A guide to choosing the most suitable equipment for landscape photography, wherever you happen to be.
Being in the right place at the right time is more important than having the most sophisticated gear. Even in foul weather, you can get interesting shots with a weather-sealed APS-C mirrorless camera with a standard kit lens. Shooting data: ISO 800, 35mm focal length, 1/500 second at f/8.
Landscape photography consistently rates among the three most popular genres in Photo Review’s regular reader surveys. Entries in our image reviews, competitions and online galleries confirm its popularity, so we decided it was time to provide an overview of equipment to consider if you are looking to extend your capabilities and/or address a specific sub-set of the genre.
Just as there’s no definitive subject for the genre, no single camera or lens can be claimed as the ‘best’ device for taking landscape photos. But some types of equipment will suit particular shooting situations better than others, and the ways in which the resulting shots are used will influence the resolution required.
Serious photographers can choose from four main types of cameras:
1. Medium format interchangeable-lens models with large (43.8 x 32.8mm to 53.4 x 40.0mm) sensors and high (50 megapixels or higher) resolution. The prices of these cameras and lenses will usually put them out of the reach of enthusiasts. They are also relatively large, heavy and conspicuous.
2. Digital SLR cameras with sensors ranging from approximately 23 x 15mm (‘APS-C’) to 36 x 24mm (‘full frame’) and interchangeable lenses. Entry-level APS-C models are often light, compact and relatively low-priced. However, full frame professional models are usually heavy, large and expensive. The optical viewfinders have some advantages but can’t be used while shooting video.
Being generally smaller and lighter than equivalent DSLRs, mirrorless cameras are ideal for travellers and can produce excellent image quality is a wide variety of shooting situations.
3. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are generally more compact than similarly-featured DSLRs. Sensor sizes range from 17.3 x 13.0mm (M4/3) to 36 x 24mm. Most models include electronic viewfinders (EVFs), which display the scene as it will be recorded and can be used while shooting movies. Resolutions range from 10-20 megapixels for the M4/3 models to 12.2 to 42.4 megapixels for Sony’s ‘full frame’ α-Series cameras. Models with low megapixel counts tend to be designed for video and low-light shooting.
4. Fixed-lens digicams often have smaller sensors, typically ranging from 6.17 x 4.55mm through to 12.8 x 9.6mm and many come with very long zoom lenses, with 20x and 25x zooms being relatively common and a few models offering 60x optical zoom. The so-called ‘super-zoom’ models tend to have smaller sensors. Cameras with larger (APS-C or full frame sized) sensors usually have single focal length lenses or very short zooms.
The image was recorded with a 15-megapixel digicam which was built in 2008 and had a 7.44 x 5.58mm sensor (crop factor of 4.7x). Even though a low ISO 80 sensitivity was selected, the enlarged image shows traces of noise and careful editing of the raw file was necessary to minimise the loss of highlight and shadow details. These factors are all higher with small sensors.
Your choice of camera will depend on where you like taking pictures and the kinds of pictures you take. Simpler equipment usually works best for photographers on the move as it allows them to concentrate upon taking pictures, rather than worrying whether their equipment is safe.
If you enjoy hiking to and within wilderness areas, a light camera and versatile lens will be the easiest to carry. Such equipment will also be ideal for travellers. Look for a ‘weatherproof’ model that can withstand the occasional shower of rain or wind-blown dust. Take care if you swap lenses to prevent dust and moisture from entering the camera body, where they will damage the electronics.
Heavier, more complex equipment is often best for photographers who work close to their vehicles and have plenty of space and time to set-up before shooting. When you have a lot to carry – a couple of camera bodies plus several lenses and other peripherals – carrying it on your back will slow you down and tire you. Unless you are fit, you’re unlikely to get to locations that can only be reached on foot.
Resolution is only important if you make large prints of your photos because it gives you more data to work with. Instead of obsessing over resolution, it’s better to evaluate your needs on a realistic basis.
The largest output size for consumer printers is A3+ (483 x 329mm), which can be filled at optimal quality with a 20-24 megapixel image. Serious enthusiasts may have A2 printers but, even here, 36-megapixels is more than enough for high-quality prints. However, you can get away with lower resolution because large prints are generally viewed from at least a metre away; often even further.
This shot, which was taken with a 20-megapixel M4/3 camera has been successfully printed at A2 size, where it was indistinguishable from a similar image from a ‘full-frame’ DSLR camera shot with similar settings and printed at the same size. Shooting data 24mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/11.
By tradition, wide-angle lenses are recommended for landscape photography because they can encompass sweeping panoramas. However, other lens types may be preferable in some situations, either because of their creative benefits or to accomplish a specific effect.
Wide-angle lenses often have in-built distortion that can be either beneficial or disastrous, depending upon how the lens is used. Extreme distortion is a characteristic of fisheye lenses, which are often used specifically for the effects they produce. Some deliver a 180-degree circular image while with others, the image extends to the corners of the frame, ‘stretching’ towards the periphery. It is impossible to correct these distortions.
An example of the distortions that can be produced with a wide-angle lens when in-camera corrections are disabled.
With very wide-angle lenses, even a slight tilt will cause keyhole distortion in which subjects in the upper part of the frame appear to recede while those in the lower part of the frame are enlarged. (Some cameras include ‘keystone compensation’ to correct this phenomenon.) To minimise distortion, shoot with the back of the camera parallel to the subject.
An example of the perspective compression produced by long telephoto lenses. This shot was taken with a 16-megapixel M4/3 camera with a 300mm lens (600mm equivalent in 35mm format). Note the effects of aerial perspective which progressively lightens the dunes and makes them appear slightly more blue.
