The New Leica Monochrom

Leica just announced the release of the all-new Leica M246 Monochrom…the only digital camera on the market which shoots strictly in black and white.  No color.  The all new CMOS full-frame sensor only reads shades of light/dark.

The difference between the old Monochrom and new Monochrom parallel the main differences between the old M9 and the new M240: Live view, better LCD screen, CMOS processor instead of CCD, 24 megapixel resolution, ISO up to 25,000, and black and white video.

The body of the camera is manufactured from strengthened magnesium alloy.

Personally, I love the looks and function of a Leica rangefinder. They can be a headache to learn how to focus if you don’t have any prior experience with them…especially the older M9 and M-E which don’t have live-view.  With live-view and focus peaking, the photographer can much more efficiently dial in focus.

One thing I’m not a fan of about Leica cameras is the location of the media card: it’s tucked away under the bottom of the camera.  So, the only way to reach it is to remove the entire base plate. The battery is located in the same area.  I suppose this offers some added protection to the media card…but honestly, why can’t it be where it normally is on every other digital camera: along the side of the camera protected by a flap?

The size of the M240 is incredibly diminutive, considering that it is a full-frame 24 megapixel camera.  The new Monochrom will share the same body as the 240.

The price?  $7,450.00.  I will not be owning one anytime soon.  But…if you are one of those lucky enough to survive the sticker shock, the Leica M240 (and the 246) are truly remarkable works of art.

m240

mono3

 

Landscape Photography Magazine

One of my photographs was published in the reader’s gallery of Landscape Photography Magazine.  The image depicts one of the waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, as seen from a walkway along Cook’s Meadow.

You can view the submission here:

Yosemite Falls From Cook’s Meadow

I took this shot in late April of 2013, during the final stop in my first trip to Yosemite.  Late April is an awesome time to visit the park if you want to see the waterfalls in action, as they derive much of their water from snow melt.

As I said in the submission’s description, I used a 10 stop neutral density filter, along with a 3 stop grad filter…the ND filter slowed down the shot enough to soften the waterfall, as well as helping to smooth out reflection of the falls in the steam in the foreground.  The 3 stop grad somewhat balanced the exposure of the reflection in the foreground with the horizon and skyline in the upper third of the photograph.  Without the 3 stop grad I was afraid the skyline and sun-baked rock face would have been a little blown out, and/or the reflection in the foreground would have been unacceptably dark.

I swear by the use of Zeiss prime lenses for Landscape photographs…here I used the Distagon T* f/2.8 21mm at f/22.  The small aperture helped to bring as much of the photograph into acceptable focus as possible.  My focus point was along the grassy stream bed, about a third of the way into the middle of the photograph.

I had to rush a bit to get the shot, as I was taking the long drive back to Vegas to catch a flight immediately following this final stop.  This spot is a long 3 iron (I hate golf analogies, but it fits here) from the Visitor’s Center of the park.  If you ever travel to Yosemite, seeing these falls is about as easy as it gets…you can’t really miss it upon entering the park.

Here’s the photograph:

Cooks Meadow

Back-button focusing.

Up until not too long ago, I always relied on half-pressing the shutter to autofocus.  Using just the shutter release button is obviously a time-tested way to achieve proper focus in a variety of situations…but after reading an article about using a back-focus button, I figured I’d give it a try.  At first I was expecting it to complicate the process of composing a photograph…after all, instead of auto-focus and shutter release being limited to just one button, I would now be using an altogether different button to control autofocus.

Well…after using it for a few weeks, I am surprisingly pleased with the process.

What is back-button focusing?  You use a single button on the back of your camera which is fully dedicated to operating the autofocus mechanism, so that focus will be separated from the use of the shutter release button.  If you have the camera properly set up for back-button focusing, half-pressing the shutter will no longer control focus.  To achieve proper auto-focus, you simply press the dedicated button on the back of the camera.

Don’t confuse back-button focusing with “back-focus”.  Back focus is an issue where a lens will focus behind the intended subject.  Totally unrelated to back-button focusing.

Some cameras have a dedicated autofocus button on the back of the camera…typically it is labeled “AF-On”.  Other cameras require you to re-program the function of a different button on the back of the camera.  For example…the Nikon D750 does not have a dedicated autofocus button…so I use the AE-L button as the autofocus button:

The circled button on the D750 is what I use for autofocus control.

The circled button on the D750 is what I use for autofocus control.

