Most types of photography require a slightly different set of gear and for more than a decade I have tested and reviewed a broad range of gear relating to the photographic subjects that interest me. In the past I’ve written about other genres such as wildlife photography gear, macro photography gear, even gear for the travelling photographer, but today I’m finally ready to piece together a list of landscape photography essentials.
In this article I’ll walk you through the items that I take with me every time I head out on a landscape photo mission, and I’ll make some recommendations for similar products at different price points, based on my experiences with a wide range of gear over the years.
1 – A Circular Polarizing filter
A polarizing filter cuts down reflected light in a photo, removing glare from water, foliage, clouds and any other reflective surfaces. They can dramatically alter the look of a landscape photo, almost infinitely more than any camera or lens upgrade that you might be considering. For this reason, a circular polarizing filter is the first thing I recommend buying when you are looking to get more serious about landscape photography.
When you use a polarizer, leaves will get greener, skies will get bluer and everything will pop with more contrast and vivid colours – all controllable by simply rotating the polarizer on the front of your lens. Certain effects of a polarizer simply can’t be recreated in software, such as the ability to really see down through water in a lake, where normally the water’s surface would simply be reflecting the sky.
Be careful though, because a poor quality polarizer can cause a colour cast on your photos, soften the images and make your lens more susceptible to flare. Formatt Hitech and Breakthrough Photography make the very best ones on the market at the moment, but the Amazon Basics polarizer is also surprisingly good, and an absolute bargain! At only about $15, I can’t think of anything else as cheap that can have such a dramatic effect on your photography.
If your lenses have varying filter thread sizes, just make sure you get a polarizer to fit the largest one, and then use step-down rings to fit it to the smaller lenses.
2 – ND Filters
A solid neutral density (ND) filter allows you to take much longer exposures, thereby blurring elements of the image such as moving water or clouds. It’s an effect that would be extremely difficult and time consuming to replicate in post processing, and for that reason I consider at least one ND filter to be a landscape photography essential. 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters are the most common types, and if I could only carry one, it would be the 6-stop because it gives long enough exposures to blur open water such as lakes and the ocean. Blurring clouds and water is a great technique to simplify an image, removing distractions such as ripples and waves, and often creating a beautiful ethereal look.
ND filters are available in two different types: Screw-on and square. I’ve previously written in-depth about screw-on filters vs. square ND filters, so you should definitely check that out before making your choices.
Be warned when buying ND filters though, poor quality ones will leave a nasty colour cast on your photos that is a real pain in the ass to remove during editing. Formatt Hitech and Breakthrough Photography makes the best, most colour-neutral ND filters on the market these days. You can use the coupon code ShutterMuse10 to save 10% on the Formatt Hitech ones here. I use the Formatt Hitech Firecrest ones myself.
3 – Cable Release
A cable release is a cabled remote control for your camera that allows you to take a photo without touching the camera body. If you’re working with longer exposures on a tripod, touching the camera can introduce vibrations into your setup that leads to softer photos. There are many kinds of fancy Bluetooth and WiFi camera remotes on the market, but it has been my experience that most of these simply add too many complications to be deemed a true replacement to the simple wired remote connection. When the light is changing rapidly or the sun is setting, the last thing you want to be doing is messing with WiFi signals or trying to swap out dead batteries, which has often been my experience with the more complex feature rich remotes. Sometimes simper is better!
4 – Backpack
For landscape photography I can’t think of a better way to carry your gear than a dedicated photography backpack. When you really need to cover some distance to get to a location, the carrying comfort of a good pack can’t be beaten. I know that a lot of people like shoulder bags in an urban situation, but they’re simply not comfortable to walk long distances with.
Not all photography backpacks are suitable for landscape photography though. A few features you should be on the lookout for are: Included rain cover, water bladder or bottle holder, solid tripod strap system, durable materials on the base of the bag, thickly padded shoulder straps and a wide, padded waist belt to sit on your hips.
My personal favourite packs in this category are from MindShift Gear which is Think Tank Photo’s sister company. Whilst Think Tank concentrates on the urban and commercial photo market, MindShift only makes camera bags for outdoor photographers! I should disclose that I do consult with them on bag design, but I stand by these products and have reviewed most of their bag lineup on this site in the past. The BackLight and FirstLight packs are incredibly comfortable! If MindShift don’t have something that suits your needs, I also like the lightweight LowePro PhotoSport packs.
Get a Free Gift from MindShift Gear
MindShift Gear have a deal that I want to share with you. When you click one my links to the MindShift website and spend more than $50 in their store, you’ll automatically get the option to choose a free gift when you get to the checkout. For more details on this special offer, I’ve detailed everything here. The important thing is that to initiate the automatic process of getting the free gift, you need to click one of my links to their store, like this one, or any of the product specific ones that are on this page. Since MindShift and ThinkTank are essentially the same company, you can get the same offer by clicking through to the Think Tank site and spending over $50 too.
