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.
This Article Features Photo Zoom

One of the many things Ansel Adams was known for was the superb image quality of his prints, which exhibited excellent detail and a magnificent range of tones. Of course, the light, the compositions and the subjects themselves certainly are part of the mix. But Adams' prints are so technically perfect that viewers appreciate them for that, as well as for the artistic aspects.

Adams worked mainly with large-format view and field cameras, in large part because the big (4x5-inch, 8x10-inch and even larger) film sheets, under his guidance, yielded wonderfully detailed, fine-grain prints. Images from smaller-format cameras just didn't meet his requirements. While small SLRs were lightweight and quick "extensions of the eye as used freely in the hand," 35mm was known in those days as the "miniature" format.

Now we're well into the digital era and today's "35mm" full-frame DSLRs can produce image quality that we think would suit Adams' high standards. Statements like this always elicit a response and often that response is pretty incendiary, but consider the realities. Currently, the lowest-pixel-count, full-frame DSLR delivers images measuring 4928x3280 pixels—enough to run the image as a full spread in this magazine at the 300 dpi publishing standard. The highest-pixel-count, full-frame DSLRs deliver images measuring 7360x4912 pixels—enough to publish at 24.5x16.4 inches at 300 dpi—and even bigger for a fine-art print. That's well into Ansel Adams territory.

All other things being equal, more pixels mean more detailed images and the ability to make bigger prints. And bigger sensors can collect more light than smaller ones, which makes for a better signal-to-noise ratio and cleaner images—and, thus, finer image detail for a given pixel count, along with better performance at all ISOs. For Adams-type images, big sensors with lots of pixels are the way to go.

You can do landscapes with any camera, of course, just as you could in the film days. Were he shooting today, Adams might well use a digital back on a large-format view camera for several reasons, but it's unlikely he would eschew DSLRs in the same way that he bypassed 35mm film SLRs. Today's full-frame DSLRs are a great choice for demanding digital landscape photographers. They can deliver terrific image quality, even in dimmer light (compared to other digital camera types and film), they're much easier to carry into the field than large-format cameras (especially with a kit of lenses), and price-to-performance ratios make them very attractive. Canon's 21.1-megapixel EOS 5D Mark II now sells for well under $2,000, while the brand-new 20.2-megapixel EOS 6D and 24.3-megapixel Nikon D600 sell for around $2,100. Sony's 24.3-megapixel SLT-A99, Canon's 22.3-megapixel EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon's 36.3-megapixel D800 and D800E offer some other advantages, and they're priced in the $2,800-$3,200 range.

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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Another nice landscape feature is an electronic level, or "virtual horizon." This makes it easy to keep the shot level with the horizon even when the horizon isn't in the frame. Viewfinder (and LCD monitor) gridlines can help you align elements when the horizon is in the frame.

Sony's SLT-A99 was the first full-frame DSLR to incorporate a geotagging GPS unit, followed by Canon's EOS 6D. The other current full-frame DSLRs can use an optional geotagging GPS. This unit records the shot's location—latitude, longitude, sometimes elevation and even the direction the camera is pointing—in the EXIF metadata. This means you'll know precisely where each shot was taken and can search for shots by location. You also can plot images on digital maps using this data.

To minimize camera shake and maximize sharpness, you'll want to shoot from a sturdy tripod. But even then, the SLR mirror flipping up out of the light path to make the exposure can cause blurring vibration. Using Live View mode eliminates this problem as the mirror is up all the time in Live View mode (except with Sony's SLT cameras, which use nonmoving semitranslucent mirrors and thus avoid the problem). Many DSLRs have a mirror prelock feature that lets you flip the mirror up after composing and focusing, then wait a few moments for vibrations to settle before making the exposure, but since you can't see through the optical viewfinder when the mirror is up, live view is a better solution with today's DSLRs. It's also a good idea to use a cable release or self-timer delay to trip the shutter, so you don't jiggle the camera as you press the shutter button.

APS-C For Landscape

While prices recently have come down (with new models from Nikon and Canon selling for $2,099), full-frame DSLRs are still pretty costly. DSLRs with smaller sensors—APS-C measures around 23.6x15.6mm vs. 36x24mm for full-frame—cost a lot less and can deliver excellent image quality. In DxOMark.com's sensor ratings for landscape work (dynamic range), the top three cameras are full-frame DSLRs, followed by three APS-C models, then another full-frame, an APS-C, a $40,000 medium-format camera, then seven more APS-C cameras. Granted, there's more to image quality than just dynamic range (the APS-C models aren't far behind the full-frames in DxOMark's color bit-depth ratings, either, lagging noticeably only in high-ISO performance, which isn't a major factor for most landscape work). Current APS-C DSLRs range from 12 to 24 megapixels. Sigma's SD1 Merrill features a unique Foveon X3 image sensor that stacks three pixel layers and doesn't require a sharpness-reducing anti-aliasing filter like most DSLRs, and is a very good landscape camera. Pentax's new K-5 IIs also does away with the anti-aliasing filter.