 

To reprogram the button on the Nikon D750, you simply go into the custom controls (Letter F in the Custom Settings Menu) and edit the AE-L button under “Controls” (F4) to be assigned to “AF-ON”.  From now on pressing that button will engage the auto focus.

For more detailed instruction on how to re-program your specific camera, check out this article.

You will also want to program the shutter release button so that the camera will take a picture even when focus has not been achieved.  To do this on the D750, go into the custom setting menu under “Autofocus”, then select “AF-C” and “AF-S Priority Selection to “release”.

Occasionally, using only the shutter release button to focus was pretty frustrating.  For example…suppose you want to lock focus on a subject, then recompose the shot.  Once you recompose and press the shutter release again to fire a shot, the darn camera will refocus to the new area it’s targeted on…unless you press the AF-L button to hold focus the whole time you’re re-composing, or switch to totally manual focus.

With back-button focusing, you only need to press the AF-On button a single time to achieve the proper focus, then let the button go, recompose, and press the shutter.  The camera will not refocus unless you press the AF-On button again.  You are locked on a specific focal length.  And, no more accidental out of focus shots because you fully pressed the shutter release when you were only trying to half-press it.

One thing to keep in mind is that, if your camera is set up to back-button focus, you will not be able to control focus while using a remote shutter release.  Half-pressing the remote shutter is exactly the same thing as pressing the shutter button on the camera.  You would have to adjust focus using the back button first, then use the remote to fire the shutter.

That’s pretty much the basics for back-button autofocus control.  Keep in mind that back-button focusing is a totally subjective process…some people swear by it, and others don’t care for it.  Give it a try to see if it simplifies the process of getting the image you want.

Helpful Tip: Reverse Mount Your Lens Hood

Here’s a tip for the day:  When your lenses aren’t in use, or whenever you’re traveling with them and they aren’t actually mounted on your camera in their normal way, always reverse mount the lens hood, like I’ve done here:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Reverse mounting the hood aids in the protection of the lens barrel.  And, since the lens is now shorter than it otherwise would be with the hood mounted normally, it takes up less space in your backpack or luggage.

I firmly believe that reverse mounting the hood, along with having a protective filter on the front of the lens at all times, will significantly decrease the exposure of your lens to any sort of drop or bump which can dent or scratch the lens barrel or front element.

Also, if you want to do any shooting without your lens hood mounted in its normal fashion, and you aren’t doing any manual focusing, I’d keep the hood on reversed even while shooting.  If you’re as clumsy as I am, at some point in the future you will drop a lens.  And when it happens, I’m always thankful for having that lens hood there for extra protection.

 

 

Essential Gear for a Landscape Shot

For those of you who 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 get really good shots.

1) Google.  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 get some very interesting and comprehensive websites made by other photographers or adventurists/bloggers.  Problem is, if it’s a famous location, you will also get a ton of useless and even incorrect information as well.  Weeding through Google to pick out the helpful and high quality blogs/sites about any well-known location from the crummy sites is an art form all its own.  Once you get used to perusing through Google, reading just a few sentences of a blog will clue you in on whether or not it’s worth taking it to heart.  It’s rare that a well-written article is full of misinformation (unless it’s a satirical site, like Ken Rockwell)…and it’s also rare that poorly written material is loaded with helpful tips and tricks.

2) Great photographs taken by others who have been there.  If you are fortunate enough to find a well-spoken photographer’s depiction of his/her adventure to the spot, you will get some of the starting information you really need, such as the actual grid coordinates of the spot (if it requires a good hike to get there, coordinates are very helpful), tips and pointers on what to do and what not to do, and maybe a story behind the shots he/she got of the location.  Most of the time, if you keep at it, eventually you’ll find some really good photographs, which can help give you an idea of the type of composition you’re looking for, as well as technical details (i.e. what time of day, what time of year, and other important issues such as weather).

500px.com is my “goto” site to grab photographs of pretty much anything.  Like Google, it has a good search engine to pull up pictures related to your search parameters, and most good photographs have some technical data behind the shot, such as EXIF stuff, time of day, etc…

I have never been a fan of Flickr, but that’s just a personal opinion.  It’s also loaded with good photographs of pretty much everywhere.

If you aren’t lucky enough to find 2 or 3 really good blogs about the location, head over to Alltrials.com.  It has a sizable database of locations around the country that have been hiked to…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.

