Would Ansel Adams Use A DSLR?

If Ansel Adams were shooting digital, would a DSLR be his tool of choice? We look at the requirements of a serious landscape shooter and see if today’s best cameras are up to the challenge.

Ansel Adams mastered both the artistic and the scientific aspects of photography, and is admired as much for the technical quality of his images as for their artistic merit. Image quality—the ability to produce large prints with great detail, from important highlights through shadows—was extremely important to Adams, leading him to use large-format films, and driving him to develop his famous Zone System of exposure and development to accurately reproduce the image he previsualized in his “mind’s eye.”

Today, many pro outdoor photographers use small DSLRs, the ones that look like 35mm-film SLRs. These are capable of delivering superb image quality, including excellent results at higher ISO settings, making it possible to get great images in lighting conditions film shooters could only dream about. These DSLRs also are far more affordable than larger-format digital gear, and far easier to carry around (and produce better results at higher ISO settings).

DSLRs also provide visualization aids not extant in Adams’ day: instant image review on the LCD monitor and histograms. When you shoot a digital image, you can examine it right away on the LCD monitor, checking exposure, color balance, composition nuances and more. The histogram shows you, in graph form, the distribution of the tones in the image. You can see at a glance whether portions are blown out or underexposed, and can correct problems right then and there. Despite his amazing ability to previsualize the final print before he took a shot, we think Adams would have appreciated these handy digital tools and used them to good advantage.

High-Res DSLRs
We’re somewhat arbitrarily drawing the line at 16 megapixels for this article because that level is capable of producing Adams-type image quality and display-size prints (11x16 inches at 300 dpi). But bear in mind that there’s more to image quality than just pixel count—see the sidebar “More Than Just Pixel Count.”

DSLRs with sensors of 16 megapixels and higher run the gamut, from under-$1,000 entry-level models to an $8,000 all-out pro model. So there’s something for just about any budget.

Full-Frame Vs. APS-C
“Full-frame” DSLR sensors are the same size as a full 35mm film frame: 36x24mm. APS-C sensors are about half that size, around 24x16mm. DSLRs with full-frame sensors offer two main advantages. They “see” like a 35mm camera, so a given lens produces the same view of the scene as it does on a 35mm SLR—handy for wide-angle landscapes (although there now are a number of very short focal-length lenses designed specifically for the smaller APS-C sensors, making true wide-angle shooting possible with APS-C cameras, too). Being much larger, full-frame sensors can incorporate more and/or larger pixels, both of which generally mean better image quality. On the downside, full-frame sensors cost more to produce, resulting in costlier cameras; and their size means DSLRs with full-frame sensors are bulkier than those with APS-C sensors.

APS-C sensors (named, curiously, for the fact that their size is similar to that of the old Advanced Photo System “C” film format) yield more compact and less costly cameras, but they also can deliver lesser image quality in many cases. Note, however, that two recent APS-C cameras—the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000—received the top “Landscape” scores in DxOMark sensor rankings—see the sidebar “More Than Just Pixel Count.”


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IQ Basics
Image quality depends on a number of things, exclusive of artistic merit. Pixel count largely determines how big a print we can make from a digital image, and to a degree, the amount of detail that can be recorded. Dynamic range—for practical purposes, how well detail can be held from bright through dark areas of a scene—is a big factor. Tonal range—the number of tones or color shades that can be reproduced in the image—is extremely important; Adams and Fred Archer devised the Zone System in order to control tonal and dynamic range. Sharpness depends on the image sensor, but also the lens (and how accurately it’s focused), the exposure time and how steadily the camera is held (preferably by a sturdy tripod). Color accuracy is important in color images.

Higher pixel counts are good for the above-cited reasons, but they also mean smaller pixels for a given sensor size. And smaller pixels mean less tonal range, more noise, and worse high-ISO performance, other things being equal. However, technology ever advances, and today’s best APS-C DSLRs deliver amazing image quality—the new Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000 scored right there with some 20+ megapixel full-frame DSLRs in DxO Labs’ DxOMark RAW sensor testing (see the sidebar “What About Medium Format?”).

Let’s look at the high-res DSLRs and what they offer landscape photographers.

24 Megapixels

Currently, the DSLRs with the highest pixel counts have full-frame sensors of 24.5/24.6 megapixels. These all-out pro models are rugged and capable shooting platforms.

