Landscape photography, even more than some of the other schools of photography, relies heavily on specialized supporting equipment. If you are new to landscape photography, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with choosing the right equipment.
Be fear not, BetterPhotograph.com will help you choose the best landscape equipment suited to your needs and budget as of 2015.
Putting together the perfect camera kit for any type of photography is expensive but one day every photographer takes that one shot that seems to make every penny worth it. With the right preparation, learning, and forethought, such a shot will come. AND with the correct equipment and preparation it may come sooner than you think.
A big warning, at nearly 8000 words, this ‘post’ is pretty much a mini ebook. So grab some coffee and sit down — it’s going to take some time. But it’s well worth it, I promise — there is nothing as comprehensive as this post out there on the web if you want to get a good idea WHAT you need for a good quality landscape photography setup in 2015.
Best Cameras for Landscape Photography
When it comes to choosing a camera for landscape photography, it is a question of striking a balance between resolution and portability. Of course, resolution is probably the most important of these. A good camera will help to identify the fine detail of the landscape, providing sharpness and clarity and gives you the further possibility of printing the image to a large format without losing any of the crisp color and finer elements of the original.
Before we look at megapixels, glass, and camera bodies, realize that image quality is NOT simply a matter of megapixel count as many camera advertisements would have you buy into with each new generation adding more megapixels.
Quality is in fact the actual size of the physical sensor, combined with the pixel size on the sensor, combined with quality optics.
The Film vs. Digital Debate
Film cameras still provide the best detail with 4 x 5” large format, field cameras as a starting point but they are rather awkward and carrying them comfortably over any distance can be an issue for many people.
But What About Medium Format Cameras?
If money is no object then the newer digital, medium format cameras made by companies such as Hasselblad and Mamiya provide 60MP+ (though some of the new DSLR cameras such as the Canon 5Ds offers around 50 Megapixels and the new mirrorless Sony ALr II has something like 40+ megapixels). There is even the new, cheaper digital Medium Format Pentax 645z that’s 8,000 USD. Pricey compared to DSLR bodies, yes, but considering a few years ago a proper Medium Format camera costed 20,000+ dollars, it’s getting cheaper. No doubt in a few years time, medium format sensors will start cropping into DSLR bodies as the next step up in sensor size to appeal to the prosumer and professional market.
Medium Formats, sespite being a little chunkier and heavier than your average DSLR, do provide greater ease of use than their film counterparts but lenses can be expensive. A 40mm f4 (equivalent to 25mm focal length on 35mm camera) for example, costs thousands of dollars (5,000 or more). The same lens for a DSLR, such as the Nikon Nikkor 25mm f1.4 lens, would cost about a quarter of this. There are also digital ‘backs’ for old film, medium format cameras but all of this requires more space and hauling (and more space than I have here to begin discussing them)
So, let’s move on the options if your camera of choice is to be the ubiquitous DSLR and maybe one of the better Mirrorless cameras.
The advantage of the DSLR cameras over Medium Format ones is they offer resolution in the ‘range’ of a Medium Format not only provide excellent resolution but also solve the problem of portability. The great advantage of them is that they can be pulled from your bag to snap a grinning friend in a bar just as easily as they can be used for serious landscape photography.
When it comes to choosing a DSLR an important distinction to be made is choosing between a camera with a crop frame and one with a full frame.
Crop Camera vs. Full Frame Camera
The old 35mm film cameras set many of the measurement benchmarks used for current DSLRs . On a film camera, the size of the rectangle through which light could pass to affect the film measured a standard 24mm x 36mm. Subsequently, the size of the sensor in a modern DSLR is still measured by this standard and, therefore, a digital sensor conforming to these dimensions is referred to as a full frame sensor or as having no crop-factor.
It is not simply that a full-frame sensor captures “more” of a landscape: this is determined, to a far greater extent, by the choice of lens. Choosing a camera with a full frame sensor (such as a Canon 5D mk2 or Nikon D700) means cleaner images. This is because if you take, for example, two cameras with precisely the same pixel count on the sensor, the cropped sensor (or APS-C) will have these pixels ‘squeezed’ into a tighter space, whereas the pixels on the full frame sense light with greater accuracy and definition, providing sharper image quality. In low light the full frame can provide 2 or 3 stops of light advantage over its APS-C equivalent meaning less noise and a cleaner image.
For example, if you plan on landscape photography becoming your primary photographic pursuit then a worthwhile investment might a lens such as the Canon EF-S 10mm – 22mm f3.5/4.5 or Nikon Nikkor 10mm – 24mm f3.5/4.5 wide angle zoom lenses. Using these lenses on cropped sensors (such as a Nikon D300 or Canon 500D) will give you an equivalent (approximate) focal length of between 16mm and 40mm. Yet on the full frame, the focal length of the lens is the focal length you will get. A cropped sensor has it’s advantages in wildlife or long distance photography but for landscapes you’ll get much more from a wide-angle lens with the full frame sensor
For landscapes, buying full frame may incur a cost premium for the camera body but you will get more quality and width from the lens than a cropped frame camera can provide. The idea, however, that there is any difference in ISO performance between the two cameras is something I have not experienced from my use of both types. Generally, as of 2015, most DSRL’s, especially the professional ones, offer very low noise, even at very high ISOs, regardless of sensor size. But IF less noise is what you need for your shooting, then Full Frame may offer an advantage over crop.
Mirrorless vs DSLR
Finally, we need to talk a bit about Mirrorless and DSLR’s, since the whole market is now full of Mirrorless. As of 2014, Mirrorless became a pretty good alternative to the DSLR for landscape (and general) photography. You’ll find proponents of DSLR’s who are hard headed and won’t admit to Mirrorless as a legit alternative. But the truth is that you shouldn’t be brand bias — and many of the naysayers are fanboys (or girls) of Nikon or Canon.
