Landscape Photographer’s Checklist

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We’ve all been there. You leave the house with only the desire to go find ‘the shot’ and not much else.

You know...the photo worthy of wall space and the one that will be the next $7 million dollar photo that gives you the glory of taking the “most expensive photo sold” title from Peter Lik.

Ok, that last part was not meant to be vainly glorious in any way. Just having a little fun here!

Anyway, you head out the door with your camera in hand, no plan, and no idea where you’re going or what you are going to find. Your shoot turns out to be more of an Easter egg hunt than a sure deal.

And let’s be real here...there are no 100% sure deals, even with the best of planning. However, you increase your chances by leaving the house with a mental blueprint and knowing you have the right gear for what might come your way.

To help you in your pursuit of creating better landscape photos, I’ve put together a list of items that I have created based on my experiences in the school of hard knocks.

That’s right, my pain is your gain!

Item # 1: Something That Answers the Question of Stability

At the top of your landscape photography inventory list should be something to keep your camera still.

I’ve gone on hikes during peak hours, with the sun directly above, and was tempted to leave my tripod in the car, thinking ‘I won’t need it.’

Big mistake.

I found myself in the thick forest, which created a much darker landscape canvas. After hiking for nearly two hours, I was thrilled that I brought my tripod. Without it, there would have been no way I could have gotten a quality still shot; trying to take a landscape photo in low light while holding my camera proved nearly impossible.

Over the years, I have tested and used a number of tripods. Many of them were good, some bad, and a few rose to become my favorites. What makes my list unique is that it’s aimed at getting the best bang for your buck without compromising quality or functionality.

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First on this list is the Sirui W-2204, shown above. What I personally like about this tripod is that it’s waterproof. Considering that I enjoy photographing the coastline of California, I’m no stranger to having my tripod set up in the ocean to get the right shot. As I’m walking back to my car, I simply stop off at a beach shower and rinse the tripod legs.

Next on the old ‘must have’ list is something that has saved my butt a number of times. And the best part about it? It’s something that is inexpensive, fits in my pocket, and keeps my camera stable without the aid of my tripod! It’s called a HandlePod.

When I go shooting, I’ll usually have my Nikon D810 and Sony a6300 with me. However, there are many times that I simply want to travel lean and mean. And on those days it’s about being minimalistic and only taking the bare minimum I need to get the shot.

My lean and mean kit is comprised of my Sony a6300, a 30mm lens, one ND filter, one polarized filter, and HandlePod. No tripod, no camera bag. In those situations, HandlePod seriously becomes my best inexpensive tool to have. Honestly, it’s the best $34 gadget you could add to your camera bag.

Best of all, HandlePod is crazy simple to use:

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Bonus Budget-Friendly Tripod Recommendation: the Vanguard Alta Pro 263ab-100.

Let me put the cards on the table here.

Six years ago, you wouldn’t find me all that interested in these tripods. However, I’m going to tell you, times change, and so did the tripods from Vanguard, so much so that the Alta Pro 263ab-100 is an Amazon #1 seller!

What makes this tripod such a winner is its cost-to-benefit ratio. When you handle this tripod, you would expect this to be priced much higher. It has three-section legs that adjust to varying angles from 25-80 degrees, meaning you can get your camera down low for some great low-angle shots.

Up top, the ball head rotates smoothly 360-degrees, and includes a bubble level so you’re sure to get those horizons straight each and every time. The included quick release plate means you can disengage from the tripod at a moment’s notice if need be. I’ve also found the retractable spikes in this tripod’s feet to be handy more than once!

Item #2: Remote Trigger

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What good is all that stability if your meat cleavers are creating vibrations every time you depress the shutter?!

Granted, you can you use your camera’s self-timer, which even set at it’s lowest setting of 2 seconds (the lowest on my D810), it seems to take forever!

For the longest time, I was waiting for someone to come out with a device that would allow me to trigger my camera with my iPhone. Then I came across a company called Alpine Labs.

Finally! A company listened to the photography community’s desires for a full-featured, smartphone-enabled wireless remote, and delivered a solution: “Pulse.”