3)  A strong backpack.  I don’t like using shoulder bags…they tend to flop around too much for my taste, and if your bag is loaded with expensive gear, I’d want it tucked as tight to my body as possible.  And, if you plan on doing any hiking to get to your spot a backpack, not a shoulder bag, is vital.

My personal favorite backpack is the Tamrac Expedition series of backpacks (check them out here).  I own the 9X version.  The higher the number the larger the backpack.  The 9X pack is large enough to pack away large mammals…but even though it’s so large, it’s surprisingly easy to carry.  As I’ll talk about in detail later, I prefer to shoot with prime lenses as opposed to zooms.  One “drawback” to shooting with primes is that, instead of carrying one zoom lens, you sometimes have two or three primes that cover the same focal lengths as the one zoom.  That can be extremely annoying at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

The 9X bag is large enough to fit two DSLRs, one mirrorless camera body, 4 or 5 lenses, and any filters you want to bring.  It also has an excellent tripod carrying system on the back of the bag, which is sturdy enough to haul the heaviest of tripods/monopods.  This bag can generally hold more equipment than I am capable of physically carrying on a long hike.  I figured that out the very hardest way when I first hiked The Subway in Utah.

What I like so much about the 9X version is that, despite is size, it’s actually pretty light when not loaded up with equipment.  If I’m just bringing along a single DSLR with one or two lenses, this bag easily carries that stuff and doesn’t seem too burdensome, nor does it take up much packing space.

It is also large enough that I can compartmentalize both camera gear and personal effects.  The bag comes with an assortment of dividers/partitioners that stick to the sides of the bag with velcro.  So, you can have one section with photo stuff, and another section with a bottle of water, food, change of clothes, etc.

The exterior of the bag is waterproof, and there are two separate zippered pockets on the front of the bag which are perfect for loading neatly tucking away batteries, remote shutter, SD cards, and other small stuff.  There are three large zippered weatherproof containers inside the front flap, which are made of very strong translucent plastic.  You could store raw meat in one of these containers, and the rest of the gear in your bag would be kept perfectly sterile.

The bottom of the bag is made of an extra heavy-duty water-proof material, so if you have to sit it down on muddy or water-soaked ground, it shields the contents of the bag completely from the elements.  I’ve set the pack down in a stream before, and the stuff inside the bag was dry and totally unharmed.

Another excellent backpack is the Lowepro Pro Trekker Series (check it out here).  I’ve used the Pro Trekker quite a bit in the past, and it’s every bit as tough, durable, and easily useable as the Tamrac Expedition series.  It’s just a personal preference for me to have kept the Tamrac.

If you’re looking for a more cost-efficient pack, the Lowepro Flipside Sport (check it out here) is a good, strong bag…it’s just not as big, nor does it have a tripod carry option on the back.  I use it sometimes when I know I am not going to need much gear and/or am going somewhere that won’t allow me to use the bigger 9X Tamrac.

3) A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Camera.  I am not going to delve too deep into a discussion of the various cameras one can use to adequately capture landscape scenery…that would quickly escalate into more of a book than a blog post.  But 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 cameras (added protection from the elements will make the camera bigger and heavier, which DSLRs tend to be when compared to a mirrorless camera).  Additionally, the number of Nikon F-Mount lenses available are in the hundreds.  The number of Sony full-frame E-mount lenses aren’t even in the teens.  Sure, you can get an adapter to fit any number of lenses on the Sony A7…but then you’re really toeing the line of how sturdy and how weatherproofed your setup is…and lenses just don’t work quite as perfect when on an adapter.  They aren’t designed to be used with one.

For my money, the Nikon D810 is the Holy Grail of Landscape Photography.  I know Canon recently released a camera that claims it uses a 50 some-odd megapixel sensor…and I don’t really care.  The D810 (check it out here), in my opinion, is the finest full-frame (non medium-format) camera in the world when judging a camera solely on image quality.  Obviously that’s a very subjective claim, and a lot of people will disagree…and that’s fine.

The Nikon D750 (see it here) is also an excellent choice for landscape photography, and a more efficiently priced alternative to the D810.  36 vs. 24 megapixels isn’t that big of a deal unless you plan on doing some serious cropping, or printing out huge posters.  Side by side, I can’t tell the difference between two images taken by either of those cameras, unless you blow them up to their full sizes.

