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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Full-Frame: DSLRs For Landscape Master Work

Can you produce Ansel Adams-level images from a DSLR? Today’s full-frame models give you some outstanding options.

Labels: CamerasD-SLRsGear
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Here are image-sensor dimensions of APS-C, Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds and Full-Frame digital formats, overlain on a 4x5-inch film sheet (which Ansel Adams frequently used). Some landscape shooters still use sheet film in large part because of the assumption that it has the same resolution advantage over smaller image sensors as it did over smaller pieces of film. Digital technology has whittled that advantage down. Large-format film photography still has an allure for some photographers, but it's not the undisputed king of image quality that it once was.
Key DSLR Features For Landscape Photography
Action photographers like bird-in-flight specialists are concerned largely with AF speed and accuracy, frame rate and high-ISO image quality. Landscape photographers are less likely to rely on these features, so these specs aren't the most important to them.

The most important features to the landscape shooter are resolution and dynamic range. All other things being equal, more pixels mean finer detail and bigger prints. And a wide dynamic range—the ability to reproduce good detail from dark shadows through bright highlights—is very important in high-contrast scenes (although HDR techniques can help, if your camera can't handle a scene's brightness range). Incidentally, many of today's DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras provide in-camera HDR, which is great if you shoot JPEGs. But for maximum image quality and control, landscape specialists shoot RAW, and if HDR is required, do it in postprocessing via specialized HDR software. By the way, if you think Ansel Adams would have been offended by HDR software, consider his use of N+ and N- film-processing techniques, as well as his extensive dodging and burning print "recipes."

A quick aside here about control. Adams was a control freak, in the best sense of the term. He exercised total control over his images, from previsualization through exposure, development and printing. Today, the "digital darkroom" provides capabilities Adams could only dream about, as digital cameras can deliver detail and dynamic range beyond the capabilities of film. Adams would have loved digital, as he hinted in a 1980 interview with one of OP's staff editors.

Most current DSLRs have settings to improve detail in shadows and highlights—Active D-Lighting in Nikons and Dynamic Range Optimizer in Sony cameras, for example, and Highlight Tone Priority in Canons. As with in-camera HDR, these are great if you shoot JPEGs, but most landscape specialists shoot RAW and prefer to make adjustments themselves in postprocessing.

Today's DSLRs provide a big advantage over earlier ones and film SLRs: live view for manual focusing. You're focusing the actual image produced by the sensor, so there's no problem with the SLR viewing system not being quite calibrated to the image plane; and you can zoom in on a desired portion of the scene for very accurate manual focusing on the magnified image. Naturally, this is most easily done with the camera mounted on a solid tripod. Besides holding the camera steady during exposure, the tripod also will make it easier to study your composition and keep you from accidentally changing it as you squeeze off the shot.

More Than Landscapes

Canon's flagship EOS-1D X and Nikon's flagship D4 full-frame DSLRs certainly can do a great job with landscapes, but they were designed with action in mind. At 18.1 and 16.2 megapixels, respectively, they hit that sweet spot of having enough pixels to deliver high image quality, yet not so many that speed is compromised. The EOS-1D X can shoot full-resolution images at up to 14 fps (12 fps with continuous AF), the D4 at up to 11 fps (10 fps with continuous AF). This, combined with their excellent AF systems, makes them today's hot sports-action and photojournalism cameras.


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