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A great landscape photo can capture the imagination and inspire the soul. It brings a static scene to life and reminds us why we’re drawn to nature’s cathedrals. And while you can clearly envision the kind of picture you’d like to make of your favorite vista, what may not be as clear is the gear that is essential to taking a great landscape photograph. So, let’s talk about that.
My list of essential gear for the landscape photographer . . .
We’ll begin with your camera body. Any camera will do for making a shot to share on Facebook. But to elevate your landscape game to the next level, it is essential to use a camera body that allows you to get off Auto and start shooting in Aperture Priority.
One of the keys to a great landscape photo is having tack sharp focus throughout your depth of field. In other words, everything from the leaf in the foreground to the distant mountain range should be in clear focus. To achieve this, you need to shoot at a focal ratio offering great depth of field. Shooting in aperture priority allows you to choose the right focal ratio for the scene. Something in the range of f/8 to f/16 should produce images with good depth of field and crisp focus throughout.
Another setting you’ll be able to select in Aperture Priority is ISO. This is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Shooting with a low ISO delivers cleaner images having less noise or graininess. For better landscapes, try to shoot as close to your camera’s base ISO (100 or 200) as possible.
The combination of a large focal ratio (f/8 or higher) and a low ISO (100 or 200) means longer exposures will be needed to make a good image. If you shoot landscapes at midday when the sun is high in the sky, there is more than enough ambient light to make a good image with very short exposures. But truly dramatic landscapes, the kind you’re after, are typically captured in very different lighting conditions.
Many great landscape photos are taken during the golden hour; that all-too-brief window of time at sunrise or sunset when dramatic lighting paints the scene. Cloudy skies also add an element of drama which can transform a so-so view into a stunning image. Under such conditions, the available light is much lower and this creates the need for our next piece of essential kit: a photographic tripod.
A tripod provides a stable platform for your digital camera. It allows you to take the time to carefully compose a shot and then lock down your camera in that position. Since you’ll be shooting in low light conditions, using a large focal ratio and low ISO, the length of the exposure needed to capture the scene will be fairly long. Too long to steadily handhold the camera. Mounting your camera on a tripod will keep it steady during very long exposures that record amazing detail.
Of course, one of the most important pieces of equipment for a photographer is the lens through which a scene is captured. For landscape photography, your most versatile lens will be a wide angle. These are short focal length lenses that deliver wide, true fields of view. That wide field of view allows greater flexibility in composing a shot encompassing the full grandeur of a landscape. I recommend a minimum focal length of 12mm for APS-C bodies (cropped sensor) and 18mm for full-frame cameras.
Fortunately for your wallet, this does not need to be a fast lens which are designed to have focal ratios of f/2.8 or faster. They are consider fast because their large apertures collect enough light to keep exposures brief, even in low light conditions. Large apertures demand a large front lens element, which comes at a steep price. And while the performance can be well worth the investment, many photographers simply don’t have room in their budgets for such a purchase. Since you’ll be shooting at f/8 or greater, a lens with a maximum focal ratio of f/4 should more than meet your needs.
Let’s talk briefly about filters. They can be a great tool for the landscape photographer. Among the most useful are graduated neutral density (GND) filters and variable polarizing filters. However, as useful as filters can be, I don’t consider them essential gear. In the right lighting, filters are unnecessary. In situations where a GND filter would be of use, it’s often possible to compensate for significant differences in brightness in your photo editing software of choice. In short, filters are useful but not absolutely necessary.
The last piece of essential gear we’ll discuss is, you. Your eye for composition is the most important asset in your photographer’s tool kit. Your ability to recognize good light is essential. If you look at a scene and your inner voice is saying, “Ooh, that’s cool,” that’s a good sign the lighting is outstanding. Listen to that inner voice, stop and compose a shot.
Walk around the scene. Look for a foreground element to include in the composition. One of the biggest challenges of landscape photography is conveying a sense of scale. Including a foreground element helps immensely. A bush, leaf, rock or person provides a sense of scale for the rest of the image. It also helps simplify the scene, making the resulting image more approachable to the viewer.
With a keen eye for composition, a camera body allowing you to shoot in Aperture Priority, a solid tripod and a sharp wide angle lens, you can take your landscape photography to the next level. Your images will convey the magic you felt while standing amidst a grand scene. The resulting “oohs” and “aahs” will be the reward feeding your satisfaction as a landscape photographer.
Now, get out there and shoot some great landscapes!
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