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 intimidating, 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.
Let’s dive right in.
The problem with ISO in landscape photography
First, let’s delve into why picking an ISO while photographing landscapes can be such a puzzle.
The ideal settings for capturing expansive vistas often involve narrow apertures, like f/11 or f/16. These settings make sure more of your scene is in focus, but they also let less light hit your camera’s sensor.
And when photographing during those golden hours – sunrise and sunset – or during twilight and night, even less light hits the camera sensor. As a result, your images will turn out very underexposed, unless you make significant adjustments to your aperture, shutter speed, or ISO.
Opening up your aperture will brighten the exposure, but it comes with a cost: The depth of field (i.e., the area of sharp focus) narrows, potentially blurring key elements of your scene. Slowing down the shutter speed can also brighten your image, but it risks introducing motion blur, especially if the scene includes moving elements (such as tree leaves waving in the wind). Not to mention, if you’re handholding your camera, a slow shutter speed is a surefire way to get blur due to camera shake.
Finally, you have a third option: boosting the ISO. Raise the ISO, and your camera amplifies the sensor signal, making your picture brighter. But here’s the catch: higher ISO levels create noise, the tiny speckles of light and color that degrade image quality.
So you find yourself at a crossroads. Do you sacrifice some depth of field by widening your aperture? Do you risk motion blur by choosing a longer shutter speed? Or do you increase your ISO and cope with the inevitable noise? It’s a tough call, and below, I share my advice, starting with my number one rule:
The best ISO for landscape photography is always the lowest ISO you can get away with
Picking the right ISO is a balancing act.
A higher ISO lets you use a fast shutter speed so you can take sharper images in low light. And it also boosts image brightness so you get plenty of detail in dark scenarios.
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 accepted that there’s no 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. This is often ISO 100, but it isn’t always; sometimes, you need to boost your ISO setting to ensure the best possible image quality.
When does ISO 100 fail?
Here are some common scenarios when you might need to bump up the ISO beyond 100:
- When photographing handheld
- When trying to freeze moving subjects
- When photographing at night
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:
- When adjusting the shutter speed to capture perfect motion/flow in water
- If you need to freeze elements moving in the wind (such as bushes, branches, etc.)
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, as I explore in greater detail below.
Tips for choosing the best landscape photography ISO
Choosing the right ISO is far from easy. Below, I offer tips and tricks so you can capture landscape photos like the pros.
1. Boost the ISO at night for a faster shutter speed
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. And if you set the shutter speed to 10 minutes and leave the ISO at 100, you’ll end up with partial star trails – sometimes this can be a nice effect, but it often isn’t the goal.
So instead of lengthening the shutter speed, you need to sacrifice some image cleanliness 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 shots.
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.
2. Work in Manual mode
You might find Manual mode intimidating at first. It’s like going from riding a bike with training wheels to freewheeling down a hill. But stick with it. Mastering Manual mode gives you total control over your camera settings, and that’s invaluable in landscape photography.
Manual mode allows you to tweak the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently. That way, you can carefully dial in your preferred settings, then make adjustments until you have the results you want.
Trial and error is part of the process. Take multiple shots with different settings. Look at them side by side. Understand how adjusting one parameter changes the outcome of your image. As you get the hang of it, operating in Manual mode will feel like second nature, and you’ll wonder why you were ever so intimidated!
Spending the time to master Manual mode can really pay off. Your landscape shots will feature more detail, better exposure levels, and less noise. Plus, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of how your camera truly works.
3. Don’t be afraid to adjust the aperture instead of the ISO
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.
4. Trust your technology
You might be thinking that ISO is a bit of a necessary evil. It can help you out in tricky light situations, but it can also bring unwanted noise into your photos. To a large extent, this is true – but modern cameras are pretty darn good at handling high ISOs.
Especially if you’ve got a camera that’s on the newer side, you’ll find that images shot at ISO 400 and even ISO 800 can be surprisingly clean. Gone are the days when ISO 400 would make your photo look like a grainy mess. Advances in sensor technology have changed the game.
What about even higher ISOs? You can venture into ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 territory and still get decent results, especially if you do some noise reduction later on (see the next tip!).
So what’s the moral of the story here? Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. Your camera can likely handle more than you think. But don’t just take my word for it. Run some tests. Take some sample shots at different ISOs and see how they turn out. It’s the best way to gauge what you’re comfortable with.
5. Use a good noise-reduction program
Noise at high ISOs is often pretty unsightly, but you don’t have to live with it – there are amazing noise reduction programs that can remove noise while sacrificing minimal detail.
Many platforms come with noise reduction features built in. Take Lightroom, for example. It offers an AI Denoise feature that’s pretty phenomenal. You can get rid of those specks and keep your photo’s details crisp.
Now, what if you’re really focused on image quality and don’t mind spending a bit? There are standalone programs designed just for noise reduction. A popular one is DeNoise AI from Topaz Labs, which offers specialized tools to obliterate noise and enhance image quality.
Yes, you’ll need to invest some money. But the results are excellent, so if you often need to add some denoising to your shots, it could be a worthwhile purchase.
6. Try a black-and-white conversion
Let’s say you’ve tried noise reduction software, and you’re still not happy. Maybe the noise is too stubborn, or it’s affecting the colors in a way that can’t be eliminated. Well, there’s another trick you can try: a black-and-white conversion.
When you convert a noisy photo to black and white, something interesting happens. That noise starts to look like texture. Instead of detracting from your image, it can add a layer of grit. The result is often more forgiving of noise and can even be visually appealing, depending on the mood you’re going for.
Converting to black and white is a breeze; most editors offer a one-click approach. Just find the right button, press it, and voilà, your image is instantly transformed. (And don’t worry: you can still tweak the contrast, brightness, and other elements after the conversion.)
So if you find yourself stuck with a noisy image that won’t clean up the way you want it to, give black and white a try. You might just discover that your “ruined” photo wasn’t ruined at all. It just needed some fine-art editing!
The best ISO for landscape photography: final words
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 working with a telephoto lens handheld, which requires a quicker shutter speed to keep the photos 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.
Now over to you:
How do you plan to approach ISO in landscape photography? Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- The Best ISO for Landscape Photography (in Every Situation)
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES