120studio.com
Apr-Jun 2014



1.  Intro

2.  Digital
    a.  Full-Frame
    b.  Affordable APS-C
    c.  Mirrorless etc.

3.  Film

4.  Additional Thoughts

5.  Summary


Intro

In the previous article we looked at resolution and sensor size. 

Now we'll look at some further considerations.  Finally I'll list some sensible choices for landscape photography.  



Digital

The earliest small-sensor digital cameras yielded extremely "crunchy" images with poor detail and awful highlights.

The earliest DSLR's were not that great, either, but people took them seriously.  (Relatively speaking.)

For a while, the point-and-shoot with its diminutive sensor was not really the domain of serious art.  There were exceptions-- there were always a few people who could make stunning photos with these cameras-- but for the most part, it seemed you would get sneered at by anyone who'd gone ahead and spent the substantial chunk of money on a "real" camera such as a D1H. 

To me, it seemed this was true even into the days of the Nikon D200 and D300.

The technology has improved, though.  There are still limitations incurred by small, packed-together photosites, but if you know those limitations you can work within them a bit more easily.    I think we've all seen the impressive photos that can be taken with a smartphone;  point-and-shoot cameras have sensors that are even larger than that.

Naturally, the larger-sensor cameras have also improved, and they're more affordable, too.

I'd like to see bigger sensors all around, but there are tons of bridge cameras and point & shoots out there.  Believe it or not, several of my favorite landscape photos-- at least of my own work-- were made with these kinds of cameras.  At small-print and Web resolutions, sometimes it really is impossible to distinguish from more expensive cameras.

I actually like to carry around a cheap, small-sensor digicam when I'm out shooting film.  Then when I get the occasional really nice shot with the digital, it's like "Wow, can you believe it?"  There is something cool about that. 

If digital is your main system for landscapes, though, it makes sense to get the best you can afford.  Full-frame is desirable if you plan to make big (> 20"x30") enlargements.


Full-Frame DSLR's

I've always liked the Canon colors for scenery pictures.  Canon is up to the 5DS now, but the Canon 5D MkIII is still a stellar camera.  And the Canon 6D is right up there with it in terms of image quality, even if the AF and a couple other features are not as sophisticated.  (Click here for my review of the 6D.)

Canon and Nikon both make great images, but I prefer Canon, maybe because the golden tones are nicer.  Thankfully, Canon is consistent with this-- just as Nikon is with their "look"-- so it carries on down through their line.  The scenes just look warmer or something.  Nikon makes technically great cameras, but I always have to mess with the colors so much.  Even when you warm up the white balance, there's something different about the pictures.  Not bad, just not my personal favorite;  others might like them better.

The 5DIII and 6D have the colors, but they are not quite up to the Nikon D800 in terms of resolution.  Objectively, there is an answer as to whether this will affect the image, but more subjective is whether your audience will really spot that difference.  (I kind of don't think so, but that's just my opinion.) 

On the other hand the D800E, which has no antialiasing, will yield a noticeable difference in jumbo enlargements. 

I'd still go with a 5D3 or a 6D if I were doing mostly digital for landscapes.  Expensive, yes, but if you can budget it, they're worth having.  (Both cameras have come down in price quite a bit, too.)

The one thing that troubles me about the 6D is its Wi-Fi capability, and the fact that it acts as its own wireless access point.  Security researchers Daniel Mende and Pascal Turbing already proved they could breach a Canon 1DX.   They anticipated being able to breach the 6D also.

Maybe Canon can implement some more security with firmware updates, but as it stands, the 1DX at that time (2013) used regular HTTP authentication which the researchers were able to brute-force in less than 20 minutes.  So much for "connectedness".  I've seen this so often:  it's like "Oh, the security will take care of itself, and don't worry about it, technology is awesome and cool and innovative." 

That's how you end up with big hotel chains using WEP ("worthless encryption protocol") and stuff like that.  

I'd still buy a 6D, though, because the wifi is disabled by default.  (Thank you at least for that, Canon.) 

Possibly the best cheap lens you can get for landscapes is the EF 40mm f/2.8 "pancake" (grab one here).  It has great corner sharpness even at wide apertures.  40mm on a full-frame is a very useful focal length for scenery shots.  This is such a great little lens that you may find yourself keeping it on your DSLR all the time.



If you want the best all-around full-frame lens for landscapes or anything else, get the 24-105mm f/4 L.  You can buy the Canon EOS 6D already bundled with this lens.  The 24-105 will also work just fine on APS-C cameras.

Speaking of which...


Affordable APS-C

Don't fret if full-frame cameras seem a bit steep for your budget.  APS-C will be alright for poster-sized enlargements. 

The most affordable Canon DSLR's were the Rebel T3 and T3i;  right now it would be the Rebel T5 and T5i.

Want a great DSLR for even cheaper?  I've written a lot about the Rebel T3, which I believe is a generation or two older than the T3i in terms of sensor design, but it works well.  Pick yourself up a used T3 through this link.

To improve the sharpness of your scenes, get the Canon EF-S 50mm 1.8 lens immediately if you have either camera.  For a wider scene coverage, get the Canon EF-S 35mm f/2 instead.  (More affordable is the Canon EF-S 40mm pancake.)  On an APS-C camera, these lenses are equivalent to about 56 and 64mm on a 35mm camera.

Let's not leave Nikon out here.  Actually the Nikon D3300 (available here) may be the best deal in a landscape camera, since it has no antialiasing filter.  It also sports 24 megapixels.  Together, this means serious landscape detail.  Get this lens for it, and you'll have one of the sharpest, most affordable, best all-around landscape lenses for your D3300.  (The kit lens ain't bad, either, but the 35 1.8 is sharper.)

If you want better features, get the D5300 or the pro-feature-loaded D7100, but by no means will you notice any image quality difference.

A big advantage of APS-C cameras is that you can use lenses that would otherwise blur in the corners.   The Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 (get it here) is one such lens.  On a Canon APS-C, this lens is equivalent to about 45 millimeters, which is a great all-around focal length.   (Don't get the 28mm f/1.8.  I don't know if fast 28mm lenses are extra hard-to-manufacture or what, but I've never had good results with them.)

With a DSLR, turn on your Active D-Lighting (Nikon) or Highlight Tone Priority (Canon) for some extra insurance against blown highlights.  These technologies are not perfect, but they do work well.

At low ISO, most any APS-C camera has low enough noise for good landscapes printed at least 13"x19".  In fact, at that size most viewers won't be able to tell the difference between APS-C and full-frame.



Large-Sensor Compact & Mirrorless

Occasionally I get this idea that I'd like a really compact camera with nearly all the capabilities of a DSLR.  Up until recently it's been difficult to find that.  As of 2014, here were / are some of the newer choices:

The lowest-noise APS-C cameras at higher ISO seem to be the Fuji X-E2 and X-T1 mirrorless cameras.  The X-E1 is nearly identical.  (Surprisingly the Olympus OM-D E-M1, a Micro 4/3 camera, isn't far behind.)  No wonder these cameras are so popular.  Of course, with lens they are a bit on the expensive side.  They are definitely worth getting if you can budget it, though, because instead of waiting two years for the technology to get better, you can be out there right now shooting with the best.  From what I know of the X-T1, it's a mighty sweet camera.

By the way, if you hike where weight is a consideration, consider either the Canon EOS-M or better yet, a Canon G1X.  Both of these are pretty terrible for street photography because of poor autofocus, but they're just fine for landscapes.  I'd go for the G1X (original model;  get it here) because it has at least an optical viewfinder.  The improved G1X Mark II has no viewfinder, but an EVF can be added on for about $300 (available here).  

