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If you are interested in going out and getting some high quality landscape photographs, here’s a comprehensive list of items you will either want to consider, or must have, in order to increase your chances of getting some keepers:
Whenever I start to plan a photo shoot to a particular location, I usually begin by googling the area. If it’s a relatively well-known location, you will probably find some very interesting, and comprehensive, websites made by other photographers or adventurists/bloggers. The problem is, if it’s a famous location, you will also get a ton of not-so-interesting and even incorrect information as well. Weeding through Google to isolate the helpful and high quality blogs or websites from the crummy ones is an art form all its own. Once you get used to perusing Google, reading just a few sentences of a blog will clue you in as to whether or not the information you’ve found is worth taking it to heart or not.
If you aren’t lucky enough to find two or three really good blogs about the location, head over to Alltrails.com. It has a sizeable database of locations around the country that have been hiked, including user’s reviews of the location and the level of difficulty in getting there. If it’s a famous site, TripAdvisor.com has a good database of information, including the places to stay nearby.
From there, you’ll be off and running with more information than you probably need. In most cases, what becomes tricky is weeding through everything you find and parsing it down into just a few brief paragraphs on your overall plan of action.
If you’re looking for a place to save some money, a backpack is not where you want to be counting pennies. You get what you pay for, and when it comes to choosing a backpack to take on a landscape shoot, it is very important you use a bag that is strong and water resistant, with reinforced padding.
Don’t fall victim to the lame zipper bug (you know you’ve been there before, trying to unzip the bag and before you know it, the zipper pops off the bag like a cricket). Do yourself a favor and invest in a high quality bag, like the Tamrac Expedition Series, or the Lowepro Pro Trekker. It will last you many years, and will help you take care of your camera and lenses in the long run.
Generally speaking, for various reasons, I still much prefer a DSLR (such as the Nikon D810) over a full-frame mirrorless camera (such as the Sony A7r) for landscape photography. One reason is that certain DSLR models are significantly more rugged and weatherproof than mirrorless (update: this is gradually changing with new mirrorless models).
Eventually you’re going to drop a camera. It happens to all of us (at least that’s what everyone told me the first time I dropped a camera), especially those of us who are out in less than perfect weather conditions. DSLRs made from composite magnesium handle some rough treatment much better than the plastic-bodied entry level DSLRs. My first full-frame DSLR was the Nikon 700. That camera could survive being run over by a small truck. A perfect companion for the clumsy, just-starting-out landscape photographer that I was then.
Also consider investing in a quality raincoat for your lens/camera. I don’t recommend getting one of the cheap, flimsy, clear plastic covers made from recycled sandwich bags…they will tear easily and won’t stay put in windy conditions. Get a cover that is heavy duty… one good coat will last a long time, and they aren’t pricey.
To handle poor footing out in the muddy, rocky, sandy wilderness, and to protect your camera lens setup, a tripod is one item you don’t want to mess around with. In fact, this is the one item more than any other that I would recommend you consider heading to the northern end of your projected budget in order to select a high quality tripod.
A flimsy tripod could end up costing you a chunk of a paycheck in repair bills. It only takes one good gust of wind to knock over an unstable tripod. Having a nice camera and lens, but an entry-level tripod is like putting four worn down, old tires on a Ferrari. It won’t run properly and it’s dangerous for the rest of the setup.
A good tripod will outlive both of us, so it’s rare you’ll need to invest in more than one over the course of many years. A few extra bucks goes a long way towards getting having a more stable, secure setup.
See Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto, Gitzo, or Feisol for excellent tripods. In my opinion, you should strongly consider carbon fiber over aluminum; they are the lightest and strongest on the market.
This is where the fun begins, and your wallet ends. Lenses are the single most important piece of equipment in photography. You can have the finest camera, tripod, backpack, media card, and accessories available, but if you don’t have quality glass, it will severely complicate your ability to take a good photograph.
I typically prefer to shoot with prime (fixed focal length) lenses, as opposed to using zoom lenses. My preference for primes is mostly about making sure that I get as personal and into the scene as possible.
With zoom lenses, I tend to get a bit lazy and shoot without adequately working the scene. There is no substitute for moving your feet and SEEING the composition with your own eyes, and not just through the viewfinder. The element of perspective is lost if you simply zoom, instead of walking around and checking things out with your own eyes first.
