Landscape Essentials In A High-Tech Age

The gear and gadgets that every landscape photographer needs to take better shots

Beyond the camera and lens, the accessories you use can go a long way in making your landscape photography look sharper, more creative and dramatic. So it’s worth spending as much time thinking about what to take as where to go.

Garmin Oregon 550t; DeLorme Earthmate PN-60 GPS

GPS
The more remote the location, the more likely you are to get lost or never find that particular spot again. A GPS device ensures that neither will happen. Using a handheld unit will help prevent you from getting lost while en route to a destination whether from the car or on foot. You can set the device to mark your trail as you hike and then follow the trail backward when you’re ready to leave.

For photography, a GPS enables you to record precise location data into the metadata of images you take while on the way to a specific location and once you’ve arrived. A GPS can be synced with image files or connected to the camera (via an optional connector) for embedding GPS coordinates into the file when the photo is taken. This can make for a helpful way of planning your next landscape photography trip because you can use the GPS information with other software that syncs map views with your photographs. These devices also give useful details like when the sun will rise and set, the location of the nearest highway and nearby points of attraction.

Flash
While often overlooked, an off-camera flash can make a significant difference in your landscape work. Beyond just adding extra light to a dark foreground at sunrise or sunset, a flash gives you the power and control of broadening what’s creatively possible. This is particularly true when the natural light just isn’t right for making a photo that incorporates all of the elements you find important to a composition. A flash can brighten colors during daylight hours, extend your time in the field to early mornings or late evenings for low-light shooting and liven up a scene on gloomy days by adding contrast that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.


Nissin Flash

Most models are fairly easy to set up, particularly if you use one made by your camera manufacturer. They’re also small and easy to pack up in your camera bag. Output power, physical size, bounce capability and angle of coverage are the most important features to consider. Flash with larger outputs allow for shooting at longer distances and smaller apertures, as well as faster recycle times.

Remember that shooting with a flash directly from the hot-shoe can cause light to come off as flat or too strong so move it off-camera to avoid this and add depth to foregrounds. Shooting from off-camera also gives you the freedom to explore more creative lighting angles. You can vary the kind of light that’s emitted from harsh and dramatic to soft and diffused by using a modifier, such as a softbox or diffuser.

Storage
Easier than taking a laptop to some remote location, portable hard drives let you download those large, high-resolution files from your memory cards and reuse them to do more shooting. Capacities of up to 2 TB are fairly standard now, allowing you to go on an extended trip without worrying about maxing out on storage.


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Multimedia storage viewers take it a step further by incorporating an LCD screen that lets you play back those stored images. The displays are large and bright enough that you can examine image files with a more critical eye. Standard features include image browsing, rotating, copying, file deletion and built-in slots that are compatible with nearly all memory card types. Some can even record directly from a video source. Storage viewers are also helpful for organizing files or creating slideshows while you’re still out shooting.

PNY 16 GB Optima SDHC Card ; SanDisk 32 GB Ultra SDHC Card

Memory Cards
As digital camera technology continues to evolve, so do memory cards. For landscape photographers, this translates into higher capacities, faster write speeds and more hours (or days) that you get to spend out in the field. The most popular format among DSLR users is CompactFlash, which now has capacities of up to a whopping 128 GB. CF cards also tend to be the largest in terms of physical size. Those with UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access) are built for the latest generation of HD video DSLRs and perform with accelerated data transfer rates for recording video or shooting large images at high speed.


Kingston 32 GB Ultimate SDHC Card

Secure Digital cards are smaller physically and come in a couple of different variations that allow them to keep their compact size without sacrificing storage capacity or speed. SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) cards come in sizes of up to 32 GB. SDXC (Secure Digital Extended Capacity) is the latest format to come on the scene, with cards offered in sizes of up to 128 GB. In theory, this format has a maximum capacity of 2 TB. The latest generation of these cards has a UHS speed designation that guarantees a minimum sustained speed when recording video.


Slik Sprint Pro II GM Tripod

Tripods
There’s no better way to keep that camera steady than by using a tripod. Even with all of the advancements made in image-stabilization technology, tripods remain must-have pieces of gear for producing sharper images. If you do a lot of shooting after sunset, you know that a tripod isn’t optional. Besides holding the camera still to prevent blur, they also help you compose shots with greater care and precision.


Flashpoint F-1328 Tripod

Tripods for landscape photography need to be light enough for easy transport, yet strong enough to support your DSLR. They’re most commonly constructed of wood, aluminum or carbon fiber, the latter of which is probably the most popular right now because they’re lightweight, durable and easy to carry. Carbon-fiber tripods have high strength-to-weight ratios, often capable of supporting cameras and lenses that weigh about three times their own weight, but they also have higher price tags. Aluminum tripods are sturdy and tend to be less expensive. While wood tripods offer excellent vibration dampening for sharper pictures and are comfortable to handle, they’re also heavy. Tripods made of titanium, basalt and other metal alloys are pricier options, but they’re worthy of consideration because of their strength.