The biggest drawback of APS-C for landscape work is the smaller sensor's "crop" factor. The smaller sensor, in effect, crops into the full image projected by the lens, narrowing the field of view. Due to this 1.5X "focal-length factor," a 24mm lens on an APS-C camera frames like a 36mm lens on a full-frame model. A few years ago, this was a major problem for digital landscape shooters, who often need wide-angle views. Today, though, there are a number of good wide-angle lenses designed for APS-C (16mm on APS-C provides the same angle of view as 24mm on a full-frame camera, and there are wider lenses available; Canon offers a 10-22mm zoom, Nikon, a 10-24mm zoom, Pentax, a 12-24mm zoom, and Sony, an 11-18mm zoom). Independent lensmakers also offer wide-angle lenses for popular APS-C DSLRs: Sigma (10-20mm zoom), Tamron (10-24mm zoom) and Tokina (11-16mm and 12-24mm zooms). There are also fisheye lenses available for APS-C cameras. So, today, getting wide with an APS-C DSLR is no problem.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

If you prefer to shoot your landscapes handheld, built-in image stabilization can be your friend. This feature compensates for handheld camera shake, letting you shoot 2 to 4 shutter speeds slower than you could normally handhold successfully. Sony's SLT-A99 is the only current full-frame DSLR with built-in sensor-shift stabilization, which works with any lens you mount on the camera. For other cameras, you can get lenses with built-in stabilizers: Canon's are labeled IS (image stabilizer), Nikon's VR (vibration reduction), Sigma's OS (optical stabilizer) and Tamron's VC (vibration compensation).

Many landscapes require great depth of field to get a nearby subject and more distant ones sharp. The depth-of-field preview stops the lens down to shooting aperture so you can see in the viewfinder just how much depth of field you have. However, stopping down makes the viewfinder image darker, which, in dim light, can make it hard to see anything. Some cameras offer depth-of-field preview in Live View mode, which maintains image brightness for easier evaluation.

Most of today's DSLRs can do high-resolution 1080p video, with sound. This gives the landscape shooter another way to present the subject. You can record the motion and sounds of waterfalls, surf and rapids, and winds, to accompany your high-quality still images.

Full-Frame DSLRs
Camera Sensor Max. Res. (pixels) Normal ISO Range External Monitor Max. MF Zoom Eye-Level Viewfinder Memory Dimensions (inches) Weight (ounces) List Price*
Canon EOS-1D X 18.1 MP 5184x3456 100-51,200 3.2-in., 1040K 10x Optcl. 100% 2 CF 6.2x6.4x3.3 47.3 $6,799
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP 5760x3840 100-25,600 3.2-in., 1040K 10x Optcl. 100% CF, SD 6.0x4.6x3.0 30.3 $3,499
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 21.1 MP 5616x3744 100-6400 3.0-in., 920K 10x Optcl. 98% CF 6.0x4.5x3.0 28.6 $2,199
Canon EOS 6D 20.2 MP 5472x3648 100-25,600 3.0-in., 1040K 10x Optcl. 97% SD 5.7x4.4x2.8 24.0 $3,099
Nikon D4 16.2 MP 4928x3280 100-12,800 3.2-in., 921K 10x Optcl. 100% CF, XQD 6.3x6.2x3.6 41.6 $5,999
Nikon DX3 24.5 MP 6048x4032 100-1600 3.2-in., 921K 10x Optcl. 100% 2 CF 6.3x6.2x3.4 43.0 $7,999
Nikon D800 36.3 MP 7360x4912 100-6400 3.2-in., 921K 10x Optcl. 100% CF, SD 5.7x4.8x3.2 31.7 $2,999
Nikon D800E 36.3 MP 7360x4912 100-6400 3.2-in., 921K 10x Optcl. 100% CF, SD 5.7x4.8x3.2 31.7 $3,299
Nikon D600 24.3 MP 6016x4016 100-6400 3.2-in., 921K 10x Optcl. 100% 2 SD 5.6x4.4x3.2 26.8 $2,099
Sony SLT-A99 24.3 MP 6000x4000 100-25,600 3.0-in., 1228K 10x EVF 100% SD, MS 5.8x4.4x3.1 25.8 $2,799
*List price for body only

Mirrorless For Landscapes

Basically, the mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras offer DSLR image quality in a much smaller package. The bodies are about the size of all-in-one compact digital cameras, but they deliver DSLR image quality because, with a few exceptions, they have DSLR-sized image sensors. Canon, Samsung and Sony mirrorless models, plus the Pentax K-01, use APS-C sensors; Olympus and Panasonic use Four Thirds sensors (17.3x13.0mm). The Nikon 1 mirrorless models use a smaller 13.2x8.8mm sensor, and the extremely compact Pentax Q and Q10 use a smaller 6.2x4.6mm sensor.

