Choosing a Digital Camera for Landscape Photography

So, you’re interested in getting serious about taking landscape photos. Is your current digital camera up to the task? Landscape photographs require a digital camera that is capable of capturing lots of detail and working in less than ideal lighting conditions. A full frame DSLR is probably your best camera for landscape photography, but there are several alternatives worth considering that might appeal to you more because of budget or weight concerns. I used a full frame camera for the image below taken in the Nevada desert.

best Camera for Landscape Photography
Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, ¼ second.

Important Features for Landscape Photography

Advanced predictive autofocus, fast frames per second, and super high ISO performance aren’t really necessary for landscape work, so you won’t need to buy the same cameras being used by professional sports or wildlife photographers. Since these features tend to drive up camera price considerably, as a landscape photographer, you’ll likely be able to save a few bucks. There are some important features however that are useful for landscape work, including the following:

High resolution

You’ll want a camera that produces enough resolution for making large reproductions. Sixteen megapixels is sufficient, although twenty or more is better. Top end full frame digital cameras currently offer as many as 50 megapixels (medium format cameras go even higher; see more below).

Live view

This feature allows the photographer to preview composition, focus, and exposure on the camera’s LCD screen. Personally, I find live view to be essential to my field workflow.

Raw files

If you want total control over how your images look, you’ll need a camera that allows you to shoot raw files. Of course, you’ll also have to learn how to process your raw files, but that’s an entirely different matter outside the scope of this article.

Dynamic range

The more dynamic range your camera sensor has, the easier it is for you to capture detail in highlight and shadow areas at the same time.


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Types of Digital Cameras for Landscape Photography

Keeping this in mind, there are four basic types of digital cameras from which to chose.

Full frame DSLR: the landscape king?

Full frame DSLR (“digital single lens reflex”) cameras have a sensor that is the same size as traditional 35mm film (36mm x 24mm). Full frame cameras are typically more expensive than digital cameras with smaller sensors, but offer higher resolution, better noise control, and superior dynamic range performance, making them perfect for capturing fine detail in landscape images. Full frame camera systems also have a wider variety of lenses available for use than any other system. Full frame digital cameras represent an almost ideal compromise between image quality, flexibility of use, and weight, making them the preferred option for most landscape photographers. My primary landscape camera is a full frame DSLR, as it gives me an unparalleled combination of quality and lens variety.

best Camera for Landscape Photography
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/16, 0.5 second.

Crop sensor cameras: light on the wallet – and around your neck.

These cameras have sensors that are smaller than the traditional 35mm full frame cameras, and therefore are cheaper and lighter than their full frame cousins. When lenses are used on a crop sensor camera, their angle of view is altered and the apparent focal length changes. The most common crop factors are 1.5x or 1.6x (these sensors are known as APS-C size). For example, a camera with a 1.5x crop factor and a 24mm lens has the same angle of view as a 36mm lens on a full frame body (24 x 1.5 = 36). Although crop sensor cameras are typically adequate for landscape work, they won’t deliver quite the same quality as full frame cameras; image quality, noise control, and dynamic range are typically less than with full frame cameras. As for me, I often carry a crop sensor camera with me, but tend to use it mostly for wildlife photography, where the crop factor is a huge advantage.

Mirrorless cameras: the best of both worlds?

These cameras don’t have a mirror (which is an integral part of the design of the traditional DSLR camera), making them smaller and lighter than most DSLRs. As a result, mirrorless cameras don’t have traditional viewfinders – instead, these cameras have electronic viewfinders or work exclusively through a feature called live view – which can make composing and focusing difficult in low light. Despite these difficulties, some landscape pros are successfully using high-end mirrorless camera systems, and mirrorless camera features are quickly improving.

Medium format: perfect when photographing from your yacht.

These large DSLRs are based on the old 6×4.5cm film format. Medium format digital cameras offer higher quality than full frame cameras, but are much more expensive (a complete system can cost more than $50,000 for just the camera and a few lenses) and much less versatile, making them less ideal for field work. Lens options and variety are limited for medium format systems, most notably on the wide angle end of the spectrum. The quality differences between medium format and full frame cameras have gotten a lot smaller in recent years; I think it is fair to say that you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck with a full frame camera. Buy hey, if you are mega-rich, and you want to make huge prints for your yacht, then go for it!

Conclusion

All things considered, a high end full frame DSLR is likely your best camera for landscape photography. But the truth is that you really can’t go wrong if you chose one of the other available systems.

ian-headshot-testAbout the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to a number of leading photo magazines (including Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and others). You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianplant.com.

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Discussion
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22 Responses to “Choosing a Digital Camera for Landscape Photography”
  1. Dave Rice

    All of that information is interesting but doesn’t really say anything. I would have been a bigger help to give me some camera models that actually fit all the criteria. As it is this is just technical jargon and not of much use to me. I read the article because I am in the early stages of buying a new camera and I only do landscape and wildlife. I feel unfulfilled.

    Reply
    • Genaro

      How much money do you have? I have a Sony a6000 which works great for me. If you have a little more available cash go with the New Sony a6300, but if money isn’t an issue go up to the 7s! Five of my Canon lover friends dropped their Canons for the a6000s and higher 7s. Even a friend who just bought her Nikon 4 months prior dropped it for a Sony a6000. If you have the funds rent one.

