In the process of teaching myself photography, I have managed to get my head around almost everything! There is, however, one area I really struggle with and that's landscape photography. I see landscapes, but my camera just doesn't have the skills to capture them. Oh yes, I blame my camera!
Thankfully, a close friend - Ben Harvey - possesses those skills and kindly agreed to help me get a better understanding of what to look for and to include in my landscape shots. His methodical approach and easy-going nature make the process far less painful than fumbling along on my own and cursing the beauty that nature provides.
Even before we started scouting locations there was yet another list of kit required to get the best results: tripod, polariser, 10-stop Neutral Density filter, graduated filters, spirit level, trigger release. Granted, not all these things are vital - you could use the two-second timer instead of a trigger release and some cameras now have a spirit level built-in (or you could simply eyeball it), but having these tools does make your job easier.
Like I did, you probably now have a whole bunch of questions - what camera is best, what lenses do I need, should I buy a tripod, which bag should I get?
I will try to answer them from my own personal findings and experiences. Remember that your needs may be very different, so this is meant as an informative guide only, but will hopefully give you a starting point.
Must-have camera gear for landscape photography
WARNING - Do not rush out and buy anything just yet. If you don't own all the required gear, consider hiring or borrowing it. My advice would be to buy only things you constantly find yourself needing, such as a particular lens, a filter or a better tripod. For this shoot, Neale Thibaut was generous enough to lend me his Lee filter system, for which I am very grateful.
It should go without saying that you will be outdoors so your gear will need to be portable and, ideally, as light as possible.
Pretty much any camera that allows you to get off 'auto' will do to begin with. Make sure that you are familiar with your camera's features and functions. Understanding the camera modes Aperture Priority / Shutter Priority / Manual and when to use them will make a big difference. Learn the meter modes, how to set the camera's timer and how to enable the mirror lock-up function. Time to think might not be available when the sun is rapidly disappearing below the horizon so knowing this stuff will make the process less of a panic at crucial times.
Ensure your sensor is clean - this will save you hours in post production and, finally, pack at least one spare fully-charged battery!
Lens choice can be a tough one. I prefer versatility so I avoid prime lenses. The typical choices are the 16-35mm (wide), 24-70mm, 70-200mm (zoom). Before you head out, consider your location and what you want to capture - the scene or details, then pack the appropriate lenses.
Built-in Image Stabilisation / Vibration Reduction are useful options when handholding but if you are going to be using a tripod, they are redundant features.
Avoiding buying the heavier, and more expensive, f2.8 versions (since you will be typically be shooting at f8 / f11 apertures) will help you save some additional cash which you could then invest in an 2.0x Extender allowing your zoom lens to become even zoomier. :P
One danger of going too wide with your lens choice is that your filters might start showing up on the edge of the frame.
I will go out on a limb here and say this is a key area to invest in. Get the best you can afford and avoid the cheaper aluminium ones you see in supermarkets. The good tripods tend to cost more but are worth the money in the end. Carbon fibre tripods are expensive but are also much lighter than aluminium and it's well worth that extra cash to avoid having to lug around a heavy tripod.
By mounting your camera on a steady tripod you will be able to capture long exposures, ensure your images stay tack-sharp and enable you to get consistently defined frames (useful for HDR). I advise buying a ball-and-socket head and a quick-release plate if possible. A little tip - hanging your camera bag on the bottom of the tripod can supply it with extra ballast.
Wex have put together a brilliant buying guide which goes into much more depth than I can here so pop over and check it out - http://www.wexphotographic.com/blog/tripod-buying-guide
Filter systems help cut out the light, eliminate glare, boost saturation and allow you to take longer exposures in daylight, making them wonderful tools to have at your disposal.
There are several trusted brand names - Lee, Cokin, Hoya, B&W - all of which produce an array of filters for your camera. I will say, like most things, you get what you pay for so don't just buy the cheapest option.
Round filters are reasonably priced and they screw on to the front of your lens. They can, however, be a pain to change or when trying to focus especially with the 10-stop filter - use 'live view' to help with this.
The larger square versions attach to the front of your lens and require a dedicated holder (sold separately). They make focusing, stacking and changing a much smoother process.
Neutral / Density
If you buy a good ND filter it is likely to be neutral. But you should be aware that the cheaper off-brand ND's tend to have colour cast issues that need to be fixed in post- production.
ND Grads come in various densities. My suggestion is to get the 0.6 (2-stop) filter as it will cut out some light (but not too much) and as you progress you could consider buying the set.
As with cameras, ensure that any system you buy into has a wide enough range for your needs.
Do they make a polariser? Do they offer varying NDs? Do they have hard and soft filters? Are they stackable?
Are their filters made from resin or glass?
Mixing brands might cause you problems that could otherwise be avoided.
With all this gear to carry and protect, you will need a good backpack. Lowepro's Trekker and Expedition ranges are a good place to start. I advise that you get the next size up from the one you currently need - you'll need that extra space as your gear grows, rather than cramming your gear into a too-small bag. Should you be travelling to rougher terrains or abroad, consider Pelican cases to give your gear that added protection.
Lens cloth - an invaluable piece of kit. Do not clean your lenses with spit and the hem of your shirt, get a microfibre cloth. There will be dust from storing your lenses and from the environment, and maybe even sea spray. You will need a lens cloth, so have one to hand.
Torch - a useful, but not essential, bit of gear. Nowadays most smartphones have a torch function so you're likely to have one to hand most of the time. That's one less bit of gear needed.
Mobile phone - your phone could end up literally being a lifesaver should you get into trouble or injured while out and about. Not only will you be able to call for help, but the compass and maps will help you navigate your way back to civilisation.
A carrier bag - a vital part of your gear. Use it to store dirty boots or to wrap your wet, dirty tripod legs in, or throw it over your camera gear to keep it dry in case of unexpected rain. It's also useful for carrying your snacks, such as Jaffa cakes. ;)
The Photographer's Ephemeris - this is a great tool in aiding you to plan and map the sun's and moon's movements around the world. The desktop version is free.
Sky Guide - if you enjoy photographing the stars and constellations, this is a simple-to-use app. Should you want to photograph stars, then these websites could prove invaluable as they will help you find places that have less light pollution - http://www.lightpollutionmap.info/ and also http://www.darkskydiscovery.org.uk/int_dark_sky_places.html
Photographer's Tools - this multi-purpose app is worth having in your pocket. This one app gives you hyperfocal distance information, sun and moon phases and timings, and a ND Exposure calculator.
LE Calculator - a very useful and quick calculator for your long exposure shots.
So now you can see that it's not just a case of pick a place and go. Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent P*ss Poor Performance - an old army quote, but it's right. Luckily for me, Ben took care of that because he was leading the day and teaching. We managed to cram a lot into the day (Beachy Head, Seaford, Newhaven, Birling Gap) and Ben's knowledge certainly shone through. His meticulous planning meant little time was wasted between locations. Remember though, you are always at the mercy of the weather, tides and traffic - so plan B's are always useful.
Share your images
It is great to show others not only how beautiful this world is, but also your perspective on it, so make sure you post your shots for others to see.
This also helps to act as a guide for other eager photographers who may wish to visit that particular location and get an idea of what's there.
Dade Freeman is a Brighton photographer producing portraits and headshots for actors, musicians, corporate business and other professional industries.