For those of you who prefer a crop-sized sensor, the Nikon 7200 or 7100 offer all the bells and whistles of the larger full frame cameras…the only real difference being the size of the sensor:  Capturing ultra wide-angles is more difficult with a crop sized sensor, and working with crop sized sensors also widens the depth of field, relative to full-frame sensors.

4) A sturdy tripod.   Long exposures need the camera/lens to stay as still as possible…and even a slight gust of wind can move lesser quality tripods around both at their base, and at the tripod head where the camera is connected.  Furthermore, many a time in the wilderness, your tripod will be sitting on less than ideal ground.  In a stream…on a rock bed, in sand, loose dirt…etc…to handle 15 pounds of camera weight and stay perfectly still needs good tripod equipment.  Really Right Stuff makes the best tripods I’ve ever used…and among them I prefer the TVC43…a carbon-fiber tripod with three sections, with a maximum height of 63 inches (5 foot three inches), and a minimum height of 27.4 inches (without a head).

If you need a bit more height, RRS also makes a TVC44 and TVC45, with 4 and 5 leg sections, respectively.  You can check out all of RRS’s carbon fiber tripods here.

RRS also makes an incredibly portable carbon fiber tripod: the TQC-14.  This is the ultimate traveling tripod, weighing in at only 2.7 pounds, and collapsing down to 17.7″  It’s perfect for throwing in an upper storage compartment on an airplane, and is easily carried on hiking expeditions.  This is the tripod I use when working inside homes and buildings.  It’s very easy to pick up and move around from room to room.

Choosing RRS as my tripod is strictly another personal preference…there are plenty of high quality tripod makers.  Manfrotto and Gitzo are atop the high-end mass-produced tripods.  Arca-Swiss makes excellent tripod heads…and they range in price from under $100 to well into the several thousand dollar category.  One of the under $100 heads would suit most landscape photographers just fine, unless you want to get into some serious macro or panoramic work, in which case having sliders or multi-level panning options become important.  Feisol also produces excellent carbon-fiber, lightweight tripods, that won’t break your budget: Feisol.com.

I would always recommend testing out or renting a tripod and tripod head before you buy it…you never know if you like it until you try it.  Even if it’s expensive, that doesn’t mean it suits your own specific desires for what makes a tripod easy to use.  For example, I much prefer the twist-lock joints that RRS tripods offer as opposed to a clasp design.  It’s all about personal preference once you get beyond basic quality standards.

5) Lenses.  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 high quality glass, it will severely hamper your ability to take a good photograph.

That’s not to say that a good photographer can’t work with mediocre lenses…they better be able to, because you can’t always expect to have the ideal equipment with you at all times.  Actually, that can be the most rewarding aspect of photography: working with equipment that’s ill-prepared for the shot, but you still find a way to get the most out of what you have to get the shot you wanted.

But, for the purposes of this article, we’ll go over some of the ideal lenses one would want to photograph landscapes.  Please keep in mind that I’m a Nikon guy, so I will spend time talking about their lenses, and not so much on Cannon’s equipment. If you’re interested in leaning more about Cannon equipment, Google “Cannon lenses review” and you’ll get a whole lot more info than you’d ever want.

For lens reviews in general, the website “Digital Photography Review” does an outstanding job using factual data to write their reviews of lenses, cameras, and other photographic equipment. I always head over to their site whenever something new is released to get their information.  Specifically, for lenses, their data is very comprehensive, easy to read, and easy to understand.  I highly recommend bookmarking their site.

PRIME LENSES: I’ll start with my favorite ultra-wide angle available on the market: The Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2 Lens for the Nikon F Mount.  The clarity and relatively low level of distortion is unmatched by any other prime or zoom in this category.  The 14-24mm Nikon is very close, but on its wide end, I’ve always noticed more distortion at the edges of the frame in the 14-24.  The Zeiss 15mm just has a certain crispness and sharp contrast to its photographs that I find very attractive.

Taken with the Distagon 15mm

Taken with the Distagon 15mm

Most Zeiss lenses have that kind of sharp, contrasty look.  Some people like it, some don’t.  I’d definitely recommend renting this lens first to see if you like that sort of look…it’s a subjective thing, and not based in empirical science.

I use the 15mm most of the time shooting indoors for architectural work.  It literally pulls the viewer into the room, like sticking your head through a window into the scene.  And it’s so clear and precise in its focusing, it displays a room exactly how you want it to look.

