Essential DSLR Features For Landscapes

Discover sophisticated DSLR modes and functions to free your creative vision in the field
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Landscape photography once was primarily the realm of large-format view cameras, but no more. Today’s DSLR models with their high-quality sensors, excellent optics and robust computerized processing and features have taken over. Sophisticated DSLR modes offer nature photographers more possibilities than ever before, as well as unique ways to explore and photograph the expansive world around us. Your landscape images can reap the benefits with better color, absolutely perfect exposures and dynamic compositions. In this article, we break down the key DSLR features for landscape shooters and discuss why these are important and how you can use them to your advantage when shooting landscapes. We’ve also included a chart showing the current lineup of DSLRs with these key features.

Big Resolutions
Yes, megapixel count is overhyped in the never-ending race for more, but more pixels are good for the landscape photographer because more pixels mean that you can make bigger prints with better detail. Image-resizing software applications can make big prints from fewer pixels, but all other things being equal, you’ll get better-looking prints with native pixels and no upsizing. Of course, the more pixels you start with, the better an upsized print of a given size will look, too. More pixels also mean smaller ones on a given-sized sensor, and that can mean reduced image quality, so pay attention to stats besides just megapixel count, like pixel size, as bigger pixels can collect more light, which results in better image quality.

In the rough-and-tumble world of technology, though, there are very few hard-and-fast rules. To prove it, the Nikon full-frame, 24.5-megapixel D3X, as well as the Pentax K-5, Nikon D7000 and Sony DSLR-A580 in the APS-C-format, outscored lower-pixel-count contemporaries in their formats in DxO’s RAW sensor performance ratings at lower ISO settings (go to www.dxomark.com for more information). Bottom line: It doesn’t pay to choose a camera based on one specification alone and certainly not megapixel count. It’s an important spec to take into consideration, however.

Live View
Live view is one of the most important breakthroughs in photographic technology. DSLRs with live-view capability let you check compositions on their three-inch LCD monitors and fine-focus on a greatly enlarged section of that image (both best done with a view camera-style dark cloth or other shade to block out the sunlight). If you like to shoot from high or low angles, a camera with a tilting/swiveling LCD monitor will allow you to do so comfortably with no contortions required. (Non-tilting LCD monitors can be viewed at an angle, generally at a maximum of about 170º, but that’s not always ideal for fine-tuning compositions and focus.) Most importantly, this ease of shooting from different angles will encourage you to break free from the usual human eye-level perspective so often used for landscapes. For occasions when you want to use the eye-level viewfinder, cameras with pentaprism rather than pentamirror viewfinders generally provide brighter, clearer viewfinder images, and many prosumer and top-of-the-line models will offer 100% coverage for precise compositions.


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High Dynamic Range
HDR—high dynamic range—is a technique that combines the best of a bracketed series of exposures into a single image with extremely good detail, all the way from shadows through to the highlights. Whether shooting HDR to subtly expand the dynamic range or to achieve the surreal comic-book HDR look, it’s a useful tool for photographing high-contrast scenes often found in landscape photography. Many cameras allow you to fine-tune the bracketing in 1⁄3- or 1⁄2- stop increments. A few DSLR models now provide HDR capability built into the camera, although at this time in-camera HDR can’t be used with RAW files; it only works with JPEGs. As a built-in feature, it’s very convenient, even with the JPEG-only limitation.

Many DSLRs also have non-HDR features to increase detail in highlights and shadows of high-contrast scenes. Canon offers Auto Lighting Optimizer and Highlight Tone Priority, Nikon has Active D-Lighting, Pentax offers D-Range Setting, and Sony has its Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO). Try experimenting with these when shooting high-contrast scenes. Be aware that the boost to sensor sensitivity also will boost noise.


Picture Styles
Most non-pro DSLRs have a Landscape scene mode that sets the camera for point-and-shoot landscapes. Also, many DSLRs offer what Canon calls Picture Styles and Nikon calls Picture Controls (Pentax has Custom Images, Sony offers Creative Styles). Among them is one for Landscapes, which sets sharpening, contrast, saturation and hue to what the manufacturer considers optimal for landscapes. You can adjust the sharpness, contrast, hue and saturation (and various monochrome parameters should you choose to shoot black-and-white landscapes), making these controls more valuable for the serious landscape photographer than the Landscape scene mode. Note that if you shoot RAW files, you also can change any of these parameters when processing the RAW file.

Mirrorless Cameras
The new mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are good landscape tools. They’re very compact and easy to carry pretty much anywhere, yet they have DSLR-sized image sensors and produce DSLR image quality. The lens selection is limited compared to what’s available for DSLRs, but these cameras—Olympus’ E-P series, Panasonic’s GF models, Samsung’s NX cameras and Sony’s NEX duo—are convenient and capable landscape tools, great as backups for a DSLR, or anytime you’re heading into terrain where carrying a bulky camera and a tripod is impractical.

ISO
You may think good high-ISO capability is of interest mainly to wildlife and sports photographers, but it’s a great asset for the landscape artist, too. A DSLR that performs well at high-ISO settings will let you use a fast enough shutter speed to negate the blurring effects of wind at the same time that it allows you to set a small enough aperture for extended depth of field and sharpness throughout the landscape from foreground to background. Good high-ISO capability even lets you shoot handheld when using a tripod is problematic. Some of the best landscape opportunities occur in low-light situations, especially at dusk, at dawn and in stormy weather, not to mention the many moods of moonlight and shaded glens and streams. Getting the camera off the tripod to experiment on the fly with compositions and framing is liberating! You may gain extra noise, but with acceptable levels of noise currently ranging up to ISO 800, sensor sensitivity has become part of the exposure equation alongside shutter speed and aperture.

