Because of their size, ease of use and many advanced features, DSLRs are finding a great deal of popularity with landscape photographers. But can they produce great results? The honest answer is that you can put together a fine landscape DSLR outfit for under $1,000 or spend well over $5,000 on building a superior system. A larger budget will obviously give you many more features and often longer camera life, but at the same time there are several affordable camera models more than capable of achieving amazing landscapes if you’re looking for an economical choice over a fully featured model. Medium-format sensors, for example, tend to test very well in color bit-depth, but full-frame DSLRs best them in low-light ISO performance, and most recent models also do very well in tonality, with several new models offering 12 to 14 stops of dynamic range, close to that of film. In essence, you can shoot terrific landscapes with any of today’s DSLR systems.
HIGH-END LANDSCAPE OUTFIT
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
The 22.3-megapixel EOS 5D Mark III is Canon’s highest-resolution DSLR as of this writing, delivering 14-bit RAW files with an expanded ISO range of 100-102,800 courtesy of a DIGIC 5+ processor. The magnesium-alloy body features enhanced dust and weather resistance, and there are slots for both CompactFlash and SD/SDHC/SDXC media. A 3.2-inch, 1040K-dot LCD monitor complements the approximately 100% eye-level pentaprism viewfinder, which can display an array of information via superimposed LCD. There’s a dual-axis electronic level, as well as grid lines you can activate, when desired. The camera can automatically correct for vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion with many Canon lenses, as well as create three-frame in-camera HDR images and do multiple exposures. Silent Shutter mode provides nearly imperceptible shooting at up to 3 fps, handy when your landscape contains nearby wildlife you don’t want to spook. The 5D Mark III can use all EF (but not EF-S) lenses, plus Canon’s TS-E tilt-shift lenses. t incorporate multiple-image capture to produce final image qualities similar to those found in medium- and large-format film photography.
You can’t beat the D800 and D800E for resolution without going medium-format (and at least tripling the cost). The 36.3-megapixel D800 and D800E have 50% more image megapixels than any other DSLR as of this writing. They also currently have the two highest overall scores in DxOMark.com’s sensor ratings, and hold first and second place in terms of dynamic range. The D800 and D800E are identical except that the D800E cancels the anti-aliasing effect of the low-pass filter, which results in even higher resolution and incredibly fine details, though this comes with heightened moiré because the anti-aliasing filter reduces moiré at the expense of sharpness. Moiré isn’t a problem for the subject matter of most landscape photographers, however. Normal ISO range is 100-6400, settable in 1⁄3- or 1⁄2-stop increments. You can shoot RAW images in 12- or 14-bit compressed or uncompressed. The 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitors can be zoomed up to 23X for easy manual focusing, and viewfinder grid lines and electronic virtual horizons make it easy to keep things aligned. The camera also features Active D-Lighting and two-shot in-camera HDR (with JPEG only), which can be useful for gaining extra detail from highlight through shadow in high-contrast situations.
Pro DSLR models are the most rugged, with better weather sealing and more durable, longer-lasting shutters. They also have the best viewfinders with the most coverage. The highest-end pro models like the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4 are geared more toward action photographers and photojournalists, with very quick shooting rates and AF performance, as well as great low-light, high-ISO capabilities. Unless you specialize in moonlit landscapes, you’ll be better off with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III or Nikon D800/D800E for landscape work, and you can put the money you save into quality lenses or high-end filters.
The ideal high-end, full-frame landscape lens kit would include a wide-angle pro zoom (14-24mm or the like), a medium pro zoom (24-70mm) and a telephoto pro zoom (70-200mm). That would cover just about any landscape framing needs while delivering top image quality and versatility for wildlife work. For the best of both worlds, you also could add key primes in your favorite focal lengths in addition to a really good all-purpose zoom. Besides providing better optical performance, high-end pro lenses are more rugged than lesser lenses, better able to withstand harsh shooting conditions and weather.
