Through the Viewfinder
And What Alice Found There
Over the past few months I've been upgrading a lot of my photography gear, trying to find better ways to do various things - ND filters, grad filters and a remote shutter release are a few of the items I've purchased. I previously owned fairly basic equipment, buying the cheaper options in order to test them out and gain confidence in different areas of photography. However, I felt like now was a good time to spend a bit more money on decent brands and see what a difference it makes to the results. In this post I will go through some of the new (and old) equipment of mine and explain why they are essential for better quality landscape photos and maybe you can try them out for yourselves!
1. Neutral Density (ND) Filters
Neutral Density filters are something I first read about in a book called '52 Weekend Digital Photo Projects' about a year ago, and now I don't know how I ever lived without them! They come in 2 different formats - they can either be round and screw onto the end of your lens, or they can be rectangular and slot into a holder which sits on the end of your lens. The job of an ND filter is to block out light when shooting long exposures. This ensures your photos don't get bleached out when using long shutter speeds in daylight conditions. They come in lots of different strengths in order to block out different amounts of light depending on what suits your needs.
I started out buying a variable ND filter off Amazon which screwed onto the end of my lens and had a rotating ring which let me change the strength of the filter as and when I needed to.
At first, I thought this was great because it meant I didn't have to carry round loads of different filters and keep changing them around - I could just rotate the ring and change the strength of the filter in a matter of seconds. The filter I bought worked great for what I wanted which was mainly smoothing out water action with long shutter speeds. However, I noticed a slight colour cast on my images which made them a bit greener than without the filter. This wasn't too much of a problem as I could correct it in Photoshop.
I then got a new wide angle lens for my birthday and was really excited about using it to smooth out some waterfalls, but then I realised the ND filter I had was only the right size for my old lens and wouldn't be able to screw onto my new one! So, I went out and bought myself another one in the correct size for my new lens, went to test it out, but was very disappointed with the results! When the ring was turned to the highest strength (to block out the most amount of light) a large black cross would appear in the middle of my photo - but if I turned the ring slightly back the other way not enough light would be blocked out and the image would come out over-exposed. I tried using the filter under loads of different lighting conditions, with different shutter speeds and camera settings, but nothing was giving me good results! In the end, I bought a 10 stop ND filter which is a fixed strength filter so it doesn't have the rotating ring. At first I wasn't sure if it would be any good, but I'm actually really pleased with it! It blocks out a lot of light but this is exactly what you need if shooting exposures of 30 seconds or longer in daylight.
The downside to screw-on filters are that they only fit onto specific sized lenses, as I mentioned before. To overcome this problem, I decided to also invest in some of the slot in filters and a holder. The brand I bought are called XSource, and although they aren't the most expensive make, so far they have been extremely useful! I bought a pack of 6 rectangular filters - 3 different strength ND and 3 different gradual ND...
2. Graduated ND Filters
These are pretty much the same as normal ND filters, but they have a gradient so one end is darker than the other. This is most useful when you need to drop the exposure of the sky a few stops but still keep the detail visible in the ground. You would need to set the correct exposure for the ground, even if this makes the sky bleached out slightly, then just attach your grad ND filter to your lens with the darker end at the top to block out some of the light, which in turn gives you an evenly exposed final image! I find these filters extremely useful, especially when shooting sunsets when the ground can often be too dark and become a silhouette. Sometimes this is a great effect, but if there is something in the foreground that you want to include in the image, you would end up with sky that is too over exposed without the help of a graduated ND filter.
The set I bought comes with the 6 filters mentioned above, 1 holder, and 9 different sized lens adapters. The adapters are rings designed to fit pretty much all lens sizes, which screw onto the end. The holder then clips onto the adapter, and the filters slide into grooves on the holder. There are 3 slots which means you can use more than one filter at a time. This is helpful if you want to use a filter to smooth out some water action, but the sky is still a bit bleached out, so you can team it up with one of the grad ND's and your image comes out smooth yet perfectly exposed!
