The Most Important Piece Of Gear For Landscape Photography
Photographers have a tendency to become fixated on gear. We are constantly bombarded with new camera bodies being released, decisions about crop sensor or full fame, DSLR or mirrorless, which lens to buy next, and what accessories we need. I'll admit that I spend more time that I should keeping up with all of the photo industry product developments, and I get excited when my old favorite, Nikon, finally announces a mirrorless camera system.
Over the past five years, there is one piece of gear that I have taken for granted and didn't invest in as much as I should have, and it recently came around to bite me in the ass. That piece of gear is my own body. This may seem like a fluff piece, but as I reflect on my current situation, I realize that this gets in the way of a lot of the people that I teach in workshops. Now, this doesn't mean that you need to be super fit to be a good landscape photographer, that is hardly the case. But if the shot you want is from the top of a tall mountain miles into the backcountry, you better be in good physical condition.
How I Failed My Body
I've always been blessed with good health and at times have been in very good physical shape. I can recall running up Algonquin one morning as a Summit Steward in 1 hour and 18 minutes, a time that I could hardly believe and I may never achieve again. That was when I was 20 years old, but I worked in the Adirondack backcountry until I was 30 and all of that physical activity kept me in excellent physical shape. As I transitioned from a job that required me to hike hundreds of miles a year, at times with 70 to 100 lbs on my back, to a job that is more office based, I failed to maintain my physical fitness. I still hiked a lot, canoed even more, and spent a lot of time outside, but my overall physical condition declined. I gained a few pounds and there was no way my cardiovascular system would allow me to run up a mountain at a blistering pace.
This winter this all caught up with me when I suffered a disc herniation in my lower back. The protruding disc is pushing on my sciatic nerve and for a period of time, I experienced chronic debilitating pain. If you've never experienced this, I hope you never will. My life came to a grinding halt. I couldn't drive, couldn't sit, couldn't think. Initially, I coped well enough. I took pain meds, muscle relaxers, and steroids. Eventually, the constant pain started to wear on me mentally and emotionally. I wondered when, or if, it would ever stop. I spent hours reading medical journals about disc herniations and back surgery. I sought the advice of multiple doctors, chiropractors, a physical therapist, and a massage therapist. I'm slowly recovering, but I still deal with constant pain and have several more weeks or months ahead before I am fully recovered.
Herniated L5-S1 Disc Shown On MRI
What I've learned, and what I want to share with you, is how important it is to invest in yourself. In fact, this is a general area overlooked by many photographers as they begin to grow. Often the best return on your investment will come not from gear, but from workshops, travel, or overall wellness.
Three Areas Of Personal Investment
1. Physical Wellbeing
This is the least direct investment that you are likely to make, but one that will return in spades over the long-term. Landscape photography often requires you to carry heavy loads, puts you in remote locations, forces you to travel over rugged terrain, and you may be forced to deal with harsh weather. The better physical shape you are in, the easier it will be to get to the locations you want to capture and be comfortable with whatever the land throws at you. Most importantly, if you want to be doing landscape photography for years to come you'll need to keep up your physical condition.
Consider what went into capturing the image below. It is the sunrise captured from the summit of Mount Marcy in the middle of winter. I had to leave the trailhead at 2 am, giving myself several hours to cover the 7-miles and 3,000 feet of vertical elevation gain to get to this spot. But I couldn't arrive at this spot completely exhausted physically, I needed to work once I got there, and I needed the energy to wait for the light on a cold winter night. I also needed to have enough in reserve to get back safely or spend another day and night out in the event of an emergency. It wouldn't matter what gear I had if I couldn't get to this location. Your physical wellbeing is an important investment.
Camera gear isn't capable of taking amazing photographs on its own, at least not yet. You need to decide the composition, settings, and post-processing workflow. It's not uncommon for me to have workshop participants with better camera gear than I do. This isn't a reflection on my ability as a photographer, or theirs. If I had the money early on to buy the best gear I probably would have, and they recognize the need to learn how to use that gear.
It took me many years of drooling over the latest camera gear and purchasing quite a bit of it before I came to the crushing realization that it wasn't improving my photography. The thing holding me back was me. I didn't know how to take better images. It was only after years of reading, watching video tutorials, and speaking with other photographers that I really began to master the craft of photography.
To this day, I struggle with the desire to upgrade my equipment. My litmus test is an honest assessment of what images I haven't been able to capture or create that I've wanted to and why. The second test is what will this new piece of gear give me that my current gear doesn't and how will that benefit my work. If I am brutally honest with myself these tests usually point to something lacking in myself, not my gear.
Travel might be one of the most overlooked ways of improving your photography. Not many folks are lucky enough to live in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Even while there may be many great locations near where you live, you will grow more as a photographer by branching out to other areas. This is one that I often struggle with because I live in the middle of the gorgeous Adirondack Park. I often face a paralysis of choice when deciding what I want to shoot next. Even so, I learn a lot as a photographer when I go elsewhere. I approach photography differently and with renewed enthusiasm when I'm in an area new to me. You also benefit from gaining exposure to a broader audience. Photographing new areas opens up opportunities to grow your following and bring in new clients.
So when considering whether to drop a few hundred or thousand dollars on a new camera or lens, also consider where in the world that money might get you.
The internet is loaded with websites and YouTube channels touting the benefits of the latest gear. I challenge you to re-evaluate your investment. There is a good chance you'll find that investing in yourself, instead of new gear, will make you a better photographer.
And yes, I get the irony of this concluding thought given my previous blog post linked below...