I have yet to meet a photographer who doesn’t like to talk about gear. It’s hard not to when the equipment is so expensive, the technology changes so quickly, and the market is flooded with so many choices.
So how do you choose what’s essential for outdoor photography and worth the investment and what’s not? Below is a gear list of 14 items that I never leave without when I trek out to do landscape or nature photography.
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14 Essential Gear Items For Outdoor Photography
- Interchangeable lens camera
- Lenses of various focal lengths
- Sturdy tripod and ball head
- Camera backpack
- Shutter release remote
- Camera strap
- Lens filters
- Weather protection for your camera
- Weather protection for you
- Food and water
- First aid kit
Below I explain why each piece of gear is important for outdoor photography and give specific recommendations for gear that I have personally used and highly recommend. I also describe economical alternatives where applicable.
If you are interested in what is in my camera kit right now, check out my personal gear list on the OPS Resources Page.
1. Interchangeable Lens Camera
Interchangeable lens cameras include SLR, DSLR, or mirrorless camera bodies. Do you absolutely have to have an interchangeable lens camera to capture epic landscape or nature shots?
Well no, not exactly. Smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras these days do surprisingly well, for the most part.
But we aren’t talking about taking those kinds of images here. You do need an SLR/DSLR or mirrorless camera if you want to get stunning images and to be able to take creative advantage of the capabilities these cameras give you.
What do I specifically recommend for a camera body? While I currently shoot with the Nikon system and love it, I’m not going to recommend one brand over another.
All of the major camera manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic) make excellent camera bodies and lenses that produce quality images. The technology of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras these days (really in the last 5 years or so) is so robust that you can get a truly excellent, publication-worthy image with an entry-level camera if you know how to use it properly.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much whether the camera is a micro 4/3rds, crop sensor or full-frame, or whether it is an SLR/DSLR or mirrorless camera. However, if you plan to enlarge your images for print (not just web use), then I recommend a camera with at least 24 megapixels, shooting in RAW format, and investing in quality lenses (upgraded from the kit lenses that often come with camera bodies).
2. Lenses of Various Focal Lengths
One great thing about outdoor photography (besides being in the outdoors, of course) is that there are endless types of compositions to explore at any given location.
For this reason, I recommend bringing along a variety of lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto. Wide angle lenses in the 16-35mm focal range are useful in capturing the big landscape shot, especially if it is accentuated with an interesting foreground element that ties the whole image together.
Telephoto lenses in the focal range of 70-200mm or greater are wonderful for honing in on less obvious compositions and often result in a more intimate feel. Macro lenses also have this effect and can really accentuate the more delicate details of a forest, like mushrooms or leaves on the forest floor.
If I had to pick just one lens to bring it would be my Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 lens, which I highly recommend. I find this focal range to be very versatile for most landscape situations, and this lens almost never leaves my camera bag. It has edge-to-edge sharpness at the range of focal lengths and apertures, has almost five stops of image stabilization, minimal chromatic aberration, and is weather sealed (great for landscape work).
Can’t invest in a full set of lenses just yet? Try using a teleconverter. These are much more affordable than most prosumer and professional lenses and are much lighter to carry. Teleconverters extend the focal length of compatible lenses by about 1.4-2x. So for example, my Tamron 24-70mm lens would be essentially a 48-140mm lens with a 2x teleconverter. One thing to keep in mind when using a teleconverter is that it will likely change the widest aperture of your lens by a couple of stops.
3. Sturdy Tripod and Ball Head
Oftentimes, in landscape photography, we need to use slow shutter speeds in order to properly expose an image without raising the ISO too much. Or, we want to smooth out the movement of water or clouds or to photograph stars, all of which require slow shutter speeds. In order to capture these sorts of images, a sturdy tripod is a must.
I almost always use a tripod in my outdoor photography, even if I’m using reasonably fast shutter speeds. A good tripod and ball head help reduce the risk of camera shake and small vibrations that might soften the image just a little too much. I have ruined many shots thinking I could just hand-hold the camera and not take the time to set up the tripod. I’m almost always disappointed with the results with that approach, even with fast shutter speeds. I guess I should cut back on a little caffeine…
What makes a good tripod? For starters, avoid plastic. Plastic tripods are too light and flimsy and arguably could be worse than hand-holding, especially if the ball head doesn’t keep your camera perfectly in place. Choose a tripod made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum tends to be a little less expensive, and carbon fiber tends to be lighter and more durable.
