From technique to equipment to preparation, these field-tested ideas will help you make better landscape photos
By George D. Lepp
A rich source of information on locations is Robert Hitchman's "Photograph America" newsletter. He's been at it for more than 14 years and gives excellent information on many places. Hopefully, the site can handle the traffic. Go to www.photographamerica.com or call (415) 898-3736.
A lot of info is available over the Internet, and I've scouted a number of areas by doing a Google search. The amount and quality of info will depend on how well you do your search.
Filters, Filters, Filters The filter I use most often is a polarizer, which is useful for both film and digital capture, and goes a long way in adding drama to the sky or removing sheen from vegetation. In the end, you'll find that the color saturation is greatly improved. I have a regular polarizer that fits into a Cokin holder to use with focal lengths through 28mm wide-angle lenses, and can be used in conjunction with other P-series filters. I also carry a wide-angle polarizer that works through 16mm because it's very thin and doesn't have a rotating ring. It's rotated simply by threading it in and out on the filter threads (available from Singh-Ray at www.singh-ray.com).
My second most used filter is a neutral-density filter, which is completely neutral gray and only serves the purpose of slowing the exposure. The beautiful effects in landscape images, where streams have a milky flow or waves along the ocean that record as a fog, are all done with the help of a neutral-density filter. I now use one filter that covers from two to 10 stops by simply turning the ring of the filter—the new Vari-X filter from Singh-Ray. Single-strength filters are viable for a lower cost. If I could carry only one ND filter, it would be a three-stop.
A graduated neutral-density filter is the third most important filter and helps control the density difference between a bright sky and a dark foreground. By holding back the exposure on the sky with the dark part of the filter, the foreground gets more exposure. The usual difference between the two areas is three ƒ-stops.
Tripods, Tripods, Tripods I can't emphasize enough the gain in quality a landscape photographer achieves by religiously using a quality tripod with a good head. First, you need a solid set of legs that are incredibly stiff and easily extend to a desired height. Then, just as important, you need a tripod head that will position your camera quickly and firmly. A few years ago, there might have been only two or three choices of ballheads, but now there are many. The price varies from a hundred or so dollars for one that will handle up to a light 300mm lens to those over $400 that are designed to smoothly handle the largest of telephotos. Get the best you can afford, and while you're at it, I'd suggest one with a quick-release system.
Which Lens To Use? This a loaded question because I use everything from a fish-eye to 1000mm for my landscapes. Every scene dictates which lens should be used, and often it's several lenses as you bracket the composition. I try to see many possibilities every time I stop and consider an image situation. You may be drawn to an overview with dramatic clouds and light conditions. After taking that first image, look for details in the scene that can be extracted with the use of a longer-focal-length lens. I love telephoto zoom lenses like the 100-400mm because they allow me to fine-tune the composition and find more than one composition in the "grandscape."