Mirrorless Have No Mirrors: The main difference is that unlike DSLR’s, Mirrorless Cameras do not have mirrors inside which allows them to be much smaller in size.
Mirrorless have Smaller Size: This equals camera bodies that are half or less the size and weight of a DSLR, while offering similar quality.
Mirrorless Have Same Sensors: Many of the mirrorless cameras now use the same APS-C sensor as DSLR crop cameras use. And there are a couple cameras that use the Full Frame sensor now.
Mirrorless Allow Faster Shooting: Mirrorless also tend to be faster over DSL due to not having a flapping mirror. Most do still use mechanical shutters, but some also offer shutter-less shooting as well for completely silent shooting.
Mirrorless now offer 4K video shooting: For video shooting, mirrorless even offer 4K video shooting (DSLR bodies do NOT yet support this resolution for video just yet).
In the area of technology, Canon itself has stalled. They have not been revolutionizing the camera world and each new camera has simply been a revision of the previous technology with a few more megapixels added, but no new real features or tech. Case in point the brand new 5Ds, which was hailed to be the successor of the Canon 5D Mark III and years in the making. What did it offer? Nothing but more resolution. In fact, it’s simply a 5D Mark III with more resolution.
The Mirrorless tech, however, has been pushing the envelop. And at the forefront of this is Sony. The Sony 7R I camera sent shock waves through the camera world by packing a gob stopping amount of features into the body with a high megapixel full frame sensor. And the brand new 7R II looks like it is the best landscape camera you can get now with a full frame sensor, 40+ megapixels, and a ton of other features. Basically, it’s a better sensor than anything Canon or Nikon has.
The one area where Mirrorless lose completely to DSLR’s is the lens lineup. Right now, even in 2015, Sony, Fuji, Samsung and the rest can’t compete with the likes of the Nikon or Canon’s lens lineup. However, there ARE lens adapters for some of the mirrorless brands, such as Sony’s 7Rr ii working with the Metabones adapter, witch allows you to use Canon glass.
What’s the Best DSLR Camera for Landscape Photography?
The best camera for landscape photography, is without a doubt, one that uses a full frame sensor. The image quality, we have found, is superior.
Canon DSLR Recommendations
What do I have? I currently have the 5D Mark II which I will be upgrading to…the Mirrorless Sony 7R II and using an adapter to use my canon glass.
Absolute Best Canon for Landscapes: Canon 5Ds
If you want a few newer features the Canon 5Ds ($3500) just came out and was hailed to be the upgrade to the Canon 5D Mark III, a pseudo 5D Mark IV of sorts, but it turned out to be a failure. It’s basically a Canon 5D Mark 3 with more resolution — a three year old body with higher megapixel counts. No new real technology or feature upgrade. Not worth the $3500 or so it would cost IMHO. Still if you are married to Canon, the 5Ds or the slightly higher resolution 5Dr are your only options.
Mid-range Canon for Landscapes: Canon 5D Mark III
If you have to go with a canon I recommend the Canon 5D Mark 3 ($2500) which is Canon’s work horse full frame camera. However, it’s over three years and the technology is dated. I would not advice you to spend the money but hold off and see what else Canon comes out with.
Budget Canon for Landscapes: Canon 60D
If you want a cheaper option with canon, look at their 6D ($1400) which is ALSO full frame — and for under $1500 a price that was something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Ultra Budget Canon Option: Buy a USED 5D Mark II
I STILL use this one for landscapes and tromp around the world with it. It takes great photos and offers similar quality to the Mark III, even being 5 years old. Really, you can take spectacular photos with it. You can pick up a USED body for somewhere between 1000 and 1500 USD and if price is a pinch, well I’d look at paying about 1200 for this camera used over a new 60D.
Nikon DSLR Recommendations
Nikon also has their own (highly rated) full frame camera too, so it’s an alternative.
Best Nikon for Landscapes: Nikon D810
If you want the best of Nikon and price is not an issue, we recommend the Nikon D810 as the equivalent to the Canon 5D Mark III (and about 3 years newer too). At a bit under $3000, it’s priced nearly the same too. It’s squarely between a Mark III and the 5Ds in terms of resolution, but in terms of feature set, I would prefer this one to Canon’s new 5Ds and 5Dr.
Best Mid-Range Nikon for Landscapes: Nikon D750
Also look at the Nikon D750 ($2000) which is another Nikon Full Frame and a cheaper alternative to the D810. It’s a cheaper option at about $2000 but offers many of the core features of the D810 and for the landscape photographer will absolutely do the job.
On the Mirrorless front, consider the new upcoming (as of Aug 2015) Sony A7r II which has a full frame sensor that beats the Canon DSLRs, a list of friendly landscape photography feature set, and the small compact frame of the Mirrorless style camera. Oh, and it also has an adapter so you can use Canon lenses.
This Sony A7r II is my pick for the ultimate landscape camera, if you can afford the 3000 USD price tag for the body. I’m not just telling you guys this is the one to get, I am getting it myself, selling off my used 5D Mark 2, and picking this one up with a Metabones adapter. I would rather pay 3000 for this camera than to sink that equivalent into Canon or Nikon at this point, given how both companies have stalled on the technology front, especially Canon.
Final Notes about Camera Bodies
But don’t think that you need to pony out $3000 dollars on a full frame camera to take good landscape images — you can certainly take stunning images on entry level DSLR cameras too. Skill, technique, luck, and the right equipment all play a role in getting the perfect shot, but don’t let anyone tell you that you need the best equipment or the most expensive equipment to succeed.
