How to Get Better Landscape Photos Through Correct Metering


Here's a test for you-

What do you believe would be the most difficult photographic situation, (in general), to get a proper meter reading from your camera’s light meter?

Image by Pixabay

A glass of water, a puppy portrait, flowers in a garden, a bridal portrait, a plate of spaghetti, a lion sleeping in the Serengeti, a teenager waterskiing, a street performer juggling, the landscape of El Capitan at sunset in the Fall…

(Laughing) It was fun dreaming up that list… All of them could present problems.

However, I intend to make a case that metering for a landscape photograph is one of the biggest challenges that a photographer can face.

Why do I say that?

Of all the “situations” listed- a landscape is the one that you have the least amount of control over.

  • You can’t move it.
  • You have a limited ability to change or manipulate the lighting.
  • You may not be able to move the camera (depending on what angle you wish to photograph).

When it comes to metering any scene -what is the biggest bug-a-boo that you’re going to face?

Evaluating the contrast level, and then making a conscious choice as to what you’re willing to give up in your photograph.

“Wait a minute!” You’re thinking. “I have to give something up?”

Typically, yes.

If you didn’t already know this, I hate to break the news to you, but your camera has a limited ability to capture a range of tone.

This is known as “Dynamic Range”. Believe me, it’s not just your camera. Dynamic range has been an issue with photographers going as far back as… well… since photography was invented.

(Yes. Yes. Yes. I know that modern cameras have a greater dynamic range than in the past, and that using raw files adds to that range- as well some other software tricks (HDR) to restore details.)

Dynamic range should be of particular interest to landscape photographers. Why? Because the dynamic range for a landscape photograph is likely to be beyond the ability of the camera to capture.

Why do you think landscape photographers love to shoot during the Golden Hour?

One of the reasons is that the Golden Hour compresses the dynamic range of the scene!

What do you think HDR stands for? It stands for High Dynamic Range imaging. It ‘extends’ the ability to capture a range of tone! That’s why landscape photographers love HDR imaging.

Most of you have probably heard this photographer’s name- Ansel Adams.

He is perhaps one of the most famous landscape photographers in the history of photography.

His images are awesome. But, do you know what really brought him notoriety?

He was very concerned about capturing the widest possible dynamic range with his camera and film. He was obsessed with it really. He developed what became known as the, “Zone System”.

This system was one of the reasons that his images were superior to his competitors at that time.

The Zone System is still important today. I’m going to share just a tidbit about it here in this post.

You’re probably wondering- what does this have to do with proper metering for a landscape photograph?

Well, it has everything to do with it.

Before I show you why, let me give you a very brief primer on the Zone System.

[img][/img]Illustration by Kent DuFault

Since just about everybody in today’s world is a ‘digital photographer’, you are more likely familiar with the histogram than the Zone System.

Thus, I created this ‘comparison’ illustration so that you can visually see how a histogram would compare to- the Zone System chart.

You can see that the Zone System divided tone into ten steps- or levels- of black to white. 0 represents absolute black and 255 represents pure white.

The illustration shows the histogram for a photograph that did not have a full range of tone. The example photograph, that the histogram represents, is missing most of the brighter mid-tone to highlight values (between 70% and 100% on the Zone System chart).

That’s a very important point to grasp. Why?

As a landscape photographer you will have to make a choice on virtually every picture that you create.

What choice are you making? Your choice of exposure- based on how you meter the scene.

Uh huh! Here we are! Right back to “How to Get Better Landscape Photos Through Correct Metering”.

Before I start explaining- I want to give you a really good tip

Many photographers don’t truly understand this…

As stated above, “0” is absolute black and “255” is pure white. You want little, to none, of your final image to be in either of those zones. Why? Because in those tone values there are no image details at all- NONE. Is this an absolute rule? NO! There are no absolute rules in photography. But in general- you will want to follow that rule.

Here is a good guideline for you: you want your darkest black area to be around 8-12 on the histogram scale. Your shadows with detail should be around 15 – 40 on the histogram scale. Your specular highlights should be no higher than 250 on the histogram scale. Your brightest highlights with detail should be in the 235 – 249 range on the scale.

Are you going to be thinking about all of these numbers when you’re in the field shooting? NO! These numbers are important in your post-processing, and if you metered / exposed your scene correctly- you should be close.