That said, it’s strictly a subjective thing. I know plenty of photographers who prefer using zoom lenses, and that’s great. Most of the time, the best gear for you is the gear you’re most comfortable with. The key suggestion here, with any lens, prime or zoom, is that you RENT one and try it out before buying it. You can’t know how the lens will work for you until you use it in various situations.
This is often overlooked by many photographers, but I firmly believe having a remote trigger makes a big difference. Without one, you have to physically press on the top of the camera. No matter how careful you are, and no matter how securely fastened the camera is to the tripod, this will introduce some micro-shake into the setup. If you want your image to be as tack-sharp as possible, you don’t want anything touching the camera that doesn’t have to. Once the mirror locks up, you want your setup to be as steady as a concrete slab. Every DSLR has its own proprietary remote shutters, and you can also find quality third-party remote shutters available at a lower cost.
For landscape photography, some filters are almost as essential as lenses. I’ll keep it brief here and stick with just a few basic filters I would always want to travel with:
A polarizing filter helps mitigate the nasty, harsh reflection of the sun off of shiny objects such as water or anything wet. To get it to work, you simply turn the filter until you see the glare disappear, then you stop turning the filter. A polarizer will also help darken a blue sky and make it a deeper, richer blue. Some people like that look, some don’t. If you do, a polarizer will help you achieve it. I use a polarizer practically all of the time when shooting in daylight.
An ND filter basically acts as sunglasses for your lens, it blocks some light from reaching the camera’s sensor, thereby slowing down the exposure. For example, a 3-stop ND filter (usually denoted as an 8X or 0.9 ND filter) allows three stops less light through than you’d get without the filter attached. A 5-stop ND filter will allow five stops less light, and so on. For the serious landscape photographer I’d recommend having a 2-stop, 3-stop and 10-stop ND filter. If you want to do some long exposure waterscape work, the 10-stop will come in handy to help make the water look silky smooth. You can also stretch out clouds or turn people into invisible ghosts with ND filters.
These are similar to ND filters, but instead of the entire filter being tinted, only the upper portion is darkened, with the tint getting darker from the middle to the edge. So, for example, if you’re photographing a horizon with a sky that’s two or three stops brighter than your foreground, you could use a graduated ND filter to help bring out the foreground more, without blowing out the horizon. It will effectively balance the amount of light received from both the brighter horizon and the darker foreground. Usually just a two or three stop GND filter is necessary. Here’s a photograph of a Graduated ND Filter:
Same principle as the one above, except instead of the tint getting darker from the middle of the filter to the edge, it’s reversed. The middle of the filter starts out the darkest, and gradually gets lighter as you travel towards the edge. These are excellent for shooting sunrises and sunsets, where the horizon line is the brightest area of the frame, and as you go higher in the sky, it becomes less bright. This is what a Reverse Graduated ND Filter looks like:
If it’s my lens, I want to do everything I can to protect it from wear and tear. I always have a clear, or UV, filter on the front of every lens I own. It does nothing to help improve the photograph in any discernible way, but it does a great job protecting the front lens element from dirt and dust, or from me walking into a door lens-first, which has happened more times than I prefer to admit.
Always, without exception, carry an extra battery for your camera, an extra media card, and an extra battery for any other battery-consuming device. If you’re bringing along a flash that takes four AA batteries, take an extra set of four with you. Chances are you won’t ever need them, but there will always be the one time when you do, and you’ll wish you had them.
This clever app (TPE) does an amazingly accurate job at detailing when and where the sun, and moon, will rise and set. If you’re out chasing sunsets and sunrises for photographs, this app is a must-have.
No joke; having a comfortable pair of shoes is like having good vision. If your feet aren’t comfy, then nothing else matters. You will not be as good a photographer as you otherwise would be with comfy feet. This especially holds true on longer hikes; invest in a good pair of hiking boots. A pair that strike a balance between breathing well but also offering some water resistance.
That’s enough for the list of equipment you’d want to consider having to photograph landscapes. If you’ve made it this far in this article, I hope you’ve gotten something useful out of it. Have fun shooting those landscapes!