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DSLRs To Shoot B&W Photos 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.
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The legendary Ansel Adams was certainly one of our best-known landscape photographers. He made so many iconic images of the American landscape that he, himself, became an icon. Adams combined an artist’s creative eye with a scientist’s methodic mind, codeveloping the famous Zone System to enable him to create prints that showed exactly what he saw in his mind’s eye when he took the photo. While some have made a near-religion out of the Zone System itself, to Adams it was merely a means to an end: a way to produce, consistently, prints that conveyed to the viewer what he saw and felt when he made each photograph.

Digital imaging didn’t exist when Adams was active, but he saw it coming. When OP Senior Editor Mike Stensvold interviewed Adams for a magazine in 1980, his wonderful book Yosemite and the Range of Light had just come out, and he was delighted to discover that he could get more out of his negatives with the laser scanner used to create the images for the book than he could printing them in the darkroom. He was excited about the possibilities the future held and even left his negatives to a large university, in part, so the people there could print them with future technologies.

That was 30 years ago.

Electronic (now digital) imaging has come a long way since then, and we strongly suspect Adams would be using it today. He’d be scanning his classic negatives and making more expressive prints than ever. And he’d be shooting digital. Why? Because he believed in control, and digital provides it, far beyond what was possible with film and the darkroom. And more than anything, Adams knew photography is about the photograph, not how you got there. Any tools that would help him create those terrific prints, he’d love.

Ultimately, Adams was about the final image. He previsualized the final image and exposed, developed and printed to get that in the final print. He adjusted exposure, used filters, applied special development, dodged, burned, masked, used intensification and reduction, used different paper grades and toned his prints. There’s nothing “straightforward” about that. But for him, the point was to produce a print that showed what he saw, not the process(es) used to do it.

We think Adams also would have loved digital imaging because it provides instant feedback—you see the results of anything you do right there on the monitor in real time. And ever the environmentalist, Adams would have appreciated the fact that digital does away with harmful darkroom chemicals. (Some also point to a savings in paper, since you don’t have to make all those test prints with digital, but actually, you do. It’s rare that the first or even second inkjet print is “perfect.” Digital does save the time of processing prints and waiting for them to dry before you can evaluate them.)

Adams is best known for his large-format work, but he did a lot with medium-format SLRs and even shot with 35mm rangefinder cameras. While he worked differently with each type of camera, his quest for image perfection remained a constant.

Today, Adams likely would be shooting with a scanning back on his large-format cameras and with medium-format DSLRs. Those are very expensive devices, though, and today we have much more affordable “35mm-format” DSLRs that produce amazingly good image quality—far better than film of an equivalent format, especially at higher ISO settings. What sort of DSLR would Adams use?

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 ( 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.

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.

Adams worked primarily with large-format view cameras, in part, for the image control provided by their shift and tilt movements and, in part, for their large, ground-glass viewing screens, which allows an experienced photographer to more easily assess composition, focus and depth of field. So he’d use a DSLR with Live View capability, draping his dark cloth over photographer and camera to block reflections, and composing, focusing and checking depth of field on the live image from the image sensor itself.

Other DSLR features Adams would find useful include a mirror prelock and a depth-of-field preview (Live View covers these, but if your camera doesn’t have Live View, they’re helpful features). Mirror prelock allows you to compose and focus, then flip the mirror up out of the light path and wait for the vibrations to die down before making the exposure. Depth-of-field preview stops the lens down to the shooting aperture so you can see in the viewfinder what will be sharp and what won’t in the resulting photo (the viewfinder image gets darker when the depth-of-field preview stops the lens down, so this works best in good light).

Adams wouldn’t use auto-anything. He’d determine exposure manually, starting with spot-meter readings as in film days, but take advantage of the LCD monitor image and histograms (bearing in mind that the monitor image is a JPEG and the histogram is for the JPEG, even when you’re shooting RAW format). He’d focus manually (or using contrast-based AF in Live View mode, choosing the focused area carefully and checking it on the zoomed live image). And he’d set white balance manually (you can change the white balance of a RAW image when processing it, but it’s best to get it close before you shoot). All of today’s DSLRs allow you to set white balance manually.