This device is just a tad larger than a book of matches and sits on your camera’s hot shoe. It communicates with the Pulse app on your iPhone (which you need to install). From there you can control a host of camera settings, including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, as well as time lapse controls like the interval between shots and the duration of each shot.

Another feature I like is that I can start and stop video recording with my iPhone. I can also preview each image I take – even if they are a series for a time lapse – right from my phone too. I’ve used mine for time lapses, long exposures, still photos, and even selfies. The Pulse is that versatile!

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Another option that I’ve used in the past is the RFN-4s Wireless Remote (shown above) for my Nikon D810. This little guy has incredible range at over 300 feet, which is nice to have when you’re out in a landscape looking for a particular shot. It also has a bulb mode function for those occasions when you really need to extend your shutter speed.

Before that, I used the Nikon MC-36A cable release on my D700, then my D800. This shutter release was awesome until the day that a rogue wave came by, high enough to completely submerge it. I tried drying it, but unfortunately, nothing worked.

Despite this, I’m going to recommend this as a good purchase. There are much better priced options (like the two I have mentioned already), because this bugger clocks in at $168 on Amazon. Nevertheless, before that wave struck, this gadget worked great for me.

Item #3: Filters for Mastering Light

When it comes down to it, light is never perfect. And this is where filters shine. As of this writing, there are a couple of different filters that I carry religiously.

Why filters? Quite simply, you can’t recreate their effects in Photoshop or Lightroom.

First up are ND Filters. Usually, I’m all about finding the best value. However, when it comes to filters, you don’t want to go with the bargain basement special!

When you consider the quality of glass in your lenses, you want a filter that won’t degrade that investment. I personally use the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5, 10, and 15 stop ND filters, and I absolutely love them! As a matter of fact, here are some photos to illustrate:

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These were taken last weekend around 12 noon. You can see on the left the effect that was achieved with the 5-stop filter, then in the middle the results with the 10-stop filter, and then on the far right, the 15-stop beast that took this 1/40-second exposure to over 13 minutes!!

Needless to say, if you want to create daytime long exposures, or if you need to use a larger aperture to minimize depth of field, these bad boys are a must-have.

Next on the filters list is a polarized filter, and Singh-Ray makes a quality one in the LB Warming Polarizing Filter. Like their ND filters, Singh-Ray’s polarizers are outstanding to work with. With this filter, I can darken the skies of my landscape shots to add drama to the scene. And, since I take a lot of shots at the beach, the glare-reducing benefits of the polarizer can’t be understated.

But what I most appreciate about my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer is the slight warming tone that it gives my shots. That little extra pop often makes the difference between a photo that looks good and one that looks great. It helps that this filter allows 2/3-stop more light into my viewfinder, so composing my shots is easier. I don’t go anywhere without my polarizer, and you shouldn’t either!

Frankly, as I write this, I can’t decide which has a greater value to me – the ND filters discussed above or the polarized filter. What do you think? Tweet me @PhotographyTalk with your opinion!

Now, imagine this: you’re out shooting a gorgeous landscape, but your images either have a sky that’s well-exposed or a landscape that’s well-exposed, but not both.

What do you do?

Grad filters to the rescue!

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These filters are great because they bring the dynamic range of the scene into what your camera can handle. The darker portion of the filter darkens the sky while the bottom part of the filter has little or no filtering action. The result is that you have a landscape image that’s well-exposed throughout.

I have both soft and hard-edged grads. A soft grad, which slowly transitions from filtered to unfiltered, is ideal for situations in which the horizon isn’t very well defined. A hard grad, which transitions abruptly from filtered to unfiltered is great for shots where the horizon is quite well defined, like at the beach with the ocean and sky meeting at a nearly perfect horizontal line.

There are lots of options out there for grad filters. Singh-Ray offers top-shelf Galen Rowell Graduated Neutral Density Filters that have unparalleled quality, much like the rest of their filters. If you’re looking for something at a lower price point, I’ve had good luck with the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest ND Grad Filters.

