Landscape photography is arguably the first form of photography, literally. At some point around 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made an exposure on a bitumen covered pewter plate from his upstairs work room. The resulting image would be the first known photograph which displayed his view from the window at his estate in Le Gras, in the Burgundy region of France.
Since then, the gear and techniques used in landscape photography have grown exponentially. So much in fact, that some photographers possibly feel the only way to make strong landscape photographs is by investing hundreds if not thousands of dollars into specialized camera equipment. But, nothing could be further from the truth!
In reality, landscape photography can be made as complicated or as simple as you would like it to be. Granted, there are a few pieces of gear that will enable you to shoot with more versatility, but at its core, outstanding landscape photography can be accomplished with only a few pieces of basic photography gear. In this article, we’ll share a few suggestions for “minimalist” landscape photography gear. You might be surprised to learn that you probably already have everything you need to get started right now.
The Landscape Photographer’s Mindset
I learned a long time ago that capturing a strong landscape photograph has more to do with having a concrete understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish more so than the tools you have at your disposal. In those days, I had only one camera and one lens. Not even a tripod. The lens was a Canon 28-135mm and I only used it because it was the one that came with my camera. Oh, and my camera at the time, it was my first digital camera…ever.
Since then, I’ve evolved and so has my gear, my attitude, and my photography. Still, the realization remains that it was never the gear that defined what I was doing even back then. Rather, it was my desire to learn and practice; the idea that I didn’t have the “correct” outfit to shoot landscapes never entered my mind.
I was just happy to have a camera, the open air, and a place to make photographs. I knew that I needed to photograph the landscapes I saw and from there, everything else was just a matter of making do with what I had at the time. So with that mindset now hopefully at the forefront, here are a few items I consider to be must-have gear for the minimalist landscape photographer. It’s an extremely short list. Consisting of only three things.
#1 – A Camera
Yes, it goes without saying that if you’re going to make landscape photos or any other photo for that matter, you need some kind of camera. Today, there are dozens (at least) of digital camera models to choose from ranging from the relatively cheap to the astronomically priced. My advice to you, if you want a serviceable camera body suitable for landscape work, is to dismiss any idea that you need the latest and great camera in order to make solid landscape photos.
That first digital camera I mentioned earlier was a Canon 7D, which I still use to this day. It’s a great camera, hefty, rugged, and I’ve taken it everywhere. That being said, if I had it to do all over again, I would have gone with a much less expensive camera body. Why? While having blazing fast autofocus capability is nice, it’s not wholly necessary if you’re shooting mainly stationary objects. If you plan on shooting a wide range of subject matter like weddings, sports, etc., other considerations might come into play.
But as a general guideline for landscape shooting, find yourself the highest megapixel camera you can afford (preferably weather sealed) and forget everything else. Save your money for something that I know understand is a much more important piece of the landscape photography pie. And that is…
#2 – Lens
The lens is the eye of the camera. Photographs are just physical manifestations of light and that light must travel through your lens before it ever reaches the camera. I’ve shot landscapes with lenses that range from very good to the budget variety. As well as having used lenses that ranged in focal length from 10mm all the way to 600mm (yeah really).
Some of those were 30-year-old fully manual lenses that cost $10 at a pawn shop and others that priced in the $3,500 range. What did they all have in common? They let light into my camera to make a photograph.
While it’s true that certain focal lengths render various effects in landscape photography, there is no set rule that you have to use a wide angle or any other focal length lens to shoot landscapes. Virtually any lens you have has the capability to shoot a good landscape photo. Wide angle lenses, say 14mm to 35mm, do capture more of the environment and add a sense of openness to your photos but they are not a requirement.
If you’re looking for a lens to use for landscape photography without breaking the bank or having to buy multiple lenses, simply search for the fastest (smallest f-number) lens you can find that falls in the medium wide angle range. I say medium wide angle because even though landscapes can be captured using virtually any focal length, it’s the wider lenses that tend to be more versatile in more situations. Something in the 14mm to 50mm range will suffice. There are plenty of options today to find excellent quality fast prime (fixed focal length) lenses for under $100.
#3 – Tripod
These days, nobody wants to carry around a tripod. And it’s true, there are ways to work around needing a tripod for some types of photography. This isn’t the case when it comes to landscape work. So often the lighting in a scene requires a shutter speed of such length that hand-holding the camera isn’t a possibility.
While there will always be that person who says, “I can hold the camera still for ten seconds!” the fact of the matter is if you want ultimate sharpness in your landscape photos you will need a tripod. End of story.
That being said, this doesn’t mean you will have to sell your car in order to obtain a usable tripod. My first tripod cost me $35 from Wal-Mart. Was it the latest in lightweight carbon fiber with a graphite ball head and a cup holder? Of course not. Did it provide a solid platform for my camera? Absolutely.
When you’re searching for a tripod, one of the things that you need to look out for is the weight rating. Be sure to get a tripod that can support your camera and lens combo with about another third of that weight added on as a cushion. Just like with the camera, the emphasis on tripod importance is somewhat paradoxical in that it serves an integral function in your work but at the same time being nothing more than something to hold your camera still.
Find a tripod that gives you the height versus the portability you need and can support the weight of your camera rig. Everything else is just icing.
Final Thoughts on Landscape Photography and Minimalism
These days, I find myself fortunate to have much more refined and varied equipment than I had 15 or even 10 years ago. Generally, though, 90% of my landscape work is shot using only two lenses which range from 14mm to 24mm. There are times when I venture out to the 50mm range and beyond but not often.
So really, if I had to, I could do virtually all my work with one camera and one 24mm lens if the need should arise. Being a minimalist landscapist is often brought about by necessity and coupled with the need to make photographs. Remember, you really only need three things:
- Camera – Get the highest resolution camera you can afford. Weather sealing is a plus.
- Lens – It’s possible to get great results with only one lens. If you can, find a lens that is a medium wide angle with a fast speed (low f-number).The key is to learn to use whatever lens that might be to its fullest potential.
- Tripod – Even a minimalist needs a tripod. They can be found extremely cheap if you have realistic expectations. Be sure to use a tripod that can support your heaviest camera and lens combo plus one-third.
Yes, that’s truly all you need to make landscape photographs. The gear you use can extend into the realm of high-end GND filters, multi-thousand dollar cameras, space-age tripods, and lenses that would make NASA proud. But when you peel back all the layers, only three things are needed: a camera, a lens, and a tripod.
Once you have those, everything else is up to you. Becoming a successful landscape shooter has more to do with how you see light, the scene, and how adept you can become to tailoring the image based on the gear you have on hand. Being a minimalist landscapist does not necessarily translate into being a second rate one.