      Reply
    • Scott L. Royal

      That 7200 is a great camera. Instead of getting caught up in the FF vs Crop, focus on your skill set and develop your photographic MoJo with your 7200. If in a year or two you want to move up to a FF then you will have a skill set already in place. Now if money is no issue and you can afford the $4K (plus) to just get into a FF then by all means swap. Have fun either way.

      Reply
      • Matt

        $4K? I bought a Nikon D600 used from KEH in Very Good condition for $900 over a year ago. The D600 still has one of the top ten rated sensors on DxOMark. You can buy some used AI-S lenses while you’re at it and get going for less than $2K.

        Reply
  2. Ivan Konar Silva

    Hi, I agreed with the author about that de best camera for landscape shooting is a full frame option. How ever in my case in reason of bucks limits, I use a DX camera in raw mode and working the file in an edición program with excelent results. Always said, if you are a serious landscape photographer, edición issue is a must in anycase.

    Reply
  3. Tony DalBello

    I have a Canon 6D which is great for landscapes but suffers a bit when I see some active wildlife I would like to shoot. I do not have extenders and my longest lens is Canon prime 200 f2.8L for reach. I have a Canon 17-40 f4L for landscapes and the Canon 100 f2.8L for macro. Was thinking of the Sigma 125-600 Contemporary lens for some reach rather than use an extender. Any recommendations.

    Reply
    • James Pulliam

      I have a canon 5D mk3 that I use with a 24mm and a 17 to 40mm for landscape. I have a Rokinon 14mm, but it has some interesting effects that make everything that is tall and linear look like a cathedral.

      Reply
  4. victoria

    hello…. im just new on my photography passion. i bought canon eos 80d. is this good for landscape photography? i am planning to buy 18-24mm f/4 lens as you advised for the landscape shooting. right now i have 18-135mm lens and 50mm lens for portrait. i am curious about the sigma lens. are they good and compatible with canon camera? thank you

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Victoria. Yes, the 80D is a fine camera for landscape shooting. And yes the 18-24 zoom is a good range for a landscape lens. Depending on your specific lens you may want to experiment a bit, run it through the f/stops and see if there is a particular setting is that is better then others for sharpness, etc. The most challenging settings for wide zooms is at the widest setting, you may find it best to look for that best
      f/stop when you are at 18mm. Sigma’s are a well regarded brand, I’m sure as you are just getting going you will find them well suited to your needs and you may well grow into them or try other options. Must more important then the gear just get out and shoot, try different times of day and different weather conditions, also play around with post production with Lightroom and Photoshop. Enjoy and Experiment!

      Reply
  5. Craig

    I don’t understand why articles such as this treat mirrorless cameras as a separate category. As someone getting back into cameras a couple of years ago, mirror or no mirror was just another feature to consider, like imagage stablization. I am more likely to be weigh full frame VS crop much more seriously than mirror VS no mirror. I finfpd it strange that the author give much praise to the live view in the screen of his DSLR but disses the live view in the mirrirkess view finder. I much prefer the view finder as I don’t need my reading glasses and I can view it in full sun. The Sony A7r ii is arguably the best full frame camera for landscapes there is, and is certainly among the top 3 or 4 in almost anybody’s book. No, I don’t think a high end full frame DSLR is your best bet. Just, a high end full frame camera….. stop thinking old school

    Reply
    • Ian Plant

      Hi Craig, thanks for your comment, I am glad you found a camera that works for you, the Sony A7r is indeed a wonderful camera. I was by no means “dissing” mirrorless cameras – in fact I pointed out that many pros use them, and I highlighted their quality and light weight. But I think it is entirely fair to note that for some shooting situations, not having an optical viewfinder can be especially challenging (night photography is a good example, I’ve seen many mirrorless camera users struggle to focus and compose in low light; and, of course, if you ever plan to use your camera for other types of photography than just landscape, such as faced-paced wildlife action, then a traditional viewfinder may be preferable or even critical). Treating mirrorless cameras as a separate category isn’t just “old school” thinking; the lack of an optical viewfinder is an important difference that can be very limiting in certain situations, and this is something people should understand and consider before investing in a mirrorless system. I should also point out that as of this writing, there really aren’t that many options for high end full frame mirrorless systems – Sony is about it (Leica makes some too but they are very expensive). Most mirrorless systems use smaller sensors, a lot of them are Micro Four Thirds cameras which use an entirely separate system of lenses and accessories, and many mirrorless cameras don’t offer interchangeable lenses at all. So I think it is fair to say that for landscape users, as of now, mirrorless cameras as a group aren’t as fully developed as DSLRs in terms of image quality and lens/accessory options (with the Sony cameras being an important exception). Not to say that these mirrorless cameras can’t be used for landscape, I am just pointing out that they have their limitations.

      Reply
      • Penny Carlson

        The electronic view finders are getting so good now that I think not having an electric view finder is starting to become the disadvantage. I can see how my camera settings are impacting my shot with the electronic view finder. With my Sony A6500, there is no lag when I take action shots and no black out as the mirror pops up out of the way. The introduction of the Sony A9, should totally put the myth to rest that an optical view finder is better than an electronic view finder.

        Reply