Really, though, I'd prefer to carry around a Canon Rebel SL1 or Rebel T3 than plunk down the money for a G1X II.  The SL1 is quite compact for a DSLR and outperforms the G1X / G1X II in a couple ways.  Get an SL1 body and the 40mm pancake and you almost have a compact camera.  Poor man's Fuji X100S.

Finally, let's not forget the new Sony RX100 III, which is scheduled to hit the shelves on June 20, 2014.  You can already order it though.)  Though it has a 1" sensor (not APS-C), the RX100 series are yielding superb images.  This is a highly portable camera, and its predecessor the RX100 II is very popular.  The RX100 III has a pop-up electronic viewfinder, which is practically a must-have for landscape photography.  It also has a fast lens (f/1.8 to 2.8) for indoor or low-light work, making it very versatile.



Film

One reason I haven't gone whole-hog for digital is that it still cannot perfectly mimic the look of film.  Even if it could, the process and the tangibility are important to me.  Big time. 

While someone else is messing with old DVD's that aren't readable anymore, I can look at a box of slides right now. 

Here's a funny story.  One time I was projecting Velvia 100 on the wall, and there was a moth that flew across the screen.  The projected image was so lifelike that it freaked us out and we had to turn off the projector, because... I mean, what would you do if it looked like a real moth was fluttering around the Queen Anne's Lace in some projected mountain scene on the wall?   Possibly check to make sure those were really shiitake mushrooms you had for supper.  Actually, no mind-altering substances were involved, except Velvia 100.

Choosing a film camera for landscapes... well, if you're on a budget, 35mm is not at all out of the question (some affordable choices talked about here). 

I shoot a lot of 35mm.  You can go with 20x30 enlargements easily if you have a good lens.  Use a slow film like Velvia 50, and you won't even see grain as long as you stay with prints smaller than about 16x20. 

The lens is important, but you don't have to spend a ton.  With a cheap Nikkor 35-70 kit lens (one of Nikon's worst), 20x30 enlargements look kind of hazy unless you're twenty feet away.  (I still use it anyway for stuff.)  But a better lens will help, greatly.  Even the common Nikkor 50mm 1.8 series E is a lot better.  (Get your through this link and help support my website.)    (And yes it says "Nikon" on that particular lens, but I keep calling it "Nikkor".)

Shoot at f/8 or f/11.   For sunsets I even use one of the cheaper Nikon zoom lenses (not usually the 35-70, but sometimes).  Many lenses are a little soft at wide apertures, but a lot of my work emphasizes color and impression rather than detail.  

Overall, if you want to get into film landscapes affordably, get almost any Nikon film SLR except the plastic N-series such as the N55, N75 etc.  Then, slap the 50mm 1.8 series E lens on it, and you're all set. 


If you know you're going to be making big enlargements and you want the detail, start with medium format.  Here are some good choices.

Kiev 88 - I list this first because it's priced attractively.  The original Kiev 88 is a clunker, but a bunch of them were upgraded by Hartblei of Ukraine.  These are worth having, as long as you know the light metering is not the greatest.  Right now you can get an upgraded Kiev 88 kit with 80mm f/2.8 Arsat lens here for a pretty good price.  Interchangeable 120 film back, shoots 6x6 cm images, and looks / handles a lot like a Hasselblad.



Pentax 67 - you will hear a lot of people grumble about this camera because of its clunky, tank-like design and its loud shutter / mirror slap, but I know a lot of photographers swear by the Pentax 67 rather than at it.  No, you can't quickly change rolls during a wedding shoot, but then again it's quicker than a large format camera if you didn't bring enough loaded film holders. 

If you want sharp pictures with slow film like Velvia 50 or 100, you should really use a tripod with this camera.  The Pentax lenses are generally very sharp.  The enemy here is vibration induced by the shutter.

The 67 has a big focal plane shutter than can blur images at slow shutter speeds, even if you've got the mirror locked.  I have some experience with big focal plane shutters.  The danger zone starts at about 1/60th of a second and down. Then again I shoot a lot of scenes with a Speed Graphic slower than that, and its massive cloth shutter on big rollers still seems to do OK.