Since it’s an ultra-wide, it’s not the best choice for rendering far away objects, such as a mountain range or lake setting.  If you use an ultra-wide in that setting, the far-away objects are really compressed into very smallish-looking, unimpressive objects, which totally runs counter to the idea you’re after in a landscape shot of a huge mountain or vast expanse of an ocean.  For that purpose you want a more normal perspective…in which case the Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm f/2.8 ZF.2 lens or the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2 ZF.2 lens are nearly perfect options.  They are wide enough to get a very good view of the foreground, and are also long enough to not overly compress the background:

Moulton Barn

Taken with the Zeiss 35mm.

It’s worth noting that all Zeiss lenses built for Nikon’s F Mount are manually focused…they have no auto focus mechanism.  But in Landscape photography, I would recommend focusing manually most of the time anyway…it’s more precise to use magnified Live-View and focus yourself, than it is to just leave it up to your camera to decide on its own…especially if you’re shooting long-exposures with Neutral Density filters, which block the light from reaching the auto focus mechanism.

A more economical option in the mid-wide range is the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 lens.  When stopped down to f/4 or lower, there is no discernible difference in image quality between this lens and the Zeiss 35m f/2.  And, since Landscape photographers typically work in the f/5.6 to f/16 range, that makes this Nikon 35mm a very good option for the budget.  The Nikon 35mm is tack sharp in the middle aperture ranges, and is just as simple to manual focus as the Zeiss.  Considering it’s around half the price of the Zeiss 35mm f/2, it’s a serious bargain.

I’m also a huge fan of the Nikon manual focus 28mm f/2.8 lens.  This was the first manual focus lens I ever purchased, and I still own it.  It’s a hidden gem among Nikon’s range of manual focus lenses, and a great economical option over the Zeiss 25mm f/2.  If you plan on using it mostly on a tripod, manually focusing it is a breeze, and the pictures rendered by this tiny lens are simply stunning, especially in its sweet spot of f/8 and f/11.  At a mere fraction of the cost of the Zeiss 25mm, I’d recommend this lens to absolutely anyone who wants a medium-wide angle option for landscape photography.

For a mix between ultra-wides and more normal wide angles, the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 is an amazing lens.  This is probably the lens I go to the most when photographing waterfalls, while also wanting to capture the flow of the water and rocks in the foreground.  It strikes a good balance between mitigating typical barrel distortion of ultra-wide angles, while also not overly compressing the background:

I used the Zeiss 21mm Distagon here with multiple ND filters to slow down the exposure.  Almost no cropping was done.

I used the Zeiss 21mm Distagon here (with vertical orientation) and multiple ND filters to slow down the exposure.

The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 is the best all-around normal perspective lens I’ve used, and it should be (or better be).  At wider apertures, it has that natural 3D look where the subject appears to stand out from a creamy, soft background.  It makes its living working at wider apertures; most normal perspective lenses shoot nice, clear, and crispy images when stopped down, like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4.  But when wide open, they tend to be a bit soft, especially as you travel towards the edge of the frame…but not the Otus.  If you don’t plan on shooting much wide open, the Otus isn’t an important lens.  Save yourself the initial investment and go for the Nikon 50mm 1.4, at just over a tenth the price of an Otus.

Taken with the Otus 55mm.

Taken with the Otus 55mm.

If you plan on shooting any isolated subjects and/or any spur of the moment wildlife, I’d stay away from primes and go for either of the Nikon 70-200 zooms…discussed more in a minute.

The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens is a very popular lens, and rightfully so.  For it’s incredible price point, it delivers consistently excellent photographs throughout the dynamic range.  It’s a little soft when used wide open at f/1.8, but stopped down a little and it is every bit as good as it’s bigger brother, the 50mm f/1.4.  It’s also a great carry-around lens because of it’s very light weight and smallish size.

ZOOM LENSES: Zooms offer the obvious advantage of being able to quickly and easily alter perspective and composition without moving your feet.  To me, that can become a disadvantage if I’m not careful, because I tended to rely on zooming as a form of compositional cheating, rather than taking my time to move my lazy feet and really work the composition properly.  Zooms tended to be a crutch for me, rather than a true part of the process.  Once I started using primes more, initially getting the composition right was harder (and required more cropping in post), but eventually it paid dividends tenfold.  I started to see things around a scene that I never paid attention to when I used zooms more…like keeping that ugly branch at the corner of the shot out of the picture.  Also, if you have to spend more time getting a shot, you might pick up on interesting things you may have overlooked in your haste to just zoom away an image.

