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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

DSLRs To Shoot Like Ansel Adams


The great master of nature photography didn’t shoot with a digital camera, but if Ansel Adams was alive today, we’re pretty certain he would. Here, we look at some of the latest cameras and at the features in which Adams might have been most interested.

Labels: CamerasD-SLRsGear
The Requirements
From a technical standpoint, Adams’ work is defined, in part, by sharpness and depth of field. As he began to develop his style, he helped organize Group f/64 and associated with photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, among others. Group f/64 rebelled against the prevailing early vision that pictorial photography should be soft like an impressionistic painting. Adams and the others believed that the strength of photography was in its ability to capture a scene in perfect tack-sharpness and clarity. During his career, Adams sought out tools and refined techniques that contributed to sharpness and clarity.

Today’s DSLRs offer ever-higher megapixel counts, and more megapixels means more information is recorded and thus the ability to deliver finer detail, especially in larger prints. So first off, Adams would want a DSLR with a high pixel count. (See the “10 Tips” sidebar for more details on optimizing sharpness.)

IN TERMS OF DYNAMIC RANGE, again, the higher-pixel-count, bigger-sensor cameras have the advantage, but today’s smaller-sensor DSLRs are capable of delivering excellent images. WE'RE SURE THAT IF ADAMS USED A DSLR, IT WOULD BE A FULL-FRAME ONE, but don’t let that discourage you if a full-frame model is out of your price range. Many pro landscape photographers today WORK SUCCESSFULLY WITH SMALLER-SENSOR DSLRS.

The other thing that defines Adams’ work technically is a superb tonal range. He (and photographer Fred Archer) developed the Zone System back in 1940 as a way to reproduce the tones he previsualized when he tripped the shutter in the resulting print. He’d “see” the final print in his mind’s eye, then, using the Zone System, he’d expose and develop the film to reproduce that image in the print.

While DSLRs with high megapixel counts can record fine detail, higher pixel counts mean smaller pixels on a given-size image sensor. And smaller pixels tend to produce more noise and a narrower dynamic range. So cameras with larger sensors have an advantage in terms of image quality. They can have more pixels of a given size or bigger pixels for a given pixel count. That means they tend to produce images with a wider dynamic range and less noise. And that means Adams likely would have preferred a full-frame DSLR over one with a smaller sensor.

That said, thanks to rapid progress in technology, today’s smaller-sensor DSLRs produce excellent image quality, especially at their “native” ISO settings (generally, the lowest setting in the “normal” ISO range). If your budget doesn’t allow for a full-frame DSLR, you can shoot excellent landscape images with the newer APS-C DSLRs.

The higher a camera’s bit depth, the more tones its images will contain between white and black, and the more color gradations. JPEG images are 8-bit, meaning they contain 256 tonal steps from white to black. Today’s DSLRs produce 12- or 14-bit RAW images. A 12-bit image contains 4,096 steps from white to black; a 14-bit image contains 16,384 steps. So a DSLR that shoots 14-bit RAW images theoretically can deliver the best-looking images, and that’s what Adams would have used. But in practice, 12-bit RAW images are very good. In fact, the APS-C DSLR with the highest rating on DxO Labs’ DxOMark Sensor ratings of RAW image quality is a 12-bit camera (www.dxomark.com). From a practical standpoint, more important than whether a camera’s RAW images are 12- or 14-bit is that you do shoot in RAW rather than 8-bit JPEG format.

In terms of noise, full-frame DSLRs have the edge, as both more and larger pixels result in lower image noise. But even APS-C DSLRs can deliver low-noise RAW images at their lower ISO settings, and Adams would have used the lower ISO settings with any digital camera, just as he used lower-ISO films for top image quality. RAW conversion software allows you to reduce noise, and third-party noise-reduction software allows you to reduce it even further. Adams would have used all tools at his disposal to reduce noise and improve image quality.

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