Best Camera Lenses for Landscapes
Lenses are a personal choice. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing the right lens for landscape shots.
- Image Quality
- “How Wide”
Image Quality: This is very important for landscape images. Landscape photographers are notoriously picky about having the highest quality images. Picking a lens for image quality often means looking at the “pro” level of glass. In the case of Canon lenses, pro-grade glass are denoted with an L. The image quality is better than non-L canon lenses and there is better build quality to the lenses. Each brand of camera will have their own version of the Canon L glass. Typically, expect to pay a premium for pro-grade glass. Depending on how fast the lens is (the lower the f-stop rating) you can expect to pay anywhere from 600 dollars to 4000 dollars (or more) for a single such lens.
Weight: Weight is a factor for landscape photographers because to get the perfect image often requires some serious hiking. You don’t want to carry around massive lenses because it’s harder to get around.
How Wide : Typically most people consider “wide angle” lenses landscape lenses. The reason is that you typically want to capture as MUCH of the scene as possible and wide angles give you that ability. Wide angles simply make landscapes (with the right composition) so much more dramatic.
What Type of Lens for Landscape to Choose?
When it comes to Landscape Photography, you really should have at least two pieces of glass to cover you: Ultra Wide and Telephoto
For Ultra Wide (on a full frame), you should have at LEAST 17mm to capture those wide open expanses and allow those dramatic skies and in-your-face foreground objects to stand out.
You should also have a telephoto to bring another type of composition possibility: dramatic comparisons. For example, you can use a telephoto to blow up the sun and make it a major feature of your composition or you can zoom in on a particular composition to provide some contrast– the big with the small for example. Telephotos also add another quality — you get flat images with not a lot of depth. And this is something you may want in a composition to accentuate certain moods or elements.
Personally, this is my ideal range for landscape lenses:
1) Ultrawide from 16-35mm OR 11-24mm for the super ultrawide
1) 70-300mm OR 100-400mm
Having two lenses that offer these ranges means you cover the ultra wide to wide range and telephoto ranges (with the 300 or 400mm allowing you to create dramatic compositions with the sun or some other interesting feature). If you want to cover another range in case, you can throw on a PRIME lens at 50mm.
Specific Lens Recommendations
Make sure you read our Best Lenses for Landscape Photography for more detailed information.
What About Tamon and Sigma?
Having owned both Tamron and Sigma lenses I can safely say that the build quality of the Sigma lens feels more robust.
I will presume you already have the obligatory 18mm – 55mm (as it usually comes boxed with most cameras) so a further advantage of these wide angle lenses is that they reach 20mm so will take you comfortably up to the 18mm start point of your next lens. For landscapes the f3.5 aperture is more than sufficient because for this type of photography you will probably want to stop down to more than f3.5 for greater depth of field.
I personally use and abuse Canon lenses – I feel they offer the best in terms of image quality, if you use their pro-grade L lenses. However, Tamron and Sigma will typically give you better “bang for your buck” since they are cheaper than comparative Canon L lenses. If penny pinching is your major concern (and it is for most of us, with top end lenses costing usually a thousand to thousands), Sigma and Tamron are there to greet you with open arms.
Assuming you have a full frame camera but do not want to invest as heavily in a lens exclusively for landscapes, or you have purchased the camera body without the 18mm -55mm, then a good option might be something like the Tamron 17mm-50mm f2.8. Although not great for speed of focus it provides a more modestly priced all-rounder for portrait or landscape.
Canon Landscape Lenses
If you own a Canon body, there are a couple wide angle landscape lenses to look at:
- Canon 10-22mm EF-S
- Canon 11-24L mm
- Canon 17-40L mm
- Canon 16-35L f/4 mm
- Canon Primes (14mm, 24mm,50mm,70mm)
If you have a crop sensor camera, then you’ll have to go with the 10-22 mm EF lens to get wide angle. If you own a full frame Canon (that is a Canon 5D Mark II, III or 5Ds, or 60D body), then the 17-40L will be ultra wide as will the 16-35L f/4.
The 16-35L f/4 is one of canon’s newest lenses and it’s hands down one of the best and sharpest. It blows the 17-40L out of the water and comparing it to the older 16-35L 2.8, it’s much better, though it loses one stop of light.
Canon also recently released the widest ever with their 11-24L. This baby is awesome and about the sharpest ultra wide lens ever made. It blows the 17-40L out of the water and is on par with the 16-35L f/4 while offering another 5mm on the lower end. But it’s also around 3000 USD too.
Personally, If price is a concern, then consider 17-40L because it’s less than half the cost of the 16-35L 4/4 and significantly smaller/lighter.
For pure landscapes though, the 16-35L f/4 rocks (especially if portability and weight are factors – say with hiking or travelling). In fact, I would rate the 16-35L at $1000 canon’s best landscape lens and a MUST have in terms of price and quality. If you can afford the 3000 USD for the 11-24L, well get that one, but at 3x the cost I don’t feel the extra focal length at the wide end is worth it unless you are doing architectural photography and need the width. Comparing the 16-35L F/4 to the 16-35L II f.2.8 or the even older 16-35L I f 2.8, it’s superior in every way optically, except you don’t get the extra light stop of the 2.8. Both the 2.8 and f4 have USM (image stabilizing).
Landscape Photography And Lenses: Final Pointers You Should Know
There are the most important points to keep in mind when considering lenses. This comes out of my own experience with landscape photography.