Mirrorless lens options are a key consideration for landscape shooters. There are fewer lenses available for these cameras and, of course, larger lenses reduce the compactness of the cameras, but the systems—body, lenses and accessories—are still more compact than even DSLR systems, and so easier to carry into the field.

Canon currently offers two lenses for its EOS M mirrorless model, 18-55mm being the widest, but the EF-EOS M adapter lets you use all EF and EF-S DSLR lenses on the camera.

Nikon offers a 10mm ƒ/2.8, plus 10-30mm and 10-100mm zooms, for the Nikon 1 series, plus the FT1 adapter, which lets you use DSLR lenses on the cameras.

Sony's widest lens for the NEX mirrorless cameras is a 10-18mm zoom, and there are two adapters that let you use Sony DSLR lenses (including the LA-EA2 adapter, which incorporates a continuous phase-detection AF system like the one in the SLT-A65 DSLR).

Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras can use all Micro Four Thirds lenses (Panasonic offers a 7-14mm zoom and Olympus offers a 9-18mm zoom), and adapters are available for regular Four Thirds System lenses.

Pentax's K-01 accepts the same K-mount lenses as the company's DSLRs (the widest non-fisheye is a 12-24mm zoom). The small-sensor Q and Q10 models aren't really landscape cameras.

Samsung's widest lens for its NX mirrorless cameras is a 16mm ƒ/2.4, but there's an adapter that lets you use K-mount DSLR lenses, as well.

Fujifilm offers a 14mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle for its X-Pro1 and X-E1 mirrorless cameras, along with an adapter for Leica M-series lenses.

Actually, due to their short flange-back distances, mirrorless cameras can use just about any lens for which an adapter can be found.


    As I am getting older, it has become difficult to carry my d200. I just replaced it with a Fuji X-E1 which is practically weightless. I have not felt restricted using APS-C sensors. When I need a wide shot, I shot as many frames as necessary, often covering more than a full frame with any wide angle lens, and use the fantastic capability of Photoshop to create a panorama. When I need more dynamic range, often more than any full frame can deliver, I take multiple shots and create 32-bit files in Photoshop and process them in Lightroom.

    IMHO, my X-E1 has astounding image quality, so I get what I want–Image Quality, and I do not have to drag around heavy equipment.

    A really informative piece.

    To appreciate Adams’ superb print quality you really do have to see the prints themselves. They sing!

    I had an enjoyable career in location photography and adopted Adams’ zone system for critical work (prints, monochromatic calendars etc.). Even when shooting 35mm.

    Now I’m in the same camp as Eric Bier, having replaced my Canon DLSR system with an Olympus m43 system. The image quality is excellent but not quite as good as a full-size DSLR. But the future looks bright.

    You missed out on the Leica M9/M/ME/Monochrome family of cameras. Since sharp landscapes depend upon placing the camera on a solid tripod and minimizing camera shake (mirror slap), the Leicas shine in this regard. One can use a cable release for straight-forward shutter release (no extra remote and convoluted menu input to raise the mirror and activate a delayed time release) and a smooth, vibration-free (at least as is possible) shutter. The only advantage of a dslr in my mind, is the use of a PC lens, as you covered in a previous article.

    One must also realize that Adams didn’t shy away from new technologies of the time: he was an innovator. I am confident that if AA were around today, he WOULD embrace the digital image capture technology, as well as the image manipulation software (Photoshop or Lightroom). I did a great deal of b&w darkroom work and then went to an exhibit of AA’s works, and could see how much manipulation he did in the print making process. He’d still shoot large format, but would probably have a top of the line DSLR and lens set up with him as well.

    As a professional photographer of Italian Heritage, I recently integrated my Canon stuff with an EosM body. I use it as “digital back” (via adaptor) for T/S Canon lenses (24, 45 & 90 mm.). It works very well and give files up to 44 Mb with shift-stiching… 😉 Massimo

    There are more reasons than resolution to appreciate and use sheet-film view cameras. The bellows movements allow flexibility of focusing and perspective that is unmatchable with DSLRS, even with their (more limited and very expensive) tilt-shift lenses. The work of David Muench is iconic in this regard.

    I went to ICP to see Sebastian Salgado’s work. The images are stunning and very present. I believe he is shooting digital with a Canon. Most of the prints are huge and they are a bit rough compare to Ansel Adams prints I’ve seen. Is there a way to enlarge digital files by adding pixels?

Leave a Reply

Main Menu