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“The best camera is the one you have with you” someone said. Is it true? Almost.
The point is that if you are a landscape photographer and you want to pursue the perfect sunset shot, it’s unlikely that you will achieve that goal with your iPhone.
Here’s some advice on the gear you should have in your backpack, both for what I call primary gear (camera, tripod, and lenses) and for all other accessories. Without further ado, let’s start!
Don’t focus on the brand, focus on technical features. Given that all cameras today have all the basic functions, for landscape photography you need a camera with a good (please read “great”) dynamic range and weather resistant body – that’s all.
Dynamic range is essential, because it defines the ability of the camera to capture shadow and highlight details at the same time. Its unit is the Exposure Value (EV), and a value of 14 EV or above identifies an excellent camera.
Weather resistant means that the camera is weatherproof to a certain extent (note: weatherproof does not mean waterproof!). Remember that you will not take shots comfortably seated in a studio, so you should be prepared for humidity, rain and snow.
A Full Frame or an APS-C DSLR camera is up to you and to your budget.
In the last few months I noticed an incredible hype for mirrorless cameras and I must confess that I was tempted too. They probably will be the future, but not today, at least for landscape photography. The point is that the only real advantage of those camera is the weight, and in a 10kg backpack, saving 0.5kg is quite useless. Also, do not be duped by megapixels: you need a 42.2MP camera ONLY if you are going to print larger than 24×16″, and there’re still great cameras with a lot of megapixels in the DSLR market.
Landscape photography, fortunately, doesn’t require a lot of lenses, just a few good ones.
Focus on wide angle lenses: for a full frame camera, lenses with a range from 14-35mm are a great choice, from 10-22mm if you have an APS-C sensor camera. Zoom lenses are okay, but obviously prime lenses are best for sharpness and overall quality.
Another point for DSLR cameras is that there are really few wide angle lenses for mirrorless cameras. If you are thinking of using your DLSR lenses on a mirrorless camera using an adaptor, say goodbye to quality.
As with the camera body, I recommend weather resistant lenses: rain, humidity and snow could be a serious problem.
Finally, don’t focus on useless features: as you are going to shoot between f/8 and f/11 in the 95% of the times, you don’t need a fast f/2.8 lens (and for this choice your wallet will be extremely happy!). Also a stabilized lens is useless, because as you are going to use a tripod, you’ll turn if off every time anyway.
No, you can’t use a table or a flat surface, you need a real tripod. They could be really expensive, but as for other gear, focus just on some key features. Truth be told, there is just one feature that you need – sturdiness.
The aim of a tripod is to let you take shots avoiding any vibration, so you need something that can resist the wind. If you can, choose one with independent legs as they could make the difference if you’re on a rock in front of the sea or on any other irregular surface. Aluminium or carbon fibre is up to you (and your budget). Just remember that a carbon fiber tripod is not just lighter, but it will also not be affected by the galvanic corrosion of water, so if you’re a seascape photographer this could make the difference on its life expectancy. Finally, remember that the danger of using a carbon fiber tripod during a thunderstorm with lighting, is just an urban legend.
To further reduce the possibility of introducing any vibration, I really recommend the use a remote shutter. There are many different type of remote shutters and it can be hard to decide which one is best for you. In my opinion, avoid wireless/infrared remotes and go for the more reliable cabled solution. If you love time-lapse or long exposure photography, choose a programmable one.
Avoid smartphones applications too: they will drain the battery of your phone very quickly and your phone is not weatherproof.
Genuine or compatibles? Of course, genuine remotes are probably more reliable, but they are quite expensive, especially the programmable ones. That said, I’ve been using a compatible programmable remote for three years, and it’s still working perfectly.
You camera could have the sensor with the best dynamic range available, but unfortunately it’s far from the dynamic range of human eye. You can overcome this limit in one of two ways: post-production or using filters on camera. For a cleaner result, as I love to spend my time in the field and not behind the monitor of my computer, I suggest you use filters. Also because there are some filters, like Neutral Density and Polarizing filters that are not possible to simulate in post-production. There are many different kinds of filters and hundreds of different uses of them. We could speak for hours about this topic, so for now let’s just consider them as something that cannot be missing from our backpack.
Finally, if you are a filter user, don’t forget to bring with you a filter bag: handling filters on the top of a cliff or with your feet in the ocean is always a challenge: just one misstep and your precious glass is gone. Look for a dedicated filter bag and hook it to your belt, around your shoulder, or fixed to your tripod. I’ve tried many solutions, but actually I really believe that the Terrascape bags are the best, and most reliable solution on the market.