Sony’s first full-frame SLT model, the A99 updates the SLT series of APS-C cameras, which feature a fixed semi-translucent mirror that sends most of the light to the image sensor while directing a smaller portion to the phase-detection AF sensor, so you get full-time continuous phase-detection AF even with video. A high-end OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder replaces the conventional SLR’s pentaprism assembly, providing eye-level continuous viewing. And there’s no vibration from “mirror slap,” either, which affects the sharpness of an image. The drawback is that a bit less light reaches the sensor than with a conventional DSLR. With 14-bit RAW files, the camera also offers a full-frame, 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor HD CMOS image sensor in a very efficiently sized, magnesium-alloy camera body with weather sealing, which makes it ideal for long hikes. ISO ranges from 100-25,600, and a tilting/swiveling, 3.0-inch, 1229K-dot LCD monitor supplements the OLED eye-level EVF. A built-in GPS unit can record latitude, longitude and altitude in the image metadata, as well.
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MID-RANGE LANDSCAPE OUTFIT
Canon EOS 6D
Canon’s entry-level full-frame DSLR features a 20.2-megapixel CMOS sensor that delivers 14-bit RAW files. A new 11-point AF system offers a center cross-type point that works in light down to EV -3, which can be handy for moonlit landscapes. Relatively compact for a full-frame DSLR, the EOS 6D measures 5.7×4.4×2.8 inches and weighs only 24.0 ounces. A built-in GPS receiver can record latitude, longitude, elevation and Coordinated Universal Time as EXIF data for geotagging. There’s also a built-in WiFi transmitter, a large pentaprism viewfinder with 97% coverage and a 3.0-inch, 1040K-dot LCD monitor. The 6D can use all Canon EF lenses (but not APS-C-sized EF-S lenses, which will vignette). These currently range from the 8-15mm fisheye zoom and 14mm superwide-angle to an 800mm supertelephoto.
The D600 features a 24.3-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor and can deliver either 12- or 14-bit RAW files. For the economical price point of the D600, you gain the same weather sealing and dust resistance as the much more expensive D800/800E, only the shutter is rated for 150,000 cycles instead of 200,000 cycles. The D600 includes a pentaprism viewfinder that shows 100% of the actual area in full-frame mode and 97% in cropped DX mode. It has a 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor, and the body is compact for a full-frame DSLR at 5.6×4.4×3.2 inches and 26.8 ounces. It’s compatible with optional WiFi and GPS units, and like all full-frame Nikon DSLRs, it can use more affordable DX lenses designed for APS-C sensors, automatically cropping to 24x16mm DX format when one is attached and delivering 10.3-megapixel images. Dual memory-card slots accept SD/SDHC/SDXC media.
There are now full-frame models available in what would be considered the mid-range bracket, along with higher-end APS-C cameras. With all other factors equal, full-frame sensors offer a much better signal-to-noise ratio over APS-C simply because more real estate at the sensor results in better light-gathering abilities. While APS-C cameras are speedier because the files are smaller, this doesn’t matter much to landscape work, and what’s more, full-frame DSLRs will show a large advantage over APS-C sensors in high-ISO performance, which can be of significance, especially when shooting in the low-light levels of sunrises or sunsets, and even at night. Sure, you’re probably using a tripod for landscapes (you should be) and you can get away with longer exposures, but this also introduces more image noise, of course.
This doesn’t rule out APS-C models for landscapes, however. Besides cost and size advantages, modern middle-tier APS-C cameras pack plenty of resolution and a wide variety of significant features into formidable little bodies. Mid-range DSLRs also provide several prosumer and amateur-oriented features like in-camera auto HDR (high dynamic range), as well as multiple-exposure and even intervalometer capability or WiFi in a few newer models. They also offer AF fine-tuning to compensate for manufacturing variations among camera bodies and lenses, especially important when the maximum resolution is essential.