Nikon D3X. Nikon’s highest-resolution DSLR is the highest-priced among those reviewed here, but it’s also the second-highest-scoring camera on DxOMark.com’s RAW sensor ratings list (trailing only a $40,000 60-megapixel medium-format model), and its top image quality is but one of its assets. As Nikon’s flagship pro DSLR, the 24.5-megapixel, full-frame D3X features a very rugged body with excellent sealing against rain and dust, and a shutter tested to 300,000 cycles—it can handle those tough outdoor conditions that often exist during the most dramatic landscape photo ops. A large viewfinder that shows 100% of the actual image area is complemented by live viewing on the 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor, making precise composing and focusing easy. The built-in sensor-dust-removal system is vital in a DSLR whose lenses will be changed frequently in field conditions. And speaking of lenses, Nikon offers a splendid assortment, including three PC-E tilt-shift optics that provide some of the view-camera-style image control that Adams enjoyed. Estimated Street Price: $7,499.

Sony DSLR-A900. Featuring a similar sensor to the D3X’s, the A900 costs some $5,000 less, making it well worth considering for landscape shooters looking for top image quality at a good price. A900 assets include a rugged, yet lightweight magnesium-alloy body with moisture and dust resistance, a 100% pentaprism viewfinder, a 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor (built-in Live View), a built-in sensor-dust-removal system, and slots for CompactFlash and Memory Stick Duo media. An Intelligent Preview feature lets you adjust exposure and white balance and fine-tune contrast, saturation, sharpness and Dynamic Range Optimizer before shooting. The A900 can use all Sony A-mount lenses (including a number of excellent Carl Zeiss optics), plus Minolta Maxxum lenses, so a wide range of focal lengths is available. The A900 provides video capability. Estimated Street Price: $2,699.

Also Consider: The Sony DSLR-A850 features the same sensor and processing as the A900, and pretty much all the A900’s features, except that the A900 is a bit quicker (5 fps vs. 3 fps—not a big deal for landscape photography), comes with a remote control (optional with the A850) and has a 100% viewfinder vs. 98% for the A850. For these differences, the A850 is the lowest-priced, full-frame DSLR. Estimated Street Price: $1,899.


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21 Megapixels

A small step in resolution below the 24-megapixel models, we find a pair of full-frame, 21-megapixel DSLRs from Canon: an all-out pro flagship camera and a much-lower-priced model with a similar sensor and HD video capability, too.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The EOS 5D Mark II created a sensation upon introduction for its 1080p full HD video capability, but it’s a first-rate still camera, too. Featuring essentially the same 21.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor as the flagship EOS-1D Mark III, but with a newer DIGIC 4 processor in place of the Mark III’s dual DIGIC IIIs, it delivers what Canon called the best image quality ever for a Canon DSLR. And that—along with its $2,499 price tag—makes it a great choice for a landscape camera in the 21-megapixel category. The EOS 5D Mark II also is smaller and lighter than the flagship model (albeit not quite as rugged), has a better LCD monitor (921,000 dots vs. 230,000) and, of course, can shoot full HD video, while the EOS-1Ds Mark III has no video capability. Estimated Street Price: $2,499.

Also Consider: If you shoot landscapes in really harsh conditions, you might prefer Canon’s top-of-the-line DSLR, the EOS-1Ds Mark III. It provides essentially the same sensor and image quality as the 5D Mark II, but features a more rugged, weatherproof construction. It’s also quicker, has a better AF system and has slots for both CompactFlash and SD memory cards. Estimated Street Price: $6,999.

More Than Just Pixel Count
Basically, pixel count determines how big a print you can make from a digital file: the more pixels, the larger the print before the eye can see the actual pixels. And the more pixels, the finer the detail that can be rendered. But other things besides pixel count determine image quality, and even resolution. Other factors affecting image sharpness include the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor, the ISO setting, the exposure, the lens and aperture used for a shot, the shutter speed and whether the camera is handheld or on a sturdy tripod with a good head.

And there’s more to image quality than just resolution/resolving power/sharpness. Dynamic range—how much detail, from the darkest area of a scene through the brightest, a sensor can reproduce (and the entire camera/lens/printer system can reproduce in a print)—is important to landscape photographers. Bit depth—the number of tones or shades of color a sensor can reproduce—is also important. Some DSLRs record RAW images at 12 bits (4,096 shades from black to white), some at 14 bits (16,384 shades). Most medium-format DSLRs record RAW images at 16 bits (65,536 shades). JPEG images are always 8 bits (256 shades from black to white). The greater the number of tones/shades of gray, the smoother the resulting images. But keep in mind that you won’t always be able to see the difference between 12-bit and 14-bit images, or 14-bit and 16-bit, in an inkjet print, and higher bit depths mean larger image file sizes. A higher bit depth can be handy if you have
to make a large Levels adjustment when editing an image: If you have to move the left and right Levels sliders 15% to yield true black-and-white tones (an extreme example, granted), with a 12-bit image, you’ll still have 11,469 tones in the image (16,384-4,915); with an 8-bit JPEG, you’d have just 180 tones (256-76).