Some DSLRs can shoot HDR (High Dynamic Range) images in-camera, but Adams probably would do his HDRs afterward, using HDR software, because that provides much more control over the results. Likewise, most DSLRs provide dynamic-range-increasing features (Nikon’s Active D-Lighting and Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer, for example, both of which we find very effective), and Adams certainly would experiment with these, but probably would do HDR in postprocessing to control dynamic range. In-camera HDR and other dynamic-range-increasing features do give the photographer who doesn’t want to deal with HDR software some ways to get better images in-camera.

Most DSLRs let you shoot images in monochrome instead of color, and Adams worked mainly in black-and-white, so it’s likely he would have experimented with monochrome mode, too. You even can apply colored filter effects to monochrome images in-camera. If you shoot RAW, you can process the resulting images to color or monochrome even if you shoot in monochrome mode; if you shoot JPEGs in monochrome mode, they will be monochrome only. Adams definitely would have shot RAW images for a number of reasons (see the “Top 10” sidebar).

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The Tools

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. Canon’s newest DSLR is a master-of-all-trades. It offers 16.1-megapixel resolution with decent-sized pixels for finely detailed landscapes and can shoot high-res images at 10 fps with an entirely new AF system to handle any wildlife action you might encounter while afield.

The Mark IV incorporates Canon’s latest technology, with an all-new, Canon-produced CMOS image sensor, dual DIGIC 4 processors, the latest noise-reduction algorithms, 14-bit A/D conversion, automatic lens peripheral illumination (vignetting) correction, Live View shooting with its 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor and more. Normal ISO range is 100-12,800, with a top expanded setting of 102,400. The Mark IV is the first 1-series Canon DSLR to provide video capability, and it can shoot 1080p full HD video at ISOs up to 102,400. Video gives the landscape photographer a new way to present the landscape by panning slowly across a wide expanse of horizon (especially effective at sunrise or sunset) or including the motion of a waterfall or wildlife moving through a picturesque scene.

The one drawback to the Mark IV as a landscape camera applies only to those who specialize in ultrawide-angle work. The Mark IV won’t accept the EF-S lenses designed for the APS-C-sensor cameras (EOS 7D, 50D, Rebels, etc.), and its APS-H sensor’s 1.3x “crop” factor turns Canon’s widest non-EF-S lens, the EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L, into an 18.2mm. Thus, the full-frame Canon DSLRs can provide a widest focal length of 14mm, the APS-C models, a widest equivalent focal length of 16mm (10-22mm EF-S zoom, 1.6x crop factor), and the EOS-1D Mark IV, a widest equivalent focal length of 18.2mm (14mm, 1.3x crop factor). Of course, if 18mm is wide enough for your work, this isn’t a factor.

Canon EOS 7D. Canon’s top APS-C format (1.6x crop) DSLR, the 18-megapixel EOS 7D has plenty of pixels for detailed landscapes. Placing more pixels on a smaller sensor, the 7D doesn’t match the high-ISO capability of the EOS-1D Mark IV, but it delivers superb detail at lower ISOs, where most landscape images are shot. And it delivers good quality even at higher ISO settings.

If you want to grab some wildlife action in the midst of your landscape shoot, the 7D can do full-res images at 8 fps and features a new AF system that’s the most sophisticated ever in a non-pro EOS DSLR. Live View with the 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor makes composing and examining shots easy. Like the Mark IV, the 7D offers 1080p full HD video capability at all ISO settings (normal range is 100-6400, with expansion to 12,800).

With its APS-C-format image sensor, the 7D can use all EF and EF-S lenses. The widest is the EF-S 10-22mm zoom, which provides a 35mm-camera-equivalent focal length range of 16-35mm. Canon’s TS-E tilt-shift lenses provide view-camera-like control over perspective and depth of field.

