Large-format landscape artist Ansel Adams once described his 35mm camera as “an extension of the eye as used freely in the hand.” And the late Galen Rowell, a world-class mountaineer and landscape photographer, did most of his amazing work with 35mm SLRs, again for the freedom they provided. Today, many photographers are turning to digital SLRs for landscape work. Image quality is outstanding, and the cameras provide the same speed and portability as their film brethren. You can easily handhold a D-SLR for shots from any angle or put it on a tripod to lock in a composition, especially handy when using live-view mode.
While you can shoot terrific landscapes with today’s D-SLRs, the “sweet-spot” models—those in between the compact entry-level cameras and bulky pro bodies—are our favorites. Of course, pro D-SLRs are superb landscape tools, but they can be costly and heavy—carrying a pro D-SLR on a long hike isn’t much fun.
These D-SLRs address the meticulous nature of most landscape photographers. All of them let you adjust the color balance to match the light at the scene and allow you to play back just-shot images to confirm that the shot is there and—with the aid of a histogram—to check exposure. Of course, you can spot-meter and set everything manually whenever desired. All of these D-SLRs allow you to shoot in high-bit RAW format for maximum image quality, and do image editing at your computer afterward—Adams would have readily embraced it.
D-SLRs accept a wide range of interchangeable lenses, allowing for tremendous control over field of view and perspective. All the major manufacturers produce fine lenses in wide focal lengths and are optimized especially for smaller-sensor cameras, making true wide-angle shooting as easy as with a 35mm film camera.
Other features that landscape photographers will enjoy include:
Sensor-Dust Removal. Uses high-frequency vibrations to shake dust off the image sensor, especially handy when you change lenses frequently in the field.
Image Stabilization. In-camera sensor-shift stabilization works with all lenses, but stabilizes only the recorded image, not the viewfinder image. In-lens stabilization stabilizes both recorded and viewfinder images, but obviously functions only with stabilized lenses. Both types let you get sharp images handheld several shutter speeds slower than is possible without stabilization and work well with a monopod.
Dynamic-Range Extender. Helps maintain highlight and shadow detail in high-contrast scenes.
Grid Lines. Grid lines in the viewfinder (sometimes built in, sometimes via an optional focusing screen) or on the LCD in live-view mode help you keep that horizon truly horizontal.
Live View. More and more D-SLRs are providing this feature, which is standard on compact digital cameras. With Live View, you get a bigger image to examine and focus, as well as easier odd-angle operation.
14-Bit A/D Conversion. 14-bit provides a lot more data than 12-bit—16,384 tones or colors vs. 4096. This provides smoother gradations/colors and more leeway when doing levels adjustments in the computer.
Lots Of Megapixels. At the heart of a landscape image is detail. With digital, detail is provided in large part by lots of pixels. All else being equal, the more megapixels, the better for landscape work, and the better off you’ll be making big prints.