Solution?  Use a heavy tripod.   Now, here's something I haven't tried, but I've thought about taping weights to the tripod.  My wife had some Pilates weights that we gave to the Goodwill, but I bet they would have worked perfectly for this.  Just be sure the tripod head isn't the source of unsteadiness, because this is harder to fix.

You can buy a used Pentax 67 through this link, and for landscapes it's definitely a good camera.  (Get your stuff through here or any of these other links, and it really helps me keep this site going.)


Mamiya 645TL - the 645 format is kind of intriguing, because it uses 120 film but is only somewhat bigger than a 35mm negative.  That extra size really helps, though.  It's actually got 2.7 times the area of a 35mm frame, so that's pretty significant.  The 645TL has TTL AE metering as long as you have the AE prism for it.  Or, you could get the camera with the waist-level finder and use it like a TLR, sort of. 

Depending on what comes with it, you can pick up a used Mamiya 645TL for anywhere between $250 and $650 through this link


Mamiya RB / RZ 67 series:  Remember that nice landscape scene that was the background for Windows XP?  That shot was taken on a Mamiya RZ67.  The big difference between the RB and RZ is that the RB has a mechanical shutter, while the RZ has an electronically-controlled one.  The RZ also has AE metering, while with the RB you'll need your own light meter.

(I finally got around to doing a review / article about the RB67 here.)

You can still find places that will repair the RZ, but it's more involved.  Mamiya was still making the RZ 67 Pro IID up until probably 2012, so they should be able to repair any RZ (though I haven't tried thus far).  the Pro IID can accept medium format digital backs. 

If you have an old RZ67 and it goes bad, I hope you'll consider getting it repaired.  I know you can just go buy another RZ for cheaper, but it's about keeping this great camera in circulation.  A lot of engineering and precision manufacture went into making the RZ, and if people keep tossing out their old broken RZ's, there just won't be any more around.  The Mamiya RZ67 is probably one of the best landscape cameras out there.   If you don't mind the clunk factor (what, like 5 1/2 pounds??), this is my top choice in a landscape camera. 

Both cameras use interchangeable film backs, which means there's a dark-slide to pull out.  Want to switch to another back halfway through a roll of film?  No problem, just put the darkslide back in and change the back.  By the way, the backs don't directly interchange between RB and RZ.  You can get an adapter for your RZ so that it will take RB film backs, but not the other way around. 

Great thing about these cameras:  you can rotate the back between Portrait and Landscape orientation without moving the tripod.  Just think of how frustrating it is with a 35mm camera when you have to tilt the whole thing sideways to get a portrait orientation.  Same limitation applies to the Pentax 67, etc, etc. 

RZ lenses cannot be used on the RB, since they have electronically-controlled shutters.  Far as I know you can use RB lenses on an RZ, as long as you focus on the ground glass and don't use the viewfinder.



Lens selection?  If you can only get one lens for your RZ, get the 110 mm f/2.8.  It's like a 55mm lens on a 35mm, giving it a lot of versatility.  Some people consider this too narrow for landscapes, but it depends on what you're shooting.  Rarely do I encounter a sunset that sweeps wide enough to need more coverage.  The good part of the sunset usually fits in the view of a 50mm lens on a 35mm.  (Lately I've had a few that needed 35 to 40mm, and sometimes even 28mm, but for a long time this was not happening.)

For wider-angle shots, I'd probably pick the 75mm f/3.5.  With a 35mm equivalent of about 36mm, this is like the wide end of the 35-135 lens I like to carry around.  Seldom do I find scenes that need wider views, because really, the very wide lenses are for shoving closer to your subject and emphasizing perspective.  Besides, wider than this and you really start to notice distortion.  (Then again there's always software correction...)

RZ67... great choice, maybe the best one for film landscapes.  Purchase your RZ67 here or through the link below, and you can help support my website.




