Alaska can present many magical moments right off the highway like in this scene of first light on Denali from Denali View South pullout with fog over the upper Chulitna. For the vast majority of my landscape images, my Metering mode is in pattern, multi-zone, or matrix mode, My Exposure Mode is on aperture priority (AV) at f11 or f16, my Focus Mode is in manual focus (learn to trust the focus verification green light) (the only other Focus Mode I use is Servo focus tracking) and my Drive Mode is on 2-second delay to eliminate any camera shake from my hand tripping the shutter. The only other Drive Mode I use is continuous high.

Canon 5D Mark IV 70-200f/4 at 78mm
ISO 100, 1 second @ f11
Breakthrough Photography polarizer and 3 stop grad ND filter

I’ve seen and handled quite a few camera models this year from Canon, Nikon, Sony and Fuji. For emerging and part-time shooters I can see how camera operation with literally hundreds of menu options can seem daunting and overwhelming. My priority for emerging shooters is to keep folks motivated to develop their photography skills on the creative side first and to link photography with some other passion they might have. I still love to combine adventure or a fitness activity (like hiking) with image creation and I still believe there is great joy in learning light and design and discovering the joy of seeing the world in a new and expanded way through your camera’s eyes.

My on-location process is to find the image first, then work on the technical details. Your tripod, no matter how good, isn’t always on a firm surface as is the case here on soft Alaska tundra. This is why I almost always use a 2 second timer as my primary DRIVE MODE for landscape work.

Photography is a great way for aging shooters to keep their minds busy and remain engaged with the natural world and abundant beauty of wild places. I try my best to simplify the technical side so that the joy in outdoor photography continues to grow and folks don’t get discouraged by complex camera operation and the seemingly endless menu functions of today’s cameras. The latest crop of digital cameras still do essentially the same thing that the first cameras of the 1850’s did – focus and expose a light sensitive medium so let’s simplify modern digital camera operation by understanding and mastering just a few choices in four basic camera modes:

1) Metering mode
2) Exposure mode
3) Focusing mode
4) Drive mode

To keep my camera operation simple and efficient, I only use 1 or 2 options in each of the 4 main operating modes. Too many choices can be paralyzing. Spend the rest of your time focusing on creativity!

1. METERING MODE: First understand how your camera meters light. Most cameras take multiple readings across the image sensor then averages them out and give you a reading of what the camera thinks is the right exposure. There are different names for this like matrix or evaluative metering but they essentially do the same thing. A meter reading renders everything to a middle tone but much of what we shoot outdoors is not middle tone. Many landscapes that involve lots of sky, water, and snow mean most of what your sensor is metering is brighter than middle tone and your camera will have a bias toward making images darker than they should be. This can be fixed with exposure compensation discussed below.

The second common metering mode on most cameras is center weighted. In the past 20 years I don’t know of a single pro shooter who uses this metering mode.

Often times, especially with water and sky and shooing into the light, our scene is brighter than middle tone and more often than not, I add light through exposure compensation. I lock in my aperture, say f11. My camera chooses 1/30th of a second. I know this is wrong and will render the image too dark. Using exposure compensation I manually override what the camera chose by 1 stop. This puts my shutter speed to 1/15th second. Since I’m on a tripod and nothing is moving but the surface of the water, there is no sacrifice in using a slower shutter for this image.

Canon 5D Mark IV 70-200f/4 at 138mm
ISO 100, 1/8th second @ f16
Breakthrough Photography 3 stop grad ND filter

The third most common metering mode is spot metering where the camera only meters maybe 1% of the image area. In some cameras spot metering is just the small middle circle on your focus screen. I will only use spot metering if this metering option is linked to the active focus point. Some pro level cameras have this. This is an advanced way to meter and very useful for any action type shooting where the subject moves erratically from front to side to back light. As long as you know where your subject falls in respect to middle tone (darker or lighter) you can assure proper exposure of your main subject as long as you keep the active spot meter point on the subject.

Long story short on metering mode: Use the multi pattern mode, SET IT AND FORGET IT. After a few years of practice and if you do specialized action/sports shooting, especially with a long lens, then learn to use spot metering with that scenario.