Manfrotto 055CX3 Tripod

The design is as important as the materials when choosing a tripod for landscape photography. Legs that split into sections with multi-position, twistable locks allow you to set the legs at different angles. Three-section legs offer the most stability, while four-section legs allow the tripod to collapse to a smaller size when packing it up for transport. A lot of models have legs with spiked feet for a steadier hold on soft or uneven ground and foam grips for a more comfortable hold.

Monopods aren’t as stable as tripods, but they’re lighter to carry and faster to set up. They provide more steadiness than shooting handheld, and if you’re working with cameras or lenses with image stabilization, monopods are a solid alternative.


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Arca-Swiss Monoball

Ballheads
The most important part of your tripod is probably its head. While pan-and-tilt, fluid and gimbal heads are all useful for various types of outdoor shooting, ballheads are typically the most popular and handy for landscape photography because of their compact size, flexibility and firm locking abilities, which result in sharp exposures. A ballhead allows you to position the camera quickly and precisely by loosening a knob, locking the camera into position and then tightening it. With 360º rotational freedom, ballheads move smoothly on any axis, meaning they’re able to pan, tilt or twist in any direction.


Novoflex MagicBall 50

Simpler models have a single knob that controls everything while more advanced types have additional controls. Some don’t even have knobs, using a spring-loaded, squeezable handle instead. Extra features can include spirit levels, variable tension adjustment and advanced vibration dampening technology. Most ballheads use quick-release systems so you don’t have to screw the camera onto the head. Instead, you mount a plate onto the camera or lens and the plate attaches to the head. Make sure the tripod you use can handle as much weight as the ballhead can.

Filters
Polarizers and graduated neutral-density filters are probably the two most used filters by landscape photographers. Both help to reduce the range of contrast in photos so that the sensor can record all the tones in a scene.

Polarizers reduce glare and haze in the atmosphere for diminishing reflections from water, glass and other nonmetallic surfaces. As a result, colors and contrast become more saturated. The effect of a polarizer is especially noticeable with the deep blues of a sky and clouds that stand out more. Even on overcast days, a polarizer has strong effects. While it won’t turn a gray sky blue, it will help to saturate the colors in a scene by removing glare off of reflective surfaces.

Grad ND filters are half-clear glass and half-neutral glass. They’re useful for landscape imagery because typically the sky is much brighter than the land and cameras have a hard time recording details in both areas of a scene. So a grad ND filter will darken a background that’s significantly lighter than the foreground. Without one, you may get a washed-out sky. These filters come in various strengths, with hard and soft transitions between the clear and dark portions. The darker part is one to five stops more dense than the clear part. They also come in colors for enhancing a blue sky or an orange sunset.

Singh-Ray Vari-ND Filter; Tiffen Circular Polarizer; Heliopan ND Filter; Hoya ND x4 Filter; B+W Polarizer

Top filter brands include B+W (www.schneideroptics.com), Heliopan (www.hpmarketingcorp.com), Hoya (www.thkphoto.com), Singh-Ray (www.singh-ray.com) and Tiffen (www.tiffen.com).


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Special Extras

Apple iPad

The Apple iPad continues to impress photographers because of its versatility. Some use it as a storage device when working in the field while others use it to display images. For Eye-Fi wireless memory card users, there’s an app called ShutterSnitch that allows you to download photos from your camera to the iPad, provided they both use the same wireless network. Another option to give you a better view in the field is an external monitor that hooks up to the DSLR.

Working outside means sometimes dealing with tough weather conditions. On a rainy day, slip a plastic raincover over your camera and lens. Covers have optical surfaces for the lens to shoot through or you can use an elastic underwater bag or cover.


Marshall V-LCD70XP-HDMIPT Monitor

Even when the weather is good, your gear is going to get dusty and dirty so having a blower or a microfiber cloth handy is a good idea for cleaning lenses, LCD monitors and viewfinder eyepieces. If you need to clean more than just dust, lens-cleaning fluid is useful to have, too. While your DSLR probably has a self-cleaning image sensor unit, changing lenses in the field causes dust to still get in there so consider taking a sensor-cleaning kit.

When spending time in the outdoors, it’s always a good idea to have just the right tool for any given task. Multitools are great because they’re pocket-sized and often include smooth and serrated knife blades, wirecutters, scissors, screwdrivers, files, bottle and can openers, pliers and more.

3 Comments

    The comment about storage, that you can use a portable hard drive and not carry a laptop is not correct. You can’t connect a portable hard drive to your camera or you memory card. You’re better off just bringing a couple of moderate sized cards. Or if your lucky and have 2 card slots like on my Nikon D300s, I just use two 16gb cards and the camera writes to both cards at the same time. 16gb is large enough for over a thousand high res jpegs, or several hundred raw files. Those devices that read your card and transfers to a built in hard drive. They are pricey, slow and have limited battery life. I wouldn’t trust them enough to transfer my card to it. Never erase your memory card until you have safely backed up your files.

    Why carry anything extra…small hard drives, computers, or what ever MCards are so cheap….just carry a few more… I try not to use large cards I would rather use a few smaller one that way if you have a card failure you still have most of your photos… Again this is just me…. You should always do what’s makes you feel right…. Good luck…

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