Other Brands Offer Cheaper Alternatives: The lenses mentioned in the previous section, and their equivalents for Sony, Pentax et al, cover a good scope of possibility for general landscape photography. For Canon EF-S and Nikon DX cameras with cropped APS-C sensors, the Sigma 10-20mm f3.5 is a decent alternative in the same kind of price range.
50mm is a good lens for landscape as a compromise: As I have suggested, your choice of lens will, of course, depend on whether you want to work solely on landscapes or use your camera for a wider range of photography. If you do want a broad choice of lenses for general use but would like to occasionally dabble in landscape then a 50mm f1.8 is great lens to have on board, but it is especially useful for composing panoramas. It’s light, portable, inexpensive and although not particularly wide,might also be a good choice for more detailed work like architecture, crashing waves or images concentrating on one precise, detailed area of a landscape. Canon’s nifty fifty (f 1.8) is their cheapest lens at about 150 USD and it’s also one of the best rated in quality, especially at that price. Other lenses in their lineup cost nearly 1000 dollars that offer something similar in terms of quality.
Carry ultra wide and telephoto to cover the widest range of composition possibilities: Remember that landscapes are not always sweeping vistas, but rather any photographic representation of the physical world. A selection of lenses covering anything from 17mm to 70mm ought to cover an adequate range of possibilities and from this you can begin to discern focal lengths that you have a tendency of returning to again and again. Having something that goes to 200mm or more though allows your landscape composition possibilities; if you don’t have anything going 200mm or longer, you right away cut out a whole range of what you can do in terms of composition. Better to at least OFFER yourself that possibility by having the gear to allow it.
Consider Primes: Prime lenses offer much sharper images and (typically) better quality images than do zooms. They are also far lighter and more compact. If you are a minimal equipment sort of person, you can get buy with 2 or 3 primes and shave on some serious weight in the field. Only having a few focal length possibilities also tends to have an effect on your photography — your eye gets sharper and your photography more minimal. You also don’t waste time when shooting — you just shoot with the length you have and it opens your eye to NEW possibilities in your composition you would never otherwise see with zooms. Basically, you are forced not to be lazy with your photographic eye.
It’s not your lens that makes the photo but the eye behind the lens: lenses allow you composition possibilities and affect the image quality, but no lens can replace a good photographic eye. The best way to improve your lanscape photography is to practice at it. You can take stunning photos with subpar camera bodies and subpar lenses. YOU are the photographer, not your camera and not your lens.
Experiment with lenses to find what works for you: Hardly any other factor in how a shot will turn out is as critical as the choice of lens and it is only by trial and error that you can begin to make the right choice of lens more of the time. Practice means that as you look at the landscape stretching out in front of you, you’ll begin to visualize the image you want to create and can immediately opt for the right lens to do the job. Over time you may develop a fondness for a particular focal length or style but before buying an expensive prime, wide angle or super-wide-angle, it is always a good idea to carry a lens that will give you a good range of focal length to play with.
Tripods & Tripod Accessories
Some of the best photography captures the elements at work upon the landscape and this sense of movement can be dramatically captured in a photograph. What you do not want is for the elements to compromise the stability your tripod.
A cheap tripod is not really an option. Even when using high speeds, if the tripod is wavering about in the wind or unsteady in any way this can be the deciding factor in ruining a well composed and considered shot. Again, buying a tripod is really about striking a balance between lightness, rigidity and stability.
It is worth asking yourself if you intend to carry the tripod long distances or whether you intend to use it for other types of photography too. Tripods come in a variety of materials, weights and prices, but for landscape photography, where some arduous trekking is needed, Carbon fibre (CF) really is the best option both in terms of lightness and rigidity.
However, if you intend to use a large telephoto lens with a CF tripod then this rigidity can be compromised somewhat.
When looking at a tripod it is probably best to look at buying as three separate components.
- Leg Set
- Leveling Base
- Quick Release System
- Panning Head
What’s the Best Tripod for Landscape Photography?
Picking out the right tripod depends on the person’s needs. In our opinion, a good landscape tripod is ONE that’s highly portable in the field — landscape photographers are often highly mobile, forced to travel great distances to take the perfect shot (plane travel, car travel, hiking, climbing, etc). Because of this, lightweight and portability are key. Note, read our Best Tripods for Landscape Photographers article.
We recommend the Gitzo 1542T as the best landscape tripod (read our Gitzo 1542sT review). It’s only 2.5lbs with a ballhead on it, extends to over 5 feet, and when folded is only 16 inches long — small enough to shove into any suitcase or bag/backpack. It’s expensive though, at over $600 dollars.
The reason not purchasing the tripod as a set is that there is a great deal of difference in how the legs or head lock and how the whole thing feels. It’s always best to tailor all of this to suit your requirements. Where you may be able to buy your camera and lens online with some degree of certainty, a tripod really is an area where you need some contact with the object before buying.
If you have no experience of a particular tripod then getting out to a store and physically handling them is the best bet. Basalt tripods come in a little cheaper than CF but in terms of their composition there is little to choose between them. Nonetheless, basalt costs a little less. Aluminium has more weight than both of these materials and less vibration dampening but is cheaper still.
Best Landscape Photography Tripod:
The Gitzo 1542T is the best for travelling and landscapes. It’s the tripod I’ve owned for years. Get it and you won’t ever want another tripod again. An alternative would be the Gitzo Mountaineer GT042 which offers the same specs, but features newer technology and some better features, but you can’t fold the tripod legs backwards over the center column like you can in the 1542T.
The leveling base, although not essential, is a really useful piece of kit to have. The levelling base sits between the leg set and ball head giving you some fine tuning if the legs are on uneven ground. Rather than fiddling with the leg extensions to get the bubble level on ball head correctly aligned, you can do this on the leveling base before adding the head. Like I have said, not exactly essential but a handy supplement and if you’ve spent good money on the tripod and head then it is a relatively inexpensive addition.
