Technique is everything in landscape photography, the equipment you use will always be secondary when it comes to getting a good shot.
Of course this is true, but there are aspects of equipment that can have a large, if indirect, influence on our photography.
Lets take a look at the photo backpack for example. There must be ten times as many different camera backpacks on the market as there are cameras. Are backpacks important, and which one is the best?
Well, I’d argue that the answer to the first question is a very strong “yes, it does matter” but the second question is a little more difficult to answer easily.
Most landscape photography requires that we spend some time out of our home and office space and get into in the, well, landscape. That means hiking over fields, hills and rocks with a fair weight of camera equipment on our backs. It’s simple really, if the backpack we have our stuff in isn’t comfortable, we are less likely to be able to walk as far to get “that shot.”
For this reason, I would always suggest a proper backpack with hip straps over a smaller one, or a one strap sling-style bag, or shoulder bag. These bags carry all the weight on one shoulder, and after a couple of hours of heavy walking with any weight in the bag, then it’s going to start to get uncomfortable.
I recently spent some time hiking in the mountains of southern Spain across rock and snow. The only shots worth getting meant getting up above the roads and ski resort, and that meant going on foot with my gear on my back. Quite simply, without a comfortable, balanced backpack, I wouldn’t have been able to hike as far as I did.
You don’t have to be in the mountains though to feel the benefit of a good backpack. I shoot a lot on the coastline and this often involves scrambling down cliffs and over rocks, and for me it’s vital to have both my hands free with my camera equipment and tripod stashed securely out of the way, comfortable and well balanced.
In short, a good backpack is a good investment.
So, how to choose the best one? I’ve gone through a fair number of camera bags and backpacks since I took up photography, and the search for the bag that is “just right” has been a long one.
First of all, you have to decide exactly what your needs are:
Do you really need to carry all your equipment with you everywhere you go? What other non-photographic gear will you need to fit in your backpack?
Will you be carrying it on a plane?
What kind of access do you need to your camera gear?
If you feel the need to carry all your gear wherever you go, then bags like the Lowepro Phototrekker and the Tamrac Expedition can swallow huge amounts of gear, including spare bodies and 4 or 5 lenses.
My problem with these kind of bags is that the camera storage comes at the expense of space for other things. What other things do you need when you go out into the countryside shooting? A liter or two of water. A raincoat. A spare fleece. Gloves. These things take space and add weight, but for me are more important than carrying every lens with me everywhere I go. Also, when I travel by plane, I carry all my filters and remote release, as well as the battery charger, cables, Arctic butterfly and rocket blower in the bag.
Fitting this stuff in comes at the expense of being able to carry all my lenses everywhere I go, but at the end of the day, is this really a problem?
Looking through the metadata on the RAW files I’ve shot over the last 2 years shows me that 90% of my shots are taken at focal lengths either wider than 35mm or longer than 80mm, which means that my wide angle zoom and my telephoto zoom (in my case a 17-35 and 80-400) will pretty much cover all my needs in most cases. These are two heavy lenses, so to bridge the gap, just in case, I might choose to throw in a 50mm 1.8 prime, or a lightweight consumer zoom like my 28-105.
I can fit these lenses, along with my camera body and filters into the bottom of a bag like the Lowepro Primus, which leaves the top for things like water, food, extra clothes and charger.
The bag isn’t too heavy with this in it, and most good backpacks will be perfectly comfortable and carry-able with this weight.
With all backpacks, it’s worth taking the gear that you intend to carry in it to the shop and seeing how it feels. The weight shouldn’t be concentrated on your shoulders, but should instead be distributed evenly with your hips taking most of it. This means that you should always get a bag with substantial hip/sternum straps that clip together at the front, easing the weight away from your shoulders.
One of the heaviest items you’ll be carrying is likely to be your tripod. As I said above, there are many times when I want to have both hands free, which means I want the backpack to be able to carry the tripod as well. There are various designs for this, but I would always avoid any system that has the tripod stashed on the side. First of all, this really unbalances the bag, putting more weight on one side than the other, and again, after a while like this, it’s going to start to hurt. If you’re on a trek where you’re carrying the pack day after day and one of your shoulders starts to ache, then you’re going to dread putting that pack on, and that is going to seriously impede your ability to get to some locations.
The other issue I have with tripods attached to the side of bags is that if they work even a little bit loose, the head of the tripod can hit you in the side of the head. This happened to me a couple of times once when scrambling up a very steep and tricky cliff. It’s not something I want to repeat, so from now on I only look at tripod attachment systems that secure the tripod right down the centre of the bag.
So, once you’ve found a bag that can comfortably carry what you need, then you can start to think about accessibility. At the moment, most bag producers seem to be making a big thing about how quick it is to access your gear, but for me, this really depends on what kind of shooting I’m doing. When I’m shooting urban locations in a city then quick access is relatively important, so a small shoulder bag that will fit my camera plus an extra lens and filters is enough.
However, for serious landscape shooting, I’ve never found quick access to be something I need that much. I tend to want to carry all my equipment comfortably to a location and then decant it to shoot.
