Choosing the right equipment
The first and most important question I am frequently asked is always the same: should I use film or digital? I have, as many of you might know, always been a dedicated follower of film photography and, until recently, my advice was to continue shooting on film.
I felt that the quality of digital images was still inferior to that of film. The new medium certainly offered advantages, such as speed and convenience, but for landscape work these aren’t the priority. What matters above anything else is the quality of the final image and in my opinion film still had the edge.
Well, time moves on and the past few years have seen a huge leap in the quality of digital imaging, which has been concurrent with a signifi cant fall in prices of high megapixel cameras. No longer is digital the poor relation of the photographic family. It is now a credible alternative to fi lm and I can foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when digital imaging overtakes fi lm in terms of quality. This is, I believe, inevitable. Consider for a moment how much research and development is being invested in digital sensor technology compared with traditional silver-halide-based film.
There is, to say the least, a sizeable gap and this can, I suspect, only widen. So, has fi lm had its day? No, absolutely not. It is a beautiful medium and I still use fi lm for a lot of my work and will, for the foreseeable future, continue to do so. My love of fi lm is shared by many other established photographers and, worldwide, there are legions of devoted followers who have no plans to give up using the medium.
There are practical considerations, however, and there are some occasions when digital is the better choice. Based on my own experience and other photographers’ comments, my view, for what it’s worth, is that fi lm and digital photography will co-exist for many years to come. My advice, therefore, is as follows: if you already have a good-quality fi lm camera and are happy to continue using it, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do so. You should not feel compelled to join the burgeoning digital masses. If at some time in the future you feel like changing, then do so because it will be even less expensive, in relative terms, than it is today.
The longer you leave it the more you will get for your money.
If, on the other hand, you are at the moment considering buying new equipment, then I would have no hesitation in recommending that you choose the digital option. Although the current trend of falling prices and rising quality/specifi cation will continue, this is already a good time to make the investment. A good-quality camera and lens can now be bought for a few hundred pounds and, having made the purchase, you no longer, of course, have the expense of buying film and processing.
So, if you decide, in principle, to follow the digital route, what type of camera is most suitable for the landscape environment?
I prefer to think of a digital camera not as a miniature box of cuttingedge technology but as a traditional camera with pre-loaded digital film. When choosing a model I would therefore look for features which are present on fi lm cameras. The lack of viewfi nder on compact cameras therefore excludes them from my shortlist and a DSLR (digital single lens refl ex) camera would be my choice.
The next consideration is the megapixel count. There is some confusion that the number of pixels is linked to image quality. It is, but only as far as print size is concerned. As the dimensions of the print increase a proportionate increase in the number of pixels is required in order to maintain the resolution of the image, but if you are producing, for example, a 12 x 10in (30 x 25.5cm) print then a 12mp camera is just as good as, say, a 15 or 20mp camera. Unless you wish to produce very large prints, the number of megapixels is not, therefore, the major consideration.
This should be carefully considered. There are now a number of options ranging from the very small (equivalent to half-frame 35mm) to medium format and larger. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the higher the image quality (but, of course, prices rise as the size of the sensor grows). I use a medium-format sensor; this was an easy choice to make because I exchanged my old Mamiya fi lm camera for the digital equivalent.
This isn’t a budget option, however, because even though the price of Mamiya digital equipment compares favourably with other medium-format manufacturers, it is still more expensive than the smaller formats.
Full frame (i.e. 35mm equivalent) cameras produced by Canon, Nikon and a small number of other manufacturers would be a good choice for landscape work but again they are more expensive than their smaller counterparts. The APS-C sensor has proved to be a popular format and this size of camera is produced by most manufacturers in a range of prices. Having compared the various options, my advice would be to buy a full-frame 35mm (or larger) size camera if it is within your budget, if not opt for an APS-C camera. The image quality is still very good (I speak from recent experience because I have just tested a Pentax K20 and was impressed by its level of performance) and these cameras are an excellent introduction to the world of digital imaging.
The choice of lens
This is another important consideration. There is a discernable correlation between lens optical quality and image quality and a sharp, high-resolution lens will prove to be a good investment. I have always preferred to use fi xed focal length lenses but the latest zooms are now almost as sharp. For a full-frame 35mm camera a zoom range of 24–70mm will cover most landscape requirements (the approximate equivalent for APS-C size cameras is 17–50mm). This size of lens, or similar, is often supplied as part of a kit, i.e. you buy camera and lens together, but kit lenses are a budget option. Although they are reasonably good value for the price, they are not usually of the highest optical quality. I would suggest that instead you consider, replacing it with a higher specification lens from the camera manufacturer or Sigma, Tamron, or Tokina. These latter companies are independent manufacturers who produce their lenses in a range of fi ttings and they are therefore compatible with the majority of DSLRs.
To complete your digital camera you will need a memory card; these are available in various capacities. 4gb cards are a popular choice but I would suggest that, as an alternative, you use two 2gb cards. That way you won’t be left high and dry if, heaven forbid, a card fails (this is unlikely, particularly with well-established brands, but it is not unknown). I use SanDisk Extreme 1V cards and have always found them to be 100% reliable.
There are a small number of fi lters which can greatly improve landscape images. These are discussed throughout the book but are listed here for convenience.
A neutral-density graduated fi lter (or ND grad, also known as a grey grad) will help to prevent the sky from being overexposed. They are available in a range of strengths; I fi nd the most useful to be one and two stops, i.e. they will absorb the equivalent of one and two stops of light. The photograph taken near Thirlemere, on the opposite page, shows the benefi t of using this type of fi lter. It has darkened the sky and brought its light value down to the level of the landscape. Without this darkening effect the sky would have been horribly overexposed and the image would have been a failure.
A polarizer is a very useful fi lter because it can be used to increase colour saturation, darken a blue sky and improve the transparency of water. It also absorbs approximately two stops of light, which isn’t always an advantage, but can be useful when a slower shutter speed is required. I also suggest you consider adding a warming fi lter to your collection, either an 81B or 81C. These fi lters are used to compensate for a blue cast which is sometimes present in daylight. They also improve the colour of sand and autumn foliage.
If you are using a digital camera then this type of filter is unnecessary, because the colour balance can be corrected after exposure.
These are really the only fi lters you need. Although there is a vast range available I wouldn’t recommend that you carry any more than these few. Many are unsuitable for landscape photography and are designed to create special effects, so if you haven’t got them you won’t be tempted to use them!
If you are using a fi lm camera then a handheld exposure meter is useful, particularly one with a spot-reading capability. As well as calculating exposure a spot meter will enable you to take readings from specifi c parts of the landscape and sky and allow you to determine the level of contrast in a scene.
This is an important accessory and the benefi ts of using one shouldn’t be underestimated. It will greatly reduce the possibility of camera shake.
Mounted on the camera’s accessory shoe, these are very useful when photographing buildings and coastal landscapes when it is important to keep the horizon perfectly straight.
Large-scale maps that show contour lines are a tremendous help when researching locations. In the UK I fi nd the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps, scale 1:50,000, particularly useful. In addition to land contours they also show small rivers and streams, waterfalls, footpaths and types of forest. They are a very important aid when exploring a landscape and I cannot recommend them too highly.
Having assembled your range of equipment it is important to ensure that it can be conveniently – and safely – carried. A backpack designed for photography is, in my experience, the most practical option, particularly when trekking across any type of terrain. It is important to choose one which is the right size; the contents should fi t securely yet be easily accessible. There are many times when you have to work fast – sometimes very fast if you are not to miss the fl eeting moment – and seconds lost searching through your bag for a particular item can cost you dearly.
It is important, therefore, to know exactly where everything is and be able to put your hand on any accessory immediately.
Finally, you need to protect yourself as well as your equipment. Outdoor conditions can be demanding and a cold, wet, uncomfortable photographer is unlikely to be at his or her best. Warm, waterproof clothing, walking boots and rubber boots are essential if you are to cope with what the landscape and weather can throw at you.
Be prepared for changeable weather and the unexpected and you won’t be taken by surprise.