First, I want to start out noting that I am not, in any way, a gear snob. The camera is a tool, not the creator. Nothing drives me more crazy than hearing people say, “You take beautiful pictures, you must have a really good camera.”
I have seen staggering images made with everything from $10,000 medium formats to iPhones. So not owning the perfect camera (whatever that is), should not be a hindrance to your creative exploration of the landscape.
But a camera IS a tool, and good tools will help you create good work, or at least make that work easier and more enjoyable. In this article, I’m going to talk a bit about the different types of cameras on the market and their pluses and minuses when it comes to landscape photography.
I’ll throw in some of my own opinions on cameras, brands, and lenses, then hopefully, you’ll be able to take all that information and make a decision for yourself.
Let’s start off by talking about sensor sizes.
Cameras come in all kinds of forms, from huge medium format cameras that cost more than most automobiles to phones. The medium format monstrosity may have a sensor a whopping 53mm across, while the one in your phone will be smaller than a finger nail.
But here, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to discuss the three sensor sizes that most photographers are likely to encounter: Four-thirds, APS-C, and “full-frame”.
The full-frame sensor is named so, because it is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. It is the largest sensor size affordably available. Size has a few advantages.
- A larger sensor translates to a wider field of view. There is no “crop factor” (see below), so lenses provide the field of view expected at the selected focal length.
- Larger sensors usually yield less digital noise.
- Higher megapixel count. With the larger sensor sizes, more pixels can be packed in without causing noise.
But there are also drawbacks. Cameras need to be larger to hold the sensor and affiliated electronics. Big, full-frame DSLRs are heavy, cumbersome, and will fill your camera bag really quickly. While mirrorless cameras resolve the size issue, it doesn’t fix the problem of price. Big sensors tend to cost more, sometimes lots and lots more.
My thoughts on full-frame sensors: I like a full-frame sensor for landscape photography and I find them vital for night photography. I spend a lot of time shooting the aurora borealis (northern lights), and the low noise of my full-frame Sony mirrorless cameras, even at very high ISOs, are vital to that work.
Additionally, I like getting a wide field of view with a full-frame without resorting to inferior lenses made specifically for smaller sensor sizes. If you are only going to shoot landscape, and you can afford it, then full-frame cameras are hard to beat.
The crop sensor of a Canon 7D camera, and a very long lens allowed me to make this image of the moon rising over the Andes of Bolivia.
APS-C cameras like the Canon 7D series, Canon XXD series, Nikon’s DX cameras, and Sony’s a6500, have a somewhat smaller sensor than full-frame. APS-C is around 2/3rd the size of a full frame but the exact amount varies by the manufacturer.
This means APS-C has a “crop factor”. In other words, the full frame is essentially cropped in camera to a smaller size, meaning a loss in wide-angle capability (a 16mm on a full frame becomes an effective 25mm on an APS-C camera), and a net gain in telephoto capability (a 500mm lens on a full-frame essentially becomes an 800mm on an APS-C.)
Though I moved away from APS-C sized sensors several years ago for landscape photography, many images from those days remain in my collection, like this shot of an old concrete pier on the Caribbean island of Cozumel.
My thoughts on APS-C: I find this sensor size falls in an uncomfortable range for landscape photography. It’s a jack of all trades but a master of none.
While there are APS-C specific wide angle lenses that allow you to recover the wide range, I found that the quality of these lenses is inferior to the high end glass by Canon, Nikon or Sony.
Some wildlife photographers really like this size for the extra reach, but you’ll see few serious landscape photographers select this size above the others available.
A micro 4/3rd sensor was no hindrance when I made this image of the sunset over the mountains of Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Micro 4/3 Sensors
This is the smallest of the common sensor types and is about half the size of a “full-frame” sensor. In this case, a 24mm becomes a 48mm equivalent. While this heavy crop factor would seem to be a serious drawback of 4/3 cameras, there are many lenses designed specifically for this format that have extremely high quality.
I shoot two camera lines, one of which is Panasonic Lumix’s 4/3 system. I chose it for its light weight and very high quality images, in a small and compact package.
That brings me around to another reason not to overlook the 4/3 cameras: size and weight. These cameras, because they carry a much smaller sensor, are not large. Both Lumix and Olympus, the main manufacturers of 4/3 format cameras, make compact and light mirrorless bodies.