5 – Tripod
A tripod is a key part of a landscape kit for three main reasons: Firstly, you want to have the ability to do long exposures of flowing water and moving clouds with that ND filter we already talked about. Secondly, you also want to be able to shoot with a small aperture (high f-number) to increase the depth of focus in the photo, which in-turn forces you to use reasonably long exposure times that likely aren’t going to be hand-holdable. Thirdly, you also want to be able to shoot with a low ISO so that you can maintain the highest possible image quality. A low ISO and a small aperture will both push you towards a longer exposure time which can lead to blurry photos if you don’t put the camera on a tripod.
Key considerations for tripod selection are weight, folded length, maximum height, material (aluminum or carbon) and number of leg sections. At a minimum, you should look to get a tripod that has a maximum height great enough to place your camera at eye level.
When it comes to the size of the tripod, this will be greatly affected by the number of leg sections (usually 3, 4 or 5). The more leg sections there are, the smaller the tripod can collapse, but there’s a tradeoff in overall stability. A 3-section tripod will always be more stable than an equivalent 5-section tripod, for example.
I use an RRS TFC-14 and a TVC-24L myself, but Benro, Induro, 3-Legged Thing and Manfrotto are all great brands and offer options at a slightly lower price point than RRS. The key thing to understand here is that most people are going to screw this up and buy a cheap, crappy tripod because they don’t appreciate how much of a difference it can make. So many people fixate on the sharpness of their lenses and the number of megapixels in their camera, then put it on a wobbly $50 tripod that can’t help you get a sharp shot. A good tripod IS important! If you’re building your kit, you need to factor in the cost of a solid tripod from the very beginning. If you don’t, you’ll only end up ruining a bunch of photos and then buying the better tripod later anyway.
This, much like stories of people that don’t back up their photos properly, is one of those topics that can set me off on a good rant… so don’t get me started 😉
6 – Ballhead
Many lower priced tripods come with a ballhead, but when you make your tripod decision, make sure that the head is of a decent quality. In the past I have seen good tripods packaged with garbage ballheads just so that the manufacturer can say “includes ballhead!”. I’ve also come across a surprising number of beginners that have cheap tripods with pan/tilt video heads on them because they weren’t aware that there were different types of tripod heads out there. For stills photography, a ballhead is what you want 99% of the time.
Check the weight ratings for a ballhead to make sure it’s capable of handling the weight of your heaviest tripod and lens combination, and if you’re looking to do some panoramic photography then you’ll want to find a head with a panning base. A ballhead with a panning base will have two nobs on it (at least). One knob loosens the ball itself, the other knob loosens the rotating base. If you want to use an L plate (see item #7 on this list), you’ll need a head with an Arca-Swiss compatible quick-release clamp on it.
7 – L plate
An L-plate is a specific type of quick-release ballhead bracket that allows you to easily switch between portrait and landscape orientation on a tripod. A few years ago I wouldn’t have put this on the “essentials” list because the only options on the market were quite expensive, but now there are plenty of excellent and affordable options out there.
Actually there are many reasons to use an L plate, and I’ve previously written about them in the Ultimate Guide to L Plates for Your Camera. Dig deeper into that article if you’ve got the time, but the main thing to consider is demonstrated in the photo above. When you use an L plate and switch the camera into portrait orientation, you’re almost rotating the camera around the central axis of the lens. As a result, the composition doesn’t change too much and the viewfinder stays pretty much in the same place.
On the other hand, if you use the ballhead drop-notch without an L plate, the camera is shifted downwards and considerably sideways. This necessitates much more adjustment of the ballhead, forces you to bend down awkwardly (or adjust tripod height), and also puts a lot of torque on the tripod plate/camera connection point which can lead to loosening of the plate and drooping of the whole setup during long exposures.
Really Right Stuff make the best brackets, albeit the most expensive. If you want something a little more wallet-friendly then check out the QR11-LC from 3-Legged Thing, or one of the Sunwayfoto universal brackets.
8 – A Rain Cover
It’s easy to get discouraged by bad weather, but the fact is that some of the most dramatic cloud formations can be found during those moments before and after a good rain storm. Having a rain cover in your backpack will keep you shooting all day, whatever the weather. If you’ve travelled a long way to get to your location, you need to give yourself the best possible chance of making it worthwhile.
I use and love the Aquatech Sport Shield, but the Think Tank Hydrophobia covers are also a good choice. If you want something cheaper and a little simpler, the Storm Jacket series from Vortex Media are also a great option that I have reviewed in the past.
9 – A Wide Angle Lens
Central to most landscape photography kits will be a good wide angle lens – usually something that is at least as wide as 24mm on a full frame sensor. The 16-35mm focal range is probably the most beloved by landscape photographers, and every camera manufacturer has excellent options. If you’re using a cropped sensor camera then a 10-22mm zoom will give you roughly the same same angles of view as a 16-35mm on a full frame camera.
Having a fast aperture such as f/2.8 isn’t really necessary for landscape photography because in most cases you will be shooting at much smaller apertures in order to increase depth of field. For this reason, slightly slower lenses such as the Canon 16-35mm f/4 are extremely popular, and have the added benefits of being smaller, lighter and cheaper than their f/2.8 siblings.