Speaking of ball heads, investing in a solid ball head is also advisable. There is nothing more frustrating than dialing in your composition, letting go of your camera to take the shot, and having the whole thing sag just a bit. Does anyone out there know what I mean?
Instead of wasting time and precious light with fiddling with your ball head, just invest in a decent one. When choosing a ball head, consider the weight of your camera body and your heaviest lens. Ball heads are designed to hold a certain maximum load. If you exceed that, the camera will droop even with the ball tightened down. It’s actually a good idea to add a few pounds to your heaviest setup to be sure your tripod and ball head can handle it.
I also always carry this tripod multitool from Three Legged Thing. I like that it can easily clip to the outside of my pack and is readily accessible for any little tweaks I may need to do to safely and securely mount my camera to my tripod.
If you are trying to keep your camera bag light and if you aren’t in a position to spend a whole lot of money on a tripod right now, then find one that has a hook on the bottom of the center column so that you can hang a bag of rocks or dirt from it to further stabilize the tripod.
My experience is that going cheap on a tripod is usually not the best long-term solution, and you might be replacing it sooner rather than later. I made that mistake early on and now wish I had just splurged a little more to get a dependable tripod and ball head from the start.
Don’t forget that plenty of excellent quality tripods and ball heads are available second hand, and buying used could save you hundreds of dollars.
Pro tip: When using a lens with vibration reduction (VR) or image stabilization (IS), be sure to turn this feature off when using a tripod. Otherwise, the lens will try to correct for movement that is not present when on a tripod, and your images might be soft.
Now that I use an L-bracket, I can’t go back. An L-bracket allows you to easily mount your camera on your tripod in either a landscape or portrait position. Using the portrait position slot on a ball head that allows it to rotate 90 degrees for portrait mode is awkward. It puts your camera a bit off balance on the tripod because most of the weight is now to one side.
With an L-bracket, however, your camera can remain centered on top of the ball head when mounted in either portrait or landscape position.
I love this affordable universal L-bracket from Three Legged Thing. It fits my Nikon D810 perfectly, is lightweight, holds my camera securely, and it just looks cool in orange. If you decide to give L-brackets a try, be sure to check for compatibility with your camera model.
5. Shutter Release Remote
I highly recommend investing in a remote shutter release, like the wireless Vello FreeWave Plus. Using a remote shutter release further prevents any sort of camera shake you may inadvertently introduce when depressing the shutter button, even when using a tripod.
I like the wireless version because I can keep my hands in my pockets if I need to keep them warm, and I also don’t need to be with the camera in order to operate the shutter release. The Vello FreeWave has a 320-foot range, so you can do some neat selfies if you’re into that sort of thing. Just be sure to not tread where you don’t belong (like behind fences or on delicate plants).
A free alternative to a shutter release remote is to use the built-in timer available in most cameras. The only downside of this approach is that you have to wait a few seconds before the image is taken, which may mean missing the shot.
6. Camera Strap
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of camera straps in general because I find them bulky and hard to remove from my camera. Because of that, I greatly appreciate the low profile and versatility of the Peak Design Camera Leash. This camera strap is designed to be a bare-bones strap. It is built for function, which is why I like it.
The Camera Leash is just what I need to hold my camera while I need both hands to set up for my shot. It has also come in handy when I’m photographing in rivers and streams and need a little extra precaution that my camera isn’t going to take a dunk in the current.
The real benefit to the Peak Design straps are the anchor links, which allow you to attach and detach the strap within seconds. Many photographers don’t use a camera strap while using a tripod because a little wind can make the strap blow and cause camera shake. With the Peak Design anchor links, you can use the camera strap just when you need it – brilliant!
7. Camera Backpack
If you are going to spend any time on the trail or in a canoe or kayak with your camera, you’re going to want to invest in a camera backpack. Rolling bags and messenger bags have little use when you’re out adventuring in the natural world.