Best Leveling Base Recommendation
Look at the Acratech Leveling Base. In terms of sheer quality and usability, this is the best one on the market. However, I would opt to put that money into a Panning Clamp (see below) which offers the same features of a leveling base BUT saves on the weight and extra stuff since you can make the panning clamp your ball head clamp, cutting the extra part (leveling base) out of the equation. Alternative, you can use the Panning Clamp as a leveling base itself by clipping it into your ball head quick-release clamp (with the dovetail attachment) if you don’t’ want to replace your ball head clamp with the Panning Clamp.
You absolutely need a Leveling Base or Panning Clamp IF you want to take panorma photos.
Not essential but a damn useful piece of kit to have, especially if you want to take panoramic photos. It sits on top of the ball head (either as the ballhead clamp or clamping into your ball head clamp as a slip in leveling base) and allows you to rotate your camera 360 degrees. In addition it has a leveling bubble so you can level your camera in the matter of 5 seconds. This makes taking panorama photos a breeze.
As I’ve stated above, the Really Right Stuff panning clamp is a better alternative to a Leveling Base.
Best Panning Clamp for Landscapes and Panoramas
Absolute get the Really Right Stuff PC-1. It’s about 235 USD. This is what I have with my Markins Ball Head. I removed the markins quick release clamp head and replaced it with the Really Right Stuff PC-1 so the quick clamp head is also a panning clamp. Shooting panoramas is a breeze and I can level my camera in 5 seconds or less.
One tips though is to go with their PC-LR model instead of the PC-1 model. The only difference is the PC-LR has a level clamp rather than a knob. This means you acn shave off a few seconds by unlacking the clamp to remove your camera from the clamp, rather then fiddling with turning a knob to release it. It’s not a big deal by any means, but when you do this over and over, well, it’s wasted time. The latching or unlatching the clamp is 1 second, while turning a knob is 3 to 5 seconds.
Note there are some other brands I’ve seen that offer panning clamps for around 100 USD, but pay the money and go with RRS. Really, it you can’t argue with their quality, durability, and ease of use. I would not pay half for a lesser brand for such an important piece of your tripod kit.
A ball-head mount really is the only choice when it comes to stability and is a solid investment. You have a fair amount of expensive equipment riding on it so it is not an investment you should skimp on. Although something decent can be expensive, it’s an item you can expect to be using for many, many years. Using a cheap video head really isn’t an option. Not only are pan / tilt heads less smooth to use but also more difficult to carry as the handle(s) invariably protrudes, plus you will end up needing to lock the head via two separate orientations.
Other than the ability to rotate smoothly and point in a 360 direction, the major advantage with a ball head comes with how easily they lock into place. Some cheaper heads don’t lock smoothly and by the time you have locked the head in place the framing of the shot has changed.
For any degree of certainty look for a quality ball head. This is absolutely the MOST IMPORTANT PART of your tripod kit. You maybe can save a few hundred dollars and get a cheap ball head, but it’s what connects your camera to your tripod and what you will be using ALL the time to aim and hold your camera when shooting with your tripod. Don’t get a cheap one to shave money. A quality ball head is one of the best investments you can make into your landscape photography.
Best Ball Head Recommendations
This really depends on how much weight you want to hold on your tripod, how light you want your tripod to be after you put your ball head on, and how you like your ball head to feel when moving it (ok, no jokes here please).
I use the Markin Emil Q3T which is designed specifically for the Gitzo 1542T tripod so it can fold up compactly with the legs over the ball head. This is the best travel tripod combo I’ve seen so far. However, the ball head is not designed to support massive telephoto lenses. You are ok with a DSLR + battery grip + 70-200mm telephoto, but much anything bigger than that on and you may have some issues with stability.
Look at ball heads from Acratech, Swiss-Arca, Markins, and Really Right Stuff. These are considered the best of the best ball head companies.
Quick Release System
Once you buy a tripod, one important factor that you need to consider IS how you are going to put the entire system together.
The best system is called the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System and involves a special quick-release plate installed on the tripod ballhead and a screw-in plate mounted on the camera itself (or you can mount an LPlate instead). This system allows you to release the camera from the tripod with a simple flick of a switch or lever. There are a number of other Quick Release Systems out there, but by far, the Arca-Swiss is the most popular and the most convenient to use.
Did I mention you should not have any other quick release system besides the Arca-Swiss one? It’s the universal system that all the good companies use. If you don’t get this system of quick release plates, you will lock yourself out of most of the best tripod accessories.
A simple device allowing you to quickly convert from landscape to portrait orientation without flipping the camera off the tripod’s centre of gravity. This makes changing orientations a simple affair without having to touch the tripod itself or do any readjustments. For landscapes, this special plate can save a LOT of time.
Try to buy for stiffness rather than lightness because some photographers have complained that L plates can cause images to soften. This could be because when the mirror or shutter vibrates, the increased distance between the camera and tripod cause a small oscillation, but generally they work fine and most users find them indispensable. Don’t buy anything generic but instead buy specifically for your model of camera. The type you buy will also depend on whether you use a battery grip.
Best L-Plat to Buy?
We recommend going with the Really Right Stuff L-Plate’s. They are custom manufactured for your specific camera model and fit like a glove. They are pricey, at around $150 dollars but the quality is worth the price.
Yes, I do use an L-Plate myself. I never buy a camera without buying a L-Plate for that camera. The ability to switch between landscape and portrait compositions on the fly without losing your composition are essential for landscape photography. And you need an L-Plate to allow this.
