Workshop Preparation – 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.

rrs_bh40_blog

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 II secure and stable when taking landscape shots. It’s a great ballhead for basic pano shots as well.

Workshop Preparation – Packing for Landscape Photography

As we discussed last week and earlier this week, 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 II 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 5D2 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.

Bastrop State Park

Bastrop State Park is only about 30 miles southeast of Austin but once you enter it’s like you’re a million miles from the city. The park is surrounded by tall pines which block much of the noise from the highway and it’s 6000 acres of hilly terrain offer miles of trails to explore to your heart’s content. My favorite spot is the small lake near the park historic cabins and camp sites. On any given weekend you’ll find folks fishing from it’s quiet banks and enjoying the sun and wind. As you can see, it’s also a fine spot for a little late afternoon photography.

Bastrop Lake

Bastrop Lake – Bastrop State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2010 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 lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 22mm, f/16 for 1/15th 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.

BTW – Some folks have asked how I create the white inner border and darker outer border on my images. I’d love to take credit for this but honestly I use a simple plug-in for Adobe Lightroom 3 called LR/Mogrify 2 from Tim Armes’ Photographer’s Toolbox. Tim has lots of great plug-ins available for Lightroom and I’m a big fan of his work.

Workshop Preparation: Landscape Lens Selection

As the Texas Landscape Safari fast approaches, many folks are wondering which lens or 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 a camera with an APS-C size sensor like the Canon Rebel series or the new 7D, then the Canon EF-S 10mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is your best bet for a tack-sharp wide-angle zoom.

If you shoot with a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark II, 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 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.

Turkey Peak

Turkey Peak – Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 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 47mm, f/11 for 1/30th 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.

Workshop Preparation: 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 25th – 28th, 2011) 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: Shoot What You Love

The Spring 2011 Texas Landscape Safari is less than two months away and I know the folks that plan to attend are anxious to get out with their cameras after a long and cold winter. So for the next few weeks I’ll be posting tips to help folks get the most out of their workshop experience.

The first rule of photography that I was taught thirty five years ago was to “shoot what you love”. There is no better piece of advice I can give to an enthusiastic amateur than that. When you truly “love” the subject that you’re photographing, that “feeling” is reflected in the images you capture. Monet painted many different scenes during his career but none stand out nearly as much as those of his beloved garden’s water lilies.

Folks attending photographic workshops are often searching to discover what subjects they connect with the best. For some it’s big game wildlife in Africa, while for others it’s the unique water fowl found in southern Florida. For many younger landscape enthusiasts it’s the majesty of Yosemite or Yellowstone while for others (like myself) it’s the simple, rugged beauty found in the rural areas of Texas.

The key to getting the most out of any workshop (or your own photography in general) is to discover what you love to shoot and make it your goal to learn how to shoot that subject as creatively as possible. Don’t worry about what others in the group are concentrating on. Take a good look around you at each stop and see what catches your eye. If it’s water, shoot the water. If it’s wildflowers, shoot the flowers. If it’s rocks and trees, then explore the rocks and trees with your camera. Approach each new location during the workshop with an open mind, a curious demeanor and a courageous attitude and I promise you’ll soon learn what you “love” to shoot just as I have.

And remember to enjoy yourself out there. We’re all here to learn and have some fun exploring the Texas Hill Country together. Learn to shoot what you love and to love what you shoot and I promise you’ll walk away with some great images and some wonderful new friends. But don’t take my word for it; just ask Glenn, Leslie or Josh when you meet them in Lampasas in a few weeks.

Caprock Canyon in Summer

Caprock Canyon in Summer – Quitaque, Texas
Copyright © 2010 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 lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 40mm, f/16 for 1/40th 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.