Workshop Preparation Post #4: Use a Ball Head

When you buy a good quality tripod, you get just the tripod legs (even though it’s called a tripod). A good quality ballhead can make all the difference in capturing great looking landscape or nature images. A ballhead will let you quickly and easily adjust where your camera is pointed and how it is oriented (horizontal or vertical). Its also the most secure means to hold that expensive DSLR and lens you’ve just paid good money for.


The folks at Really Right Stuff make the best ballheads and arca-swiss style clamps I’ve ever used and the unit shown above is their BH-40 LR (BH-40 head with B2-40 LR clamp). It fits perfectly on my Gitzo tripod legs and keeps my Canon 5D Mark III secure and stable when taking landscape shots. It’s a great ballhead for basic pano shots as well.


Workshop Preparation Post #3: Tripods

Lake LBJ Overlook

Lake LBJ Overlook – Kingsland, Texas
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 32mm, f/11 for 1/6th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer and two-stop, soft graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done entirely in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

As many of you know this spring’s Texas Landscape Safari is scheduled for later next month (April 21st – 24th, 2013) and I thought I’d help folks get ready by discussing some “tools of the trade” used by every landscape photographer. So over the next three weeks I’ll be posting images of the gear I use along with some shots made possible by this gear. Honestly, it’s just plain fun to “geek out” over gear every once in a while.

Tripod Legs in ActionThe single most important piece of photographic gear you’ll ever purchase (after your camera and lens) is a set of light-weight, good quality tripod legs. A good tripod can make the difference between a shot that “looks” sharp on the camera’s LCD and one that “is” tack sharp when printed at 24″ × 36″. Remember, the number one cause of soft images isn’t poor focus, it’s camera movement.

Click on the image above and look at the crisp detail of the rocks and trees compared to the silky smooth look of the water. Getting this type of shot required a 1/6th second exposure in the late evening and the slightest camera movement would have completely ruined the image.

Good quality tripod legs are not cheap and you can expect to pay somewhere between $300 – $800 (USD) depending upon the materials of construction, size and weight. I currently use two different set of tripod legs these days; one for studio & on-location work (Gitzo GT2541 Mountaineer) and one for hiking (Gitzo GT1541T Traveller). Both are constructed from carbon fiber making them very light-weight but extremely strong and durable.

I’m an unabashed believer in Gitzo tripods (probably the only French product I’ve ever bought) and highly recommend them to any photographer. Both of my tripod legs have seen the extremes of heat, humidity, mud, sand, gravel and just plain dirt and they work as well now as the first day I bought them. You may buy four or five cameras over your lifetime as a landscape photographer but you’ll only need one Gitzo tripod!


Workshop Preparation Post #2: Flying Straight & Level

In landscape photography its the little things that count. One of the most important aspects of creating a well composed landscape image is knowing where “level” is. This is especially true when your background is hilly or mountainous. We use our sense of “level” so much every day that a person will look at an image on the web or in print and instinctively know if it’s not perfectly level.

Nikon's Virtual HorizonFinding the perfect “level” has always been fairly easy for Nikon shooters since inclusion of a Virtual Horizon in the D3, D300 and D700 firmware and now owners of Canon’s EOS 7D or 5D Mark III have the same thing.

Before you run out and buy a new camera, there is a simple answer that works for all of us. The folks at Adorama sell a great little Hot Shoe Bubble Level 337 made by Manfrotto that takes all the guesswork out of finding a perfect “level” in our landscape images. For $34.00 it’s an inexpensive tool that every landscape photographer should carry with them in the field and it’s a required accessory during the Texas Landscape Safari. (Note: Adorama now sells their own Hot Shoe Bubble Level for only $5.95. Hard to Beat That)

Hot Shoe Bubble Level

Hot Shoe Bubble Level
Copyright © 2008 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shots taken with a Canon Powershot G9 hand-held at 30mm, f/4.0 for 1/320th of a second at ISO 200 on SanDisk digital film. All post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2.

Workshop Preparation Post #1: Landscape Lens Selection

As the Texas Landscape Safari fast approaches, many folks are wondering which lenses to bring to the workshop. Given how many fine lenses are available on the market today, answering this question is not quite as simple as it seems. While I can’t give each of you specific recommendations (since I have no idea your camera type or your budget), here’s a list of the lenses I’ve used for landscape photography over the past few years along with a few reasons why each makes a good nature or landscape lens.

One important thing to keep in mind, since most landscape shots are taken with the camera mounted on a tripod, image stabilized lenses become much less important. You can save yourself hundreds of dollars on landscape lenses by looking at non “IS” or “VR” lenses only.

Landscape Lens Selection

Ultra-Wide Angle Zooms
Many of the scenes you’ll encounter during a landscape photography workshop will require a wide angle lens and in Texas, the wider the better. If you shoot with a camera that has an APS-C size sensor like the Canon Rebels, the EOS 50D, 60D or 7D, then the Canon EF-S 10mm f/3.5-4.5 USM or the Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens is your best bet for tack-sharp images.

If you shoot with a full frame camera like the EOS 5D Mark II, the EOS 5D Mark III or the new EOS 6D, then you have a few more choices such as the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM or the more expensive Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM lens.

Wide-Angle Primes
Many landscape photographers prefer to “zoom with their feet” and carry wide-angle prime (single focal length) lenses instead of zooms. Before the days of computer controlled lens grinding, prime lenses were substantially sharper than zoom lenses but today most high-end zooms compete very well with prime lenses in terms of sharpness. I understand from my friends (on the dark side) that Nikon has released a very sharp wide-angle prime for their APS-C cameras but unfortunately for Canon shooters, there are no EF-S series prime lenses so finding a wide-angle lens for a Canon Rebel is tough.

Wide-to-Medium Telephoto Zooms
This type of lens is probably the most widely used for amateur landscape photographers due to the broad focal range coverage and competitive pricing among manufacturers.

For APS-C cameras, Canon offers many lenses that fit into this category such as the brand new Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, the older Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM as well as the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. All three are great choices for owners of a Digital Rebel or EOS 7D.

For those of us that shoot with full-frame cameras like the Canon 5D2 or 5D3 there are also many great choices like the tack-sharp Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM or my favorite, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM which is one of Canon’s best selling lenses of all time.

Medium Telephoto Zooms
Although not strictly landscape lenses, a good medium telephoto zoom can be a real asset when shooting Texas landscapes from a distance. I highly recommend any of these Canon lenses and their Nikon equivalents. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM lens is without a doubt, the best “value” offered today by any lens manufacturer. Thirty years ago a lens like this would have cost thousands and today this little baby can be yours for less than $700. Yes, you can spend more on the image stabilized version or on the much larger and faster f/2.8 version but for landscape photography this is one sweet deal.

Macro Lenses
Many landscape photographers prefer “going wide” but never forget the beauty of getting real close. Both Canon & Nikon make excellent macro lenses such as the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM or the new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM (the first macro with image stabilization). Don’t forget that today, many medium telephoto lenses allow close-focus macro photography and with Canon’s 500D Close-Up “filter” almost any lens can become a macro lens.

Conclusions & A Fresh Thought
Your lens choices for landscape photography are almost limitless and every lens manufacturer has dozens of models to choose from in every price range imaginable. But before you rush out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on new lenses keep one thought in mind (stolen shamelessly from David duChemin), “Gear is Good, but Vision is Better”.

A new lens will not make you a better photographer and some of the most spectacular landscape images I’ve ever seen were taken with a 50mm plastic lens costing less than $100. So to answer your original question on “which lens to bring?”, bring them all but more importantly, bring your imagination and creativity.