Seven Issues Common to Novice Landscape Photographers and How to Avoid Them

July 6th, 2012 by Bret Edge

I’ve lead or assisted at a lot of photography workshops over the last six years and in that time I’ve noted several issues that seem to be common among novice landscape photographers.  As I think back to my own early photographic escapades I must admit that I made several of these same mistakes – some times over and over. And over.  What?  I’m a slow learner!  Perhaps pointing out a few of these issues here will help some of you avoid extending the already daunting learning curve any farther than necessary.

1) Cheap Tripods & Ballheads

My first tripod sucked.  It was one of those flimsy deals with a crank to raise the wobbly center column and no quick release plate, which meant that every time I used it I had to screw the damn camera on to the tripod.  I probably paid $25 for it.  I doubt I got 25 days of use from it before the plastic “head” cracked under the awesome weight of a Canon Rebel with a cheap plastic lens attached.

Do yourself a favor and buy a proper tripod.  It doesn’t have to be a sexy and expensive carbon fiber Gitzo.  My second tripod was an all aluminum Bogen that hasn’t been made for over a decade.  It was heavy.  It was durable. It was rock solid.  You can pick up a decent tripod for $150 or less.  You won’t wear it out.  In fact, I’d bet that you tire of carrying it long before it gives up the ghost.

I also bought my first ballhead for use on my heavy new tripod.  It was also a Bogen.  It had a quick release plate that mounted to the bottom of my camera and allowed me to take my camera on and off the ballhead in seconds. Hallelujah!  For less than $200, you can be rockin’ a solid and dependable tripod and ballhead combination.

2) Incompatible Equipment

One of the most common issues I see are folks who arrive with two or three lenses of various filter thread sizes and only one size filter.  For example, a lens might require a 58mm filter but the only filter they’ve got fits a 62mm thread.  Sure, a step-up ring resolves the issue – if you have one.  It isn’t a bad idea to go through your equipment and make sure you can attach a filter to each lens you own.

Wireless remotes are cool when they’re mated to a compatible camera.  I prefer wired remote shutter releases.  Call me old school.  If you insist on using a wireless remote you should test it at home to ensure it works before you embark upon a trip only to learn that it isn’t compatible with your camera.  Another potential issue with wireless remotes is that they may not work well in bright sunlight.  I’ve seen this a few times, too.

I’ve only seen this a couple of times but it’s worth mentioning.  If you do buy a new ballhead before a big trip, take the time at home to mount your camera to it.  Can you still operate the ballhead with the camera attached to it?  Can you still operate all the camera functions?  In a recent workshop a participant arrived with a nice new ballhead and tripod.  We quickly learned that the ballhead controls were blocked by her camera, rendering the unit completely useless.  Luckily, I had an extra tripod and ballhead on hand that I loaned to her for the duration of the workshop.

3) Not Enough Memory Cards

I do not advocate deleting images in the field.  But, if you run out of memory cards, you’re either going to be forced to sit on the sidelines while the world’s most amazing sunset unfolds before you or you’ll have to delete some images.  You can’t have enough memory.  Luckily, it’s cheap.  Bring more memory cards than you think you’ll need AND a way to dump them on to an external hard drive just in case you fill ‘em up.

While we’re on the topic of memory cards: I’d rather have a bunch of smaller cards than one gi-normous one.  For example, four 8 GB cards are better than one 32 GB card.  Why?  How are you going to feel when you’ve got 31 GB of images from a two week trip on your 32 GB card and it gets lost, stolen or corrupted?  If you were running several smaller ones you’d only lose some of your images – not all of them.

Lastly, make sure you bring the type of card used in your camera.  A CF card doesn’t do any good if your camera only accepts SD cards.

4) Battery Issues

Sadly, I still make this mistake.  Charge your batteries before leaving for a big trip.  Charge them before heading out the door for a sunset shoot at home.  Buy an extra charger and leave it in your car along with an inverter that plugs into the accessory outlet (i.e. cigarette lighter plug for all of us who remember them).  Notice that I’ve said “batteries”, as in plural.  Two is good. Three is better.

5) Unprepared for Environment

Nature photography places us in harm’s way.  The best photographs are often made in the worst weather and often in inhospitable environments.  I once arrived at Mesa Arch on New Year’s Day only to discover that my gloves and fleece hat were not in my backpack.  It was -4 degrees.  There was fresh snow on the ground, fog filling the canyon below and a gorgeous sunrise minutes away.  I chose to be miserable and make photos rather than to return to the warmth of my truck with no images on my CF card.  Yes, it was worth it but I would have been much more comfortable with gloves and a hat.

In more extreme examples the difference could be life or death.  Heading to the desert for some mid-summer photography?  Bring and drink lots of water, use sunscreen and maintain your electrolyte levels.  Got your sights set on alpine wildflowers?  Plan on being hot, cold, wet, dry and exhausted.  Gore-Tex and fleece is your friend.  On your way to the Northern Rockies?  Bring bear spray and know how and when to use it.  Wherever you’re headed, it pays to do some research before you leave home so you know what to expect of the weather and environment.

6) Premature Tripod Extension

PTE, or premature tripod extension, is an affliction suffered equally by male and female photographers.  We arrive at a new location, bust out our tripods, extend the legs, lock our camera in place and then – we’re stuck.  Once those tripod legs have been extended and our cameras are securely mounted to the ballhead the whole contraption becomes unwieldy to maneuver – so we don’t.

One of the first things I teach participants at my workshops is to explore an area on foot before reaching for their tripod.  I encourage them to experiment with perspectives.  Get down low, move right or left, look for a higher vantage point.  Try different focal lengths.  When you find a composition you like, it’s time to break out the tripod.  Don’t let the tripod become a hindrance to your creativity!

7) Spraying and Praying, aka Running and Gunning

Just because your camera will shoot 27 frames per second does not mean you should.  This is another hot topic at my workshops.  On any given shoot I’d rather go home with one extraordinary photo than a thousand crappy ones.  How many times have you been at a popular location and seen someone running all over the place clicking the shutter with wild abandon?  Slow down.  Arrive early so you can spend some time doing what I recommended in point #6 before the light show begins.  Take the time to find one really compelling composition and then work it for all it’s worth.  Spraying and praying may work for some action sports or even wildlife photography but it rarely produces stunning landscape photographs.

These are but a few observations I’ve made over the years.  Got something you’d like to add?  Please do so in the comments below!

Read more about Bret and get info on his workshops here.

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