I remove my camera and the lens I’m going to be using, as well as the tripod, and then all the things like filters, remote shutter release, spare cards and cleaning cloths go into a small pouch. These are the things I most often need at hand when I’m shooting landscapes, and I don’t want to need to get them out of my backpack. Lowepro make a really nice pouch, the Sliplock 60 AW, which fits my 15mm long grad filters, my cable release and other bits and pieces.
The pack then goes onto my back, where it’s safe from getting swept away by a wave or whatever, and I clip the pouch to the front of the packs hip-belt. This means that every filter, cloth and all those bits and pieces is right infront of me where I need it, and I don’t need to put it down on the ground, nor go back into my backpack to find something. The only time I need to go back into the backpack is if I need to change lens.
The final thing I would advise about backpacks is never underestimate the value of rain protection. It’s something I’ve been grateful for on many occasions, and once, when leaving the Amazon and the heavens opened, all of my stuff, which was in the boat, was soaked through within a matter of seconds. All my clothes, my shoes and everything…in fact the only thing that didn’t get wet was the camera equipment, which was protected by the AW cover on the backpack.
Moving on to tripods and the best advice here is always buy the best tripod you can afford. It’s a piece of equipment you should never attempt to save money on, because if you buy a cheap tripod, sooner or later you’re going to realize that you won’t be getting the full benefit from your camera and lenses if they are not secured to a really stable base. Your tripod is the connection between your camera and the ground, and as such is a vital part of the process of making a photograph. If you do buy a cheaper one, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, you’ll want a better one. It’s therefore a saving to cut out the cheap one and just buy the best one you can afford in the first place.
The same is true for the head, don’t scrimp or save, buy the best you can.
With tripods, there is an inevitable compromise to be made. The bigger it is, the more secure it’s likely to be, but also the heavier it’s likely to be, cutting back your ability to get across country. Carbon fiber tripods are pretty expensive, but they cut down the weight without losing any stability. To give you an example, my old aluminum tripod and ball head was perfectly capable of supporting my camera and lenses, but weighed a little over 2.5kg. My current carbon fiber tripod and ball head of a similar size is every bit as stable but weighs-in at around 1.4kg. That’s over one kilogram lighter, which is a worthwhile difference.
Always use a tripod with legs that can spread out out wider, and be locked in different positions. The wider apart the feet are, the more stable the tripod is likely to be, so the cheaper tripods which have all the legs linked to the central column with small struts are to be avoided.
When it comes to choosing the size of the tripod, there are lots of different formulas given by the manufacturers, and it’s worth taking them into account, but for me the most certain way is the one recommended by Thom Hogan www.bythom.com. Look at the maximum weight that the tripod legs and head will carry, then calculate the heaviest load you will ever need to put on it. The maximum load weight of the tripod and head should be at least double that of your maximum weight. For example, my heaviest weight is my Nikon D3 plus the Nikkor 80-400VR, which weighs a little under 2.7kg. I should look for a tripod and head with a load capacity of at least 6kg. My current tripod has a max capacity of 12kg and the head has a max load of 8kg, so there’s plenty of support.
The choice of a ball head or a pan/tilt head comes down to personal preference really. I can think of various professionals who prefer ball heads, claiming that they give more dampening against vibration, while other pros who prefer pan and tilt heads for making precise compositional adjustments. I personally prefer using a ball head, finding them much easier to compose with, as well as better at reducing any vibration carried through the legs. There are also some ball heads (like the Gitzo centre ball heads) which also have a separate pan control around the base.
It’s worth stating here that you should only ever consider getting a head with quick release plates, and keep the plate on your camera all the time. It’s also well worth investing in additional plates for any long lenses you carry with you, and make sure that you get a longer plate (rather than a square one that you’d use for your camera) for a longer lens.
In the field, there are a couple of things to remember that can increase the stability of your tripod. First of all, the wider you can get the legs, the more stable the tripod is likely to be, but of course this comes at the cost of height. If I don’t need the height, I don’t open all the leg sections, and I almost never raise the central column. This is by far the least stable part of the tripod and with a heavy camera and lens, is unlikely to be of much use in an exposure of any longer than half a second. My Gitzo Mountaineer has a removable central column, which I have taken out and almost always gets left at home. As I said, I never use it, and not having it makes the tripod even lighter.
od. No matter how expensive it is, no matter what the manufacturers blurb says about it being waterproof, getting sand and saltwater in it will ALWAYS stop it from operating properly sooner or later. Of course, for lots of coastal shooting, it’s unavoidable that the tripod is going to get covered in sand, and it’s often going to be placed in the sea. This is no problem as long as the tripod is cleaned straight afterwards. First of all, clean away all the sand and salt water using clear water from the tap, and make sure you do this as soon as you get home, rather than leaving it until the next time you go out shooting.
On top of this every couple of months you should strip the tripod down, take it apart and clean it properly. This isn’t particularly difficult, you just need a screw-driver and a couple of Tupperware containers to make sure you don’t lose any screws or washers. First of all, dismantle all the legs sections and clean each one of them out with water with a little detergent. Do the same with all the catches that connect the legs (this is where most of the sand and salt accumulates, and where it can do most damage) and all the screws. Make sure everything is properly dry (I usually leave mine for a day) before oiling it, making sure that all the moving parts are properly lubricated and putting it back together. Clean off any excess oil, and it should feel as good as new. Look after a tripod properly and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t last you years and years.
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