Filters can drastically alter the look of your pictures. A landscape photographer, to take good images, MUST master the use of filters. Let me repeat this: you cannot be a good landscape photographer without an intricate understanding of how to use the right filters at the right time. If you want to take sunset/sunrise photos with balanced exposure, you will absolutely need to master the use of GRAD filters.
Thread or System Filters?
Read our guide to filter holders for more on this topic.
Many photographers prefer to use Cokin or Lee filter holders. Because the lens may already have a threaded UV filter it can be unwise (and fiddly) to start piggy-backing threaded filters one after another. This will only increase the possibility of lens flare and vignetting at the outer areas of the image. The filter holder systems made by these companies mean that filters come as square plates that can be either slotted into the holder or held in place magnetically. There are more than 200 Cokin filters available for each of their holder sizes. A filter holder not only makes changing filters easier but also gives you the opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of colored gelatin filters made by companies such as Lee and Roscoe. You can purchase these filters more cost-effectively as kits made specifically for landscapes. Make sure you buy the correct system for your lens and that the filter has complete coverage over your widest angle. This is especially relevant for full frame sensor cameras. There should be no problem, however, on cropped sensors. If you do opt for a system filter set then it is worth investing in a wallet for storage of the filters.
Generally best to buy one, with the correct sized thread, for every lens you own to protect the glass and sensor from harmful UV, grit and dust. You can buy these as square filters but their point, to me at least, is entirely lost. A UV filter has no discernible effect on the overall image. Best to opt for a high quality, multi-coated filter to reduce any chance of lens flare.
Polarizing Filters are a must have for landscape photography. Light bounces around in many directions, and from reflective surfaces some of this light passes too directionally into the lens. This is why the sunlight dancing on the surface of the sea or moisture on leaves can often read as heavily over-exposed areas of a photograph. A polarizing filter omits this light and can be rotated to give some control over the different waveforms of light permitted to the lens. The result of this is that skies appear bluer and clouds hang more dramatically on this deeper background. The polarizing filter allows you to see something of the depth of a body of water because of the decreased surface reflectiveness and gives vegetation an intense lustre. One slight disadvantage is that because of the decrease in available light you will be forced to shoot at a lower speed, but the light you’re preventing is not of the helpful variety. Be certain to buy a circular, rather than a linear filter as the latter will confound the camera’s white balance and autofocus.
Graduated Neutral Density (GND) Filters
Absolutely a MUST if you want to do landscape photography that does not always involved doing multiple shots for HDR. Let me repeat, if you want to take landscape shots, you NEED GND’s. This, besides your tripod, is the most important piece of kit you can have.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters are another important filter for giving you maximum control of the light, particularly where the sky may be over-exposed or appear much brighter than the rest of the image. GRAD filters are probably the most important filter for landscape photography — without them, you get uneven exposure. See those amazing landscape sunset shots with a bright, beautiful sky, a huge burning orb of a setting sun, and a wonderfully exposed foreground and background? Those pictures are made possible because of GND Filters.
In essence, one half of the filter permits less light, graduating through to full light. These filters can help to create some parity of exposure between sky and ground. Don’t confuse GND with colored, grey graduated filters These are not the same and will only change the color of the light rather than decreasing its intensity. There are 6 different strengths of ND grads but it’s probably worth choosing the weakest of these filter blocks which decrease light by either 1, 2 or 3 stops.
The most cost-effective way to purchase is as a full set from either Cokin or Lee. The filter sets start at around $100 although Lee Filters, whilst (arguably) better, are more expensive. If you want to go with a higher quality GND filters, you can look at the offerings by Singh-Ray. Grads are available in smaller sizes (by Cokin) and larger sizes. It’s best to go with the larger size grads as you can use them with wide angle lenses and you can hand hold them to the lens in a pinch.
- Cokin ND2X, ND4X and ND8X.
- Lee .1, 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9
- Singh-Ray *all levels
Types of Grad Filters
- Hard Grad Filters
- Soft Grad Filters
- Reverse Grad Filters
There are also options for how smoothly the gradient makes the transition from dark to light, termed as hard edge and soft edge filters. Hard edge filters are useful for shots where there is an unbroken horizon — shots over the sea, grasslands, or other such settings where the horizon is clear and uninterrupted. Soft Edge grad filters are for shots where the horizon has objects in it — mountains, trees, buildings, and such. Reverse Grad Filters are special filters produced by Singh-Ray which have a dark gradient near the center of the filter. That gradient becomes more reduce away from the center of the filter. This filter is really for one type of shot: sunrise/sunset pictures where there is a concentration of brightness near the center of the image.
If you purchase only one set of GND filters then it’s probably best to ere on the side of caution and choose soft edge. With hard edge you can often find yourself working the shot around the filter rather than the filter working for your shot. If you can afford it, you should incorporate both hard and soft filters. You can “stack” grads together if you need even more control, though this does introduce some discoloration into the image, sometimes.
Our recommendation is this:
- 3 Stop Soft Grad Filter
- 3 Stop Hard Grad Filter
- 4 Stop Reverse Grad Filter
We’ve found that most high contrast lighting conditions can be controlled with a 3 stop soft/hard grad.
How to Hold Grad Filters to Your Lens
Again, we’ve talked about how to use these specifically in our How to Use Grad Filter article, so check that out for more details.
There are a couple ways.
Use a Filter Holder: You can utilize something like the Cokin Filter Holder or the more expensive Lee Filter Holder. This allows you to hand hold your camera while using filters (not usually recommended). If you use a filter holder, you also don’t introduce vibration (since you are not touching the filter) into the picture taking process which allows you the maximum quality.