The drawback of this sensor size, is relatively poor performance at high ISOs. This is a major issue in night photography specifically. And though I really like my Lumix system cameras for most daylight conditions, I move to my full-frame Sony for night photography.
Sensor Size – Final Thoughts
There is no such thing as a “professional” sized sensor. These three common types are simply different formats. Just as you can’t compare 35mm to 8×10 glass plate on a view camera, you can’t really make generalizations about sensor size in digital cameras.
They are different formats but one is not necessarily better than other.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
When it comes to camera types, I have a definite, and not always popular opinion. I believe that we will soon see the end of DSLRs. These big, bulky, heavy cameras have little benefit over the more compact and light weight mirrorless cameras now available.
Sony mirrorless cameras have some of the best image quality available on the market right now, easily equal to or better than anything made by Canon or Nikon… at half the weight.
Now don’t get me wrong, DSLRs have great image quality, they often have straightforward controls, and above all, most photographers feel comfortable with them, but they have absolutely no advantage in image quality.
There, I said it. If you are new to photography, I encourage you to explore the mirrorless options available.
There are two drawbacks to mirrorless. The first is that (until very recently) the weather sealing and durability has not been the equal of DSLRs. However, that is changing with recently produced mirrorless bodies.
The second drawback is battery life. Mirrorless cameras rely on digital viewfinders which draw heavily on batteries. Additionally, batteries for many mirrorless cameras are smaller and less powerful. This combination leads to shorter battery life. I resolve this by pocketing a few spares, a minor inconvenience.
Long exposures, high contrast, and night photography together tend to the areas best suited to full-frame cameras.
The one discipline of landscape photography where there is a true division in quality between manufacturers and sensor formats is night photography. If you plan to shoot frequently at night, then a full-frame sensor is important.
Consider a camera with good performance at high ISOs. Sony has recently been dominating this race, but Nikon (since they adopted Sony sensors) is also excellent. Canon too is catching up, with high quality images in low light conditions.
My Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras thrive in conditions like this.
Due to the relatively poor performance at night of the 4/3 system, I would, for the time being, avoid these cameras if you focus on night photography.
Plan to use your camera for more than landscapes? If wildlife, animals, or sports are on your list, you might want to consider the crop sensor formats of APS-C and 4/3rds. These give you a little extra reach with your long lenses and still produce great results.
I’ve recently switched all my wildlife work away from Canon, which I’d used for many years, to Lumix. The 4/3rd sensor allows much smaller and lighter lenses to have the same magnification and comparable depth of field to the enormous glass I’d previously carried for the Canon system. I’ve not regretted the switch.
Making the Decision
There is no one best camera for landscape photography. I wish there was, I’d simply say, “Buy this camera!” and that would be the end of the discussion. But the fact is that many cameras will do a great job. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you decide which landscape camera is best for you:
- Does size matter? If, like me, you’ve decided that smaller, more compact equipment is important, then you might consider mirrorless cameras, and/or have 4/3rd sized sensors. If not, then the solid functionality of a DSLR might be just the ticket.
- Is brand important? If you are already shooting a camera brand, then you probably have some lenses in your quiver and making a switch to a new brand can be an expensive proposition. If so, by all means stick to your system. Otherwise, all the major manufacturers are making great cameras. Sony, Nikon, Canon, Lumix, Olympus, Fuji… whatever, they all make great equipment. Pick a system you like, has controls that you find intuitive, and is good at what you want to shoot.
- Night shooting? If so, lean toward larger sensors in either mirrorless or DSLR. Make sure the camera has good high ISO performance.
Still Can’t Make Up Your Mind? Rent One
When you really can’t decide, don’t. There are several online camera rental companies, and some local camera shops will have rental gear available.
Try a few cameras out. Compare image quality and usability. You don’t have to commit, just try a few, then decide after you’ve played with the various options.
Just like making images, choosing a camera should be a purposeful exercise. Think it through, consider the drawbacks and advantages, because each system, brand, camera type, and sensor size will have advantages and disadvantages.
Like cropping around unwanted elements in an image, selecting a camera for landscape photography that is right for you is a process of elimination. Now, start eliminating and find the right camera for you.
No matter which camera you choose, read our advice on why you should always have your camera with you.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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