Resolution, dynamic range and bit depth are best at lower ISO settings. Higher ISO settings (all those above the camera’s “native” ISO, which is usually the lowest one in the camera’s “normal” ISO range) are produced by increasing the gain (amplifying the image data), which increases image noise (digital “grain”), and decreases dynamic range, bit depth and detail. Generally, the “best” ISO for overall image quality is the lowest one in the camera’s “normal” ISO range, but Ansel Adams would have tested that with his camera(s) to be sure, and you should, too, for best results.

DxO Labs, best known for its DxO Optics Pro lens-correction and RAW-processing software, also makes gear used by members of the photo industry to test their own products. DxO has tested RAW image quality of popular digital camera sensors and posts the results on its DxOMark website (www.dxomark.com). Sensors are rated in three main categories (color bit depth, dynamic range and low-light ISO) and given an overall score computed from these results. While your results may vary, and there are other important considerations (including resolution, lens quality, ergonomics, AF performance and camera speed if you do wildlife action like birds in flight, etc.), the DxOMark results are a valuable asset when you’re trying to choose a digital camera. (To get the most value from the DxOMark data, look at the graphs provided, as well as the numerical scores, as these provide additional information, including performance at different ISO settings.

Note that DxOMark scores are for RAW sensor performance and aren’t necessarily representative of a camera’s JPEG images (Adams, of course, would have shot only RAW images).


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What About Medium Format?
The popular “35mm” DSLRs (those that look like 35mm film SLRs) are not the only DSLRs. There also are models based on the medium-format SLR form factor, with much larger sensors—and much larger prices.

Were he around today, Ansel Adams might be using a 60-megapixel medium-format digital back on his view camera (assuming he could get sufficient sponsorship—those cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars). But 60-megapixel images result in huge file sizes, which in turn require lots of time and computer power to process (and lots of hard-drive space to store). Many outdoor photographers simply can’t afford to shoot medium-format digital.

Like their film brethren, medium-format DSLRs produce noticeably better image quality than smaller-format DSLRs at lower ISO settings, due to their larger sensors (which collect more light and allow for higher pixel counts, larger pixels or even both simultaneously) and their 16-bit image files. The better “35mm” DSLRs handle higher ISOs better, however, and are better suited for wildlife action and handheld low-light photography.

Medium-format DSLRs (and backs for view cameras) are expensive, starting around $10,000 and going up to $40,000 and beyond. The file sizes they produce are huge, requiring lots of computer power and time to process. Current medium-format DSLRs range from 22 to 60 megapixels, with image sensors from about 50% larger to more than twice as large as a “full-frame” 35mm-based DSLR sensor. Leica’s $22,995 37.5-megapixel S2 looks and operates much like an oversized “35mm” DSLR, while the others look and operate like medium-format SLRs. Besides the camera bodies, lenses for medium-format DSLRs cost more than equivalent lenses for 35mm-based DSLRs. The 35mm-based DSLRs also offer a wider range of focal lengths, especially at the long end—a consideration for wildlife photographers.

18 Megapixels

Another notch down the megapixel scale, we find three more Canon models: a sturdy semi-pro camera, an upper-end entry-level model, and the second-lowest-priced model in our high-megapixel lineup. All have APS-C sensors with a 1.6x “crop” factor, and are compatible with all Canon EF, EF-S and TS-E tilt-shift lenses.

Canon EOS 7D. The 7D is the Canon 18-megapixel model with the most rugged construction (including dust- and weather-resistance), the quickest performance and two DIGIC 4 processors vs. one for the 60D and Rebel T2i (although the 60D has a newer version of the DIGIC 4). The 7D has an “intelligent” pentaprism viewfinder that covers approximately 100% of the actual image area, at 1.0x magnification (vs. 96% and 0.95x for the 60D, and 95% and 0.87x for the T2i’s pentamirror finder). Focusing screens are interchangeable, and a grid screen is available to help keep horizons horizontal. The 3.0-inch Live View monitor features 920,000 dots. Like all recent Canon DSLRs, the 7D has a self-cleaning sensor, a valuable feature when you’re changing lenses frequently in the field, and the 7D features 14-bit RAW recording. For those who want to capture landscapes with motion and sound, the EOS 7D features full HD video capability, with auto or manual control over exposure and focus, and mono sound via a built-in microphone, or stereo via an optional external stereo mic. Estimated Street Price: $1,499.

