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 crap-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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!