Top 5 Landscape Photography Accessories

by Sean Setters
 
There are few simple joys in life that surpass witnessing a beautiful sunrise, a fog-laden valley or a majestic mountain with snow-capped peaks. However, to capture the magnificence of the outdoors, there are a few accessories that every landscape photographer should have at hand.
 
1. Circular Polarizing Filter
 
If I had to pick the most important landscape accessory, the venerable circular polarizer would be an easy choice. Not only can a circular polarizer give you rich, dark blue skies, but it can also allow you to dial in just how much surface reflection you want in water scenes. No other item on this list will have as much of an impact on your landscape photography than a CPOL. If you want better landscape photos and it's not already part of your kit, make a CPOL your next photography purchase. Our particular favorites are B+W XS-Pro circular polarizers. Their rims are wide enough to use standard lens caps but not too wide to cause vignetting.
 
2. ND Filter(s)
 
Sometimes captivating landscape photographs require longer-than-normal exposures times. Want blurred water in your waterfall pictures? How about clouds streaking across the sky? Unless the ambient light is relatively low, you'll need a neutral density filter to restrict the amount of light reaching your camera's sensor.
 
ND filters come in two basic flavors – solid and variable. Solid NDs have been around for decades and feature a fixed opacity. The opacity rating can be a bit confusing, though. For instance, an ND that blocks 10-stops of light can be listed as a "10-stop filter," "3.0 filter" or "ND1000." Just for the sake of clarification, here's a reference table below:
 
Stopsx.xNDx
20.6ND4
41.2ND16
61.8ND64
82.4ND256
103.0ND1000

So why isn't a 10-stop ND referred to as an ND1024? Your guess is as good as mine.
 
In addition to solid ND filters, variable ND filters are also available. The benefit of a variable ND is that you can dial in the exact amount of density you want for a specific need. That means a typical variable ND filter can replace a 2-stop, 4-stop, 6-stop and 8-stop filter thereby reducing the amount of gear needed for a given landscape adventure. The downside is that variable ND filters are thicker than their solid ND counterparts and may cause strong vignetting (especially on wide-angle lenses).
 
When it comes to solid ND filters, Breakthrough Photography's X4 filters came out tops in Bryan's tests. As for variable NDs, Singh-Ray makes some of the best, but they are extremely pricey (and even that may be an understatement). I own the Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, a combination variable ND and circular polarizer, and love it. However, its width makes it impossible to use at wide focal lengths without hard vignetting. If I were in the market for a variable ND right now, I'd probably pick up the B+W XS-Pro ND Vario MRC-Nano. It's still pricey, but compared to the Singh-Ray, a definitely more wallet-friendly.
 
Before we get off the topic of ND filters, let's address the issue of color casts. Most ND filters will introduce some sort of color cast in your image. To counteract this, shoot a properly exposed test image of a color calibration target (like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo) in the same light as your landscape and calibrate colors in post processing.
 
3. Lightweight Tripod and Head
 
While just about any focal length can be advantageous for landscape photography, very few photographers will prefer carrying around big white supertelephoto lenses for landscape use. As such, a landscape-oriented tripod can be smaller and lighter with a low-to-moderate load capacity. We generally prefer to purchase a tripod with a maximum load capacity at least twice what we intend on using on the tripod to ensure optimal stability. For my own general landscape use, that translates to a tripod with a load capacity rating of around 15 lbs.
 
How'd I arrive at that number? Well, my typical landscape setup includes a gripped 5D Mark III with an L-bracket and an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM with the hood attached. That combination tips the scales at 4 lb 10 oz (note including the weight of any filters being used). While that may be a "typical" setup, I want the tripod to be able to support my 70-200mm f/2.8L IS as well (should the focal range be desired), and that combination weighs in at 7 lb 8 oz.
 
Arguably the three most important factors for choosing a tripod for landscape use are size, weight and load capacity. While there are many great landscape vistas within a short walk from available parking, the vast majority of breathtaking views require at least some hiking to reach. As such, the benefits of a lightweight, compact tripod seem to be augmented with each step required to arrive at your ultimate destination.
 
When it comes to lightweight, compact, high-quality tripods, Gitzo Traveler and Mountaineer carbon fiber tripods are hard to beat. Unfortunately, they feature a price tag that may be difficult to justify unless you consider landscapes to be a primary photography interest. Other tripods you may want to look at in this market are the Benro Travel Angel, Oben Travel and Manfrotto Manfrotto 190go!-series tripods.
 
As travel tripods are not designed with ultimate in load capacities in mind, you don't necessarily need the highest-spec'd head on top of it. While the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 is our favorite ball head, it's anything but lightweight. Considering that my needs above dictated a tripod with a load capcity in the neighborhood of 15 lb, putting a ball head on top which can support 130 lb may be the definition of "overkill."
 
One of the best ball heads for travel tripods is the Acratech GP-ss Ballhead with Lever Clamp. Reasons why we like it: 1) it's lightweight at 0.84 lb, 2) has a load capacity rating of 25 lb, 3) features an Arca-style lever release clamp on top and 4) is compatible with tripod legs which fold up beyond the ball head (relatively common with travel tripods) and 5) it looks really cool. Ok, so that last benefit doesn't really matter from a landscape perspective, but still...
 
With lower load capacity requirements, there are many ball heads that can fill the role of a travel head. Weighing in at only 1 lb, the Oben BC-126 would be a lower-end but quite reasonably spec'd option.
 
Of course, if reduced size and weight are not important for your landscape photography needs, any high quality tripod and ball head will work.
 
4. Hiking Backpack
 
When it comes to choosing a backpack for landscape photography, there are a few things to keep in mind:
 
  1. How much gear will you want to travel with? This includes cameras, lenses, filters, miscellaneous accessories and a tripod.
  2. Does the backpack have a waistbelt? The longer you plan on traveling with the pack, the more advantageous a good padded waistbelt becomes. Be sure that the waistbelt sits on your hips at a comfortable spot for supporting your camera gear load.
  3. How easy is it to access the camera? Some backpacks allow you to access gear without fully removing the pack. Most require removal for access to gear.
  4. Is the backpack capable of handling inclement weather? Is a rain cover included?
  5. How is the tripod attached? Some may prefer side-mounting while others will prefer the more even weight distribution afforded by straps running along the back of the pack.
Exactly which bag is right for you will depend on your own preferences, but... we're a big fan of MindShift Gear's Rotation 180 Professional. Its design seems extremely well suited for those who may want to hike several miles to capture unique landscapes. If the Rotation 180 isn't to your taste, check out Bryan's other reviews of camera backpacks.
 
Note: Site visitor Mark suggests the Olivon PodTrek Backpack is a great option for smaller amounts of gear. Simply attach the pack to your tripod, throw it on your shoulders and get going!
 
5. LCD Viewfinder Loupe
 
This is one of those items that you can't imagine living without after you've added one to your kit – an LCD Viewfinder Loupe. Whether focusing at 10x Live View or checking an image preview on the LCD screen, the loupe blocks out all extraneous light so that you see things clearly. While we certainly advise using the histogram to aid in determining exposure settings, being able to see the LCD without glare can help you get a better sense of the tones in your image and how they relate to one another.
 
My particular favorite LCD viewfinder loupe is the Hoodman Compact HoodLoupe Optical Viewfinder for 3.2" LCD Screens which I use with a 5D Mark III and 7D Mark II. I like it because it works well and compacts down into a relatively small space.
 
Well, that's our Top 5 Landscape Accessories. Was there another piece of gear that deserved to be included but wasn't? Let us know in the comments.
 
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Posted: 7/28/2016 7:39:49 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
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