Also Consider: Of course, Canon’s two full-frame, 21.1-megapixel models are terrific landscape cameras. The EOS-1Ds Mark III is an all-out pro model, ruggedly built and sealed against the elements, with excellent AF capability. The newer EOS 5D Mark II produces even better image quality, adds 1080p full HD video (although a more limited version than in the Mark IV and 7D), and costs some $4,000 less.

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Nikon D3S. Nikon’s newest DSLR, the full-frame D3S is another master-of-all-trades, with superb image quality for the speed throughout its ISO range and capable of shooting at 9 fps (11 fps in cropped DX mode), with excellent autofocusing should you want to grab quick wildlife action that occurs while you’re out stalking great scenery. And with a normal ISO range of 200-12,800 expandable to 102,400, it can record excellent images in any light level.

The D3S is Nikon’s first pro DSLR to provide HD video capability. It can capture 720p HD video at ISOs up to 102,400 at 24 fps. The 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor provides Live View shooting with phase-detection and contrast-based AF, as well as manual focusing on a magnified image.

Extremely rugged and well sealed against the elements, the D3S lets you get shots in conditions that lesser cameras can’t handle. A battery good for up to 4,200 shots between charges and dual CompactFlash card slots mean you can do a lot of shooting before you have to think about “refueling.” A Dynamic Integrated Dust Reduction System keeps the big sensor clean.

Nikon D300S. Nikon’s top APS-C format (1.5x crop) DSLR, the D300S improves noticeably on the original D300’s image quality, even though both feature 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensors. Improvements are due, in part, to sensor technology and, in part, to new EXPEED processing. The D300S shares the D300’s normal low-noise ISO range of 200-3200, expandable to 6400, but image quality is better at all speeds. The powerful new processing also makes possible 720p HD video at 24 fps.

The 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor provides Live View operation with phase-detection and contrast-based AF, and manual focusing on a magnified image. A new Virtual Horizon Graphic Indicator makes it easy to level the camera for landscapes.
While not as all-out rugged as the D3-series cameras, the D300S is well built for outdoor shooting. It incorporates slots for both CompactFlash and SD memory cards, and Nikon’s Dynamic Integrated Dust Reduction System to keep the sensor clean.

Also Consider: Nikon’s top-of-the-line D3X features a 24.5-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor and all the ruggedness and the AF system of the D3S, but lacks the video capability. The D700 features the same sensor, processing, and AF and metering systems as the D3, but in a much lighter, more compact and lower-priced package. Both are excellent landscape cameras.

Tilt-Shift Lenses

As mentioned in the main article, Adams did most of his shooting with large-format view cameras, in part for their movements. While DSLRs don’t have such movements, Canon and Nikon offer a series of lenses that provide them (albeit with not as great a range). Shift allows you to get a tall subject in the frame without tilting the camera up, thus keeping the film plane parallel to the subject and avoiding converging parallel lines. The tilt movement allows you to use the Scheimpflug principle to maximize depth of field: If you adjust things so lines drawn through the image (sensor) plane, lens plane and subject plane converge at a single point, depth of field will be maximized, even at wider apertures. This is especially important with DSLRs, as diffraction reduces image quality noticeably at apertures smaller than ƒ/11 to ƒ/16. Canon’s tilt-shift lenses are the TS-E 17mm ƒ/4L, TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II, TS-E 45mm ƒ/2.8 and TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8. Nikon’s tilt-shift lenses are the PC-E Nikkor 24mm ƒ/3.5D ED, PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm ƒ/2.8D ED and PC-E Micro Nikkor 85mm ƒ/2.8D. All can be used on full-frame and small-sensor cameras, of course, providing a wider angle of view on the full-frame models.


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Olympus E-3. Olympus’ pro DSLR, the E-3 is a 10.1-megapixel, Four Thirds System model that’s rugged and splashproof (as are a number of the lenses for it). And all Four Thirds System lenses are designed specifically for the Four Thirds format, producing excellent image quality.

