Lenses

The optics that sit in front of your camera are of vital importance in landscape photography. And while you don't want to skimp on image quality or sharpness, it's important to remember that you'll be shooting with a tripod and often stopping down the aperture for increased depth of field. Your priority then is not necessarily on 'fast' lenses with wide maximum apertures.

For landscape photographers shooting with full-frame DSLRs, the 70-200mm zoom lens is often a popular choice. And one that is available from many manufacturers.

One of the biggest decisions for DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera shooters is whether to outfit a kit with prime (fixed focal length) lenses, zooms, or a combination of both. Prime lenses used to offer significantly superior output than zoom lenses, with greater sharpness and fewer lens flaws such as chromatic aberration. The image quality of zoom lenses, however, has increased substantially in recent decades, with the high-end offerings providing very good image quality and of course the ability to access several focal lengths with a single piece of gear.

In practice this means that composing an image can be done more quickly and with greater precision. And when carrying only two lenses - say a 24-70mm and 70-200mm - you are covered for almost any situation you'll encounter in the field. In my experience, the best prime lenses still have a discernible edge over zooms in terms of sharpness and rendition of detail. But the difference generally comes into play only when producing large prints.

So what is the best camera system for landscape photography? There is no single correct answer. It all depends on several factors that you must take into account before heading to your camera shop.

  • Are you building a system exclusively for landscape photography? Or will you shoot things like wildlife, macro, portraiture or architecture as well?
  • Will you be displaying your finished images exclusively online? Making small prints for friends and family? Or do you plan to sell large prints to the public?
  • Do you prefer day or week-long treks into the wilderness or will you be working close to your vehicle?
  • And last but not least…how does your monthly bank statement look? Buying a photographic kit is a considerable long-term investment of which the camera is merely the first expense.

Here's the camera and lens kit I've settled on for landscape shooting:

This system allows me the flexibility to do a good amount of wildlife and macro work as well. With a resolution of 22MP I am very well covered to make large prints, the tilt/shift lenses give me some perspective control (though not as much as a view camera would) and the overall package is just light enough for me to carry over long distances. This system represents a significant investment, but as a working photographer, it gives me the ability to produce both editorial and fine art work of professional quality. Your needs, and of course budget, may differ.

Filters

While I make use of digital image editing tools, I still find some filters to be indispensable. With a polarizer I can increase contrast and saturation in-camera as well as reduce reflections on bodies of water. Solid ND (neutral density) filters, which reduce incoming light to the lens, allow me to increase exposure time, and graduated ND filters let me selectively darken an area of the scene so that both bright and dark elements can be exposed with visible detail in a single exposure.

Graduated ND filters are dark on one end and clear on the other with either a soft or hard graduation in the middle. Placed in front of the lens these filters can darken a portion of the scene (usually by anywhere from 1 to 3 stops EV) for a balanced exposure.

When choosing filters I recommend a filter system by Cokin (shown here) or Lee. In contrast to screw-on filters, a single drop-in filter can be used on different sized lenses via an adapter ring. Even more importantly, the ND grad filters can be moved up and down in the filter holder, for precise alignment of the exposure adjustment.

You should also be aware of UV, Skylight and clear protection filters. The effect of the first two is to filter out the blue colour cast that you find at high altitudes or by the sea. But these filters, along with the dedicated clear filters, have also become very popular as protection for the front element of the lens. It is easier and cheaper to replace a broken filter than a broken lens.

Tripods

Creating professional quality landscape images is just not possible without a tripod. Landscape photographers are often shooting during the 'magic hours' of dawn and dusk when light levels require exposure times that are measured in full seconds or even minutes. A landscape photographer’s tripod needs to withstand high winds, rain, hail and snow, saltwater and extreme heat and cold. In the long run it pays to invest upfront in a good quality model. 

A tripod needs to be, above all else,
sturdy and reliable. Adding light
weight as a requirement further
increases the price, but will make
even moderate treks easier.
A ball head (shown above) allows for quick
adjustments along multiple axes simultaneously.
A quick-release system makes mounting and
unmounting the camera a very fast process.

Professional-grade tripods are typically constructed primarily of wood, aluminium or carbon fibre. Aluminium tripods are probably the most common and the least expensive. Wooden tripods are rather heavy to carry but absorb vibration like no other material. Carbon fibre tripods, although quite expensive, are on many a photographers' wish list because they weigh significantly less than either wood or aluminium yet are very sturdy.

In addition to all of the gear I've already mentioned, there some more bits and pieces that always have a place in my bag: a waist level finder, bubble level, X-Rite ColorChecker target, spare battery, raincover and/or towel, cleaning cloth and brush, flashlight and a pocket knife.

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