Lens choice is important because your photograph is influenced much more by your lens than by your camera. Sharpness, contrast, depth of focus, clarity, and detail are all determined almost exclusively by the glass (lens). It forms the image, while the camera simply captures it.Once you have your camera picked out, you’ll want to pick a few quality lenses that give you good focal range from wide-angle, which puts everything in your field of view into the frame, to telephoto, which will allow you to zoom in to something in the distance.
While it may seem absurd to spend more on a lens than on the camera itself, most photographers agree that they would always prefer to have a less expensive camera with a quality lens, rather than the other way around. And because lenses don’t depreciate in price as quickly, the investment is far more worthwhile.
Prime versus zoom lenses
Lenses come in two forms; prime and zoom. A prime lens has one fixed focal length, such as 35mm. A zoom lens has a focal range, such as 18-55mm. Prime lenses are often slightly sharper than zoom lenses. However, zoom lenses are much more versatile and allow you to carry fewer lenses in your bag.
I recommend that you start out with three zoom lenses that cover a focal range from 10mm to 200mm for maximum versatility. These are the three that I use for my landscape photography:
- Wide Angle Zoom 10-18mm
- Regular Zoom 18-55mm
- Telephoto 55-210mm
For landscape photography, a tripod is an essential piece of gear. When you have lots of light, you might get away with hand holding your camera. But if you want to make images in low light situations such as sunrise or twilight, you’ll need a tripod so that you can use longer shutter speeds.
This is the purchase where everyone seems to make the same mistake. Buy cheap, buy twice. Most landscape techniques require long shutter speeds – sometimes very long. A bargain bin tripod is not strong enough to hold your camera steady with a telephoto lens on it. It’s not strong enough if there is any wind. It’s a waste of money. On the other hand, if you purchase a sturdy, well-built tripod from a reputable brand it can last you a lifetime.
Make sure you check the load capacity of your tripod and ensure it can handle your camera with its longest (heaviest) lens attached. Expect to spend as much money on your tripod as you did on your camera.
Many landscape photographers also carry filters, which can help you enhance your images. The two most commonly used are a Polarizing Filter and a Neutral Density (ND) filter. Graduated ND filters can be helpful as well, but become tricky to use if you do not have a clean, straight horizon.
- Circular polarizing filter – This is an essential piece of equipment when photographing water to allow you to remove reflections and glare from the water’s surface and allow you to see through the water to any interesting rocks underneath. It can also help enhance the richness of a clear blue sky, or remove reflections from windows and other shiny surfaces in urban settings.
- Neutral density (ND) filter – If you decide to shoot a long exposure and it happens to be the middle of the day when there is a lot of light, you will need this gray-tinted piece of glass placed in front of your lens. It blocks some of the light from hitting your sensor, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed. These are sold in varying strengths, and can be stacked for different levels of light absorption.
Make sure to get the right filter size for your lenses. Better yet buy one for your biggest lens (look inside your lens cap for the filter size) and step down rings to your smaller ones.
Recommended Camera Settings
Shooting in RAW
Most people are used to shooting pictures that come out as JPG (jay-peg) files since this is the default setting on most cameras. JPG is a compressed format meaning that some of the data the camera captures is discarded to make a smaller file size. Raw format, on the other hand, is completely uncompressed with no information thrown away.
What results from this is a digital negative – a large file that can only be accessed through Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, Photoshop and other compatible image editing software products. We’ll talk more about processing your photos later, but start off by capturing a RAW file so you have more information to work with when you process your photos.
Your camera will likely have a mode dial on the top where you can choose your shooting mode from one of the following; auto; aperture priority; shutter priority; program; or manual. For landscape photography, I highly recommend shooting in aperture priority mode, likely marked on your camera’s mode dial as “A” or “Av”.
The reason for using aperture priority is because aperture controls the depth of field in your image – the amount of the scene (in your image) that will be in focus. Generally, for grand landscapes, you will want everything from the foreground to the background sharp, so you’ll pick an aperture like f/11 or f/18. But sometimes, you might want only your subject to be sharp and everything else to be blurred and out of focus. For this, you might pick f/4 or f/5.6.
More information about how aperture affects depth of field is coming up in the chapter on exposure below.
Using aperture priority shooting mode allows you to make this choice based on your artistic vision and the camera will choose the corresponding shutter speed to give you a good exposure.