2. EXPOSURE MODE: Virtually all modern camera brands and models have the same 4 choices:

  • Full Auto or Program where the camera makes all the exposure decisions,
  • Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, where you the photographer choose one parameter and the camera chooses the other, and
  • Full Manual where the photographer chooses both shutter and aperture.

What mode should I use? Forget full auto or program. Seriously, if you’ve spent several thousand of dollars on a system with interchangeable lenses and you use auto you might as well sell your outfit and just shoot with a smart phone. Most landscape, macro or travel shooters use aperture priority and you should too: YOU choose the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter. It’s the best of both worlds really. You get creative input with choosing the aperture and the camera instantaneously chooses the shutter – just as fast as it does so in full program. Remember the metering discussion above? Sometimes the camera doesn’t choose the right exposure. It will render the image too dark or light. No need to worry. Your camera has an exposure compensation dial which allows you to manually override the camera’s decision by a certain amount. This is a critical feature. Learn how to access it and use it!

OK, what aperture should I use then? Remember the classic answer to “How did you get that shot?” “f8 and be there.” Why f8? Your lenses produce their sharpest results when stopped down 2-3 stops from maximum aperture. f8 is 3 stops down on an f2.8 lens and 2 stops down on an f4 lens. So to answer the question, which f-stop should I use, start at f8! Then ask yourself, “Is there a reason to deviate from f8”? Want a blurrier background to achieve better separation of your subject? Then change it to f5.6, f4, or f2.8. Need more depth of field? Go the other way to f11, f16 or f22. Most of my landscape work is done at f11 or f16. Most of my action work with or without speedlights is at f4, or f5.6

For night time shooting where the intensity of the light, in this case the aurora, is fairly constant, manual exposure works best. In order to have crisp stars my exposure needs to be no longer than 20 seconds. In manual mode I keep that constant. If the intensity of the light changes, such as the aurora getting much brighter then I just change the other 2 variables, either the aperture, or ISO setting so that I get a proper exposure at 20 seconds. For night time shooting one has to be careful not to trust the LCD screen on the back of the camera as an indicator for good exposure. Because of the low ambient light your night time images will look brighter than they actually are. Put more trust in your histogram reading than you do the LCD brightness.

Canon 5D Mark IV 20mm f2.8
ISO 1600, 20 seconds @ f3.2

What about manual exposure? When should I use it? I use it about half the time. Here’s when. I’m working the same subject for a while in the same light and neither the subject or light will go away or change anytime soon. Taking a few minutes to dial in a proper manual exposure can save me lots of time in Lightroom.

Example: You’re working a moose in nice soft morning front light. The light won’t change for the next 30 minutes. You shoot 200 frames. Some frames have 10% moose and 90% bright background. Other frames have 80% moose and 20% background. If you shoot that in aperture priority your camera will choose exposure variations based on the percentage of moose to background. The keyword here is SAME LIGHT falling on the subject regardless of how much of the frame the subject occupies. Dial it in manually on your historgram and all the images in the set will be easily batch processed in post.

Long story short on metering mode: Use aperture priority mode with exposure compensation. This will suffice for 90% of your photography. When you can do this standing on your head, start playing around with manual exposure.

3. FOCUSING MODE: Most cameras have 3 modes:

1) Single shot where the camera locks on to a single focus plane and stays there until you refocus
2) Servo, Continuous or Tracking where the camera tracks a moving subject and the lens predicts where your subject will be when you trip the shutter, and
3) Manual focus.

Focusing accuracy on modern cameras has become very sophisticated and amazingly accurate. Focusing performance is one of the things that start separating expensive pro level cameras and lenses from consumer grade models. Unfortunately, if you want focus accuracy for difficult, fast moving action subjects you have to pay more for higher performing gear.

Some cameras have an auto mode where the camera decides to engage single shot or servo focus. I NEVER use this. A couple of important points to make. I’ve seen photographers confuse “continuous” focus mode with continuous drive mode. They are NOT the same! Continuous focus tracks your subject and your focus distance is constantly changing during the active tracking process. Continuous Drive Mode just means your camera keeps taking frames until you stop your shutter finger (the frame rate) and is completely different from focusing.