With a mid-range budget, you can move up from entry-level lenses to higher-end short-range zooms, and even one-stop-slower-than-top-end primes. The fastest prime lenses really aren’t necessary for most landscape work, and slower models (a 24mm ƒ/2.8 versus a 24mm ƒ/1.4, for example) can save you a lot on money and bulk while still delivering excellent images. The shorter-range zooms can be better corrected digitally than the “superzooms,” too, which also results in better image quality.
Pentax K-5 IIs
The Pentax K-5 IIs features an excellent 16.3-megapixel APS-C sensor with no low-pass filter for increased sharpness, but more moiré. There are two 14-bit RAW formats (PEF and DNG), and construction features dustproofing and cold and weather resistance, as well. The eye-level glass pentaprism viewfinder shows 100% of the image area, as does the 3.0-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor, which also features an air-gap-free design with a reflection-reducing resin layer and AR coating for better visibility outdoors. A standard K-5 II model is available with a low-pass filter for $100 less.
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Sigma SD1 Merrill
The SD1 Merrill features the unique APS-C-sized Foveon X3 image sensor (1.5x crop), which records red, green and blue light information at each and every pixel site in three layers. This sensor design does away with moiré problems and the resulting need for a blurring low-pass filter. Sigma claims roughly 46 megapixels of resolution (4800 x 3200 x 3 layers) though that number is generally considered to be closer to 15 megapixels. Sigma fans claim a large amount of sharpness and color fidelity, but low-light abilities in the Sigma are lacking, however, with an ISO range of only 100-6400. The rugged magnesium-alloy body is sealed against weather, and the viewfinder shows 98% of the actual image area. It’s complemented by a 3.0-inch, 460K-dot LCD monitor, but the camera doesn’t provide live-view or video capability.
The A77 provides most of the flagship A99’s features in a more compact, 24.3-megapixel APS-C package. The same TMT translucent-mirror technology and high-res 2359K-dot OLED Tru-Finder are at the heart of the system, which is wrapped in a weather-resistant, magnesium-alloy body. There’s a built-in GPS, and the 3.0-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor tilts and swivels for easy low-angle compositions and video shooting. Multi-frame noise reduction, Auto HDR and Dynamic Range Optimizer are useful for JPEG landscapes, and Sony’s Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama make shooting in-camera stitched panoramic images simple.
Is Full Frame Going To Take Over?
Where “full-frame” technology once had been found only in the rarefied air of DSLRs that cost several thousand dollars, during 2012 several new models emerged at much lower price points. No one would say these new models from Canon, Nikon and Sony are inexpensive, but cameras with full-frame sensors that cost around $1,500 are certainly a lot more affordable and attractive to most landscape photographers than models with price tags in excess of $3,000. Furthermore, cameras like the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600 could be stops on the way to sub-$1,000, entry-level models.
For many landscape photographers, the ideal DSLR emphasizes resolution, bit-depth, signal-to-noise ratio, high-ISO performance and overall image quality over features like speed and AF performance. Until recently, to get all of the features we wanted for scenic shooting, we also paid for a camera that had photojournalism-level shooting speeds, combat-ready body construction and the latest AF engines and AF sensors that engineers could come up with. Those are great features, but when you have your camera on a tripod overlooking a sunrise in the Great Smoky Mountains, you don’t really make full use of all of them.
The new “mid-range” full-frame DSLRs are shaping up to be excellent options for landscape photography, as they align with most of our priorities. We expect to see even more full-frame options that will be particularly attractive for landscape photography.
LOW-COST LANDSCAPE OUTFIT
Canon EOS Rebel T4i
Canon’s top entry-level EOS Rebel model, the T4i features an 18-megapixel APS-C sensor, 14-bit RAW files and an expandable ISO range of 100-25,600. The eye-level pentamirror viewfinder shows 95% of the actual image area at 0.85X magnification, while the 3.0-inch, 1040K-dot external monitor tilts and rotates for easy odd-angle shooting. The monitor serves as a touch screen; in Live View mode, you just touch the point on the live image where you want the camera to focus. Spot metering mode measures 4% of the actual image area. The T4i can use all EF and EF-S lenses.
