any Nikon manuals, just functional descriptions.
    As your last ‘argument’ I believe that explanation that match the reality is always better to false explanation. Or do not give explanation. Whatever the quality of the magazine or article. I cannot imagine the New York time saying that they allow themselves to say whatever they want because they are writing good article : Earth is flat, it is much more simple like that and if somebody say the contrary he is a pedant.
    I do believe that knowing that the grain in digital picture is coming essentially from the lack of light (even with the most perfect detector) is a valuable input for photographer, and I cannot imagine how this could be pedantic neither how it could add confusion, everybody can experience it.
    Once again, hight iso pictures have grain because you cannot record a lot of light with high iso. It is that simple.

  • Marc Thibault

    do yu use Iso auto..sometimes..?? depend the lens yu have at f2.8 more light?

  • Wolfgang Medlitsch

    The problem is what sensitivity does mean!
    Increasing ISO does not increase the incomming light! It only (?) AMPLIFIES the signal and by that also the noise! A part of the noise is due to the “physics” of light and the less light the more noise!
    So the slider metapher is not inherently wrong – it is another form of ampification without changing the given information base,

  • Jack Doy

    Thanks David, that I understand. As for CEp I recon he could start an argument in an empty room. Cheers

  • AJ Lersch

    The sensor picks up the same amount of light no matter what the ISO is period. A Higher ISO just amplifys the light that the sensor pics up so you can still take a photo in low light. Iso is the amount of ampification of the light that you are collecting. Noise is just what it says unwanted noise due to the fact that at higher iso everything is amplified. Think of a tape recorder and you are using a microphone to record if there is someone yelling (as in lots of light) you can keep the volume low (ISO) and the tape recorder only picks up the yelling. Now think of someone whispering really low (dim lighting in a picture) to record that you have to turn up the microphone volume which now picks up the wind rushing by, cars on the street, neighbor kids playing and their dog barking, ect. ect., which is alot of just noise you didn’t want to record but, since you had to amplify the whisper to record it you also amplified all the other noises too along with the whisper and all that is now heard on the tape. So taking this into account you want to keep your ISO as low as you can while still getting the picture. If you were recording a once in a lifetime speech is it better to increase the microphone volume to the point you record the speech but also get a dog in the distance barking too or keep the volume low so you don’t hear the dog but also miss recording most of the speech because the microphone didn’t pick up the person talking? Keep this in mind when recording light (as in a picture) as it is some what kinda the same idea. The whole object is to take a picture with as less noise (unwanted amplified light or noise, grain) in the picture as possible (low ISO) but, still getting the picture you want. Sometimes you just have to make a compromise in the amount of noise, grain, unwanted light in a picture but at least you got the picture. i.e. a fuzzy picture of your grandpa is better than no picture at all.
    Happy shooting
    AJ Lersch
    Laymen’s description of ISO
    Please excuse grammer I am not an English Teacher lol

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