(Hopefully most of you understand these numbers. If you don’t… go here to check out my eBook, Complete Landscape Photography over at

Let’s look at two examples where metering played a significant role in the exposure decision, and how that decision affected the final outcome!

[img][/img] Photography by Kent DuFault

This image presents a beautiful landscape photography opportunity that far exceeded the dynamic range of the camera that created it. The excessive dynamic range was primarily due to backlighting.

I had to make a choice. The camera meter told him that I could not record detail in all parts of the scene.

What choice did I make- and why?

I chose to retain detail in the highlights because that was where the primary story was.

The details in the shadowed area of the mountains wasn’t important to the message, and in fact, by letting that area go “deep black”, it added an element of composition.

Let’s take a look at another example:

[img][/img]Photograph by Andrew E. Larsen

This photograph represents a much wider range of tone than the previous example.

However, it was still outside of the dynamic range of the camera. Detail had to be sacrificed somewhere. Can you tell me where the detail was sacrificed in this example?

The photographer decided the detail in the mid-tone range was more important than either the brightest highlights or the deepest shadows. He set his exposure based on his light meter reading to record mid-tone detail.

Where was detail lost?

The detail was sacrificed in the snow where the sunlight illuminated the mountains as well as in the darkest shadows along the ridgeline. The snow area would measure as a “255” on a histogram (or 100% on The Zone System scale). That area is absolute white. The deepest shadows would measure as a “0”, or complete black.

Let me show you a snapshot of what that looks like-

[img][/img] Original Photograph by Andrew E. LarsenIllustration by Kent DuFault

This illustration shows you the wide dynamic range the camera must attempt to capture- even in just one tiny portion of the frame.

So… how do you meter for a landscape photograph? I’m going to give you a bullet point list in a minute that will simplify the process.

First, let me show you how I metered the photograph of the Chugach Mountain range in Alaska.

[img][/img] Illustration by Kent DuFault

As I metered this scene, to determine my exposure setting, these are the positions (within the frame) that I looked at. At this point, you might be saying-

“Oh my God! All these numbers- I just want to take beautiful landscape pictures.”

I understand. Believe me. But, if you can grasp just the few points that I’m going to give you in the bullet point list- you’ll do much better in your efforts.

(By the way- just to make sure you understand. I did not discern these histogram numbers in my camera at the point of taking the picture. I measured them in Photoshop for this demonstration. When you meter you will see aperture and shutter speed combinations. You have to interpret that information. More on that in the bullet point list.)

All of this previous information is to give you the background for a better understanding.

Once you understand the concepts of tone value, tone placement, and exposure; you will grow leaps and bounds in your landscape photography.

In my Alaska photograph, I knew that I was going to let those deep shadow areas go to absolute black (as previously stated). I took a meter reading from the various spots highlighted in the example illustration. I determined that the majority of the tone values that required detail, fell into the mid-range to upper mid-range scale.

Therefore, I took my meter reading from the area where the circle is and set my exposure settings (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) accordingly.

My evaluation caused almost no loss of detail in the highlight end of the scale. I had complete detail in the mid-range tones. And, the most loss of detail was in the shadows, (which I had already determined was part of my plan).

Okay- you’re now ready for the bullet point list…

To properly meter for a landscape photograph consider the following-

  1. Once, you have decided on a scene; evaluate the contrast range with your eyes. Take notes (I do). Note your brightest highlight area that you wish to maintain detail. Note your darkest shadow area that you wish to maintain detail. Note an area that you believe to be a mid-tone (127) area.
  2. Use your longest focal length lens (or a handheld spot meter). Set your metering pattern to “spot”. Take a meter reading of the three areas that you noted in step one. Write down the exposure settings. (For the sake of example- I’ll make some up: Shadow area 1/2 sec at F/1.4: Mid-tone area 1/2 sec at F/8: Highlight area 1/2 sec at f/45) This represents a 10 stop dynamic range. Most DSLR cameras can record a dynamic range of about 5 to 6 stops. The super high-end professional DSLR cameras may go as high as a 10 to 12 stop range. For most of us, we are looking at a 5 to 7 stop range.
  3. Make a determination of where you are willing to lose detail: highlights or shadows? Set your exposure with a bias to the end of the scale that you want to have detail. Using my example meter readings above- if I wanted to bias my exposure maintain detail in the highlights, I would set my camera to 1/2 sec at f/16. If I wanted to bias my exposure for detail in the shadows, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/4. If I wanted to record as much mid-tone levels as possible, and sacrifice a little detail at both ends of the scale, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/8. I’m not going to go deeply into this- BUT- you may have heard of “Shooting to the Right”. This refers to biasing exposure to the shadows thus over-exposing the highlights. The theory behind this is that digital cameras, shooting raw files, can recover more detail in the highlight end of the scale- than they can in the shadow end of the scale (in post-production). And while this is true, you should strive for the best exposure setting possible (based on your mind doing its work).
  4. Finally, shoot a picture and look at the histogram on the LCD screen in preview. Are you getting the correct bias that you wanted? For example, if you wanted to maintain detail in the shadows, but the shadows are being clipped off on the “0” end of the scale- you need to increase your exposure. The opposite would be true if you were looking at the highlight end. If they’re being clipped off, you need to reduce exposure.