IMPORTANT POINT: What ever focus mode you use, learn to change your focus points on the fly, without ever taking your eye off the viewfinder. Remember, focus points are different than the focus MODE. Most cameras today, through menu functions, allow you to have the camera choose the focus point for you. AVOID THIS! The camera will usually default to what ever is closest to the camera as a focus point. I often like to put an out of focus element in front of my subject for a more cinematic look.

I intentionally placed these bright red fireweed out of focus in the foreground to give a selective focus look to my hikers on the trail in Denali National Park. I kept my focus point on the front person and almost always keep my focus MODE in continuous tracking. If I had left the focus point selection up to the camera there was a good chance it would pick the foreground since it was closest to the camera. This is not what I wanted.

Canon 5D Mark IV 70-200f/4 at 81mm
ISO 400, 1/800th second @ f4

Take the time to develop the motor skills to choose a small focus point and track your subject. This will pay dividends in the long run.

Long story short, how do you simplify focus operation? Here’s how I do it and I shoot a lot of action and motion in addition to landscape work. 3 easy steps here.

1) Only use back button focus that is focus with your right thumb. Decouple focusing from your shutter finger. This might take some time in the menu functions but it is well worth it. Keeping your focusing point linked to the shutter button can lead to a lot of unintentional misfocused images especially when you are working the same subject for a while. It may seem awkward at first but the ONLY way to focus is to decouple focus operation from the main shutter button. This way you eliminate unintended focusing.

2) I always keep my focus MODE in AI-Servo (Canon), Continuous (Nikon), AF-C (Sony). This way I am always ready for maximum focus accuracy with a subject in motion. So what about landscape work or when the subject doesn’t move? See step 3.

3) For stationary subjects, keeping my AF mode in Servo, I just simply manually focus the lens to my desired focus point, or disengage AF on the lens barrel and manual focus. All my Canon lenses allow full time manual focus override. This is one of the principal reasons I use Canon! The focus point will stay where I put it until I manually move it on the lens barrel or press the back focus button. If your system doesn’t have this full time manual override, simply disengage AF on the lens barrel for landscape and stationary subjects. But my eyes are not great and I don’t trust manual focus. What then? Virtually all cameras have focus verification even in manual focus. On my Canons, it’s a green circle lights up when focus is achieved. On the Sony, the focus point, a rectangle, lights up green when focus is achieved. Like climbers who learn to trust the rope, photographers who feel they have bad eyes can learn to trust the focus verification in manual focus.

This low flying trumpeter swan near Anchorage was a fast breaking photo op. It is for moments like these why I always keep a body and lens with power turned on (it was in power saving mode) ready to pull out and shoot within seconds. I keep one of my Canon 5D Mark IV bodies fully optimized for action shooting. On all my cameras I keep my focus MODE in continuous or tracking or servo. Had I not done that I would have likely missed this shot and others like it.

Canon 5D Mark IV 400f/4
ISO 1600, 1/500th second @ f4.5

4. DRIVE MODE: This determines how many images your camera will make while your right index finger has the shutter button pressed down. Again, this mode has zero to do with focusing. To keep things simple, I use 2 modes for 90% of my shooting. For virtually all tripod based landscapes, I use 2-second timer. This eliminates any chance for soft images created by motion introduced by the weight of my hand and arm. The second mode is continuous high mode.

I see no need to use single shot mode. Storage media is cheap and abundant and I still believe that anything worth shooting once is worth shooting multiple times. So for shooting hand held travel or landscape images, hammer off a series of images. Bring home options and be a careful and ruthless editor only keeping the cream of the crop in each set.

Keeping my drive mode in “continuous high” allowed me to capture the best body gesture of the swan stretching its wings. The only other drive mode I really use is 2-second timer for tripod based landscape work. For handheld landscape or travel work I still use continuous high. I rattle off a series of 3-6 images perhaps. In post and editing, I just keep the cream of the crop and delete the rest. In situations where you have a marginal shutter speed for a sharp hand held shot, shooting off a series in continuous high stack the odds in your favor of at least one image in the set being sharp.

Canon 5D Mark IV 400f/4
ISO 400, 1/200th second @ f8