Regardless, zooms do offer a very real advantage over primes in situations where you just can’t move your feet any further.

There are photographers out there who swear by the belief that primes are generally sharper than zooms.  I don’t subscribe to that logic…to me the pictures look identical when I’ve compared a prime to a similar focal length zoom.  If there are any scientific measurements which confirm a real advantage for primes in this regard, the difference is so minuscule that it’s a non-issue for me.  I just like primes because you always know exactly what you’re gonna get from them, and adding and removing filters tends to be simpler if you don’t have to worry about zoom creep.

The “Holy Trifecta” of zoom lenses, by popular belief, are the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8.  There’s no doubt they are all exceptional lenses…but you can get the same image quality for nearly half the price by opting for other lenses in the Nikon lineup.  The 14-24 is a beast all its own…there’s no zoom lens like it on the market.  But, for a fraction of the price, you can grab the 16-35mm or 17-35mm Nikon zooms.  They don’t quite have that ultra-wide perspective, but they are both really good lenses for a more logical price.  And, much more importantly, you can use traditional screw-on filters with both of those lenses, whereas with the 14-24, you have to use the Lee SW150 contraption to mount large 6X6 inch-sized square filters.   Ugh.

Unless you really, really, REALLY want that extra wide perspective in your zoom lens, I’d go with either of the other two.  You won’t be disappointed with them.

The 24-70 f/2.8 is a great lens, but there’s a better option out there.  I prefer the Nikon 24-120 f/4.  Besides the fact that this is my favorite zoom lens of any kind, it’s just as good a lens as the 24-70 in almost every regard.  Picture quality is outstanding with both lenses, even on the wide end.  You may get some slight vignetting on the wide end with the 24-120, especially at wider apertures, but that’s easily correctable in post.  Also, the 24-120 has VR (vibration reduction), which the 24-70 doesn’t offer.  And the 24-120 offers the obvious additional reach to 120mm…and, while the 24-70 offers the extra stop to 2.8, that also increases the weight of the lens significantly, which makes a difference when loading up a backpack for a long hike.

The 24-120 is my goto carry-around lens for general purposes like sight-seeing or for following-the-kids-around-at-the-amusement-park.  But, it also works just as nicely sitting on a tripod for landscape work.  It comes in at about $600 less than the 24-70, mostly because the 24-70 is a stop faster.  I’d recommend the 24-120mm zoom over any other…so if you only get one, get this one.

If you want to do any pseudo macro shooting, or want to isolate subjects from a background, either the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 or the Nikon 70-200 f/4 are perfect zooms for those purposes.  For my money I’d go with the 70-200 f/4 if you’re mostly using it for landscape photography.  The price premium of the 2.8 model is strictly for that added stop of speed…which is unnecessary for landscape work unless you really need to work a razor thin depth of field.  As is the case with most other Nikons, any difference in image quality between the two lenses is unnoticeable to me.  Both of them tend to get a bit soft on the long end but that’s going to be true of any telephoto zoom on its long end.

If you REALLY want the reach of a 200mm lens, spare no expense and go for the Nikon 200mm f/2 grenade launcher.  It’s worth every penny of its hefty initial investment…by far and away my favorite DSLR lens of any kind, and of any focal length.  It has no business being mentioned in an article on landscape photography…but, whatever.  It’s just really awesome.  Rent it one weekend and go shoot a basketball game…keep it locked on f/2, and fire away.  You will be blown to pieces by the quality of photographs this chubster will render.

OK that’s enough for lenses…onto other very important pieces of equipment:

6) A Reliable Remote Shutter Release.   This is often overlooked by many photographers…but I firmly believe having a remote shutter makes a big difference.  Without one, you have to physically press on the camera.  No matter how careful you press, and no matter how securely fastened the camera is to the tripod, this will introduce some micro-shake into the setup.  If you want that image to be as tack-sharp as possible, you don’t want anything touching the camera that doesn’t have to: Once that mirror locks up, you want that thing to be as steady as roadkill.

I’d keep away from wireless remote shutters.  If it’s wireless, that means your connection to the trigger will always be contingent on a variable you have little control over: a strong signal.  I just don’t feel comfortable leaving a long exposure up to a signal being maintained.  Imagine being 3 minutes into a 4 minute bulb shot, and the signal gets lost, which ends the exposure too early.  That’s pure frustration.  You can totally avoid that possibility by using a simple wired trigger.  Yeah, you can’t walk too far away from the camera at the moment you trigger the shutter, but unless you’re painting with a flashlight, it’s rare you ever need to.