Olympus introduced sensor-dust removal in its first DSLR, and all Olympus DSLRs incorporate this handy feature for those who change lenses often in the field. A Live View button provides easy access to this feature, and the LCD monitor tilts and swivels for easy high-, low- and odd-angle shooting. An IS button activates the built-in, sensor-shift image stabilization, which works with all lenses.

Pentax K-7. Pentax’s top-of-the-line DSLR, the K-7 packs a 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor (1.5x crop), a 3.0-inch Live View LCD monitor and even HD video in its smallest-in-category body. That body is weather-, dust- and cold-resistant, handy for getting those dramatic inclement-weather shots. Pentax SDM lenses are also weather- and dust-resistant. There’s a built-in intervalometer (ideal for time-lapse studies, such as the sun rising or setting, or an eclipse), a dedicated Live View button for easy operation of that feature, and your choice of two RAW formats—Pentax’s proprietary PEF or Adobe’s “universal” DNG. Other features of interest to landscape photographers include in-camera, three-frame HDR, auto correction of lens distortion and chromatic aberration when DA-series lenses are used, and the ability to use all Pentax lenses. There’s sensor-shift shake reduction that works with all lenses and a sensor-dust remover.

Sigma SD14. This no-nonsense image-making device is excellent for landscape photography. There’s a simple-to-activate mirror prelock and a wide selection of lenses. But mainly, the Sigma SD14 is the only current DSLR to feature the unique Foveon X3 image sensor. The photodiodes used in image sensors can’t detect color, they can only collect photons. To provide color data, conventional image sensors are overlaid with a Bayer filter array—a grid of red, green and blue filters—so that each pixel reads only red, green or blue light. Each pixel gets info for the missing colors from neighboring pixels via sophisticated proprietary interpolation.

The Foveon sensor takes advantage of the fact that different light wavelengths penetrate silicon to different degrees. Blue wavelengths don’t penetrate very far, green ones penetrate farther, and red ones go the deepest. So the Foveon sensor stacks three layers of pixels. Thus, every pixel site records all three colors, red, green and blue, and no interpolation is needed. Sigma bought Foveon last year, so Sigma’s DSLRs are likely to remain the only ones to feature this sensor.

Sony DSLR-A850. The full-frame, 24.6-megapixel A850 offers the same excellent image quality as its A900 big brother, along with most of its features, at a $700 savings. The A850 also shares the A900’s Sony Exmor CMOS sensor, dual Bionz image processors, multi-stage noise reduction, lenses and even dimensions. The main difference between the A850 and A900 is of little interest to the landscape photographer— the A850 tops out at 3 fps vs. 5 fps for the A900.

A full-frame sensor with 24.6 megapixels means lots of detail in landscape shots. Sony’s five-level DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) helps tame contrasty scenes. Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization works with all lenses, and there’s a sensor-dust remover.

The A850 doesn’t offer Live View operation, but an Intelligent Preview function lets you check the effects of exposure, white balance and DRO on a preview image on the 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor.

Also Consider: Sony’s first full-frame DSLR, the A900 offers the same high-res, 24.6-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor and dual Bionz processors as the newer A850, and offers faster shooting (5 fps) and a 100% SLR viewfinder. The pixel count, image processing and availability of excellent Zeiss T* and Sony G-series lenses make it an outstanding landscape camera.

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Tripod Vs. Stabilization

Tamron AF18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC

Ansel Adams didn’t have access to stabilized lenses and camera bodies (they didn’t exist at the time), so he had to work from a tripod. If he were shooting today, would he use one? We’ll answer that in a moment, but first, a bit about stabilization.

