For those of you who are interested in shooting landscape photographs, here’s a comprehensive list of items you will want to consider using:
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 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 or “rumor” site)…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. That will 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 is ideal, what time of year is preferable, 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 users’ 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 my 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 then a backpack, not a shoulder bag, is vital.
My personal favorite backpack is the Tamrac Expedition series of backpacks, which are unfortunately no longer produced. They are so good I’d recommend checking out a used one on eBay. If you’re looking for a great backpack that is still in production, check out the Lowepro Pro Trekker (you can find it here). I’ve used the Pro Trekker before, 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…why replace something you’re perfectly happy with?
Ideally, you want a bag that is capable of compartmentalizing both camera gear and personal effects. These types of bags come with an assortment of dividers/partitions 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 Expedition 9X bag is waterproof. If you do any sort of hiking with your camera and/or shoot in or near streams, beaches, or lakes, you will want to consider a water resistant bag. Not only do waterproof/water resistant bags do the obvious: keep water away from your equipment…but they also don’t absorb water. A non-waterproof bag will get significantly heavier and difficult to carry if it soaks up a heap of water.
Many backpacks have extra heavy-duty waterproof material on the bottom of the bag. That’s something you absolutely must have, no matter what type of shooting you do. Nothing is more frustrating than setting your bag down on some wet grass for a sunrise shoot…and not realize how wet the grass was until you lift a bag which is now soaked on the bottom. Been there, done that.
If you’re looking for a relatively, small, portable pack, the Lowepro Fastpack (check it out here) is a good, strong bag…it’s just not as big as the Pro Trekker.
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 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 well 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 uses a 50 some-odd megapixel sensor. Regardless, 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. Nevertheless, no one can argue that the D810 creates phenomenally large RAW files, which is perfect for anyone who wants to create large prints (or plans on doing a lot of editing and/or cropping).
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, as I said before, you plan on printing large photographs or need to do quite a bit of cropping.
For those of you who prefer a crop-sized sensor, the Nikon D500, 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-angle shots are not possible with a crop sized sensor, and working with crop sized sensors also increases 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/lens is connected to the tripod. 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 several 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 three section carbon-fiber tripod with a maximum height of 63 inches (5 foot three inches), and a minimum height of 27.4 inches (without a tripod head attached).
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 light/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 with built-in levels 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 the right glass, it can make getting the photograph you want significantly more difficult.
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 ideal equipment with you at all times. Actually, that can be one of 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 Canon’s equipment. If you’re interested in leaning more about Canon equipment, Google “Canon 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 Milvus 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2 lens for the Nikon F Mount. The corner to corner 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 a kind of heavy, contrasty look. Some people like it, some don’t.
The 15mm is wide enough to literally pull the viewer into the scene, like looking through a window. And it’s so clear and precise in its focusing, it displays the scene exactly how you want it to look.
Since it’s an ultra-wide, it’s not the right 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 Milvus 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 do not have auto focus mechanisms…they are manual focus only. 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 leave focusing 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 financially practical option in the mid-to-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 smart option. The Nikon 35mm is tack sharp in the middle aperture ranges, and is just as simple to focus manually 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, focusing manually with this lens is a piece of cake, 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 any wide-angle photography the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 (or its newer Milvus version, which has the same optical design) is an absolutely stunning lens…an almost must-have. When the ultra-wide 15mm isn’t necessary, the 21mm is what I go to most of the time. 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). It’s impractical (it weighs more than most toddlers, and is patently huge for a 55mm focal length lens), and prohibitively expensive for landscape photography. 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 at wide open apertures, the Otus isn’t necessary. Save yourself the initial investment and go for the Nikon 50mm 1.4, which is just over a tenth the price of an Otus.
If you plan on shooting any isolated subjects and/or 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 very efficient price point, it delivers consistently excellent photographs throughout its aperture range. It’s pleasantly soft when used wide open at f/1.8, and when stopped down a little it is every bit as good as its brother, the 50mm f/1.4. It’s also a great carry-around lens because of its comparatively light weight and portable size.
ZOOM LENSES: Zooms offer the obvious advantage of being able to quickly and easily alter perspective and composition without moving your feet. For me personally, that can become a disadvantage if I’m not careful, because I tend 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 tend to be a crutch for me, rather than a necessary part of the process. Once I started using primes more, initially getting the composition right was physically more demanding than using zooms (and required more cropping in post), but eventually it paid dividends tenfold. I started to see things around a scene I never paid attention to when I used zooms.. 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 serious 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 is scientific data which confirms a real advantage for primes over zooms, the difference is, for all intents and purposes, negligible. If you were to take two images of the same scene, one with a prime and one with a zoom at the same focal length and same aperture, I seriously doubt anyone would be able to tell which image was taken with which lens. 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 accidentally turning the zoom ring.
The “Holy Trinity” 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 Nikon zoom. It doesn’t quite have that ultra-wide perspective, but it is a really good lens for a more practical price. And, much more importantly, you can use traditional screw-on filters with the 16-35mm, whereas with the 14-24 you have to use a specially-made contraption to mount large 6X6 inch-sized square filters. Ugh.
Unless you really want that extra wide perspective in your zoom lens, I’d go with the 16-35mm. You won’t be disappointed with it. Just be careful of the distortion when shooting at 16mm. It can be significant, but nonetheless correctible in post.
The 24-70 f/2.8 is a great lens, but there’s a better option for a significantly lesser price. I prefer the Nikon 28-70 f/2.8. It’s an old design, and you can’t find them new anymore. But, 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 either of them, but that’s easily correctable in post. You can find a 28-70 in excellent condition for around $700 on eBay.
The 28-70 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. A near mint quality used 28-70 comes in at about $1,000 less than a new 24-70. I’d recommend the 28-70mm zoom over any other zoom…so if you only get one, try it out.
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 the added stop of speed…which is unnecessary for landscape work unless you really need to work a narrow depth of field. As is the case with most other Nikons, any difference in image quality between the two lenses is unnoticeable to the naked eye.
If you really want the reach of a 200mm lens, spare no expense and go for the Nikon 200mm f/2. It looks like a mini grenade launcher, and 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. The quality of the images it produces in low light at f/2 are so good it’s difficult to describe in words. It’s the kind of lens which is so good, it can make up for all kinds of mistakes. It has no business being mentioned in an article on landscape photography (when do you really need a $5,000 200mm lens to shoot landscapes?)…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…on to 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, and they are absolutely vital for long exposures. Without a remote shutter, 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.
The Nikon MC-30A is my favorite remote shutter. Not sure why…I’ve just always used it and have never had a single problem with it.
7) Filters. For landscape photography, some filters are nearly as essential as lenses. I have read many very accomplished photographers who believe that filters are obsolete…their justification is that the effects filters create can be duplicated in Photoshop. I disagree with that premise. I believe that nothing can replace the experience of getting the shot out in the field, and I also believe in minimizing the work required via software by doing as much work as possible out in the field. For that reason, I personally believe that filters are an irreplaceable necessity for many different kinds of landscape photographs.
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 blown-out, 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 landscapes.
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, especially if you’re shooting mid-day. 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 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 which can illuminate a football stadium, 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…or even on your keychain. 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. I hope this article has proven to be useful for you. Have fun shooting those landscapes!