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We live in an age where equipment seems to be of paramount importance. I take the view that asking a photographer about the equipment they use is like asking a writer what sort of pen they use. The writer cannot write without the pen any more that I can take photographs without a camera. However, the hardware is almost the least important part of the equation. A better pen doesn’t make me write better novels. I have seen some stunning photographs taken with modest phone cameras. What counts is the eye of the person wielding the hardware.
However, for those who want to explore how to get the best landscape photographs I would recommend the following.(click to enlarge pics)
Your sharpness begins here. Usually in the field you have uneven ground and wind. Your camera, no matter what it is, requires a rock solid base. I have two tripods – one for 35mm film and DSLR camera and the other for my cumbersome medium format camera.
For the smaller cameras I have a Manfrotto 190B. I’m not a great fan of carbon fibre sticks as they are a little too light in extreme conditions. Nothing beats heavy metal legs. The head is a rock solid, if tricky to adjust Manfrotto 109 . Once you get used to the head you’ll never go back to a ball and socket. The 109 is great for minute adjustments with a heavy lens on the camera. The head has vital spirit levels on two axes. For some reason my brain has a problem making the horizon perfectly horizontal and the levels compensate for my weird eyesight. For my medium format camera I use a video tripod because of the weight of the camera. No normal photo tripod will do the job and i need really stable platform. The head is an old Manfrotto 503 fluid head . The tripod is cumbersome and a total pain to carry across rough ground with all the other kit but its the only thing that’s really stable enough
This is my Fuji GX680. It’s really a studio camera but when I had a video business, I was used to lugging large cameras around and this is actually not as bad as my video camera. Every time I curse the size of this monster, I remember the advantages of getting an 8cm x 6 cm transparency. I have two lenses for it – a 65mm and a 125mm. These are fujinon lenses. I became a fan of Fujinon lenses when I used them on my video camera. Most TV cameras have Fujinon and they are built to withstand the battering they often get. Their optical quality is superb. There are acres of glass (95mm dismeter) in these lenses so they weigh in about a kilogram each. The film back of the GX680 revolves so you can do portrait or landscape format. They are easily swopped and i usually have a Velvia 50 and a Velvia 100 in each back.
I started with the normal ground glass horizontal viewfinder but quickly discovered two things. My eyesight is not good enough to focus accurately that way and when you have the camera perched on a tripod you can’t see the damn ground glass. I got a right angle finder with dioptre adjustment and this works fine. One thing I love about the camera is that the lens shits in the vertical plane which means you can often get the perfect frame by using that rather than tilting the camera. The lens also tilts should you need that. The camera writes basic data in the intervals of the film and the LED display gives you number of shots and allows you to set date and ISO information. A remote control is vital with this camera as when the mirror moves it’s like a small explosion. You just raise the mirror and then use the remote.
If you are going to shoot Velvia or any other film with low tolerance for exposure mistakes you need a spot meter. A lot of the time you can take a reading from any good camera meter however if you want to pay special attention to the highlight or shadow areas you need one of these. It’s quite extraordinary to think that this piece of equipment is over thirty years old yet still carries a premium price on ebay. The reason people will pay is that it allows you to get an accurate fix on the light in difficult areas of your photograph. You can find a lot of sites explaining the ‘Zone’ system on the web and it’s simple once you get the hang of it. The Pentax also allows you to assess whether the scene has too much dynamic range. Personally I prefer to let a photograph go rather than mess around with multiple shots in post production. I also love this spot meter because it is analogue. No digital read outs. It’s good old school technology and works a dream. It’s also built to last a half century at least and feels solid and permanent.
I am the world’s most disorganized person but it’s no joke to find you’ve got a dead battery when you are several hundred kilometers from the nearest shop. I loathe soft camera bags with pockets that hide everything. I use a cheap and cheerful box for all the bits and pieces. The red circular thing is a GPS receiver that talks to my iPad. I learned the hard way that it’s useful when you break down in the wild to be able to tell the recovery truck where exactly you are! I keep leads and cleaning stuff as well as a remote for my 35mm camera.
I have two pieces of software that are vital for field trips. The first is called The Photographers Ephemeris, (http://photoephemeris.com). It would take too long to describe all the functions but, in brief, it allows you to take any location in the world, on any date and at any time and see exactly where the sun will be. You can plan the best day and time to go to a particular location and also decide the exact spot from which to take the shot. In the screen grab (left) you can see the specified location on the 5th August 2012 at 11.24 a.m. The grey horizontal line indicates sunrise and sunset. The orange line pointing to 2.00 shows the point at which the sun will appear over the horizon – so it takes into account the topography. The orange line pointing to just after 12.00 shows where the sun is at 11.24. The dark orange line pointing to 10.00 is where the sun will disappear below the surrounding hills. The slider at the bottom allows you to see how the sun moves from sunrise to sunset and has a 24 hour and 60 minute scale. It does far more than this and there is an excellent video on the Ephemeris website. If you are serious about landscape photography you need this tool.
I find sat nav maps do not have enough information on them about topography so I use an application called MapApp NZ SI from the Apple App Store. It’s a 1:50000 scale so you won’t need anything more detailed. It will give you your current location using the inbuilt GPS on iPad. You can see from the screen grab that it gives you a really good idea of what the terrain will look like. If you don’t know a location then this allows you to plan where to take the photos from. Dirt roads in New Zealand can be extremely long so it’s a help to know that there’s something worthwhile at the end of the road! The disadvantage of Goggle maps is that you need an internet connection and this is often not possible in mountainous and remote places.