The Nikon MC-30A is my favorite remote shutter.

7) Filters. For landscape photography, some filters are nearly 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) Circular Polarizer.  This 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.

B) Neutral Density Filter.  An ND filter basically acts as sunglasses for your lens…it allows less light to reach the camera’s sensor, thereby slowing down the exposure.  For example, a 3 stop ND filter (usually denoted as an “8X” or “.9″ ND filter) allows 3 stops less light than you’d get without the ND filter attached.  A 5 stop ND filter will allow 5 stops less light, and so on.  For the average landscape photographer I’d recommend having a 2 stop, 3 stop and 10 stop ND filter.  If you really want to do some long exposure waterfall work, the 10 stop will come in handy to help make the water look silky smooth.  You can also stretch out clouds and give them a cool look, or turn people into invisible ghosts.

C) Graduated Neutral Density Filter.  These are similar to ND filters…but instead of the entire piece of glass being tinted, only a portion of the glass is tinted, with the tint getting darker from the middle of the glass to the edge.  So, for example, if you’re photographing a horizon with a sky that’s 2 or 3 stops brighter than your foreground…you could use a 2 or 3 stop graduated ND filter to help bring out the foreground more without blowing out the horizon.  It would effectively balance the amount of light received from both the brighter horizon and the darker foreground.  Usually just a 2 or 3 stop GND filter is necessary.

This is a graduated neutral density filter.  Note how the tint starts out lighter, and gradually gets darker as you approach the edge.

This is a graduated neutral density filter. Note how the tint starts out lighter, and gradually gets darker as you approach the edge.

D) Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter.  Same principle as the GND, except instead of the tint getting darker from the middle of the filter to the edge, it’s reversed…so the middle of the filter starts out 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 the reverse graduated ND filter.  Note how the middle of the filter is the darkest,and it becomes lighter as you approach the edge.

This is the reverse graduated ND filter. Note how the middle of the filter is the darkest,and it becomes lighter as you approach the edge.

E) UV or Clear filter.  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. Whenever I use other filters with the lens, I remove the clear filter, as it’s not necessary to use it with another filter already on the front.

Which brand should you buy?  I buy all of my filters from Singh-Ray.com.  It’s just another personal preference…to me their filters are of the highest quality, and they are all consistently excellent.  Their customer service is also second to none.

8) A weatherproof flashlight.   If you’re going to be out shooting sunsets, there will come a time you will suddenly find yourself out in the wilderness, in the dark, without anything to help find your way back to the car except a trusty flashlight.  It doesn’t have to be a massive flood light, just a pocket-sized LED is enough.  These days they make them so potent in smallish sizes, they are light and easy to carry in a bag or strapped to your belt.  The Fenix PD35 flashlight is a prime example of a strong flashlight that fits in the palm of your hand and weighs as much as a candy bar.

9) Extra batteries and media cards.  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 4 AA batteries, take an extra set of 4 with you.  Chances are you won’t need them…but there’s always going to be that one time when you will, and you wish you’d have them.

10) The Photographer’s Ephemeris.  This clever app 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.

11) A good pair of shoes.  Having a comfortable pair of shoes is like having a good pair of glasses if you have poor 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.

Well…that’s enough for the list of equipment you’d want to consider having to photograph landscapes.  If you’ve made it this far into this article, I hope you’ve gotten something useful out of it.  Have fun shooting those landscapes!

81 second exposure at f/11, ISO 200.  Taken with the Nikon D800E and the Zeiss 15mm Distagon with Singh-Ray 10 stop Mor-Slo ND filter.

81 second exposure at f/11, ISO 200. Taken with the Nikon D800E and the Zeiss 15mm Distagon with Singh-Ray 10 stop Mor-Slo ND filter.

The Moulton Barn

I dug this one up out of my Lightroom Library earlier today.  Taken in July of last year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it’s a photo of the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row, with the Grand Tetons in the background.  Unfortunately it was taken at sunset…as opposed to sunrise, when the beautiful early morning sun casts an amazing warm glow of sunlight over the Tetons.

Taken with the Nikon D800E, and the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 lens at f/11, ISO 100, 1/40 second.