There are two basic types of stabilization: in-lens and in-camera. Canon introduced the first image-stabilized interchangeable SLR lens back in 1995, the EF 75-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM zoom. Motion sensors detect camera shake, and the system moves a lens group to counter it. In-lens stabilization’s primary advantage is that it stabilizes both the recorded image and what you see in the viewfinder. The stabilization system also can be optimized for each specific lens model, and it works with film as well as DSLRs. The primary drawback, of course, is that you get stabilization only with lenses that incorporate it. And these cost more than non-stabilized lenses. Canon’s IS, Nikon’s VR, Sigma’s OS and Tamron’s VC lenses incorporate in-lens stabilization.

Minolta introduced in-camera sensor-shift stabilization with its first DSLR, the Maxxum 7D, in 2003. Motion sensors detect camera shake, and the image sensor itself is moved to counter it. The big advantage of sensor-shift stabilization is that it works with any lens you attach to the camera. The main drawback is that it stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the viewfinder. And, of course, sensor-shift stabilization isn’t available in film SLRs. Most Olympus, Pentax, Samsung and Sony DSLRs incorporate sensor-shift stabilization.

Manfrotto 190CXPRO4

Stabilization is wonderful. Adams called the 35mm camera “an extension of the eye as used freely in the hand,” and the handheld camera, 35mm or DSLR, is so easy to move that it frees you up to fully explore compositional possibilities, as mountain-climbing photo artist Galen Rowell and others have proved. Tripods tend to make for more static shots; that’s not a bad thing, as the work of Adams (and many others) confirms. But the freedom of the handheld camera encourages new ways of seeing, and that’s a good thing—often just moving the camera a few inches can make a big difference, and you’re much more likely to check that out with a handheld camera than a tripod-mounted one. With a handheld DSLR, you can shoot in places you couldn’t or wouldn’t take a tripod. And image stabilization makes it possible to get sharper handheld shots.

But a tripod has its advantages, too. First, a tripod can hold a camera steadier than a photographer can, even with stabilization. When ultimate sharpness is the goal, as in landscape photography, a tripod is a necessity. Even more importantly, the tripod locks in your composition so you can study it and you won’t accidentally change it as you squeeze off the shot. Adams and most serious landscape photographers spent/spend a lot of time examining the image on their large-format cameras’ ground glass, carefully fine-tuning the composition, depth of field and focus. You can’t do that as effectively with a handheld camera, even a stabilized one.

So should you shoot landscapes handheld or from a tripod? Many landscape pros do some of each. Try both ways and see what works best for you. But Adams would have worked from a tripod, even today.

10 Tips
How To Set Your DSLR To Shoot Like Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams likened his negatives to a composer’s score and the print to the performance of that score. With digital imaging, the RAW image is your score, and you have tremendous freedom in performing (processing and printing it).1 All current DSLRs can shoot images in both RAW and JPEG formats. RAW format is the only way to go for top-notch landscape images for a number of reasons. First, RAW images aren’t compressed (or are compressed losslessly), while JPEGs are rather severely compressed, losing a lot of image information (detail) in the process. Second, RAW images are 12- or 14-bit (16-bit with medium-format DSLRs), while JPEGs are 8-bit. An 8-bit image has 256 tonal steps from black to white. A 12-bit image has 4,096 steps from black to white, a 14-bit image has 16,384 tonal steps, and a 16-bit image has 65,536 tonal steps. Besides offering a much smoother tonal range (and much better colors, since each color channel has many more steps), the higher-bit images provide a lot more leeway in editing. If you bring the left and right Levels sliders in 20 steps each to “punch up” a low-contrast image, that leaves a total of 216 tonal steps with a JPEG image, but still more than 4,000 steps with a 12-bit image and far more with higher-bit images. Third, RAW files are essentially the data recorded by the image sensor (they’re not “images” until you process them using RAW conversion software), unmanipulated by the camera’s processor, while JPEGs are processed in-camera. RAW images also allow you to adjust such things as white balance and sharpening, with no loss of image quality, whereas doing this with JPEGs (which already have had white balance, sharpening and contrast adjusted in-camera) will result in a loss of quality. Finally, when you edit a RAW image, you don’t actually change the original RAW image; your changes will be applied and saved as a TIFF or JPEG or whatever you wish, while the original RAW remains unchanged as your master file. RAW images do take up a lot more space on memory cards than JPEGs, require individual processing in your computer and require more computer horsepower, but we’re talking Ansel Adams here—ultimate image quality. Adams would have shot RAW!2 While today’s DSLRs can deliver better image quality than film at any given ISO setting, best results are still obtained at the lower ISOs, just as with film. If you want to shoot a moody twilight or predawn shot, crank up the ISO as needed and do it. But for best results, use the lowest ISO setting that will let you get your shot (i.e., that will let you use a suitable aperture and exposure duration).

