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I’m often asked by beginning photographers about what I use to shoot my photos, whether it’s landscapes, portraits, sports, or some other subject. Most often, they are referring to the camera used, the lenses, maybe the flash. But the truth is that there’s more to taking great photos than just the camera. The truth is, the contents of my bag changes dependent on what I plan to be shooting. I’ve compiled a list of items that are always in my bag when I’m on a landscape photo outing, along with how they’ve helped me in my quest for better photos.
The truth is, I’d be lost without a tripod on a landscape outing. I currently have two I use regularly. Which ones I use is far less important than the process of choosing a tripod. Too often, beginning photographers skimp on the tripod purchase, going for something cheap that doesn’t suit their needs, and in the end, their images suffer. First and foremost, a tripod needs to support the weight you plan to put on it. This means taking the total weight of your camera and heaviest lens, and making sure your tripod will support that weight. The fact is, a heavy tripod will better support the weight you put on it, but in today’s world a premium is put on lighter weight. Carbon fiber tripods are lighter weight and generally support heavier loads than aluminum tripods, but at a higher expense. One of the tripods I use is a Manfrotto XPro B, with an Arca Swiss B1 ball head. This tripod and head combination weighs over 6 lbs., but is rock solid in any conditions. The tripod legs are rated to support 15.4 lbs, and the head is rated to support over 90 lbs! My other tripod is a Gitzo 1541T Traveler with an Acratech GPss ball head. The legs are rated to hold 17.6 lbs, and the head is rated to hold 25 lbs. This is a smaller setup that folds down to about 20″, and weighs less than 3 lbs. This is what I use when I fly, or when I am hiking longer distances. The thing to realize about a tripod is that a good one is built to last. If you take care of it, a tripod can last a lifetime of shooting.
These days, just about every DSLR out there has a built-in electronic level, a feature I simply LOVE. However, sometimes in the heat of the moment I will simply forget to level my camera properly, since the built-in level isn’t always visible on the screen. Because of this, I still carry a hot-shoe mounted spirit level in my bag. It’s hard to miss it sitting on top of the camera, and it always reminds me to be sure the camera is level. And yes, while some tripods do have levels built-in, they aren’t always easy to see, and depending on where they are mounted, it may indicate the legs are level, but doesn’t mean the camera is level because the head can still tilt.
I’m a big fan of using neutral density filters and graduated neutral density filters for landscape work. I have a set of Schneider filters that I use with a Lee filter holder. The Schneider filters are not cheap. They are optical glass, heavy, and high quality. There are more economic options available in Lee-style filters, including Cokin, Formatt, and Lee. The filters I use are 4×5 size, which allows me to adjust the horizon on the graduated filters based on my composition. My kit consists of 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-stop ND filters, and 2-,3-, and 4- stop grads, which come in both hard and soft-edged styles. Which style you use is dependent on the scene in front of you. I also have a circular polarizer I use often for controlling reflections and cutting haze.
I often find myself shooting before the sun rises, and after the sun sets. This means hiking to and from my location in the dark. A flashlight can be a lifesaver in these situations. In addition, at times I go out to shoot night landscapes, to get stars in the sky, or the moon. If there’s no light in the foreground and I’d like some, a flashlight is the perfect way to paint some light back in. I also carry a headlamp in my bag so I can work handsfree and have a light on while digging around in my bag.
When you have lenses that have different diameter front elements, it can be maddening to have to buy filters for each lens. An easy workaround for this is to buy step-up rings. I have a complete set that covers from 52mm up to 82mm. I then simply purchase the filter for the largest lenses I own and use the step up rings for smaller lenses. Much easier and more cost effective than buying filters to fit each lens.