Either way, you’ll get a good quality filter that will allow you to get the exposure right in-camera. And, to top it off, the look and feel of the image is much better when you use a grad filter than if you rely on post-processing techniques. Take it from me…I’ve tried both methods.

Bonus Budget-Friendly Filter Recommendation: Formatt-Hitech Landscape Photography Filter Kit – Colby Brown Signature Edition.

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Singh-Ray filters are definitely worth their weight in gold, but they can be quite pricey. If you need a lower priced alternative, Formatt-Hitech has a filter kit specifically designed for landscape photographers that gives you the complete set of filters and related gear.

I’m talking about a kit with a ND filter, a grad filter, and a reverse grad filter. You also get a filter holder, step rings, an adapter ring, and a carrying case too. They even throw in a booklet by renowned landscape photographer Colby Brown!

Item #4: Photography Apps

The three apps I use most often are:

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The Long Exposure Calculator (available on iOS devices for $3.99) is a godsend for landscape photographers because it does all the heavy lifting for you in terms of getting the shooting parameters just right when you’re taking a long exposure or when you need to figure out the camera settings to use with an ND filter. The app also includes reference tables and cheat sheets for easy access!

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (iOS for $8.99 or Android for $4.99) gives you the location of the sun and mood at any location at any time of day so you can plan your outings accordingly. View the altitude of the sun or the moon, as well as the galactic center for any time of day. It’ll even give you the time and duration of Golden Hour so you can maximize your time with the best light. Just drag a pin and drop it right where you intend to shoot, and the app will give you all the details about the lighting at that spot. Talk about an asset for planning your photo shoots!

SkySafari 5 (iOS for $2.99 or Android for $2.99) is the easiest way to track things like the moon and stars, and even the Milky Way. Check out the location and rise/set times of just about any celestial body, and even a few manmade ones (like the International Space Station). The app will even send you notifications when the ISS and other manmade satellites will pass over your area. With over 20,000 stars in its database, you’ll never be short on fodder for your astrophotography again.

Item #5: Software for When All Else Fails

Even with the best of planning, you may come back and not have the absolute perfect photo. In cases like that, having the right post-processing workflow can save the day. Mind you, post-processing won’t always be the answer to overcoming your mistakes, but it will sometimes.  

Personally, I’ll use both Lightroom and Photoshop in nearly all of my shots. Both programs offer an abundance of editing tools that help me perfect the shot and get it as close to my vision as possible.

Rather than me telling you about what I like about Photoshop and Lightroom, here are a couple of great YouTube videos from expert photographers that I think you’ll enjoy.

First, Joshua Cripps of Professional Photography Tips offers up his complete run-down of a landscape photography editing workflow for Lightroom:

Next, follow along as the guys from TutVid give you some insights into the process of retouching a landscape photo to maximize its visual impact:

Item #6: A Plan

A well thought out plan is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable assets you can have as a landscape photographer. Not only does taking the time to plan your day save you time in the end, but it’s also free to do, so why not do yourself a favor and make things easier by making a solid plan?

Essentially, planning involves not just what shots you want to take or what gear you’ll pack, but where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and investigating what the scene will look like at the time of day you’ll arrive.

You’ll want to consult your apps (like those I mentioned above), maybe watch some YouTube videos to learn the skills you’ll need to perfect the shot, and spend some time learning the ins and outs of your camera. These steps (and more) are covered in this guide. Check it out, and you’ll be as prepared as a Boy Scout.

Item #7: First Aid

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Better safe than sorry, right?

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve set out to take a few shots and stubbed a toe, cut a finger, or otherwise needed some quick medical attention.

Don’t let your day out shooting gorgeous landscapes go awry because you neglected to outfit yourself with a proper first aid kit!

Of course, the problem is that many first aid kits are huge and definitely not something you want to carry around all day.

However, I found this kit, which is small and compact, yet has all the major bells and whistles you might need during a day full of shooting. I just attach it to my backpack and I’m ready to roll!

Item #8: Simple Items That are Easy to Forget

Hopefully you’ve never been in a situation in which you forgot something major, like your camera or a lens.

But, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wandered off to take some photos and forgot some smaller (yet still essential) items.

