Landscape Photography Basic Gear


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Landscape Photography - Basic Gear

You have been taking photographs for a while now, maybe you had been having fun with your iPhone or maybe a Point and Shoot camera and you have taken the leap and bought a DSLR camera to get better quality and to take your photographs up to the next level. Or maybe you have been a photographer for a while and have recently decided you wanted to take better landscape photographs.

In this article I will go over the basic gear that every landscape photographer should have. Starting with the 2 most important items.

#1 is a Polarizer.

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A Circular Polarizer is really an essential item. It serves many purposes. Most people will think of a polarizer as something used to darken a blue sky. And that's true it can do that, but it does so much more.

The second most important thing a polarizer does is to cut reflections, and for some people who shoot waterfalls, rivers and in a forest environment it may be the most important thing that the polarizer does. Cutting reflections off of water, allowing the camera to see into the water will almost always darken the water and provide more contrast. It also cuts reflections off of leaves which then helps create a much deeper look to the photo and removes the distraction that can come for blown out leaves as they reflect the sunlight.

Shooting in a desert environment you will quickly find that the rocks will reflect the sun also. Using a polarizer will cut those glares and help give the rocks a much deeper color.

For as handy as a Polarizer is there are times to be careful with the polarizer, as it could adversely affect the photo.

At sunset, you may want the water to reflect the sunset colors, well then you don't want to cut it. So you can take the polarizer off, or just adjust it isn't blocking the reflections.

Also since polarization happens naturally at 180 degrees to the sun, if you are shooting in those directions with Wide Angle lenses, you can create a "blob" in the sky where the sky will be unnaturally dark in the center of the sky and much lighter to both sides. This happens when you have adjusted it too much. What I will usually do in these situations since I know even without the polarizer my sky will be somewhat darker in the middle, I then adjust the polarizer just enough to balance out the blue in the sky. I will darken the side of the sky that is opposite the sun usually since it's the light source and so one would expect that edge of the sky to be brighter anyway.

#2 is a Tripod.

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The tripod is something most photographers will buy, but also something most new photographers won't use.

I think most of use understand that using a tripod will provide a stable base for the camera to mount so that we can get sharper photos. But with that understanding there is also the practical end where many of had spent years just pointing and shooting our camera's at any whim at anything that caught our attention. So to now use that tripod becomes at first a bit of a pain, it's something we have to stop, setup and then mount the camera to.

It can take a while to change our mindset from thinking that the tripod is a hindrance into realizing the tripod is handy and helpful. And there will come a time when using a tripod becomes such a habit to not use one feels strange and awkward.

The 2nd most important thing that a tripod provides is it causes us to slow down and think about our composition. As we mount that camera and we zoom in or out, raise the camera up and down as we look through the camera, we can slow down and think the composition before us. How we compose our landscape photograph is the something covered in better detail in another article, but generally speaking one will be looking at how the Rule of Thirds fits the scene before us, and then letting our eyes travel around the edges of the scene in our viewfinder or LCD display looking for any distractions poking into the scene. As we adjust for those, since our camera is mounted to our tripod we can make those subtle adjustments to the composition and they stay put since we can lock our camera in place.

You will notice that there are 2 kinds of clamping mechanism's used on tripod legs. One is a twist grip and the other is a clamp. I have friends that swear by the twist grips, but I prefer the clamp.

Here to me are the pro's for getting a tripod with leg clamps.

1. They are super fast. I can have all 3 legs extended and down and locked in place before the friend with the twist grip has even 1 leg locked in place. If you have ever shot a sunset that popped out of no where and the color only lasted 30 seconds, you will appreciate the speed with which a tripod can be set up.

2. For me, they are more secure. Way back when, many years ago, one of my first tripods was a twist grip. And what I found early on, is that many times when I thought I had twisted the grip enough to be tight, that it wasn't really as I would find one of the legs slowly collapsing. Fortunately I never had any cameras crash to the ground, but it happened enough to show me I wanted a regular clamp on my tripod legs.