3 As indicated in the “Tripod Vs. Stabilization” sidebar, you’ll get the sharpest images by mounting your camera on a solid tripod for landscape photos. Using the tripod also will allow you to use a lower ISO setting. Caveat: Some DSLRs offer an ISO setting lower than the lowest one in the camera’s “normal” ISO range. Don’t use it unless you really need a low ISO to produce a long exposure time. “Extended” lower ISO settings reduce dynamic range and, thus, image quality.

4 If your camera has a mirror prelock, use it. That will keep vibrations caused by the mirror flipping up out of the light path from adversely affecting image sharpness. Live View is a big advantage here. With most Live View DSLRs, the mirror must flip up to provide the live view, so the vibrations will have settled down long before you take the shot.

5 Most lenses are sharpest at intermediate apertures. At the widest aperture, various aberrations reduce image quality, and stopped way down, diffraction reduces image quality (and does it more obviously with high-resolution DSLRs than with film). So, whenever possible, shoot at intermediate apertures—ƒ/8 to ƒ/13 for most DSLRs. It’s a good idea to test your landscape lenses and cameras at various apertures to see what works best with your specific gear—Adams certainly would.

6 Of course, if the light level is low, you might be better off shooting wide open or near it, and if you really need extreme depth of field, stop way down. Bear in mind that doing so reduces overall image quality, which becomes evident in a large print. (Again, digital offers an advantage—you can use various sharpening techniques to counter some of the image-quality loss.)

7 Accurate focusing is essential. It doesn’t matter how many megapixels the camera has or how excellent the lens is if you don’t focus accurately. The most accurate way to focus a DSLR with Live View capability is to focus manually in Live View mode, zooming in on the point where you want to place focus. You can try contrast-based AF, setting the focus point to the desired spot in the scene. (While phase-detection AF is terrific for birds in flight and such, contrast-based AF in Live View mode is better for landscapes. Test your camera to see what works best.) Focusing manually using the eye-level SLR viewfinder is also good, but we’ve seen a misaligned DSLR—when the image is dead-sharp in the finder, it’s not focused at the image sensor; check your camera and lens(es) for accuracy. For landscapes, Live View is better. Once you’ve focused sharply on the desired point, choose an aperture to provide the desired depth of field.

8 Many newer DSLRs offer autofocus fine-tuning. You can make the camera focus closer to or farther from the lens in small, precise increments to compensate for camera body/lens mismatches. If your camera has this feature and autofocusing seems less than perfect with a particular lens, check out the AF fine-tuning feature to optimize sharpness. But it’s still best to focus landscapes manually to make sure focus is exactly where you want it.

9 Keep your lenses and image sensor clean. Many current DSLRs have built-in sensor dust removers, and these are a big help, but sooner or later, you’ll need to clean your sensor (or have it cleaned by a qualified repair shop). Acquired debris on the sensor not only appears as spots in images, but can affect overall image quality as well.

10 You can improve sharpness as the last step in processing your digital images. Again, RAW images have an advantage. JPEGs are sharpened in-camera, then compressed. If you re-sharpen the image, results won’t be as good as if you sharpen a RAW image that wasn’t sharpened in-camera and lossy compressed. The Unsharp Mask tool is the standard sharpening method, but there are other sharpening tools in image-editing software and entire software programs devoted to sharpening digital images.