First up, memory cards.

If you think that all memory cards are made alike, think again.

Naturally, memory cards come in many different sizes (and even shapes!). But cards vary in terms of their speed as well. Some cards, like a Class 2, only read/write data at 2MB/second. Compare that to a Class 10 card that has a speed of 10MB/second. UHS speed cards, like the Lexar Professional 633x 64GB SDXC UHS-I Card, can read/write at speeds of up to 95MB/second.

What that means is that whether you’re shooting 4K video or a time lapse or taking an extended long exposure, you won’t have to wait nearly as long to transfer files. And, with various sizes available up to 512GB, you can shoot longer without swapping cards too.

I’m a huge proponent of having multiple memory cards on hand as well. Though Lexar is known for quality and reliability, you never know when a card might stop working, when one gets misplaced, or when unforeseen events (like that rogue wave I mentioned earlier) might somehow damage your card.

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Another thing to remember is charged batteries.

Yes – plural. You never know when you’ll get into the groove and spend eight hours out shooting when you only intended to stay out for four hours. The point is that more battery power is better than less, so even if you don’t use more than one battery, it’s nice to know it’s there just in case.

Living in Southern California, I know that I might expect my adventures to last a couple of hours, then find myself hiking “just a bit further” or worse – I get stuck in traffic on the way there or on the way home. When you’re out photographing landscapes, you don’t want to have to drag a cooler full of food with you. Instead, I like to throw a few PowerBars in my bag because they don’t take up a lot of space and they are packed with protein, vitamins, and nutrients that keep me going.

Lastly, I never leave the house without a microfiber cleaning cloth for my lenses. It’s amazing how quickly my lens glass gets dusty or has smudges on it.

And in those situations, a microfiber cloth is a lifesaver. The last thing I want to do is spend all that time and energy planning my shoot, traveling to my location, and setting up for my shots, only to find that my lens is smudged and I have nothing to clean it with. That’s a terrible feeling to have!

Bonus Tip #1: Overcoming Boredom in the Field

Tell me, does this sound familiar: You have a 10-stop or 15-stop filter slapped onto your lens, and you’re shooting a long exposure that can easily tie up your camera for 10 to 30 or more minutes. Now what do you do? You can’t jump on your cell phone because either the Verizon guy is snoozing and your coverage is non-existent, or you need to save your battery life in case your wife calls to remind you to pick up dog food on the way home.  

So what do you do? Let me tell you my little secret, and you’re going to love me for this.

Actually it’s not much of a secret, but my solution to boredom in the field is (drumroll please):  “Lightbox Photography Cards”!

Ok, before you go Googling them, let me tell you what these are. It’s a deck of 52 cards, and each of them has a photographic assignment on them by award-winning photographer Paul Kane.  

Now, there are two other decks, one on macro photography and the other on mobile photography that are available for purchase for even more fun-filled photography tasks.

As a matter of fact…here’s a photo from this past weekend while at photo shoot at the Seal Beach Pier:

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Bonus Tip #2: Getting a Great Deal on Gear

Let’s face it - you work hard for your money and the last thing you want to do is shell out a ton of your hard-earned green stuff if you don’t have to.

That’s why I want to tell you about my go-to resource for well-priced photography gear.

If you haven’t heard of KEH, let me have you hit pause for a moment and open up another browser. Better yet…here you go: www.keh.com.

In the last six years, I have picked up four different lenses from these guys and have saved a grip! Seriously, it’s worth the click. All of their used gear comes with a 6-month warranty, and each and every item I have purchased has exceeded my expectations while saving me some money. What’s not to like about that?

Wrapping It Up

With that, you have a few tips to help you get headed in the right direction with your landscape photography.

I’m not claiming to know everything there is to know about being a landscape photographer, but, as the years have gone by, I’ve definitely learned a lot about how to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of my time shooting photos such that my images are as close to my creative vision as possible.

I don’t need to tell you how fun landscape photography is. I also don’t need to tell you how much work it is! Take the advice I’ve offered up here, and make things a little easier on yourself.

In the meantime, happy shooting!