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Ahh - the great outdoors, fresh air, stunning vistas, the chance to feel part of something larger than yourself, and an excuse to by new photo gear. All that artsy-fartsy stuff is important of course, but who doesn't like to talk about gear? What we're going to talk about now are the landscape-specific issues that you need to consider when you are choosing your photo gear, everything from cameras to the other things that you might need. Of course, first and foremost, camera choice is going to be your critical decision in whether you already have a camera, and you are thinking of upgrading, or you're shopping for a new camera. You are going to have some difficult decisions ahead of you.
Cameras fall into pretty much three different categories: There are SLRs, there a point-and-shoot cameras, and there is a new option that we will look at in a minute. An SLR is what you think of as the old- fashioned typical 35 millimeter kind of camera. They are typically identified by the fact that they have removable lenses. SLRs also are a particular way of shooting. You've got to bring the camera all the way up to your eye and block out the rest of the world and really focus on your shot. In digital cameras, SLRs come now in two flavors.
There are cameras like this, which have a full frame sensor. That means a sensor that is actually the size of the piece of 35 millimeter film. And then there are SLRs that have what are called a cropped sensor, sometimes referred to as an APS-sized sensor, because it's the size of the piece of APS film. The advantage of a full frame sensor is that you are going to be able to shoot with a shallower depth of field than you will with an APS-sized sensor, or a cropped sensor. The smaller the sensor size, the deeper the inherent depth of field is in your image.
So your first big decision is going to be to decide, do I want a full frame sensorm, or do I want crop sensor? The advantages of a full frame sensor are, as I said, a more film-like image, the possibly for a shallower or depth of field, and there is just an extra something that they have, that it's kind of difficult to put your finger on. The disadvantage is they are more expensive, they are heavy, and they are just physically larger. Your lenses are to be bigger. The camera itself is bigger. The advantage of a crop sensor camera is less expensive, smaller lenses, lighter weight, but if you really want the opportunity for shallow depth of field, the ability to really blur out backgrounds behind things, then you are not going to have as much latitude as you do with a full frame sensor.
Now with landscapes, we very often want a very deep depth of field, and in that regard a smaller sensor camera might be a good option. Some other things you want, and some of the other advantages of depth of field, are more manual control. With an SLR, you're always going to have the ability to go into a full manual mode, or what are called priority modes, which give you more control over aperture and shutter speed. Basically, you are going to have more creative control. Finally, probably the biggest advantage of an SLR over any other type of camera is image quality.
Because of their larger sensors, SLR is going to deliver better image quality than a smaller camera. They have a better signal-to-noise ratio, which means they'll do better in low light, and they usually have a higher dynamic range, and the ability to deliver more color. So if you're really a stickler for image quality, an SLR is going to be the way to go. When you are shopping, you want to - in your budget - remember that in addition to the camera body, you've got to invest in lenses. So you want to work that into some of your budgetary choices. A point-and-shoot camera has the advantage of being very, very small.
Point-and-shoot cameras are easy to carry with you, and a camera is only good if you have it with you, but you are going to want to think very carefully about your point-and-shoot choice, because point -and-shoot cameras can really suffer in terms of image quality. Ideally, you want the same types of manual controls you will find on an SLR. This is a Canon PowerShot S90. It's a fine example of a point- and-shoot camera that's good for landscape shooting. It's got full manual modes. Most importantly, you can shoot raw, which we're going to talk about later. It's got an excellent ability to shoot at high ISOs, meaning you can work in low light, and you have more creative latitude when the sun starts going down, and you are shooting in shade.
Again, if you are backpacking, this is a great camera, because it doesn't weigh anything. You don't get the removable lenses, so you don't have that flexibility, you can't shoot in extremely low light, and because it's a very small camera, it has a very small sensor, which means inherently deep depth of field. So again, if you're wanting to do blurring out backgrounds behind flowers and things like that, this is not to be the best choice. You can do what I do, and you can carry both of them, which is maybe a little greedy, but it's great for those times where if you are laden with gear, and you can't get your SLR, you can maybe keep this in a pocket that's very easy to get to.
There is a new option in the camera world, and that is something called a Micro Four Thirds camera. It sits somewhere between an SLR, and a Point-and-Shoot. This is an example. Micro Four Thirds is a standard that has been agreed upon by a few vendors, including Panasonic and Olympus, and both Panasonic and Olympus make excellent Micro Four Thirds cameras. The hallmark of the Micro Four Thirds camera is it's small, much smaller than my SLR, but it still has removable lenses. What differs between this and an SLR is it's not a reflex - the R part isn't there.
If I take off the lens, you'll see there is no mirror inside, the way there is with an SLR. That means I don't actually have an optical viewfinder that looks through the lens, the way I do with an SLR. Instead, I am always using my viewfinder. So if you're not comfortable with this type of shooting, where I'm looking at the screen, this may not be the best choice. For landscape shooting, it can be a little tricky because if you're shooting into bright light, it's going to be very difficult to see the screen. Fortunately, both Olympus and Panasonic make clip-on viewfinders that allow you to get more of an SLR type experience.
So the advantages are very small, very light weight. They're still a little pricy, and that's partly because they're new. Their prices will most likely be coming down, but small camera, very lightweight, very lightweight lenses, but still excellent image quality. The sensor is not as big as an SLR, but it's still bigger than a point-and-shoot camera, so you are going to have better dynamic range, less noise. These are wonderful compromises between an SLR and a point-and-shoot. Camera is not the only gear you've got to decide about, of course. There are a lot of other things you've got to take with you into the field, and probably the most important for a landscape shooter is going to be a tripod, both because there are times when you need simply to get a stable shot in wind or there are times when you want to use very, very long exposures.
There is a wealth of options in tripods. Where you want to start is with a tripod that has a removable head. This gives you the option of customizing the tripod in a way that you like. This tripod legs come in lots of different materials. This is a carbon fiber tripod, and the advantages of carbon fiber are carbon fiber is very light, but still very strong. When I bought this tripod, one of the advantages they cited was, "Carbon fiber is so strong you could run over this tripod with your car," and I thought, "Great. When am I ever going to need to run over my tripod with my car?" What I hadn't counted on though was the time I ran over my tripod with my car, and sure enough, it survived with no problem.
I have been using this tripod ever since. This is the head of the tripod. This is what your camera attaches to. They typically just screw right on the top. The reason you like the ability to customize, to have a separate head and tripod, is I can choose the legs that I want, which in this case are legs that are small and light. I can backpack with this tripod, and yet still have a head that works the way that I want. This is a ball head, which means there is just one control, and the camera can rotate freely around on it. I prefer this for photography to what you typically find on, say, a video tripod where you have separate locks for pan, tilt and at each axis.
Also, what I like about this tripod is it's all open. It's very easy to clean, and it turns out you can run over this tripod head with a car, and it will still work, which has proven to me to be very important. For me, first and foremost, the main factor in my tripod choice is weight because I'm carrying it around. I am hiking with it. So a nice light tripod is an excellent choice. That typically means you are going to give up some height. This tripod does not go particularly tall. So if you're expecting a tripod that's going to come right up to eye level, you are not going to get that in a light tripod.
So a lot of people think, "Well, that's okay. There is this center column that goes up." Well, bear in mind that if I pull all these legs out, my tripod gets to about here. Sure enough, I could raise the center column and put my camera on it, but I'm for the most part now using a monopod. This may be a little more stable than a monopod that I would just be holding, but if it's very, very windy out, this is not going to be particularly stable. So you typically want to avoid heavy use of this in bad conditions, but one thing you want to look for in a tripod is the option for a hook down here, because I can set my tripod up here attach a hook to it and then hang my camera bag from it, and I will get a whole lot of stability.
I am kind of a nerd about tripods. You would think that, well it's not -- it's just a tripod, but there is a lot of really interesting tripod technology out there that you can really kind of geek out over. Those are the types of things that you will carry with you, but there is a lot of other gear that will stay back in your car, or in your camp, that's just as important. You are going to be out in the field for a long time. You are going to need to think about battery power. All of these cameras these days have exceptionally long-life batteries. I can shoot for a week with this SLR, and not have a problem, but if you are shooting heavy, if you are viewing your images a lot on the back, you're probably going to need an extra battery or a way to charge the battery you have.
Solar-powered battery chargers are a great option because they can also be used to recharge your iPod and your cell phone and your GPS, and whatever else you may have brought with you. Another option is if you're touring by car, or driving around to a lot of different places, find a third- party battery charger that offers a cigarette lighter adapter. Then you can charge your battery while you're driving around, and always have enough power. The other thing, of course, that you need to consider is storage. Flash cards are much cheaper than they used to be, so you can just load up with lots of storage that way.
Another option is a digital wallet type device. This is a little portable hard drive that's powered by batteries and has an interface built into it, so I just stick the card in the drive, hit a button, and all of my images are copied to the drive. That can be another great option for field storage. If you are really gutsy, you can just take a computer with you an offload your pictures that way, but that's typically more weight than you want to be carrying. Obviously, what matters more than gear is how you use your camera, but it's a shame to get out there and have your skills and see the great shot and be betrayed by your gear because you end up with shots that are too noisy, or you can't hold the camera steady and so on and so forth.
So gear won't necessarily take a bad photographer and make them great, but it will keep you from getting hamstrung when you are out in the field and you find that great image.
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