When it comes to choosing a camera backpack, prioritize comfort and capacity. When you spend hours of the day lugging your heavy camera gear (and other outdoor equipment) on your back, comfort is super important. You want to reduce the risk of injury, whether acute or chronic, so be sure to get a pack that properly fits.
I highly recommend choosing a pack that has a waist belt so that you can carry the bulk of the weight on your hips. Your shoulders and neck will thank you by the end of the day. I also like having a chest strap to help stabilize the pack on my back.
Other amenities of a camera backpack really come down to personal preference. For example, I would prioritize a pack that accesses the camera gear from the back panel. This way, when you place the pack on the ground, the front of the pack touches the dirt and mud, rather than the part that will touch your back once you put it back on. I also like waist belt pockets and large external side pockets for water bottles and my tripod or hiking poles.
My current go-to camera backpack is the F-Stoppers Loka UL bag. It is carry-on compatible, one of the most lightweight on the market, fits most of what I need most of the time, and is comfortable. F-stoppers makes bags of various sizes, so they are worth checking out to see if they fit your needs.
If you have a mirrorless system, then I recommend checking out the Atlas Athlete Camera Pack. I found this pack to be very comfortable, and they are designed to fit a variety of outdoor, camping, and camera gear. This is super helpful for extended trips or trips where camera gear isn’t the majority of the equipment you need to carry. However, I found the depth of the camera compartment to be too slim for my Nikon gear. It would be perfect for a mirrorless system.
8. Lens Filters
Lens filters are great tools to add to your photography kit to create certain effects and to creatively manipulate exposure across an image. Some of these effects can now be added in digital post-processing, such as those achieved with a graduated neutral density filter, should you wish to apply the effect after the fact rather than capture the effect “in camera”.
Two lens filters whose effects can’t be easily reproduced in digital post-processing are neutral density filters and the circular polarizer filter. A neutral density filter is often necessary when you need to use long shutter speeds to achieve a certain look, such as capturing the silky movement of water or clouds.
A neutral density filter effectively works like a pair of dark sunglasses; it simply blocks light without changing the colors of the scene (hence, “neutral”). The level of how much light is blocked, or the density, is measured in stops of exposure (3-stop, 6-stop, 10-stop, etc.).
A circular polarizer is used to polarize light so that glare on water, wet rocks, and wet vegetation is greatly reduced. If I had to pick just one filter to purchase for outdoor photography, it would be this one because there is no other way to achieve this effect. Cutting down on glare makes a huge difference in the quality of an image when water or wet conditions (even dew!) are present.
A few things to keep in mind when using a circular polarizer:
- The effect is most pronounced when the lens is pointing 90 degrees or at a right angle from the sun.
- If your back is to the sun or if you shoot directly into the sun, the effect is greatly reduced.
- If you use it on a bright blue sky day with a wide-angle lens, you will likely oversaturate the sky and get some artifacts in the uniformity of the blue hue.
Being aware of these quirks of the circular polarizer can help you use it properly in your images.
I currently use and highly recommend Breakthrough Photography filters because of their excellent quality and durability. When purchasing filters, keep in mind that you are putting another piece of glass over your expensive lens, so you want the filter material to be of high quality too to make sure the filter doesn’t add weird artifacts to the image.
Pro tip: Buy filters to fit your most commonly used lens and then buy step-up or step-down rings to adapt that filter to your other lenses that are of different diameters. This way you only have to invest in one set of filters.
9. Weather Protection For Your Camera
Two items that never leave my camera bag are a microfiber cloth and a camera rain cover. The microfiber cloth is super soft and absorbent, and it quickly dries off your camera and lens in wet conditions whether you’re dealing with rain, snow, or spray from a waterfall.
A rain cover is also cheap insurance for keeping your camera dry when the weather is suboptimal (but might be great for photography!). I also use a rain cover for doing night photography because it keeps the dew off of my equipment.
If you want to learn more about how to protect your camera gear from bad weather, be sure to check out my YouTube video on the topic.
A lens hood is typically used to block sun glare or to protect the lens glass from scratches. However, I also like to use them to help prevent water from getting on my lens, be it a light rain or spray from a waterfall.