Also Consider: Canon’s newest DSLR, the EOS 60D features essentially the same sensor and metering system as the 7D in a more compact (albeit less rugged) body. The 3.0-inch, 1,040,000-dot LCD monitor has a 3:2 aspect ratio that better matches still images and HD video, and tilts and swivels, handy during live-view operation. The 60D uses the same high-capacity battery as the 7D, but stores images on SD/SDHC/SDXC cards instead of CompactFlash. Video features are the same as for the 7D. Estimated Street Price: $1,299.

Also Consider: A low-priced, 18-megapixel DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel T2i also provides the same sensor as the 7D and 60D, in an even more compact package than the 60D. The T2i features the same 3.0-inch, 1,040,000-dot 3:2 LCD monitor as the 60D, but it doesn’t tilt or swivel; and the T2i uses a smaller, lower-capacity battery. Video features are the same as for the 7D and 60D. Estimated Street Price: $799.


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Sigma and the Foveon Sensor

Sigma’s DSLRs feature the unique Foveon image sensor, which unlike conventional image sensors, records all three primary colors at every pixel site, potentially resulting in better image quality. The main drawback has been that these cameras have had a relatively limited number of pixel sites—the current sensor contains 14 million pixels, but stacked in three layers, so it produces images measuring 2640x1760 pixels.

That appears to be changing with the recently announced Sigma SD1, which contains a new Foveon sensor with 46 million pixels and 15.3 million photosites—just below our arbitrary 16-megapixel “line” for this article, but certainly competitive with any of the cameras cited here in terms of ultimate image quality potential.

Four Thirds Cameras

The Four Thirds System comprises a line of compact DSLR bodies based around (and designed specifically for) a smaller 17.3x13.0mm Four Thirds image sensor. The smaller sensor allows for smaller camera bodies, smaller lenses and a more direct path of the light to the image sensor, providing the potential for better image quality for a given pixel count. Curiously, though, most Four Thirds System DSLRs aren’t all that much smaller than APS-C format DSLRs.

More recently, Panasonic introduced the Micro Four Thirds System, based around the same 17.3x13.0mm sensor size, but replacing the bulky (and costly) SLR mirror box, moving mirror, focusing screen and pentaprism or pentamirror optical finder with full-time Live View and (in some models) an eye-level electronic viewfinder. These mirrorless cameras have fulfilled the original Four Thirds System promise of truly smaller cameras. If you don’t care to lug bulky gear around on your outdoor excursions, Micro Four Thirds provides an attractive alternative to larger formats. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH2 features 16.05 megapixels, and thus meets the pixel-count criteria of this article even though it isn’t actually a DSLR. (Note: Samsung and Sony now offer mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras with APS-C sensors and the compact size of the Micro Four Thirds models.)


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16 Megapixels

At the 16-megapixel base level of our high-megapixel lineup, we find the greatest variety, from an all-out pro camera capable of shooting at 10 fps, through the two models with the best “Landscape” ratings in DxOMark’s testing, to an entry-level model with the lowest list price of the cameras cited here.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. Aimed at action shooters (a favorite of bird photographers), the Mark IV can shoot its 16.1-megapixel images at 10 fps, with an AF system that can keep up. But it also offers a lot to the landscape specialist, including excellent image quality and super-rugged weatherproof construction. The sensor’s 1.3x “crop” factor means the Mark IV provides a wider angle of view with any given focal length than the APS-C cameras do (although not as wide as a full-frame camera). Images are saved on CompactFlash (UDMA 6-compatible) or SD/SDHC cards. The viewfinder shows 100% of the actual image—great for precise compositions—and you also can compose via the 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor. Video features are the same as for the EOS 7D. The Mark IV can use all Canon EF and TS-E lenses, but not EF-S lenses, which were designed specifically for the smaller APS-C sensors. Estimated Street Price: $4,999.

Nikon D7000. Nikon’s newest DSLR (as of this writing), the 16.2-megapixel D7000 is an attractively priced APS-C DSLR with excellent still image quality (thanks in part to EXPEED 2 14-bit processing) and full HD video capability. The compact body is rugged and dust- and weather-resistant, with a glass pentaprism viewfinder that shows approximately 100% of the actual image area, and a 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot live-view LCD monitor. A Virtual Horizon Graphic Indicator helps you keep the camera level during live-view operation. All live-view operation is mirror-up, but the D7000 also includes a mirror prelock to reduce vibrations during optical-viewfinder shooting. Dual slots for SD/SDHC/SDXC cards provide plenty of storage capacity for large RAW files. The D7000 can use all current AF Nikkor lenses, plus the manual-focus PC-E tilt-shift lenses and many other Nikon lenses. Estimated Street Price: $1,199.