Hand Hold It: Another option is to just hold the grad filters directly against your camera lens. This is certainly the easiest and fastest method since you don’t have to carry around a filter holder and fiddle with it. However, hand holding a filter may introduce vibration into the image. Because the filters are pressed against the end of the lens, you may also scratch them (in fact, you WILL). Some grad filters (depending on the brand) may be close to 200 dollars per filter so you do risk damaging them. The scratches, if you have enough of them, WILL degrade the image quality somewhat.
Neutral Density Filter
These are useful for when you need to stop the light down for shooting longer exposures in bright daylight. They are especially useful for controlling how you would like moving water to appear. Again, like GND filters they are best purchased as a set:
- Cokin ND2, ND4, ND8.
- Lee 0.3Full, 0.6Full, 0.9Full
I recommend you go with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND’s. You can get 8+ stops of light held back with these, the optics are superior to any of the other ND filters on the market, and you can get different optic combinations such as Polarizing ND’s, Warming Polarizer ND’s, and even a Warming Polarizer + Color Enhancer + 8 Stop ND option. However, Singh-Ray is pricey — these range from 300 to 500 USD.
Color filters are relatively inexpensive. For truly dramatic photographs a red filter is a great addition to your collection (though you can do a digital warming filter in photoshop as an alternative). They create a stylized depth and intensity. They add a vast amount of contrast and work well to deepen foliage and create tone separation on cloudy, blue skies. If you are venturing into black and white landscapes a red filter comes into its own. Many of the color filters available will create some interesting effects and buying color filters as a set (of three primaries) is a good start and give you a greater range of possibilities. Color, graduated filters are another option to keep in mind, as are color correction filters although on a tight budget it’s always possible to try out color changes in your imaging software.
When to Use: Sunsets and Sunrises in particular or if you have a landscape you want to add a golden, fiery touch too.
Warming filters come in a wide range of colors from pale salmon pinks to light golds and ambers. As the name suggests these filters generate some warmth into an otherwise flat or cold scene. They work well to add more of a ‘mood’ to your photo image.
When to Use: These can be particularly useful, I’ve found, when you are shooting up in very high altitude areas, where the sun is very strong, the sky is azure blue, and the landscape can be dry and barren. Often, your shots will take on a blueish cold look to them. Slapping on a warming filter, or using a warming polarizer (I use the Singh-Ray LB Color Combo filter which is a warming polarizers + color enhancer in one).
Here’s an example of the effect:
Image by Luis Argerich
Neodymium / LP Filter
Although not exactly an essential filter a Neodymium or Light Pollution filter can have some uses especially of you plan to shoot at night or include star laden skies as part of the landscape. Predominantly designed and used for telescopes, these filters bypass the wavelengths emitted by low-pressure sodium lighting and other unnatural light. If you plan to shoot a landscape in, or close to, an urban environment at night then the images can often become overwhelmed by an intense orange glow, usually made worse because you are working with longer exposure times. Neo-D or LP filters help to overcome this by permitting starlight and reflected light from the earth, leaving the sky the intense black or deep magenta it ought to be. This is very much a specialist filter and requires some research before buying but for Canon EOS, Astronomik make a truly effective CLS Light Pollution Filter.
There are a variety of specialty filters you can get that combine different filter types into a single one. Singh-Ray make some such filters. For example, you can get their LB Color Combo which combines a Warming Polarizer with a Color Intensifier filter. This filter is great for shots with a lot of color as the colors are greatly pumped up (more natural looking than say doing so in PhotoShop). This filter is especially great for Autumn colors. This is my FAVORITE filter and I use it all the time, everytime.
Another such filter is the Vari-ND Duo which combines an adjustable ND filter (to control lighting) with a warming polarizer. This is a fantastic lens for all shots with moving water (waterfalls, streams, etc). I also own this and use it as well, especially for coastal areas, waterfalls, and fields of grass or flowers.
They even have a new filter called the Vari-ND-Trio which combines a Neutral Density filter, color enhancer, and warming polarizer. I’m looking into buying this myself.
Probably the cheapest bit of kit you’ll carry but likely to be the one item you’d really kick yourself for leaving behind. Why go to all of the trouble and expense of the best tripod and ball-head when the simple act of pressing the shutter could undo all of your hard work? If you decide to opt for the infra-red, remote variety then get one with a sturdy on / off button because the cheaper versions tend to turn themselves on in your bag making expensive lithium batteries drain away in no time. If you do have an IR remote shutter release then also get into the habit of keeping the battery and the unit separate when not in use. If you don’t have a cable release the option is still there to use your timer settings to avoid contact with the camera when it matters (touching the camera induces SHAKE which can affect the quality of your final image). However if you are trying to catch the precise moment a cloud breaks or the effects of wind on the landscape then this method falls short.
Note that you cannot do long-exposure night photography (on older cameras) WITHOUT the use of a cable release. Some of the newer DSLR’s and Mirrorless cameras let you do timed exposures so you don’t need to have a cable release. However, to reduce camera vibration, it’s still a good idea to use one.
Not essential (and usually comes with any lens you buy), but it can help block stray light from seeping into your camera. This can prevent glare and is particularly useful when shooting towards the sun when you want to cut any stray sun light out of the image (eliminating the lens flare lines that pop up).
This itself is really it’s own article. There is really a camera bag out there for everyone, so it’s hard to make a specific recommendation that covers everyone. Because likely my needs (based on my lens kit, body, tripod, style of photography, and type of travel) is very different then your own.
