Workshop Preparation Post #5: Packing for Landscape Photography

As I’ve posted before, gear selection and packing for a landscape photography trip is a cumbersome task. Each time I set out for a few days or a few weeks I begin by putting together a shoot list and hiking schedule. I also check the weather forecast for the area of Texas I’ll be traveling though and pray for any cold fronts approaching from the north or west. The last thing I want is a cloudless sky.

Packing for Landscape Photography

Pulling together a shoot list is a common enough task for most commercial photographers but I find few landscape or nature shooters that follow this discipline. I like to maximize my time in the field but I can’t carry fifty pounds of cameras and lenses on each hike so a shoot list is essential.

So here is a list of what I pack for a typical landscape outing.

  • Canon 5D Mark III with EF 17-40mm f/4L USM zoom attached.
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L zoom with lens hood.
  • Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt & Shift Lens.
  • Gitzo Traveller Tripod & RRS Ballhead.
  • Singh-Ray CP, Vari-ND & ND Grad filters.
  • Black Rapid R-Strap & Clips.
  • Bubble level, CF cards, lens cloths.
  • Garmin GPS on one strap.
  • Motorola MR350 Two Way Radio on the other strap.
  • Emergency Thermal Mylar Blanket.
  • Hiker’s First Aid Kit.
  • LED Flashlight & Hunting Knife.
  • Emergency Bail-Out Rope.
  • Water, typically three 24oz bottles.
  • Trail Snacks (for energy).

This much gear weighs in a little under 20 lbs and fits comfortably in my pack. The nice thing is, the weight decreases during the hike as I consume my water supply and trail snacks. I caution folks about carrying too much weight in their packs. I’ve done these hikes and climbs several times in the past few years and every extra ounce of weight you carry takes that much more energy. When you’re out shooting in nature, the last thing you need to be thinking about is how sore your lower back is from lugging around all that gear.

In fact, during my spring workshop (Texas Landscape Safari) I may carry only one lens (24-105mm) on my 5D3 and a few filters in my pockets. I load my pack up with as much water as I can carry along with some apples for energy. One thing I tell all my attendees; if it’s a choice between a lens or a bottle of water, always take the water. The Texas sun can be a relentless companion and folks that don’t respect its strength soon find themselves dehydrated and exhausted. Not a great combination for a budding landscape photographer during a workshop.

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.

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Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon – Terlingua, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
EOS 5D Mark III w/ GP-E
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 19mm, f/14 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

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The Edge of Night

Edge of Night

Edge of Night – Orchard, Texas
Copyright © 2012 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 40mm, f/13 for 1/250th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop, soft, graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

 

Cloudscapes

I’ve really begun to enjoy posting images on Instagram and have also found many very talented young photographers in Texas that love to post their images as much as I do. One such is Rebecca (@becbaytx), a wonderful young artist from Orchard, Texas that loves to post cloudscapes and sunsets from the cotton fields surrounding this tiny town in Fort Bend County.

After viewing several of Rebecca’s gorgeous shots on Instagram I was inspired to visit the area a few weeks ago to see what I was missing and as you can see, the cloudscapes that develop over those cotton fields are a sight to see.

Cloudscape

Cloudscape – Orchard, Texas
Copyright © 2012 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 17mm, f/14 for 1/2 second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop, soft, graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

 

Learning to Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Everyone knows I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy when it comes to getting the correct exposure “in-camera” as opposed to “in post”. For me, post-capture processing in Lightroom 4 or Photoshop CS6 is a matter of tweaking the RAW image to help recreate what I remembered seeing when I took the shot. A graduated neutral density filter is used to balance the exposure between the background and foreground of an image. As such, it is an essential tool that every landscape photographer should learn to use early in their career (or hobby). Yes, I know you could accomplish the same thing using a photo-blending technique like HDR but it’s much easier to do this “in camera” while you’re out in the field.

Subaru Forester Sunset

Subaru Sunset – Orchard, Texas
Copyright © 2012 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 17mm, f/14 for 1/2 second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop, soft, graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

The way a graduated ND filter works is very simple, by reducing the amount of light transmitted through a portion of the filter to your camera’s sensor so that the foreground exposure more closely matches the background exposure. They are not perfectly matched mind you, just more closely. By positioning the graduated ND filter in front of the lens you can vary the amount of exposure “balancing” the filter does in each scene. You can position these filter by hand or by using a filter holder as shown in the image below.

This is my typical setup for a landscape shot with my 5D Mark II on a lightweight but sturdy tripod (Gitzo Traveller using an RRS ball-head) and a Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter held in place by a Cokin “Z” holder, mounted on a wide angle lens. The graduated neutral density filter is generally a 2, 3 or 4-stop / soft ND grad made by Singh-Ray, a company that designs and builds the best quality photographic filters in the world.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter Setup

The purpose of the “ND Grad” filter used here was to “hold back” the bright sunset to balance foreground exposure in this late evening shot in Orchard, Texas. This allowed my DSLR to meter for the mid-tones without blowing out the bright highlights or losing all the shadow detail. The great thing about a graduated neutral density filter is that you, the photographer, have complete control over how much light the filter blocks by changing its position in the filter holder. Many photographers (myself included) prefer to hold the filter against the lens by hand, moving it to achieve exactly the effect we want.

On of my favorite landscape photographers Steve Kossack, is famous for teaching students “conscious control over colors and light” and a big part of his craft is in using the right filter at the right time. Steve’s also famous for hand-holding and moving his ND-Grad filters during the exposure so that each image is unique and one of a kind.

As Steve teaches, getting control of the colors and the light “in-camera” using a graduated neutral density is a great way to practice your craft in the field. Learning to properly use a few simple filters can extend your success and bring some much needed control to your landscape photography.

The Still of the Night

Yes, I am back!

If you live in Texas and have never visited Big Bend National Park, then shame on you. I’m just kidding but you’d be surprised by how many folks have never driven farther west than Del Rio and never seen the beauty of the Big Bend region. “Big Bend” is named for the curve of the Rio Grande in the remote corner of southwest Texas. It is a wildly beautiful region with unique geology and a fascinating history. Over one million acres of public land including Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park offer hiking, camping, river running, horse riding, mountain bicycling, jeep touring and thousands of photographic opportunities on paved and back-country roads. What more could a landscape photographer ask for?

The Still of the Night

The Still of the Night – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 40mm, f/14 for 4/10th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop, soft, graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Bastrop State Park – Before the Fire

I drove through the “Lost Pines” region last weekend along Park Road 1C which runs from Buescher State Park north to Bastrop State Park and was both saddened at the devastation last year’s wildfires had wrought and cheered to see new growth among the ashes. After visiting this gorgeous region for the past thirty years it was hard to see the once beautiful pine forest cut low by the wildfires. Luckily, my memories and my photographs will always remember the past glory of this beautiful state park and I look forward to the day that my grand children can explore these pine forests and trails in all their splendor.

Here’s to the brave men and women of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the US Forest Service and the Bastrop County fire fighters that worked tirelessly to save as much of this glorious park as possible. This Texas photographer salutes you, one and all.

Bastrop State Park

Before the Fire – Bastrop State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 23mm, f/16 for 1/10th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop, soft, graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 4.
Click on the image above for a larger version.