  • Evaluate the tone range of the scene.
  • Make a determination which tone values are most important.
  • Set your equipment to take a meter reading of the smallest area possible (spot setting)- take a meter reading of the shadow, mid-tone, and highlight areas you identified in the previous steps.
  • Determine the dynamic range.
  • Set your exposure using ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed to place the “window” of dynamic range in the right location on The Zone System Scale.
  • Shoot a test shot.
  • Evaluate the histogram.
  • Adjust exposure as necessary.
  • Enjoy your wonderful results!

I hope you’ve learned a bit about metering, the Zone System, exposure, how your camera works, and most importantly: how to correctly meter for a landscape photograph!

If you’d like to learn more about landscape photography, check out my eBook- Complete Landscape Photography, over at It’s packed with info and tips on how to get the most out of your landscape photographic safaris!

About Author

Kent is an occasional writer at our place, and also handles the weekly “Picture of the Week” contest. He has been involved with photography since 1974 and you can get to know him better here.

Great thought exercise, and critical to getting more intentional. When the scene is changing rapidly it is still probably best to bracket, thereby giving you options for intentional exposure when time isn’t critical.

Thanks for sharing!

Absolutely. I’m definitely in the camp of “get the shot first” then worry about perfection.

Actually, I’d recommend, don’t spend the time calculating in the field that you could rather spend shooting. Shoot bracketed exposures and learn exposure blending in post.

Bracketing is always an option. I think bracketing was a real necessity back in the transparency film days when there was really no latitude for exposure at all. My intent was to try and help beginning to medium level photographers understand how metering works, so they can put that information to use for a better exposure. Bracketing is only effective at increasing dynamic range if you’re doing HDR or Luminosity masks. If you’re just bracketing, without those additional steps, you’re just moving the dynamic range window up and down the scale.

Kent, Not sue if you’re a Nikon or Canon shooter, but on my Nikon there is a setting for “Center Weighted Area” which allows me to adjust the size of the area being measured for exposure. These setting are 8, 12, 15, 20mm or Auto. Do you adjust any of these settings for your spot metering?

My camera does not have the option for the meter. My camera has a spot, center-weight, and matrix setting. But honestly, I have an old Minolta spot meter that I mostly use.

When I studied with Ansel Adams one thing he said was “the image your camera captures is only the starting point for creating the image in your mind”–You have some beautiful photographs, but as the camera doesn’t see the world the same way your eye does, all photos require some post processing to reach the point of looking like what you saw–and from there you may continue until the image matches the image in your mind–Ansel very much wanted to take color photographs–but when he manipulated them the image just didn’t “work”–he would have absolutely loved Photoshop. All that said, you certainly want your exposure to give you as much latitude to work as you can–which is why you use spot and move the selection point to the most reasonable spot.

Is there a reason why you adjusted the exposure by changing the aperture rather than the shutter speed? I assumed depth of field would be an independent consideration.

Kent, I cannot imagine using a a setting of F 1.4 in a landscape. Generally I lean towards F 11 to F 16 for landscapes. On occasion I will drop to as low as F 8 but that is rare. I can see the point you are getting at but it almost confused me with the examples. I would be using Aperture priority with that setting fixed and then following your steps could see your point, but like I said a landscape at F4 would be unusual.