Even you are an old-school photographer, you should consider the incredible advantages provided by the use of a tablet (or a smartphone) in the field. Here are just few:
1) Cartography: Download the awesome, free app Maps.me and you’ll never get lost. You will not be only able to download the needed maps for offline use, but you can also import .kmz files, and this means that you’ll have always with you all the spots you found on Google Earth to reach them easily!
2) Weather: A good landscape photographer should continuously monitor the weather evolution. For that reason, the daily weather forecast is not enough. Download an application that lets you see the actual satellite/radar situation and you’ll be able to select between two or more spots according to the short term forecast. A wise choice is AccuWeather.
3) Planning: If you want to take a great sunset shot, you must know exactly where the sun will be, in the location where you’ll stand with your tripod. Once you know that, you’;; need a tool that allows you to calculate, quickly and accurately, all the needed exposure parameters to properly set your camera. There are many different applications that do theses task, but just one that let you do everything all in one app: PhotoPills
4) Food: Is there something better than having the perfect breakfast after a cold sunrise session, or a warm and delicious soup after a rainy sunset? An application like Tripadvisor will let you quickly find the best restaurant or coffee near your your location.
A landscape photographer is at the mercy of the weather and Mother Nature, so you must consider that a sunny day can become a rainy nightmare in a few hours, so you must be prepared.
First of all, be ready to protect your camera and your lens. Even if they are weatherproof, it’s not a good idea to test the quality control system of the camera manufacturer. You can buy an expensive rain cover from a photography website, or for just few dollars you can go to a local market to buy some refrigerators bag for vegetables…they work perfectly!
Also remember that the overall quality of your shoot is affected by how clean your lens is – bring with you as many microfiber cloths as you can.
Extra tip: if you are using slot-in filters, to protect them from rain while you are not shooting, use a shower cap.
If you are out with your camera to capture a marvellous sunrise, it’s quite easy to remember to bring with you a torch or flashlight to reach the desired location. Do the same for sunset! After sunset the light fades out very quickly, and you may find yourself losing orientation in the darkness.
If an hand torch is fine, the best solution is a head torch (head lamp – get one at a camping supply store) is the best solution as it will let you both hands free. Remember – safety first.
Do you know what could be worse than having a dead battery or a full memory card? Nothing. Believe me, if you’re in front of the perfect sunset just with your iPhone it’s a pity, but if you’re there with your camera and a dead battery, you’ll blame yourself for the rest of your life. Remember that the intense use of Live View mode or extreme cold weather may compromise the charge level more quickly than expected.
Also bring always with you a spare memory card, even if your primary one has a lot of space and you want to take just few shots – it may break or crash. If your camera has two card slots, use them simultaneously, because having a live backup is always a great idea.
It’s difficult to review images on your LCD display when it’s sunny, so I always use a Loupe. They are also useful for a more accurate manual focus as they can reach a 2x magnification.
Every time you straighten the horizon line in post-production, automatically you crop a small amount of the image. So, why not to take your shoot correectly with a straight horizon line?
If you are like me, it’s impossible without help from outside. If you own a modern camera, you may have a built-in virtual horizon function. But if your camera is older, or simply don’t have this function, consider buying a hot shoe bubble level (also useful to protect the hot shoe of your camera against oxidation).
Don’t underestimate the importance of your clothing; it is as essential as your camera. If you are suffering from heat or cold, you’ll definitely focus on yourself, and not on photography. You are dressed properly when weather conditions do not affect your activity. In summer, don’t forget to bring with you a water bottle and a cap; in winter, never forget gloves, a neck warmer and a wool hat. Always bring with you a rain cover and an umbrella (that you can also use to protect your filters and tripod from rain and wind).
It’s not that difficult to peel the skin from one knee on a cliff, or get a small wound on a finger, and when it happens a bandage and a disinfectant are worth a thousand sunsets. Again – safety first.
But don’t think just for yourself, think also for your gear. Always bring with you a swiss multitool knife and some duct tape. If they are able to fix the wing of a plane, they will be able to fix the leg of your tripod too.
To take a great landscape picture, you should be in the right mood, and for me there is nothing like hearing my beloved Ludovico Einaudi, while wandering deep in nature, with my tripod on my shoulder. Remember that you can have thousands of dollars of equipment in your backpack, but they are completely useless if your soul doesn’t want to use it.
What gear do you use for landscape photography?