With more than a dozen DSLR models selling for under $1,000 today, you can find up to 24 megapixels in resolution at a great price, but all of these cameras are APS-C format, not full-frame. Many house pentamirror viewfinders, but there are also pentaprisms (Pentax K-30) and even high-quality OLED electronic viewfinders (Sony SLT-A65). Entry-level models are aimed at photographers moving up from compact cameras, so many of these DSLRs also have a number of simple-to-use automatic Scene modes, including Landscape and Sunset. Entry-level DSLRs aren’t nearly as rugged as higher-end models, but they should serve the “weekend” landscape shooter well, and a rainproof cover will keep you shooting even in those gorgeous clearing storms. (It’s not a bad idea to use a rainproof cover even with “weatherproof” cameras, when possible.)
For lenses, if you’re just getting started in landscapes, you may want to consider one efficient superzoom: 18-200mm, 18-250mm, 18-270mm or even 18-300mm. These provide all the focal lengths you’ll need in one convenient package. They aren’t as sharp as shorter-range zooms of equal price or prime lenses of equivalent focal length, and they also have more distortion, but they let you learn which focal lengths best meet your landscape needs and keep your sensor from being exposed to dust. Once you figure out the focal lengths you prefer, you also can continue to build your kit with additional shorter-range, but higher-quality zooms or favored focal lengths in primes.
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The D5200 recently bumped the Pentax K-5 series from first place among APS-C sensors in DxOMark.com’s sensor ratings. Key features include the new 24.1-megapixel DX-format (APS-C) CMOS sensor, 14-bit RAW files and in-camera HDR. The pentamirror eye-level viewfinder shows 95% of the actual image area, while the 3.0-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor tilts and rotates for low- and high-angle shooting in Live View mode. There’s a Spot Metering mode that reads 2.5% of the actual image area, an excellent tool for determining scenic brightness range, as well as basing exposure on a specific object in a scene. Lower-end lenses won’t make the most of the D5200’s 24-megapixel sensor, but the sensor will get the most out of any lens you use on the camera. Expandable ISO range is 100-25,600, settable in 1⁄3- or 1⁄2-stop increments.
The K-30 features a 16.3-megapixel APS-C sensor similar to the high-quality K-5 series, but with 12-bit rather than 14-bit A/D conversion. Despite costing substantially less than the K-5 models, the K-30 is sealed against moisture and dust with a 100% pentaprism viewfinder. It offers the same LCD monitor specs and ISO up to 25,600. There’s also an electronic level, in-camera HDR, focus peaking, sensor-shift shake reduction, multiple-exposure capability and a built-in intervalometer. Like all Pentax DSLRs, the K-30 can use all K-mount Pentax lenses, but performs best with the newer ones.
Featuring the same 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor HD APS-C sensor as the A77, the same translucent mirror technology and the same 2359K-dot OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder, the A65 costs considerably less, but delivers similar image quality. The A65 lacks its big brother’s weather resistance, but has a built-in GPS, a 3.0-inch, 921K-dot tilting/swiveling LCD monitor and the same video capabilities as the A77. Other features of note for landscape photographers include in-camera HDR, Sony’s Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama, and a digital level. Like all Sony DSLRs, the A65 can use all Sony A-mount lenses, as well as legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses.