What you choose is your choice. There are great tripods made with both locking mechanisms, so use the type that works best for you.

#3 will be the Remote Release.

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The point of the Remote Release is to be able to trigger our camera to take a photo without causing any vibrations to the camera which would then cause our photos to be soft or blurry. Pressing the shutter with our finger can cause vibrations or shaking. The Remote Release eliminates that.

I know that some photographers will use the Self Timer on the camera instead. And that certainly can and does work. But if there is anything moving in your scene, you can find yourself getting your shot off after it happens rather then before since the Remote Release isn't waiting for a timer then to be count down.

Especially for those of us who shoot at the beach a lot, so much of what we are capturing is the break and splash from waves. To use a self timer involves too much guess work and lot's of miss timed shots. Using a Remote Release I can trigger my shots exactly as the wave breaks, holding it down to fire off 3 or 4 shots to capture the whole wave splash sequence so I can pick out my favorite when I am back at home.

Remote Releases can come in very basic version that simply triggers the shutter with an option to lock it in which comes in handy for shooting star shots with longer shutter speeds at night and you want to take a series of shots.

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They also come in more advanced models that typically cost more, but will include timers and interval timers and the ability to let your camera take minute or hour long exposures through the Bulb mode. Most camera's today do include interval timers built in, but you may be using an older model that doesn't have that ability. So using one of the more advanced Remote Releases solves that issue for you.

#4 is your Lens Hood.

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The first thing we think of with the Lens Hood that it's used to block the sun. And that's true, it's most important use is to block the sun from hitting the front element and causing lens flares and a lack of contrast in your photograph.

Lens Hoods have a secondary benefit and that can come when it's raining as it can help a bit to keep the rain off the front of your lens. The wider your lens, the less it will help, but when it's raining, every bit of help is appreciated. All it takes is 5 or 6 drops on the front of your lens to totally ruin an other wise great photo.

#5 is a UV Filter.

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At times when you don't need a polarizer, perhaps it's getting dark and you don't want to lose the 1.5 stops of light that most polarizers block. Using a UV filter is a bit controversial as there are some who feel using one will almost ruin your photograph by causing your image to now not be as sharp as it's supposed to be. I have seen tests, and seen results and in my mind if it takes looking in a microscope to see the difference then it's highly unlikely I will notice any real difference.

There are a couple of specific reasons why I recommend using a UV filter when you don't have a polarizer on.

1st, if it's raining. I would much rather have the rain hit the UV filter then hit the front element and possibly seep into the lens and causing mildew and fungus growth.

2nd, if I am shooting at the beach it's the same thing. I would rather have the wave splashes hit the UV filter, especially with salt water then on the front element.

3rd, you are shooting in an area where you are climbing and crawling around rocks and cliffs and are not putting the camera away between shots. It can and has protected my front element from getting scratched. I hate to replace a UV filter because it's scratched, but I would rather that then sending the lens in for a scratched front element.

4th, just for general protection. We all are very protective of our camera gear, but accidents can happen. And again I know from experience when a camera got dropped accidently and the UV filter cracked but the lens was totally fine.

As I stated in the beginning, there are photographers who swear off UV filters, and that's fine. It's everyone's individual choice. I don't really believe there is a right or wrong choice, there is only your choice and my choice. If you choose to use one, great. But if you don't want to, you won't hear any arguments from me either.

#6 is a rain jacket for your camera.

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No kidding! While most of our cameras are weather sealed and weather resistant, there is no point if you are out in the rain, snow or getting splashed on at the beach in tempting fate.

Op Tech makes some very inexpensive Rain Sleeves. I use them primarily at the beach to keep the salt water splashes off of my camera. But they are also useful for shooting in the rain.

The ones Op Tech makes are designed for handholding a camera, so they are about 12" too long for my taste. So I always cut off the bottom half of them when I get a new one. They won't make your camera waterproof, but they will definitely help keeping splashes and rain off the camera.

#7 is the umbrella.