My examples were arbitrary. They weren’t meant to be taken as- this IS the f/stop- or this IS the shutter speed. The point is that there is a window of dynamic range. By careful metering- you can then place that “window” where you want to achieve maximum detail.

For landscapes, the best approach is to determine what depth of field you want and set your aperture accordingly. Always try to avoid the widest aperture of your lens and unless you need to get foreground objects in focus, there’s usually no need to go beyond F5.6 with non-tele lenses.

When bracketing, always vary the shutter speed and keep the aperture constant. That way you’ll have the same depth of field across the exposures.

Your article on Metering for landscape photography is, not only excellent technically but quite readable as well. I teach Basic and Intermediate Photography at Ivy Tech Community College and would like to share the article with my students.

If that is OK with you, please let me know.

Also, I have spent a month in Australia doing (mostly) landscape photography and truly enjoyed the experience and all the people as well

It is unusual that nobody has mentioned DIFFRACTION issues at F 11, F 16,etc. Getting a soft image due to diffraction(even though a properly metered image) is a kill joy for many. Depending on the lens being used the aperture used should be the one which hits the sweet spot for the lens and then other considerations like metering, shutter speed,ISO and using a steady Tripod or other means to steady the camera in cases of slow shutter speeds, comes into play:)

Very nice and informative article over all…..Thanks for taking out the time for it.

To me, the ripples in the foreground draw you eyes away from the dramatic mountains. Foreground interest is fine if the midground is “bare” but you have the reflection in the mirror of the water which adds to the drama.
Personally I would have cropped it out.
But that aside, I wish I had the opportunity to take such a picture

Histogram Shmistogram. Just expose for the sky when shooting. It will underexpose the foreground a bit but as long as your ISO is low enough you can bring it back up without any deterring effects to IQ.

Kent, Many thanks for the insights and “how to get there from here”. Will definitely give it a try. Any thighs on using your lenses hyperlocal point for landscape?

All the best, Victor

Thank you, I will definitely put this excellent tutorial to use next time. Never thought about planning a landscape this way. I’ll be very cautious next time concerning pictures metering on the far left and far right of the histogram, of course depending on what outcome one would like to achieve. We have done this gray scale 0-10 in art class as well, all coloring in art works exactly the same. Makes absolute sense.

Very informative article Kent, thanks.
I have a background in print (lithography) so the 10 step black to white scale is something I have no problem with in creating a black & white image but I was wondering how you determine tonal range in a colour setting. Would it be prudent to shoot a B&W image first (in camera) and determine the zones (as close as possible using a camera display) as a visual aid or would this not be accurate enough?

Keith, Sorry for the delayed response. The best way to attempt to determine b&w tonal range at the point of creating the image is to use a monochrome (or sometimes referred to as a B&W) filter, which you would hold to your face and look through. After the image is created you can adjust tonal range for a black & white during the conversion process.

This exposition/tutorial is about the best I have seen anywhere. Thanks so much!

I have been using the Ansel Adams Zone System for more than 50 years, starting with B&W large format and also with 35mm film photography, yet have drifted away from such precision in metering since the advent of auto-exposure and then digital photography and the reliance on mushy auto-everything pushed on us by the camera manufacturers.

I still have and try to use a Lunasix light-meter, with a spot-meter attachment, to second guess the internal light-meters in my cameras in order to get back to the older ways. Unfortunately, the digital camera tends to influence me and probably others to satisfy our desires for instant gratification, often with unsatisfactory results. Thanks to Photoshop and Lightroom it is possible to recover to some degree from my own frailties.

Thank you so much for your tutorial and to read comments from other pro photographers is also very helpful. I am amateur photographer and not getting any younger! I agree with Dirk and bracket! 🙂

Great article; thanks! I have one question, though.
On the bullet point list (point #3; lines 4 & 5 ) you say that if you wanted to bias your exposure towards the shadows you would (using the arbitrary example settings) set your exposure to 1/2 sec at f/4. Should this not be at 1/2 sec at f/1.4 (not f/4) in order to get a bias towards detail in the shadow area?

Bravo! Sometimes the vernacular gets in the way. Thank you for “spelling it out” in common language for me. I shoot B&W on film and do my own developing at school. Once school is done, no more lab access, so I really need to know how to do this in the digital world and be good at it. B&W done correctly makes my heart sing…unfortunately, I ain’t too good at it yet!!! Getting there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *