WATERDANCE Maui, Hawaii
We all see the world and choose to interpret it photographically in our own unique way, and with the photographic tools available to us, there are countless ways to do this. I often speak of keeping the tools we use as photographers simplified and kept somewhat to a minimum, but certain tools are requirements to achieve specific results. Most of my landscape work is based on long exposures, so the use of neutral density (ND) filters, a tripod and a cable release are a must. If you are using a camera with a top sensor that has 14-15+ stops of dynamic range, then you may no longer need graduated neutral density (GND) filters. If not, then GND's are likely an additional key tool to have in your bag to help balance out brighter skies with darker foregrounds, for example. Each of our tool bags are going to vary some - this page is just to serve as some direction and to give you some of my personal thoughts on gear.
I have revised and updated the information on this page in August of 2018. Much has changed over the past few years in the world of photography. We have better sensors than ever with greater dynamic range, more companies and products to choose from, and more creative possibilities. All of this input and these following suggestions are based on 20 years experience in the field of long exposure landscape photography, while having used a lot of gear by many different brands. I can easily say - not all products are equal. I have used every brand filter from Hoya, Tiffen, B+W, Lee, Singh-Ray, Formatt Hi-Tech and many others; tripods by all the big and small brand names alike; and have used cameras for serious work by at least 6 big brands. I am not currently sponsored by any company, but if I were, it would only be the ones listed and discussed below because they stand out for excellent products, customer service and innovation.
So, let’s get into it.
First, What Not To Get
Do not purchase "variable" ND filters where you can adjust the amount of neutral density. They cause unusual loss-of-contrast and other odd degrades to the image, not to mention a lesser amount of control. They are expensive and a total waste of money. I could go on and on about these, but just trust me - avoid them.
Do not purchase poor quality filters. I have found through personal experience that when you try and save some money now and purchase the generiec item, that you end up paying more in the long run. Filters are not items where you want to go to B&H, type in "neutral density filters" and then select the "Price: Low to High" option and buy the $10 General Brand filter. Don't do it. You'll end up eventually buying the right thing and then you'll have spent more, while having used inferior gear in the meantime. This could be true and said with most gear. It’s better to have less gear of higher quality than more gear of inferior quality.
Filters You Want to Have
Whether you dedicate your entire photographic path to long exposures like I have, or not - it is worth understanding how a couple of simple tools can open an entire world of creative possibilities. I strongly believe every landscape photographer should have these basic tools and know how to get themselves to any shutter speed they may want to achieve and understanding the myriad of reasons as to Why. We discuss this in the workshop. Also, I believe teaching "exposure" in terms of seconds or minutes, as opposed to fractions of a second, really hits home the entire concept of exposure and Stops, leading to a better overall understanding of creative exposure. Therefore, you are going to want to have at least three ND filters: a 3-Stop, 6-Stop, and 10-Stop ND.
As of 2018, I recommend only one company for ALL of your filter needs - Breakthrough Photography filters. They claim to make "the world's sharpest and most color neutral ND filter", and after purchasing their filters and testing them and trying them in the field, I believe this to be true. They won me over after one shoot! I did some short simple tests against Lee filters, and Formatt Hi-Tech filters and it was obvious that their product resulted in better image files, and they were much more enjoyable to use. They are designed and crafted with much greater care than any other filters on the market that I have used, and their pricing is really quite fair. You are not paying a premium for this great quality! They make great products, have excellent customer service, and are innovating! There's lots to like with them.
Circular vs. Rectangular vs. Magnetic
Not that you don't still have decisions to make. There's still a number of different paths to follow even within their product line. You could:
Purchase the new "Magnetic" system that you can learn more about here. This looks very cool!
Now, there's typically some Pro's and Con's to each of these different paths.
Circular Filters & Step-Up Rings
Can be a pain screwing on and off filters in the field all of the time
Can't use lens hoods with filters that are Stepped-Up
If you also use Grad's, then you have to add the rectangular holder over the circular filter to apply the Grad, meaning more stuff, more expense, and more to carry. Not ideal.
With Step-Up rings, you only need 1 set of filters for various lenses
No light leakage
If not using Grads, then it's a smaller/lighter/more affordable setup.
Holder and Rectangular/Square Filters
Can potentially leak light or have light bounce around filters.
More stuff to carry.
Can't use lens hoods.
Much easier to put on & take off filters.
Can put ND's and GND's all stacked on 1 holder.
I have gone back and forth with circular to rectangular filters over the years and these are some of the first Pro's and Con's that come to mind. Up until the last few years, I always used ND's and GND' stacked on a holder and never used lens hoods. More recently, I have mostly ditched GND's due to my cameras amazing dynamic range of 15-Stops (Fuji GFX50S) and so have gone back to using circular filters and lens hoods. The hoods are primarily to help in increment weather, angled light, sea spray, etc. Again, I went years and years not using them and if I have to minimize or lighten my bag, they will be some of the first items to go, but otherwise it's nice to use them.
The Magnetic system may be the solution to balance out all of these Pro's and Con's and result in a perfect system! It appears that the X100 holder will hold the magnetic filters, will be able to stack, and I have been told from the company that they are innovating a magnetic lens hood to attach to it as well! This will be awesome!
I have also been told that they will buy back any filters you have purchased if/when you want to upgrade to the new system. I tell ya, I don't get excited by companies too often as I think most are operated out of greed and the bottom line. It's rare for a company to offer a great product, excellent customer service, obvious care for their customers, and INNOVATION! I am loving this company! Look no further for all your filter needs.
(I recommend confirming with them about the buy-back/trade-up program before making any purchases if that is an important part of your decision.)
PAINTED FOREST Maui, Hawaii
TRIPODS & CAMERA RELATED ACCESSORIES
For landscape photography, you've got to have a tripod. There are many options for tripods, so recommending one is difficult. I recommend getting the most expensive but lightest tripod you are comfortable purchasing, and carrying. Personally, I use Really Right Stuff carbon fiber tripods at home and LOVE their ballheads like the BH-40. When I'm traveling and on the road I use the Gitzo Traveler and love it's combination of light weight, sturdiness and small footprint. These items are not cheap, but they are excellent!
For more affordable options - A fair number of my workshop participants over the past couple of years have been using the Mefoto tripods found HERE. I must say - for how small, light and affordable they are, they seem quite stable too, especially for smaller/lighter camera systems. They probably aren't conducive for reliably stabilizing a Nikon D850 and 24-70 in any kind of breeze.
Somewhere between Mefoto and Really Right Stuff tripods might be the Induro brand and a setup like this HERE. I've seen these in action and they seem quite good. Ballheads are the easiest, most versatile tripod head and work very well for the landscape photographer. I don't recommend video-style heads, or gun/grip style heads. They just complicate things. Keep it simple!
And finally, regarding tripods - if it's not stable, it's pointless! If a tripod is so pathetic that when you breathe near it, it quivers - then that is something that you should immediately donate to Goodwill and get online and purchase a new tripod. A tripods sole purpose is to keep your camera stable and steady. This tool, paired with the filters and other tools discussed, open up worlds of creative possibilities - if they are capable. Buy right in the first place and you'll save money in the long run. Buy cheap lame gear now and you will surely spend more in the long run. I'm speaking from experience.
You need a few more items to round out your camera bag. You will need:
A "shutter release" for your camera. Your shutter speed time will only go up to 30 seconds, so to work in the Bulb mode, which we will do often in a workshop and in landscape in general, you have to be able to control the shutter via a shutter release. For Nikon cameras with 10-pin plugs, I use THIS. For Canon I use THIS. Unfortunately, all the cameras these days are different and these shutter releases don't attach to all cameras. I recommend going to the B&H site and doing a search for: "YOUR CAMERA BRAND Shutter Release". You should be able to figure out which one to get. Your camera manual will also be able to tell you which one to purchase. I don't recommend "Remote" shutters! They don't work reliably in bright light, their batteries die at the worse times, and they're lame. Get a corded one.
Giotto Rocket blaster. Have one of these in your bag and use it often, but don't ever use it on your sensor. That is not it's purpose and will likely destroy your sensor. It is for your lenses and filters and glass - to blow before you wipe.
iKlear Wet/Dry Singles. After you blow, then you can use this wet/dry wipe to clean your glass - both lenses and filters. I do this after (and sometimes during) every shoot. It's good to keep your gear clean!
Pouch for your filters - gotta keep them in a safe spot in the bag and this is the best way.
A Loupe by Hoodman. I'd call this an optional item, but it can be handy especially when working in brighter daytime conditions. I use it often on workshops to help get a better look at things in strong light.