Whether you’re traveling to the grand vistas of the American Southwest or you’ve got just a few days of camping at the local lake, there are a pair of major mistakes photographers make that harm their chances for summer vacation landscape success.
Trying to do too much at the same time is a recipe for disaster. By that I mean, when it comes to a summer vacation with your family, make sure your family time is spent with your family. That means fully engaged with your family, not trying to squeeze in a quick shot here and there, never fully engaging in either the photo ops or the family time. Not only will you be dragging down your travel companions as they wait for you to find the right composition and set up a tripod, more than likely you’ll be doing this at times that are less than ideal—namely, nowhere near sunrise or sunset—and you won’t be giving your full attention to either.
The best times to shoot are at the beginning and end of the day. These are frequently the times when our traveling companions are still in bed (sunrise) or getting ready to call it a night (sunset), so this presents your best chance to dedicate yourself solely to making pictures. It’s likely that sunrise is going to be best because nobody’s fun will be interrupted by your rising before the sun to go take pictures, so plan ahead to get up early to make your photos. It’s no small feat, of course, dragging yourself out of bed at an ungodly hour during your summer vacation, but this is what it takes if you want to have just an hour or two to focus solely on landscape photography. It’s not going to happen by accident, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Don’t Forget the Necessities
Since you’re not likely to be traveling specifically for the purposes of landscape photography, you might not be able to pack everything and the kitchen sink. Instead, be sure to bring at least the essentials. In my book, for landscape photography, that means three key things: a tripod, a cable release and a wide-angle lens. (The camera goes without saying, right?)
The tripod is essential if you’re going to make landscape photos not only because it will provide the stability to make a long exposure in low light at a low ISO, but it will also allow you to compose deliberately, almost the same way that a landscape photographer with a view camera would have done 10, 20 or 100 years ago. It will also allow you to produce some special effects, including adding motion blur to any objects in the scene being moved by wind or water, a great way to make simple landscape photos more interesting.
You wouldn’t be the first photographer to think that leaving the tripod at home would be a great way to travel lighter on vacation, but it’s a mistake if quality landscape photos are what you’re after. Skipping the tripod simply isn’t a compromise you can afford to make. Instead, why not save space with a compact tripod designed for travel. Especially if you’re carrying a compact mirrorless camera or small DSLR, you can get away with a compact and light tripod too. I recently picked up a Globetrotter compact carbon-fiber travel tripod from MeFOTO because it fits easily in a backpack or carry on bag and extends to eye level, making it a great blend of versatility and compact size.
The cable release, of course, is what allows you to trigger your camera’s shutter for a long exposure without bumping or shaking the camera and introducing even the slightest bit of blur—and it’s going to be even more essential if you’re using a lightweight tripod. You can use a simple, old-school cable release to fire the shutter (though likely this will be a brand-specific device produced by your camera’s manufacturer) or get high-tech and use a tethered connection to a tablet or laptop to fire the camera as well as making exposure adjustments and reviewing the images at a larger size on the spot. I’ve been using my digital camera’s smartphone control feature a lot more lately, as it’s very handy to see a live feed from the sensor—as well as adjust exposure and check focus—right from my phone.
The wide-angle lens is essential because with it you can encompass large vistas of mountains and plains, but also because you can create the illusion of depth by including a foreground subject (such as a tree, rocks or water) leading the eye into the larger scene beyond. Better still might be a perspective control lens that can be used for all sorts of wide-angle distortion-free effects, but at the very least a wide angle of 28mm, 24mm or 20mm (on a full-frame camera) will be very useful for landscape photography.
While we’re on the subject of equipment, these three might be the bare necessities, but I’d also add a polarizer and neutral-density filter to fit that wide-angle lens if at all possible. The ND filter will help tremendously for long exposures in which motion blur is preferred, a graduated ND can help you balance the contrast between dark land and bright sky. The polarizer will help to intensify color and contrast by removing reflections from foliage, bodies of water and even the blue sky. Besides, if you can fit a camera and tripod, surely you can carry a couple of filters, too.