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Choosing the best ISO for landscape photography is hard, especially as a beginner. Should you use a low ISO for a clean image? Or should you use a high ISO to keep things sharp? Or go with something in between?
Fortunately, while picking the perfect ISO is often daunting, there are some simple tips you can use to get the ISO consistently right.
And that’s what this article is all about. I’m going to share with you my ISO recommendations. By the time you’re finished, picking the ideal landscape photography ISO will be a piece of cake – so your images can stay sharp, beautiful, and noise-free.
Starting with my number one tip:
Picking the right ISO is a balancing act.
A higher ISO lets you use a faster shutter speed so you can take sharper images in low light.
But a higher ISO also reveals unwanted noise in your images, which looks really, really bad. Noise is something you want to avoid, and it’s the reason that you’ll often hear things like, “The best ISO for landscape photography is always 100.”
When I first started out as a landscape photographer, that’s what I believed. I used ISO 100 all the time (except for night photography).
Now, I still think you should use ISO 100 for most stationary landscapes. But 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.
Instead of always dialing in ISO 100, pick the lowest ISO you can afford while getting the effect and level of sharpness you’re after.
Here are some common scenarios when you might need to bump up the ISO:
But those are just a few of the scenarios where ISO 100 might not be possible. There are also less obvious times you’ll want to increase the ISO, as well:
So to reiterate my advice in the previous section:
Pick the lowest ISO possible, but bear in mind that you may need to keep it above ISO 100 in certain scenarios.
Now let’s take a closer look at one of the trickiest situations to pick the best landscape ISO:
When shooting at night.
As you now know, ISO 100 is not ideal for night photography. So what ISO is best for shooting at night?
Well, at night there’s not a lot of light. You need a lengthy shutter speed to capture a well-exposed image.
But you can’t just lengthen the shutter speed and expect a great result. For instance, setting the shutter speed to 30 seconds and leaving the ISO at 100 will still result in an underexposed image.
Instead, you need to sacrifice some image quality and increase the ISO.
In other words, when choosing the best ISO for landscape photography at night, you’ll first need to pick a long shutter speed (often in the 10-second to 30-second range). And then you’ll need to boost the ISO – so you can capture beautiful, detailed, well-exposed shot.
The exact ISO you need depends on the moon phase and the overall brightness of your scene. For instance, being close to city lights or other light sources will reduce the required ISO.
When shooting at night, I first set my aperture and shutter speed. Then I dial in my base ISO for night photography, ISO 1600.
But just as with ISO 100, ISO 1600 isn’t the only night landscape photography ISO you should use. Instead, ISO 1600 works as a starting point. After taking a test shot, you should make small adjustments.
Most of the time, you’ll use an ISO between 1200 and 3200 for night photography, though a full moon or the northern lights might allow for an ISO as low as 800.
The most difficult part of manually adjusting settings is learning 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.
While leading photography workshops, I often notice that many students are photographing with an aperture of f/22 and ISO 100.
Then, when they need a faster shutter speed, their first instinct is to increase the ISO.
As discussed above, it can make sense to boost your ISO for a faster shutter speed. But you should always ask yourself: Do I actually need such a narrow aperture?
If you’re shooting at f/22, for example, you might consider widening the aperture to f/16, f/11, or f/8. And if that will give you good results, leave the ISO alone.
Remember, always use the lowest ISO possible. In scenarios where you’re shooting with f/22, the image will almost certainly benefit from using a wider aperture and maintaining a low ISO. This is true whether you’re shooting during the day or at night.
I hope that I haven’t made you even more confused than you were before. Understanding the ISO and choosing the best one for your situation 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 possible ISO in each given scenario.
For regular daytime photography, you should typically use an ISO between 64 and 400 (the latter is when you’re using a telephoto lens handheld, which requires a quicker shutter speed to keep sharp). For night photography, you should typically use an ISO between 1200 and 3200.
So, as the final word on the best ISO for landscape photography:
There isn’t one single correct ISO for each and every scenario. But aim to use the lowest ISO you can.