Landscape DSLR Considerations
Landscape images are generally printed big and with great detail. That means you need a lot of megapixels for a lot of resolution, and you also need lenses that are capable of resolving to such high standards. Modern DSLRs provide at least 12 megapixels in resolution or higher, currently topping out at 24.3 megapixels for APS-C cameras and 36.3 megapixels with full-frame models. Besides resolution, dynamic range and color performance are also incredibly important. The top current performer is Nikon’s full-frame D800/D800E, with a little more than 14 stops of dynamic range, roughly that of film. With digital cameras, you also can choose an in-camera white balance setting to suit the conditions, or you can shoot RAW files rather than JPEGs to change the white balance as you process. RAW provides more potential tonal steps, with 4,096 (12-bit) or 16,384 (14-bit) colors versus the 256 colors you’ll find in 8-bit JPEGs. RAW also does away with artifacts and quality loss due to lossy compression with a JPEG. While compression certainly looks good online, these effects are quite noticeable when working with large landscape prints.
Landscape images are best focused manually, so quick AF performance isn’t necessarily important. Good manual-focusing capabilities are far more useful. Pentaprism viewfinders are brighter (and thus provide easier manual focusing), often with more accurate coverage of the frame over the pentamirror finders found in most lower-end DSLRs. Many digital landscape shooters also use Live View mode to compose and focus because you can magnify a desired portion of the screen to check and change focus. Some newer cameras even offer focus peaking, where the in-focus edges in the live-view image are highlighted. A few newer cameras like mirrorless models and Canon’s EOS T4i also offer touch-screen focusing like your smartphone; just touch the point in the image on the LCD monitor where you want to place focus, and the camera will focus there.
Regardless of budget, there are several accessories that are essential for giving your landscapes a creative edge. The effects of a polarizer can’t be replicated digitally, like control over reflections on nonmetallic surfaces, including lakes and rivers, which are often vital elements in a landscape. Neutral-density filters and graduated neutral-density filters are available in a large variety of stops for extra control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO. ND filters provide effects like the “cotton candy” blur to running water. Grad NDs with varying densities can be used to control uneven exposures in areas with a lot of contrast or too much dynamic range. While buying the most expensive filters won’t necessarily give you the best glass, lower-end optical filters actually can degrade image quality, especially when stacking filters.
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LENSES & ACCESSORIES
Lens choice can matter just as much for resolution as the camera
For most landscapes, you’ll shoot stopped down so depth of field covers everything from foreground to background. Luckily, for landscape photographers, this means that fast lenses with large apertures aren’t as important as they are for action or low-light specialists. Slower lenses of a given focal length are smaller, lighter and less costly. On the other hand, a manufacturer’s fast lenses are generally pro offerings, which are “better” than the slower ones in terms of optical performance. Lenses also do the best in sharpness when they’re closed down two or three stops from wide open. So if you need to shoot at an aperture of ƒ/5.6, an ƒ/2.8 lens will be sharper at that aperture than a lens that starts at ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6. Of course, when you stop down beyond ƒ/8 or ƒ/11, diffraction starts to reduce sharpness, as well, so you’ll have to decide which is more important for the shot—maximum sharpness at the focused point in your scene or overall sharpness from the foreground through the background.
Looking at primes, favored focal lengths for landscapes will depend heavily on the photographer. At minimum, a capable kit will include at least one wide-angle, a telephoto and a basic perspective lens at 50mm. Though some prefer an exaggerated look, landscapes generally should look natural, so it’s best to start with wide-angle solutions in the 20mm to 28mm (35mm equivalent) range to avoid distortion. Primes are great choices for achieving the most sharpness. They have been designed to meet the needs of a single focal length, while zooms must make several compromises in design to be able to accommodate so much range. But today’s better zooms are very good, and the difference between prime and zoom isn’t as huge as it was a decade or two ago. The advantage to a zoom lens is that it lets you change focal lengths quickly without physically exposing your image sensor to the environment. Zooms are also much lighter to carry than multiple primes, while a single prime is much lighter than a single zoom. An ideal strategy, whether shooting landscapes or anything else, is to choose a high-end zoom with a lot of coverage and then complement it with your favored focal lengths in primes. This gives you the best of both worlds.