Telephoto lenses compress perspective, making distant objects appear closer together than they are in actuality. This effect can be used creatively in landscape photography, particularly if you want an aerial perspective (where more distant objects appear fainter and more blue).
This table provides examples of situations that match different lens types:
|Lens type||Typical focal length for different sensor formats||Best used when…|
|Fish-eye||8-15mm||4.5-10mm||7.5-8mm||You want the extreme distortion.|
|Ultra-wide angle||16-20mm||10-16mm||7-10mm||You want to encompass a wide area in a single shot and can tolerate some rectilinear distortion.|
|Wide angle||24-40mm||18-26mm||12-16mm||You want wide-angle coverage without noticeable distortion.|
|Normal||45-60mm||28-45mm||25-28mm||You want to reproduce the perspective seen by the human eye.|
|Medium telephoto||70-135mm||50-90mm||30-75mm||You want to photograph subjects that are further than you can reach by moving closer (eg: subjects on the other side of a stream or road).|
|Long telephoto||135-300mm||100-200mm||80-150mm||For photographing distant scenes or when you want to compress perspective or isolate a particular element.|
|Extreme telephoto||Over 300mm||Over 200mm||Over 150mm||You want a more extreme perspective compression or if you want to include easily spooked wildlife in shots.|
Some photographers agonise over the choice between prime (single focal length) and zoom (multiple focal lengths) lenses. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer.
Prime lenses are generally faster than zooms (they have wider maximum apertures that let in more light). This makes them easier to use in dim lighting. They are also simpler to design and manufacture, which means they can be smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. Their imaging quality is often better, and they are usually more robustly built.
Zoom lenses are much more versatile and provide a range of focal lengths in a single unit, which is more flexible for shooting different subjects. But they are generally at least a stop slower than an equivalent prime lens. This means you need good stabilisation in your camera and/or lens when they are used in low light.
When choosing between them, consider your budget, the need for portability and how often you’re willing to change lenses. Also take account of the type and style of photography you do and the way you use your pictures.
Most wide-angle lenses come without stabilisation because the effects of camera shake are seldom visible with wide-angle coverage. Stabilisation may be unnecessary with faster lenses where you can use fast enough shutter speeds to prevent camera shake. However, it’s useful for short telephoto and tele-zoom lenses and essential for longer lenses – unless you’re able to use a tripod.
Most Olympus and Sony cameras have in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) via a sensor-shift system, based upon the dust-reduction vibrations that keep the sensor clean. Panasonic also provides it in some recent models. Fujifilm has included IBIS for the first time in its X-H1 camera.
These camera manufacturers design lens stabilisation systems to work with their sensor-shift stabilisers to provide greater stabilisation. Up to five f-stops of shake correction can be achieved.
Stabilisation is useful in places with low light levels, such as dense forests, because it can allow you to hand-hold the camera while using slow shutter speeds. Note the inclusion of people to add a sense of scale to the scene. Shooting data: M4/3 camera with 14mm focal length, ISO 800, 1/13 second at f/8.
Filters can be used for two main purposes:
1. To protect the front element of the lens against damage. (A filter is cheaper to replace.)
2. To achieve a particular effect.
In the past, many photographers fitted a UV or skylight filter to counteract the effects of ultra-violet radiation on colour reproduction. Today’s digital sensors are relatively insensitive to UV radiation so, if protection is needed, it’s better to use a purpose-designed ‘protection’ filter. But if you’re careful with your gear, a filter shouldn’t be necessary and cheap filters can degrade image quality.
Effects filters range from the familiar polarisers and graduated filters to diffusers and filters that create distinctive effects, such as star and soft focus filters. Landscape photographers also use neutral density filters when they need to reduce the light reaching the sensor so they can open the lens aperture a stop or two for depth of field control.
Graduated filters are popular with landscape photographers, when they need to balance extremes of brightness. They are commonly used to prevent over-exposure of skies, allowing darker foregrounds to be recorded more naturally. Fog filters are graduated with diffusers at the top to create an impression of mist or fog.
A circular polariser can make colours appear richer and emphasise the shapes of clouds against a darkened sky.
Be sparing in your use of effects filters. A circular polariser can make colours appear richer and more vibrant and will reduce reflections on shiny surfaces like water. It will also deepen the blue in skies, allowing white clouds to appear more prominent. But avoid using them in clear conditions at high altitudes, where polarisation can result in unnaturally dark skies.
Take care when handling filters. A dirty or greasy filter will noticeably degrade image quality. Look for filters with dust- and moisture-repelling coatings that make them easy to clean.
Aside from camera and lens(es), the most important piece of equipment for a landscape photographer is a camera bag. When choosing, aim to balance portability against convenience.
Backpacks are popular with photographers who hike to their locations because they can accommodate a lot of equipment while being comfortable to carry and leaving your hands free. Once again, waterproof models are recommended for anyone hiking some distance from a vehicle.
Female photographers may find sling-type and ‘messenger’ style bags with a single shoulder strap more comfortable. Better models include some way to secure the bag so it doesn’t swing round and get in the way when the photographer bends over.
Cases are handy for travellers with a lot of gear and photographers who work close to a vehicle. Most cases are waterproof, which can be important if you’re travelling in tropical conditions.
Try to match your equipment to the situations in which you will be shooting, the style(s) of photography you favour and your physical limitations. Photography should be an enjoyable pastime; you don’t want equipment that will undermine your shoot.
Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides