This is the first in a new series of posts I’m creating as a guide to taking better landscape photos. My interest in photography started with landscape photos while travelling Australia with my parents, it has always been what I’ve enjoyed most about photography, travelling, exploring and being out in nature. Usually these types of guides start with a “Why?!”, this one is not going to be any different in that regard, everything else will be incredibly practical and applicable.
Why Landscape Photography:
For me landscape photography has always been about getting outdoors, exploring where I live and further afield. I find my head clears of the day to day noise once I’m out in nature and I get to just experience it and be completely present instead of a constant existence of distractions. To quote a photographer friend of mine “it is my happy place”. For those who are just starting out I think this is quite possibly true of many of you too. The photography part of it is almost a by product of the exploring and once you get to know your camera inside out it stops being a distraction in those times as well. Photography is my way of trying to communicate that feeling and experience, it is me trying to inspire others to get outside and have their own experiences. Hopefully this guide also inspires and helps you capture your own experiences and communicate them better.
Part 1: Gear
I hate to start this guide with tech talk and I promise I will try my best not to bore you. My overall opinion on gear is that the best camera is the one you have on you, I have my own preferences in terms of brands, but really, any DSLR or decent mirrorless camera is going to be better than anything the masters of landscape photography had access to. I personally have a few cameras and have been through many different cameras over the years. I started with a film single lens reflex (SLR) camera that took 35mm film with what is called a standard lens. Today any SLR is going to be capable of being used for landscape photography, the main difference between the different cameras are the sensors both in light sensitivity and in sensor sizes.
When it comes to sensor sizes, generally speaking “bigger is better”, meaning that full-frame sensors are better than crop-sensors. Full frame sensors can collect more light than crop sensors which makes for cleaner photos with less “noise”. There are plenty of technical guides that can go into the ins and outs of sensor technology, signal to noise ratios and all sorts of other jargon that I find distracts from the main goal: take great photos. I’m sure there will be someone out there saying I’m less of a photographer because I don’t really care for the overly technical side of cameras and that’s fine, they are allowed their opinion, just as I’m allowed to have mine.
My main goal when speaking at camera clubs and with new photographers is to inspire them to get out there with the gear they have and push it to its limits before they think about upgrading. I know that when I’m not happy with my photos it is rarely, if ever, my gear that is responsible, rather it is me not using it properly. That said, I know that I’m going to get questions as to which cameras I recommend or use, so here are my recommendations at different budget levels:
Canon 5DS or 5DSR – A full frame DSLR that takes 50.6 Megapixel images, very versatile, I have the 5DS
Canon 5D mark 4 – Lower megapixel count than the 5DS, but a much faster camera overall and a great all rounder. I have the mark 3, very capable camera.
Nikon D810 – Has the same sensor in it as the Sony A7R, it also has a very low native ISO of 64, a great all rounder.
Sony A7R mark 2 – This is a mirrorless camera, so it is smaller in size, but the sensor is still full frame, it is incredibly capable. I have the mark 1 version of this and love it.
Sony A7S mark 2 – 12 megapixel camera that performs ridiculously well in low light, great for astro photography and nightscapes.
Canon EOS 6D – There are rumours that there will be a mark 2 version of this coming out this year, so maybe hold off on buying one at this stage
Nikon D750 – A full-frame model that is more of a budget model from Nikon.
Other options that are worth looking at are the Sony A6500, it is a crop sensor, but very portable and compatible with all the same lenses that the Sony A7R II uses.
There is also the Sigma Quattro series of cameras, they have a bit of a different form factor and processing the images can be an issue if you are using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop for processing. I’ve tried out one of the Sigma DP cameras and the detail and sharpness is amazing from such a small camera, I would say it is on par with some medium format digital cameras. I’d like to try out the new Sigma sd Quattro H, it is a 51 MP body, if it keeps the same image quality that the dp series has, it would be a pretty incredible camera.
My last recommendation, but not because of it’s lack of capability, is the Fujifilm range of cameras. I’ve used a few different bodies of theirs over the years and the quality of the photos that they produce are quite incredible. Fuji also have a mirrorless medium format camera coming out this year called the Fuji GFX 50S, definitely a camera I’d like to give a good test run and see how it stacks up. I’ll be doing an in depth post shortly on how to pick the right camera for you.
Again, this article is just an overview, not an indepth guide on all the technical ins and outs of lenses, there are plenty of rabbit holes you can lose yourself in with that type of information on the internet. DP Review and DxO Mark are the most indepth. As I’ve said previously, I’d rather be out taking photos and travelling than sitting in front of my computer on camera forums arguing over gear. All the best gear in the world is useless if you don’t use it or don’t know how to use it.
Most landscape photography is shot in.. well “landscape” mode and as such is fairly wide. For most shots you are going to want to have a fairly wide lens, on a full frame camera body that means something like a 16-35mm lens, which seems to be the standard for most landscape photographers. If you are using a crop body, then I recommend looking into a 10-22mm lens designed for a crop body, they give roughly the same view as a 16-35mm lens. There are wider lenses, but not many of them will give you a good sharp image without a huge amount of distortion. My main lens is the 16-35 and Canon’s 11-24mm which is incredibly wide. I highly recommend investing in good lenses, they will last for a very long time if you look after them properly. I have a couple of film lenses that I still use and they are over 40 years old. I also recommend looking outside of the branded lenses, Canon, Nikon & Sony have great lenses, but Sigma are making some of the sharpest and cleanest lenses I’ve seen and they are very reasonable in price.
Two other lenses to look at are something that covers the 50mm range, so either an actual 50mm lens or a 24-70mm lens and a longer, telephoto lens such as the 70-200mm. With a kit of 2-3 lenses you can shoot nearly anything. I often use either the 50mm or the 70-200mm lens to capture multiple photos and stitch them together into a panoramic photo.
While you can still do landscape photography without a tripod, nearly all types of landscape photographs are improved when using a good, sturdy tripod. I’ve previously reviewed the Induro CT213 with the Induro BHL2 head on it. I’ll need to update the review as I’ve actually been through 3 of the heads since that review with a minor flaw. They are great tripods, but I have put them through very thorough testing in over 16 countries & Antarctica and the heads have a minor flaw. They are still usable, but the nob for tightening the top clamp can come off, I’m speaking with Induro about it, but they have been awesome in replacing parts under warranty so far. I will be writing an in depth guide to choosing the right tripod for you shortly as well.
Filters, while incredibly helpful, aren’t entirely essential to capturing great landscape photos. I use them fairly often but you can get by without them if you are on a budget. I only use Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GNDs) and Circular Polarising Filters (CPs), they can range from fairly cheap to incredibly expensive, depending on what brand and type you buy. I’ve used most of the main brands such as Cokin, Lee and Formatt-Hitech, I’m looking into getting a kit from a fairly new company called NiSi Filters too.
My preference when it comes to filters is the large square or rectangular filters, it means I only have to buy 1 set of filters and then the appropriate adaptor ring for each of my lenses, rather than a screw on filter for each lens. It is very important to make sure you are getting good quality filters if you are going to use them. There is no point having amazing lenses if you are going to put a low quality filter on the front of it.
Why use filters: The primary purpose of any filter is to adjust light in some form or another. For GNDs you can use them to balance out the light difference between the sky and the foreground, particularly good for sunsets and sunrise, where the sky is really bright but the ground or ocean isn’t lit up. They can also be used to allow a longer exposure than what you can get without them, this is great for capturing movement such as waterfalls or the ocean. If you have a dark enough filter you can completely blur the ocean until it looks smooth with a very long exposure. This isn’t a technique I use extensively, but it does look good when done right.
The other filter that I use extensively, particularly when photographing things like waterfalls, green foliage and scenes in the middle of the day, is a circular polarising filter. What this filter does is cut through reflections, so for a green mossy creek bed you are going to get deeper greens and less light reflection on wet leaves. Overall it can enhance your colours and cut through haze in a way that can not be done in any type of software such as lightroom and photoshop. For blue skies they are only really effective when pointed away from the sun, they are most effective when pointed 180 degrees away from it. I don’t use them too much for this when shooting very wide scenes as the lens is actually pointing in two different directions. This means you will get a dark circle in the middle of the photo, but the edges will be much lighter, due to the polarising effect not working when pointed towards the sun.
Other gear I find useful when out photographing landscapes includes extra memory cards, spare batteries, cleaning cloths, GPS Tagger and wireless or wired remote trigger. The cleaning cloths I use I actually buy from a car parts / servicing store in the car detailing section. They are much larger, cheaper and work just as well, if not better, just be sure to get something that isn’t too abrasive.
I use hähnel remote triggers, they are actually cheaper than the equivalent wired remotes sold by Canon, not sure about Nikon or Sony. I recommend the Giga T Pro II remotes and the Captur remotes. They are very versatile and relatively cheap, so if you lose or break one it isn’t a huge amount of money down the drain. The other great thing about these is that you can use them across multiple cameras, I have a set and just have the different cables for my different camera bodies, reducing the amount gear that I have to carry.
Remote triggers are used to reduce camera shake when you press the shutter, it also helps with very long exposures, time lapses and a few other techniques that we will talk about down the track. At worst you can take a photo of yourself without having to do the mad dash to beat the 10 second timer.
You will need a decent camera bag to put all this gear in! I personally use the F-Stop Gear Tilopa, which I’ve done a review on. Fstop Gear have had some issues with wait times and delivery over the last 12-18 months, something I believe that they are sorting out. I’ve now owned two of their bags and I wouldn’t use any other bag, there isn’t anything that comes close to the quality, comfort and versatility of the Fstop Gear system. I know I sound like a fanboi.. and that is probably because I am. Really though you are going to need to go and try on bags to see what suits you best, anything that feels comfortable with a load of gear in it and keeps your gear protected is going to work.
Well I hope that gives you an overview of some of the gear you can use to get started in landscape photography, you don’t need all of it and you can get by without most of it. Don’t fall into the trap of having to get the latest and greatest every time something new is released, learn your current gear, push it to its absolute limits first. This stimulates creativity and helps you to really learn what you are doing. Whenever I find myself taking photos that I’m not pleased with, it is rarely, if ever, the gear that is to blame. Sure I’d love to get some new gear, who wouldn’t, but it is only going to help me take higher resolution or clearer versions of the same photos that I am taking now, it won’t make me any more creative or a better photographer. Remember that these are simply tools to achieve an outcome. Find what you like, what works for you and use that.
I highly recommend buying second hand gear when you are starting out too, there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, let someone else buy the latest and greatest and buy their gear when they sell it, they take the biggest hit in the depreciation and you get quality equipment for less than new gear. Secondly, I am all for saving money when you can on gear. I would rather have gear that is maybe not quite “up to date” but I can produce great results with and then use the savings to fund a trip somewhere to take photos, than to have the best gear and be stuck at home not being able to go anywhere to use it.
This is one of the reasons I don’t buy Apple computers, my desktop system cost me AU$3500 to have custom built, it has never crashed and runs like a dream, to get nearly the same hardware in an Apple would cost me close to AU$12,000. The difference in price is a new camera and a trip somewhere amazing, for no discernible difference in performance. That is a bit of a sidetrack and I’m not here to argue MacOS vs Windows.. use whatever works for you.
I’ll have two posts coming shortly on how to choose the right camera for you and how to choose a tripod. After that the next post in this series will be on planning and research, or how to find places to take great photos.
If you haven any questions at all, feel fee to ask in the comments, I’ll answer everything I can and please share this post if you found it helpful at all.