How high can you dial up the ISO and still get good image quality? Test your camera to find out. You can shoot exposures (in manual mode) at each ISO setting with the lens cap on, then blow up the images to 100% on screen and crank up the contrast to get an idea of how “noisy” each setting is. A tip: Underexposed high-ISO images are much noisier than properly exposed ones; never underexpose at high ISOs.

Automatic Panoramas
Stitched panoramic images let you capture wider angles of view than is possible in a single shot. Some cameras will stitch images together into a single panoramic image automatically. Sony’s Sweep Panorama makes it simple: Sweep the camera across the scene, and the camera does the rest. This feature was introduced in compact digital cameras, but has now made its way into recent Sony DSLRs and mirrorless models. You can’t beat the ease and simplicity of Sweep Panorama if you want to try making wide-format images. We love using the feature.

Framing Assist
A number of DSLRs offer electronic horizons in live-view mode, and some also offer a horizon tool in the optical viewfinder. These devices help you keep the camera aligned, even in shots where the horizon doesn’t appear in the frame or is obscured by mist. Bear in mind, though, that these aren’t always accurate if the camera is tilted up or down sharply. Quite a few recent DSLRs also provide handy gridlines, either in live-view mode on the LCD monitor or in the eye-level viewfinder—some even in both. These are useful when you can see the horizon in the image and for aligning vertical lines.


Mirror Lock-Up
One drawback of the DSLR concept is that the mirror causes vibrations when it flips up out of the light path to make an exposure. At high shutter speeds, the exposure isn’t long enough for this to cause much blur, and at really long exposure times, the vibration takes up so little of the total exposure that it’s also not a big deal. However, at shutter speeds often used for landscape work—1⁄30 to 1 sec. or so—mirror vibration can noticeably blur an image, even with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. There are several ways you can deal with this. If your DSLR has a mirror prelock feature, you can compose and focus your scene, then lock the mirror in the up position, wait for the vibrations to cease, and trip the shutter. With some cameras, the prelock is a separate feature; with others, it’s combined with the two-second self-timer.

Another Way To Preview
A depth-of-field preview, which stops the lens down to the shooting aperture so you can see in the viewfinder how much depth of field you have, is particularly useful. The viewfinder image gets darker as the lens stops down, however, and in dim light, you may not be able to see anything useful at small apertures. Some DSLRs provide a depth-of-field preview in live-view mode, which we find to be more useful. The image is shown on the large LCD monitor and, more importantly, it’s bright and easy to see. Diffraction noticeably reduces sharpness beyond ƒ/8 to ƒ/11 with smaller-sensor DSLRs and ƒ/11 to ƒ/16 with full-frame models, so don’t automatically stop down to ƒ/22 or ƒ/32 for every shot if you’re after optimal image quality. Set the depth of field you need, but only what you need.

Video Mode
Video gives you new ways to depict landscapes. You can slowly pan across 180º or even 360º—especially effective near dawn or dusk, with the dramatic light and shadows. You can capture the motion and sound of waterfalls, waves and wind. You can smoothly zoom from a wide shot into a point of interest or an animal, or start with a tight shot and zoom back to reveal the entire vista. You don’t have to get fancy to add some great new material to your landscape portfolio—although many of today’s video-capable DSLRs allow you to do so if you’re inclined.

Shooting RAW
Unprocessed RAW files are of particular value to the landscape shooter for a number of reasons. RAW files aren’t compressed or they’re losslessly compressed. When you work on a RAW file, you’re actually not doing anything to the original; you’re nondestructively editing a copy, then saving that as a TIFF or JPEG or whichever file format you choose, leaving the original RAW file untouched. RAW files are also 12- or 14-bit, while JPEGs are 8-bit. Additionally, 8-bit files have 256 tones from black through white, or 256 color shades, 12-bit files have 4,096 tones, and 14-bit files have 16,384 tones. Not only do 12- and 14-bit images produce a smoother range of tones and colors, but they also provide much more leeway for editing adjustments, particularly when using Levels in Photoshop. If you move in the outer Levels sliders 10% each to add snap to a sunset image, that takes away more than 50 of your 256 tones with a JPEG image, leaving so few tones that the resulting image may look posterized. If you move the outer Levels sliders in 10% on a 12-bit RAW image, you’re losing some 800 tones—but you still have more than 3,200 left, a much smoother result. With a RAW file, you also can change the white balance, sharpening and other parameters that are baked into a JPEG.

DSLR Landscape Checklist

Before heading into the field, set up your camera. That’s easier to do in the comfort of your home or even a motel room than it is to do in dim dawn light on location.

1. Charge and pack your batteries.
2. Format and pack your memory cards.
3. Pack the camera’s manual for ready reference.
4. Activate gridlines, if desired.
5. Activate virtual horizon, if desired.
6. Set RAW file format (or RAW + JPEG, if you also want a JPEG image).

You won’t be presetting the following features unless you want them for a specific shot, but read about them in the camera’s manual so you’ll know how to use them should you wish to do so.

1. Live View
2. In-camera HDR
3. Sweep Panorama
4. Video capture
5. Mirror lock-up
6. Depth-of-field preview