3. Remote & Cable Release Shutter
This is something I'd been meaning to buy for a while but never seemed to get round to it - until now! I'd been looking for an easier way to photograph star trails (rather than shooting 100 different exposures, each at 30 seconds, then merging them together afterwards in Photoshop) when I came across a website which mentioned the use of the BULB setting on DSLR cameras. I have to admit, I had never used this setting before as I never really knew what it was used for! I now understand that it can be used to shoot longer exposures than the standard 10/20/30 seconds that most cameras offer. It works by keeping the shutter pressed down for as long as needed. However, this is quite impractical if you were shooting a 20 minute exposure, which would be ideal for star trails! This is where the cable shutter release comes in. It is pretty much what it sounds like - a cable which plugs into your camera with a button on the end which you press once to start the exposure, then press again to end it. However, I also find this fairly impractical. If you were shooting a long exposure and had to keep hold of the other end of the cable, you are bound to move around slightly which in turn could cause camera shake leading to a blurry image. Even if you put the cable down while you wait, you would still cause camera shake when putting it down and lifting it back up again at the end.
To overcome this issue I decided to opt for a remote shutter release instead. This consists of a transmitter which sits on the hot shoe on top of your camera, plugged into where the cable release would normally go. There is then a remote which connects wirelessly to the transmitter, so when you press the button on the remote you don't run the risk of causing any camera shake.
The remote I bought has 4 different settings - single shooting, continuous shooting, BULB, and timer. This means it can be used for all sorts of different photography. For example, if I used the continuous shooting mode on both my camera and remote, I could set up my camera somewhere for close up wildlife shots and I can then hide somewhere else with the remote so as not to scare away any of the wildlife. Then whenever I see something getting close to the camera I just press the button on the remote! The remote I chose also focuses the camera when the button is half pressed which again is helpful as I don't have to keep going back to the camera to focus each shot. I definitely think either a remote or cable shutter release is a must-have for landscape and wildlife photographers, and if I had to choose one of the two, it would have to be the remote!
4. Tripods & Monopds
This might seem an obvious one but I highly recommend landscape photographers using a tripod where possible! I admit, I don't usually use mine if I'm out on a long hike as it doesn't pack down small enough and is quite chunky and annoying to carry. However, if I'm out shooting in a set location I will always use my tripod. Tripods aren't just for extra stability, they also offer different angles which could be awkward to reach when shooting handheld. When choosing a tripod, look for one that is strong and sturdy - it's no use if it's flimsy and blows over at the slightest bit of wind! Also look for one with built in spirit levels if you can. I find these very useful as you can sometimes think you are on a level bit of ground but in actual fact you are on a slight slope. Getting the photo level saves you time having to straighten up images afterwards in Photoshop and also helps you compose your images better. The make of the tripod I own is CamLink - it is sturdy, easy to put up, has built in spirit levels, and also a handle for easy transportation (and a carry case too). Monopods are also useful for extra stability, but I would mainly use mine for wildlife photography. If you are out shooting wildlife you will more than likely have at least one large telephoto lens, which can get heavy when you are standing around waiting for your subject to appear. Monopods can be extremely useful in this situation as you don't have to hold the weight of the camera and lens which means you can always be ready for the shot with your camera up at eye level! The make I have is Manfrotto - very well made and stable, plus it packs up fairly easily so it is brilliant for carrying around.
In my opinion, these are the 4 main pieces of equipment that I think are very helpful for landscape and wildlife photographers. They allow you to get creative with long exposures and try new ideas you may never have though possible before, without having to mess around too much with post processing techniques! Other essentials include spare batteries (for obvious reasons), lens hoods (to help minimise lens flare and also keep raindrop off the lens), a lens cloth (to clean away any dust spots or water drops), and a waterproof camera cover (especially useful if you are photographing in the rainy Lake District)!