Moulton Barn

The Sony A7s

This past weekend was my first opportunity to use the Sony A7s, a full-frame mirrorless camera specifically designed to work in low light situations.  It produces “only” 12 megapixels, which is designed to achieve a good balance of resolution with low noise at higher ISOs.

The camera came with a reputation of having an outstanding array of manual focus aids, (i.e. “focus peaking”), which highlights in-focus areas of an image with illuminated pixels around the outline of the area.  I purchased it with the hopes that it would make a good partner with my Leica lenses, each of which require manual focusing.

 

I was extremely pleased with both the operation of the camera, and the results.  Since the A7s is mirrorless (as opposed to a DSLR), the camera body is a fraction the size of your typical DSLR, even an APS-C sized DSLR, and the A7s is also a fraction of the weight.  Sony also makes an “A7″, which is the standard A7 model with your more typical 24 megapixel sensor.  The A7 is not as adept in low-light situations compared to the A7s, but is a more all-around performer.  They also make the “A7r” which has a 36 megapixel powerhouse sensor for photographers who wish to squeeze out every last bit of resolution possible in an image.  For a quick comparison, the Nikon D810, also with a 36 megapixel sensor, weighs in at 31 ounces, while the A7r weighs in at 14.67 ounces…less than half the weight of Nikon’s flagship landscape camera.  The biggest drawback for the A7 right now is a lack of available lenses specifically designed to work with it.  Sony does offer a few Zeiss-made lenses that fit the camera without the use of an adapter, but to access all of Sony’s Alpha A-mount series full-frame lenses, you must use an adapter.

Anyway…I purchased the adapter which allows you to mount a Leica M-mount lens onto the A7s.  Unfortunately, the adapter does not transfer the 6-bit coding information from the lens to the camera, so the only lens settings which are saved with the file are shutter speed and ISO (for example, f-stop is not saved).

I took the A7s and the Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 lens with me to the Lonaconing Silk Mill this past Saturday…and right out of the backpack I started to really like this camera.  It was so easy to sling around on my shoulder while I lugged around the D810 on a tripod.  There was very little natural light present inside the mill, so the use of the low-light sensor on the A7s clearly paid dividends.

Here’s an example using the A7s with the Leica 35mm Summicron lens:

sink2

 

 

This is the RAW image (exported from Lightroom as a jpeg) straight out of the camera, with no post processing alterations made to it.  No flash or artificial light was used.  This shot was taken in 12,800 ISO at 1/50, f/5.6.

Here’s the exact same shot, with only one difference…I pulled out the shadows in Lightroom using the “Shadows” slider.  No other alterations were made:

sink3

 

Bringing out the shadows really helped pump some detail into the areas under the sinks that were otherwise too dark to notice previously.

At 100% crop the noise and image degradation becomes a bit more noticeable:

sink

 

 

You can see some grain in there…but the image is still clearly useable.  I was very impressed with the image quality at such a relatively high ISO.

Taken at 12,800 ISO, 1/60 f/2:

prince

Again no post-process alterations were made.

For comparison purposes…here’s a shot with the D810 and Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens of a wall in my kids’ playroom, taken at ISO 12,800:

test

 

Same shot with the Sony A7s and Leica Summicron 35mm at 12,800:

test2

 

 

Even a quick glance at the two photographs leaves me with the impression that the second photo (taken by the A7s) has noticeably less noise than the first photo.

This comparison is preposterously unfair to the D810, because it’s not designed to take shots in low light.  If I were to take the two cameras out to photograph a long exposure of a waterfall, the D810 would bury the A7s, especially if you plan on printing large, poster-sized pictures.  The sheer resolving power of the D810 is exactly what makes it unsuitable to low light: all that resolution picks up the smallest imperfections/noise in the image.  High ISO images have a lot of noise (relative to low ISO images).  A lower megapixel sensor like the one in the A7s, for lack of a better word, “ignores” much of the noise.

 

If a photographer wants to create a well-focused, well-exposed image at low ISO, the D810 is, without a doubt in my mind, the best digital camera in production to take such a shot with.  I’m sure the A7s will also take great photographs at low ISO…but they won’t share the incredible detail of an image taken with the D810.

I’m curious to see how the A7r stacks up against the D810 in photographing landscapes at low ISO.

Regardless… the point here is that the A7s does what it’s advertised to do, and does it really well:  take high quality shots in low light.