You can really break your camera bags into three main types:
- Hybrid Style (for serious Hiking / Climbing / Backpacking — contains sections for your camera gear, lenses, but the focus is on also carrying your other non-camera stuff)
- Urban Photography (these often look inconspicuous as possible while affording you easy access to your lenses and camera)
- Travel Photography (lightweight, durable, built for traveling photographers)
Some VERY good and well respected brands are ThinkTank, Kata, National Geographic, and LowePro. I’ve owned many camera backs from all of these.
Camera Buying Bag Tips
- For general photography, Lowepro really are the bag to beat for lugging your camera about and they offer a range of bags to suit every camera user. Try to carry your kit as hand luggage for flights but if this is inconvenient then one of the hard cases made by Pelican should provide enough protection from baggage throwing ,world record attempts by airport ground crew.
- If you want the absolute best of the best or you want a specific TYPE of camera bag that best suits a particular niche of photography (such as hiking, skiing or some such), then you’ll want to look at the specific camera bag brands that target these niches. Really, the best way to get information is to check out some popular photography forums and see what fellow photographers are saying. There are usually entire forums or threads devoted to bags with people comparing every little detail.
- Under no circumstances use a bag that isn’t designed for cameras.
- One tip is to make sure you get a waterproof camera bag, not only to provide protection from the rain but (and even more damaging) from sand and grit in dry, arid conditions. In an ideal world we would all clear the bag of our kit and clean the lenses before storing but more often than not lenses are left in the bag until the next outing. If the bag has retained any moisture at the core then bringing the bag back into a warm environment could contribute to degradation of the lens and the camera, so again, a further reason to insure against all eventualities is to head for a waterproof model. As a landscape photographer, cloud can often be a deciding factor in setting up for a shot, whether your inspiration comes from a dramatic thunder-head or picture-book cumulus. One day, unexpectedly or otherwise, one of these clouds will suddenly decide to empty its contents right on top of you so if you can go for waterproof then do so.
Camera Bags and Landscape Photography:
Again, this itself is a whole article. But here are some of the major tips I’ve learned over nearly a decade of hauling my camera kit around the world in pursuit of landscape shots.
- Get a camera bag that COMFORTABLY carries an ultra light tripod. There are MANY awesome camera bags out there. But they are NOT so awesome once you put your tripod setup on, which can affect the balance and accessibility. Trust me on this point — if you want to do travel landscape shots and you are looking for a camera bag, make sure the tripod carrying feature is the number 1 feature that determines your search. Ideally, you want your camera bag to have multiple positions to strap on your tripod, such as the side, strapped underneath, and behind your tripod.
- Get a camera bag designed for ultra light travel. Trust me, you don’t want to carry 30 kilos of camera gear around as a landscape photographer. It’s a pain to pack and unpack your back between each location and it’s heavy as sin to carry. Make sure you have a minimum gear setup and make sure your camera bag is light with light travel in mind. For example, I had one camera bag, Think Tank 360 that had all these incredible features, but the damn thing weighed almost 7 kilos on it’s own.
- Get a camera bag that’s water resistant (or water proof) with a rain cover built in somewhere. I’ve been in a lot of exotic locations with exotic weather patterns. And more than a few times I’ve been stranded in the rain with my gear. You don’t want to be in this situation without proper rain protection for your gear. A good camera bag will have a rain shield included somewhere
- Get a camera bag that allows easy access to your camera and lens in one go. If your camera bag forces you to open your MAIN section to remove it, this forces you to put your camera bag down (often in the dirt somewhere) and unzip it to get your camera. It’s a pain in the ass to do this — trust me on this. Make sure to get a camera bag that offers side access DIRECTLY to your camera so you can unzip a separate section, grab your camera on the fly (with the backpack still slung around one shoulder), zip up the section, and start shooting.
- Get a camera bag that has a tiny section for a small laptop 10-13 inches. While this is not a required feature, it’s nice to be able to put a ultra-book or small laptop into your camera bag when you travel between locations (though not a good idea to bring the camera into the field). You don’t’ have to worry about storing your computer somewhere else when traveling.
- Get a camera bag that has a very small section for NON-photography items. Such as a pouch to store a light sweater, some chocolate bars, your wallet, and maybe a small water container. Trust me, if you wander into the field to take pictures, you want a bit of extra room for non-photo equipment so you can stay out all day comfortably.
Other Useful Camera Accessories for Landscape Photography
A pretty straight-forward investment. The chances are that at some point you will arrive at a spot where you will want to set up shortly before the sun has risen or just as it’s going down. You may also want to take a shot from a dark, rural location, overlooking a well lit scene such as a harbour or city-scape. A head torch also has its uses if you have to trek across uneven terrain in darkness. Nonetheless, in any of these situations you will want to keep both hands free and getting everything ready is not easy to do in pitch-black.
This allows you to gauge the level of light so you can make more accurate control it (say by using filters). Most digital cameras (certainly DSLR’s) have built in spot meters so you don’t really need a dedicated spot meter these days. However, having one can help and they may be easier to use and more accurate than your built in camera one.
Camera Rain Cover
For similar reasons a rain cover for your camera is also a good idea if you are setting up in conditions where it is threatening to rain or where water might be splashing near to you. Rain can really ruin your shooting IF you don’t have a proper rain cover. The Kata E-690 GDC Elements Cover is a good option for use with shorter, wide-angle lenses.
Finally, just make sure you have done a mental check-list of any other necessary kit: the right clothing, food, maps etc… It may also be a good idea to have researched or purchased an almanac of local tide, sunrise and sunset times. You can never have enough fully charged batteries and memory cards. It almost goes without saying that a mobile phone is another essential piece of kit for any emergencies (but mainly as an extra torch if the head-light runs out)