Pentax K-5. Pentax’s highest-pixel-count “35mm” DSLR, the 16.3-megapixel K-5 also scored highest in the “Landscape” segment of DxOMark’s sensor ratings despite its APS-C sensor. This weather-, dust- and cold-resistant model features a rugged, compact and full-featured body with buttons and dials that allow more direct-setting of features than most current DSLRs for quick and simple operation. The K-5 can record RAW images in Pentax’s proprietary PEF format or Adobe’s “universal” DNG format. Sensor-shift shake reduction that works with all lenses and an improved in-camera HDR feature make it possible to shoot HDR landscapes handheld when necessary. The eye-level pentaprism viewfinder shows 100% of the actual image area, as does the 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor in Live View mode. A built-in electronic level helps you keep the horizon level. The K-5 can shoot 1080p full HD video at 25 fps (plus 720p HD at 25 or 30 fps and 640x480 SD at 25 or 30 fps), with mono sound via a built-in microphone or stereo sound via an optional external mic. Like all Pentax DSLRs, the K-5 can use virtually any Pentax-mount lens, even (via adapters) medium-format ones. Estimated Street Price: $1,599.


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Sony DSLR-A580. Sony’s top APS-C DSLR, the A580 has a 16.2-megapixel Sony Exmor sensor and delivers excellent image quality. Live view is provided via a second image sensor, so the camera’s quick phase-detection AF can be used for live view as well as viewfinder operation. The 3.0-inch, 921,600-dot LCD monitor tilts up and down for easier odd-angle live-view shooting. While Adams probably wouldn’t use it, the A580 offers Sony’s unique Sweep Panorama feature, in which you just sweep the camera across a scene and it automatically delivers a stitched panorama image; such images are popular with landscape shooters these days. Five-level D-Range Optimizer and three-image in-camera HDR help handle contrasty scenes. The A580 can also shoot full HD video at 50i or 60i. Estimated Street Price: $799.

Also Consider: The Sony SLT-A55, one of two DSLRs to feature a fixed translucent pellicle mirror (the other is the 14-megapixel SLT-A33), has the same sensor as the A580 in a more compact body. One big benefit of this design is that the camera can use its quick phase-detection AF system for live-view and even movie shooting—other DSLRs have to switch to slower contrast-based AF for live-view and movie shooting (except some Sony models, currently, the A330, A390 and A580; but those don’t provide continuous AF during live-view and video operation). Estimated Street Price: $849.

Another Serious Contender

For this article, we placed an emphasis on higher-resolution DSLRs because we imagined that a big megapixel count would be important to Ansel Adams if he were alive and shooting with a DSLR today. With that in mind, we set 16 megapixels and above as the criteria to be included in this article. At 16 megapixels, one can make an 11x16-inch print at 300 dpi without interpolation. However, drawing the line at 16 megapixels did cause us to leave out some DSLRs that are popular with high-end landscape photographers because they produce excellent image quality and their images can be easily interpolated to make large prints.

The FX-format (full-frame) Nikon D700 is a camera that deserves to be mentioned in this article although its resolution of 12.1 megapixels was below our 16-megapixel cutoff. For landscape shooting, the camera’s CMOS sensor ranks high in DxOMark.com’s RAW sensor ratings, which is no surprise since the D700 has essentially the same sensor as the Nikon D3, which set the standard for many photographers when it originally came out. The large pixel pitch (8.4 microns) helps the D700 to produce clean image files, which are easily upsized with excellent results.

Key D700 features for landscape shooters beyond its CMOS sensor are the 1,005 3D Color Matrix Metering II system for accurate exposure, the ISO range from 200-6400 (expandable to Lo-1, Hi-1 and Hi-2) and the bright high-res LCD monitor. Estimated Street Price: $2,349.

A note about interpolation: Software like Genuine Fractals performs best when it has a lot of image data to work with and when the images themselves are clean and relatively free of noise. The more noise there is in a photograph, the more that noise will be interpolated into the larger image file. Also, you can get excellent results when you go from a 20-megabyte image file up to a 30-megabyte image file, but going from a 2-megabyte file to a 3-megabyte file usually doesn’t work nearly as well.

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