A wide angle lens allows you to include and exaggerate vast landscapes in your images, as well as including close foreground objects that are useful for balancing compositions.
10 – A Telephoto Zoom Lens
I think this can be an overlooked item for less experienced landscape photographers because most people gravitate towards exciting super-wide lenses to begin with. Many of my favourite landscape shots have been taken with a longer lens, specifically a 70-200mm, or more recently the stunningly sharp Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II.
When you have a long zoom lens you give yourself a greater ability to pick and choose the parts of a scene that appear in a photo. If there is a small patch of colour in the sky, or a tiny area of interesting light, a telephoto lens lets you punch in on that and make it the sole focus of the image. With a wide angle lens, smaller areas of interest like that can be lost amongst a much broader landscape.
If you work among mountains you can also use the telephoto compression of longer focal lengths to really exaggerate the size of the surrounding mountains and create a beautiful layered image that draws the viewers eye right into it. Since the telephoto lens will give such dramatically different results to the wide angle lens, it also helps to develop a nicely varied collection of images.
11 – App: Photopills or Photographer’s Ephemeris
These two mobile apps offer a similar set of features and stand out above the crowd when it comes to photography apps to help with photoshoot planning. Personally I use PhotoPills, but from studying the featureset of both apps, they appear to be nearly identical. Not only do the apps contain all manner of photographic calculators for timelapses, star trails and depth of field, but they also allow you to visualize the path of the sun and the moon across any part of the world at any time in the past, present or future.
I never visit a new landscape location without first jumping into the PhotoPills app and checking to see where the sun rises and sets, and the augmented reality features will even show you the path of the milky way through the night sky.
A few years ago this might have seemed like an extravagance to have something like this listed as an “essential”, but since the vast majority of people will have an Android or iOS device in their pocket now, you’re honestly missing out if you don’t have this. I’ve made several images in the last few years that simply wouldn’t have been possible without an app like this.
12 – The Right Clothing for the Environment
This one is necessarily a little more vague because I’m not sure where you’ll be shooting, but wherever it is, it’s important to be comfortable in the environment. Landscape photography often requires extended periods of waiting outdoors, and potentially hiking through a landscape to get to your destination. If you spend all your time too hot, too cold or too wet, then it’s a distraction from the creative process and you’re far more likely to give up on the day long before its really necessary.
Warm environments are a little simpler to deal with – just make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen. Cold and wet environments are a little trickier because they require some specialist clothing. If you want to delve deep into this particular subject, I’ve previously written an in-depth guide to photography in cold weather, based on my ten+ years of living in the Western mountains of Canada.
The short version of clothing section in that giant resource, is that it’s well worth your time to develop a good layering system from quality brands. You don’t need a lot of cold weather gear, but a good base layer, mid layer and shell are worth investing in, and should last many years of use if you take care of them. My own basic setup during outdoor movement is a merino wool base layer, a mid layer with synthetic insulation, and a Gore-Tex shell. Then I’ll also carry a highly packable down-filled mid layer that can be applied when at rest.
I also make sure I have really solid footwear and gloves, because nothing sucks more than having cold extremities. Generally speaking I don’t recommend bothering with photography specific gloves because they are all hobbled by the holes and flaps that are cut into them to poke your fingers out of. If you’re really in a cold or wet environment, you can’t use gloves that have holes in! It’s much better to get a regular pair of winter gloves and then wear a thin merino wool liner inside them. When you need to hold the camera, you can pull the outer glove off for a minute and just use the liner. This is the way I have worked for many years in mountains all over the world.
13 – Duct Tape
A functional tripod is definitely an essential piece of gear for successful landscape photography, and much as I have implored you earlier not to buy a piece of crap tripod, I know there are many that will ignore that hard-learned advice. Even for those that do spend a little more on their support gear, accidents do still happen and a tripod – with it’s long spindly legs – will always be one of the more fragile items in your kit, especially in cold weather where materials become brittle.
To be prepared for a worse case scenario, it’s a good idea to carry a little duct tape with you so that a tripod can be fixed in a pinch. Of course, one that has been fixed with tape won’t have its original rigidity, but if the wind is calm and the ground is relatively steady, it’ll still be a darn sight more useful than a two-legged “tripod”.
The best way to be prepared for this is simply to wrap a a foot or two of tape around one of your tripod legs and then it’s right there when you need it! I learned this trick a long time ago in the ski industry, where it’s not uncommon for professional extreme skiers to keep some tape on their ski poles to fix them if they get broken when they’re in the backcountry.
I use Gorilla Tape myself, but most generic brands will do the trick.
There is one last thing you’ll for a successful landscape photo mission: Patience. All the gear in the world isn’t going to guarantee you a great shot if you don’t have interesting light on your scene. I’ll often revisit the same place over and over again before I finally get the perfect dramatic light, or interesting cloud formation that makes all the difference. Don’t be discouraged though, because whatever the weather is like, there’s always the opportunity to practice your compositional skills and fine-tune your techniques so that when the moment finally strikes, you’re ready for it!
What do you carry in your landscape photography kit? Leave a comment below and share with us!