I also use the lens hood as a way of draping a microfiber cloth over the end of my lens to further protect it from the elements while I’m setting up the shot.
Pro Tip: If it’s a windy day, consider leaving the lens hood off (and a camera strap too, for that matter) because wind can catch the lens hood and cause some movement of the camera while shooting.
10. Weather Protection For You
The weather can be pretty unpredictable at times. Here in Vermont, we have a saying that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. We have seen the temperature shift 75 degrees within a 24 hour period! You might get a snowstorm, lightning, and sunshine all in the same afternoon.
The best weather forecasters can be wrong from time to time, so dress in layers so that you are ready for a rapid change in the elements and reduce the risk of hypothermia or just being plain uncomfortable. Not being prepared for the weather is a surefire way to ruin your photography experience and possibly your health.
I always pack a light rain jacket, a hat, and an extra pair of socks, no matter the season. If there is a chance for cool or cold temperatures given the location, elevation, or season, then I also pack a fleece jacket, a down (or down alternative) jacket or vest, a warm hat, warm gloves, and a couple of hand warmers. I use these layers as needed over a wicking short or long sleeve t-shirt. This may seem like overkill, but I sure have been grateful to have them when I needed them.
In terms of specific brands for outerwear, I highly recommend:
- Patagonia for rain gear, fleece, and down/down alternative jackets
- Outdoor Research for rain gear, down/down alternative jackets, hats, and gloves
- Smartwool and Icebreaker for base layers
- Darn Tough Socks for socks
These companies stand by their high-quality products and will repair or replace them if needed. They also have made commitments to the environment and climate in the responsible manufacturing of their goods. They tend to be of a higher price point, but I believe it is worth it to buy nice rather than twice for a product that is designed to last a lifetime.
11. Food and Water
The unexpected happens from time to time (sometimes good, sometimes not), and you might end up being out on trail for longer than originally planned. It’s a good idea to carry an extra snack and extra water for those “just in case” moments. You don’t have to pack the pantry, but bringing along an extra lightweight calorie-packed snack, like a protein bar or trail mix, for emergency purposes can really help.
Potable water is also an essential item when you’re spending significant time in the outdoors. Bring along an extra 8-16 oz than what you expect to drink in a day and also pack some iodine tablets, or another way to purify water from streams, in case you are in a pinch.
Cell phones only go so far in the parts of the wilderness before you lose signal. Be sure to pack a map and compass (and learn how to use them!) before heading out. They can help you find water, campsites, and emergency exit routes.
It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you plan to go or leave a note at home indicating your travel plans. In the rare case that you get stranded or lost, at least someone would know where to start looking for you or send in a rescue team if needed.
13. First Aid Kit
Along the same lines of being prepared for the unexpected, it is always a good idea to pack a little first aid kit when you hit the trail. You can easily find packable kits at most outdoor gear stores or Amazon, but you can also put together your own if you prefer.
At a minimum, I usually make sure I have a few bandaids and antiseptic ointment for minor cuts, gauze, and tape for larger cuts, an anti-itch ointment for bug bites, a few iodine tablets for water purification, and painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. It’s a good idea to pack a dose or two of any daily medications that you take as well. I also bring along some extra AA or AAA batteries if I need them for my headlamp or any of my camera gear.
You never know what you may encounter when doing outdoor photography. Maybe the light changed at the end of a ho-hum day, and now you are able to shoot an incredible sunset that you weren’t expecting. Or perhaps you twisted an ankle, and it’s taking you longer to get down the mountain.
Whatever the reason – delays in plans happen, and so it is a good idea to carry a headlamp with you in case you end up staying out longer than expected and heading back in the dark. I recommend a headlamp over a flashlight simply because it frees up your hands and is super lightweight and convenient.
Obviously, a headlamp or a flashlight is a must if you plan to do any night sky, sunrise or sunset photography. My current favorite headlamp is the Petzl Actik Core, which has a USB rechargeable battery, is lightweight, has an option for red light, and boasts 450 lumens of power. What’s not to love?
What’s in your camera bag? What gear do you find essential to your outdoor photography? Share with us below!