No matter where you turn these days in the world of nature and landscape photography, there seems to be an ever increasing amount of gear and equipment coming at us regularly. Not to mention the constant marketing and emphasis from manufacturers on acquiring more stuff in order to improve our images.
For sure there are many essential items to any photo kit. But I’m constantly asked what makes a good investment, and where can you skimp in terms of your photography expenses. So after some careful thinking about my own experiences, I came up with 10 things I think are crucial when it comes to serious landscape photography.
In addition, I approach and practice photography from a holistic perspective, so this list is not specific to camera gear, or technology in general. My 10+ years of experience has taught me that there is much, much more to capturing successful photographs than you might realize. So if you think you don’t have the time for the items that don’t require money, think again. I’ve found that looking at my priorities was always a good place to start to find more time!
Top 10 Things to Invest In
-Tripod I see so many students try to save money with cheaper tripods, only to regret the decision once they get frustrated in the field. Sloppy movement and lack of precision and adjustability, unstable in rough weather, heavy and unwieldy- these are just some of the reasons to purchase a top quality tripod. My two tripods have been through hell, including being totally banged up, submerged in water, used as trekking poles in the snow, and yet they still work great. Choose a carbon model from Manfrotto or Gitzo and you can’t go wrong.
Also, don’t forget a good ball head. There are many to choose from, but Really Right Stuff and Kirk Photo make some of the best. I have the Kirk BH1 and after fives years of abuse is still as smooth as the first day I used it.
-Lenses In my opinion a lens is so much more important than a camera body. Over the course of a decade, you may own multiple camera bodies, but you will probably use the same 3 or 4 high quality lenses. I invested early on in Canon L lenses after I realized the difference in both build and image quality. I still use the same 3 core lenses today though I have gone through several camera bodies and more in the future I’m sure. Great optics will always trump a great sensor, so always buy great glass first. Plus they are really investments since their resale value will always remain high. Here’s a great guide to choosing Canon lenses.
-Filters It goes without saying that if you spend a few thousand dollars on lenses, you don’t want to use a cheap $35 filter from Best Buy. The glass in the filter needs to complement the lens, otherwise your image quality will suffer. I use filters from B+W and Singh-Ray, mostly polarizers, ND filters (for long exposures), and graduated ND filters. Worth every penny.
-Hiking Boots I hike for most of my photographs, and so my feet are an essential part of my kit. Being comfortable and sure footed is critical to my safety and good hiking shoes help avoid any number of ailments such as blisters, plantar fascia, or inflamed arches. Without healthy feet, my career is over, so I don’t skimp on footwear, and neither should you. Right now I alternate between a pair of Scarpa’s and Lowa’s depending on the terrain. They keep my feet dry, comfortable, and provide the support I need day after day, week after week, and mile after mile.
Also, invest in a good insole which makes all the difference in the world. After a recent struggle with soreness, I purchased a pair of Signature EV Ultra’s from Sole that cured my problem.
-Camera Backpack I reviewed my current backpack the Guragear Kiboko in a past article, so be sure to check that out. But again, there is nothing like a backpack that is comfortable, gives you easy access to all of your gear, is lightweight, and can hold everything you need for a photo hike. I also use a ThinkTankPhoto Streetwalker when I need a lightweight pack for cycling or other athletic activity.
-Fitness I’ve written extensively about fitness for photography in the past, and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for me, and can be for you. The more fit you are, the better you’ll feel both physically and mentally. Both of these are absolutely necessary for successful landscape photography over the long term. For me yoga is the ultimate way to keep my mind and body in peak condition, but any form of exercise is a good investment in your physical well being. It has helped me recover from back injuries, a badly broken ankle, and numerous other “occupational hazards.” Plus my balance, endurance, and flexibility make my work more enjoyable.
Whether talking about photography or your body, “function maintains structure” or the more popular “use it or lose it” are both ideas not to skimp on. Time devoted to your fitness is time well spent, and you will reap the rewards for years to come. At 45, I’m in the best shape of my life, and see no reason why that should change anytime soon, considering I keep putting in the hard work. And numerous studies have shown that it doesn’t matter at what age you start to exercise, the human body has incredible adaptive capabilities for muscle growth, flexibility, and strength. Don’t take it for granted!
-Learning and Motivation Continuing on with the idea of flexing our muscles and minds, inspiration comes to us from learning more about the art of photography, and staying fresh to new ideas. Put in the time to read about things that inspire you, and it will pay you back in your creativity. I try to stay up to date on all the new techniques out there today, as well as stay grounded in the works of the masters. This balance is necessary in my opinion to create work that is both relevant, yet grounded in principles that are universal, such as beauty, emotion, and mystery. Time spent in study, whether days, weeks, or years, will payoff during the split second press of the shutter when you know you’ve captured something special. Turn the TV off and read an inspiring book, it will make a difference behind the camera.
-Printing Paper As Ansel Adams said many times, “the print is the performance”, and for me my work is not finished until I make prints of my photographs. The paper is the main ingredient here, so choosing one that best brings your image to life is crucial to how it is interacts with the viewer. Right now I use Canson exclusively, my favorites being Platine and Photographique. Try a few high quality papers, then settle on one or two and learn how print your images on them – it will make a huge difference.
-Computer Monitor After all the money and time you invest in all of the above, why skimp on the single piece of equipment which shows you the fruits of your labor? Similar to camera bodies, I’ve gone through several computers over the last few years, but still depend on my NEC monitor to deliver true, accurate colors and tones. Your monitor is probably the single most used piece of equipment in digital photography, so choosing the best you can afford is paramount.
I use the NEC PA series monitors which offer a wider color gamut than most monitors. This allows you to see the colors in your images more accurately, improving post processing and helping to create better prints. Save on the computer, spend on the monitor.
-Time Finally we come to the most important investment of all, and that is time and dedication. Nothing will improve your work more than spending time practicing the craft. Many think that practice is only valid when you are in a situation to capture a beautiful scene, but in fact anytime you use your camera, whether in your backyard or snapping photos of family is a chance to learn about light, composition, technique, and many other aspects of image making.
For sure, the nature photographer makes his own luck, which means you put in the time in the field day in and day out in order to be prepared for mother nature’s gifts. Visit the same locations year round and learn how the light interacts with the landscape, and you will improve your work and make better images. “Spray and pray” may get you quick results, but time and dedication will provide the ingredients to make images that convey your vision, experience, and sensitivity about nature.
Regardless of whether you’re a beginner or seasoned pro, I hope this list provides some food for thought, and inspires you to think about what really matters to your photography, from both a time and financial standpoint. I’d love to get your feedback, as well as other suggestions. Thanks as always for reading.