If you are like me at all and shooting out in rain and snow pretty often, an umbrella is great tool to have.

From experience I can tell you there is nothing worse that getting what I would have felt was incredible photographs only to look at my lens as I am packing up to see that the front of my lens is covered with rain drops. You get more then 1 or 2 drops and there is just no saving that photograph.

So along with the lens hood I like to use an umbrella when it's raining or snowing. If I am shooting close to my jeep, I will use a large golf umbrella I always carry with me. It is so large it really stops almost all rain or snow easily. If I am backpacking or hiking, I carry a smaller collapsible umbrella.

Now I will say, it takes a bit of getting used to holding an umbrella while also getting your camera on your tripod and your photo composed, but it's possible and actually pretty easy once you get used to the balancing act. I have seen some little devices that can be used to attach the umbrella to a tripod leg, but I have never gotten one as the last thing I want is a gust of wind to come along and hit the umbrella which then would tip over my camera and tripod.

#8 is a quick release.

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There are lot's of types of Quick Releases, often what type you use might have been dictated by what tripod and ball head you had bought. In most cases you can change out the Quick Release to the type you do desire.

One of the most popular types of brackets is the "L" Bracket, so called because it's in the shape of an L. All of the L Brackets I have seen are based on the Arca mounting system, a pretty universal mounting system.

The reason many people switch to the "L" Bracket is that once you have your tripod and camera leveled in place, if you want to switch from a Horizontal to Vertical composition all you have to do is slide the camera out from the bottom base and slide it in on the side mount and your photo will still be level. With a Ball head when switching from one orientation to the next you will have to double check your level.

There is no right or wrong choice here, there is just the choice that is comfortable for you. I personally don't use the "L" Bracket, some of that is because I also shoot some people portraits and the occasional wedding, and to hand hold a L Bracket to me is kind of uncomfortable. And I don't want to have removing my the L Bracket, so I just stick with the basic mounting plate.

#9 is Graduated ND Filters.

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These are used less and less as our DSLR's continue to increase in Dynamic Range with each new model that's released. But there is still a case for using them, as if they are used correctly they can help shorten your processing time as the scene is balanced in light better.

Probably the most useful of the ND Grads, is the Reverse ND Grad. You will see that on the left in the photo illustration. What it excels at is shooting sunsets/sunrises at the beach where the sun is getting close to the horizon. When that happens the horizon is a whole lot brighter then higher up in the sky. So this with the thicker band along the horizon helps to tame that.

How exactly to use an ND Grad will be the focus of another article.

#10 is a Lens Cloth and Lens Cleaner.

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With all the talk about rain and snow and water spray, it should be pretty obvious that means we will be spending time cleaning the front of our lens, whether that's a lens element or a filter. So be sure to have a couple of lens cloth's with you, I do and I am replacing them on a pretty frequent basis as I seem to photograph pretty often around people that keep forgetting their lens cloths.

#11 is spare batteries and memory cards.

There is nothing worse the being out shooting and finding your battery is dead after 10 shots, or you memory card filled up right before sunset. That can be very frustrating, but also totally avoidable.

At a minimum always carry 1 extra batter and 1 spare memory card.

As a side note with batteries, be sure if it's cold out, like winter snowy cold, that you bring even more spare batteries because the cold will drain the batteries way faster then normal. Also keep the batteries in a pocket inside your jacket so they can stay warm from you body.

#12 is Duct Tape.

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Before you laugh too much, Duct tape can be a life saver. If you look at the photo of the tripod closely, you will notice I have duct tape wrapped around one of my tripod legs. That way I always have it with me.

I was shooting up in Yosemite one time with a friend when one of the clamps on his tripod leg broke, so he couldn't extend and stabilize his tripod correctly. Well, duct tape came to the rescue and locked his tripod leg into place. Another time I was backpacking and the sole of one of my hiking shoes came apart. It would have made for a horrible time to try and hike with just one shoe. But I had the duct tape, I wrapped it around the sole a few times and off I went. It may have looked funny, but it was totally functional.

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