|Lake Tahoe, California. Elizabeth Carmel used a split neutral-density filter to control the contrast in this scene.|
I hope Oprah won't mind if I use a tagline she made famous. This month I would like to share some of my favorite outdoor and photography gear. I get many emails asking for my opinions on equipment choices, and while I'm unable to respond to most of these requests, I'm more than happy to share my choices in this column.
I'll start with some basic gear, then move on to my #1 requested opinion about the "big girl" camera equipment I use. It's the little things that can make a difference. Having the following items when you're headed outdoors to shoot landscapes can help you get where you need to go safely and comfortably, which always results in better photo ops. Be very selective about what you put in your camera backpack—there's no need to be loaded down with gadgets and gizmos you most likely won't use and that add too much weight to your pack.
Petzl Zipka headlamp. This little guy puts out a huge beam of light, and I love that it has a retractable cord that makes it very stashable. There's no bulky headband getting tangled with your other stuff. If you're not out setting up in the dark at sunrise, you're missing out on great photographs, so a good headlamp is essential.
iPhone. It replaces all the other gadgets I used to carry like a GPS and pocket camera. My favorite apps are Focalware and The Photographer's Ephemeris for sunrise/sunset locations, MotionX-GPS for a good GPS program and Simple DoF for depth-of-field calculations. There are many other great articles written for OP about the best photo apps, so I'll refer readers to those for more detailed info. For carrying the iPhone on a backpack, I use the Clik Elite Accessory Pouch that fits over a backpack hip belt and makes getting to the iPhone easy.
Polar Bottle insulated water bottle. This keeps water cold and fits in a backpack side pocket. I'm not a big fan of the water bladders that require drinking from a hose; they're a hassle, and the water tastes funny. When hiking, just drink water; no need for sugary sports drinks that flood your body with too much sugar, which eventually will make you tired and want to go home.
Personal emergency beacon. This item gives peace of mind when traveling alone in remote areas. Popular brands are the SPOT and the Fast Find PLB. I always keep one in my camera backpack, near my two-ounce bottle of emergency bourbon.
Lightweight Gore-Tex® hiking boots. These boots are my work shoes, which I always wear photographing. You may need to go off-trail or cross creeks to get to the best photo spots, so wear good lightweight footwear that's waterproof and has ankle support. You don't really need big clunker boots. Running shoes and tennis shoes don't work well for landscape photography. In my workshops, I often see people with flimsy tennis shoes, and they have trouble with traction on rocks and getting their feet wet.
Lightweight, waterproof rain jacket. A rain jacket can protect you from wind and rain, and help prevent hypothermia. Get the lightest one you can find that's made with Gore-Tex® or a similar waterproof material. Patagonia, Marmot and Arc'teryx are good brands. Get a large size so you can wear an insulating layer underneath it. Keep it in your pack with a lightweight wool cap, and you'll be protected from most inclement weather.
Good non-bulky gloves. Gloves are important when photographing in most places, since even in the summer it can be very cold at sunrise. I discovered my all-time favorite gloves during my cross-country ski-racing days, Yoko Gore Windstopper gloves made with Gore-Tex® fabric on the back. The palm is a very soft pliable leather that stays warm and dries quickly. They're also thin enough in the fingers to handle camera controls, but still keep your hands warm.
Backpack. Many photographers are on a constant quest for the ultimate backpack. I've tried out dozens over the years and likely will continue my quest as long as I'm still walking around with a camera. My current favorite is the Lowepro Flipside 500 AW. It's not too big, but can still carry a Nikon D800 and my three main zooms, batteries, accessories, etc. I like that it opens from the back panel so the part of the pack that stays against your back isn't laid in the dirt to get to the camera. It's also possible to keep the belt around your waist and get to the camera without taking off the pack if it's not possible to lay it down. It has a waterproof cover that tucks in, and it can carry a tripod on the outside.
Tripod and head. I have two tripod and head combinations. My big tripod that I take whenever possible is the Gitzo carbon-fiber three-section that extends over 60 inches. I don't use a center column since that's less stable than putting the tripod head directly on the legs. I splurged and got the Arca-Swiss Cube head for that tripod; it's a geared head that allows for precise positioning, but it's very heavy and not for backpacking with the camera. My backpacking tripod is a Gitzo carbon-fiber model with an Acratech ballhead. This is a great lightweight setup that performs well.
Filters. I always have a set of split ND filters and polarizing filters in my pack. Polarizing filters reduce glare on foliage, re-move reflections on water and act as a neutral-density filter to allow slower shutter speeds, which I often use to blur moving water. You can't really duplicate the effect of a polarizing filter in Photoshop. Stronger specialized ND filters even can blur moving water in broad daylight. My favorite is the Singh-Ray Vari-ND. Split ND filters allow you to expose for a foreground without overexposing the sky. I've found that using a split ND filter on the camera often works better than trying to blend exposures in postprocessing. I use the Lee filter system for my split ND filters.
Software and backup. For developing my images, I use the latest version of Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw, along with the proprietary RAW file developing software from Nikon and Hasselblad. I'll often compare which software does the best job of developing RAW files with a particular image, and it can vary depending on the colors of an image. I use all the Nik Software; I particularly like Silver Efex Pro 2 for black-and-white conversions. I use all the onOne Software plug-ins, and I like to upsize my prints and create canvas wraps with their Perfect Resize plug-in. For backup, I use the OWC 8 TB RAID, which I've duplicated in two different locations. I also have all my work backed up online with PhotoShelter, which I really like for providing high-resolution download links for licensing clients.
Printer and paper. To produce my fine-art prints, I use the Epson Stylus Pro 11880 60-inch-wide printer. It has been working well for a number of years with little maintenance needed. The printer is industrial-strength and can withstand the demands of high-volume printing. Most importantly, the color reproduction from the UltraChrome ink is beautiful. My favorite papers are the Epson Exhibition Canvas Matte for canvas wraps, Epson UltraSmooth for matte cotton prints and Innova FibaPrint warm-tone gloss for photographic prints.
Cameras and lenses. The most common question people ask me is what type of camera I use. Most recently, I've been using a 40-megapixel Hasselblad H4D. I was thrilled when Nikon introduced the 36-megapixel D800/D800E this year. I use the pro-level Nikon zooms, and I'll be experimenting with some of the prime lenses as well. I also plan to get a Nikon perspective-control wide-angle lens for the kit. I won't attempt to explain all the technicalities of the differences between the D800 and D800E, but will share that I decided on the D800E. I felt it gave a slightly better edge for my purposes, and I've found that moiré isn't an issue with my style of landscape photography.
I could keep going on with listing more of my favorite things, so look for future installments on this topic. I try not to get too worked up about equipment at the expense of other important facets of photography that I've covered in my previous columns, but it's fun to let my photo-geek flag fly every now and then!