Fuji GF670
:
  This is a medium-format rangefinder with a fixed lens on a folding bellows.  They picked 80mm, which is probably the best all-around focal length for medium format.  (The 670W, for Wide, has a 55m lens.)  It's an EBC Fujinon f/3.5 lens.  This is plenty wide enough for street photography, especially if you grab some Kodak Portra 400 or Fuji Pro 400H.   For semi-night photos, get some Portra 800 for it and maybe push it two stops to 3200.

The GF670 has an extensible bellows like the old style 120 rangefinders.  I'm thinking of some of the Ansco / Agfa cameras from sixty years ago.  One nice thing about a rangefinder is the portability, and there's also the fact that you can take pictures without going through all the ground-glass focusing and that sort of thing.  

Once you get used to the folding-bellows style of camera, the GF670 is what I'd consider an ideal artist's camera for travel to distant locations.  Instead of lugging around forty pounds of gear, you've got this manageable rangefinder.  And when you're done you can fold the camera up so it fits easier in your luggage.  Some rolls of assorted film and you're all set!

Know what else is cool about the GF670?  It was introduced in 2010!!  I know the bellows seems like kind of a weak point, but all you have to do is periodically inspect the camera when there's no film in it.  Shine a bright light on the bellows and look for pinholes.  I predict you won't find any unless you use this camera for many years or get careless with it.

Here's a gear acquisition strategy:  Two cameras.  For digital, get a low-cost DSLR like a T3i or a D3300.  That will handle your "everyday", "good", and sometimes "great" pictures.  Also the indoor, low-light stuff.  Then when you want "awesome", use a GF670 with slide film.  Two cameras and you're all set.

    

With the GF670 you'll have resolution and dynamic range that a $4,000 digital camera can't even approach.  If you can budget this camera, I would not hesitate to get one.


Fuji GW690:  this is another medium-format rangefinder from Fuji (Cosina, actually), but it takes 6x9 cm pictures.  Unlike the GF670, the camera doesn't fold up.  The GW690 has been nicknamed the "Texas Leica", and because of its design, the 690 sort of does look like an oversized Leica.  6x9 cm is a great size for landscapes.  (Any wider than that, and it becomes sort of a specialized camera.)  If you're worried about the bellows on the GF670, get a GW690 instead.  You can buy them used through this link.



Holga:  (wait a minute, is he serious?)... well, if you favor impression over technical quality, the Holga could be your medium format camera for artistic landscapes.  For the price, why not have one in your camera bag?   It's a cheap way to do 6x6 square pictures, if you don't mind grievous chromatic aberration, edge blur, and vignetting.

At least the centers of the pictures are sharp. And yes, you can use in on a tripod with Bulb setting.  For like thirty bucks, how can you go wrong?  The lens is fixed at 60mm, so you're looking at kind of a wide-angle view for 120 film, but you could always crop the scan to about 35mm film size later.   

    

This was far from being a complete list of cameras.  Obviously there are numerous other choices, and really you don't have to fret over it.  Operator skill is way more important than camera make or model.  Sure, a pixelly keychain-digicam will hold you back from making good pictures, but almost anything that shoots 35mm or medium format film can produce good landscapes if you do your part. 


Additional thoughts


Full-frame digital is great for landscapes, but you can get good results with smaller sensors too. 

Don't feel like you need to spend tons of money on a camera.  Buy the expensive ones if those are really what you have your heart set on;  but don't feel like your pictures will somehow be inadequate if you don't. 

Art doesn't have any set rules or minimum equipment standards.  Even the smartphones that I rather dislike can be artist tools.

If a picture is pleasing to you, that's a great place to start.  Of course, for landscape and travel photography I'd like to see more affordable full-frame cameras.  I know a lot of other people would, too.  Some photographers think this will never happen, but actually I think it will eventually.  The camera buying public are getting restless for bigger sensors across the board.  From large-sensor compacts to affordable full-frame, there's a demand there.

Full-frame cameras are not strictly necessary for good scenery shots, but let's call that one of the branches of landscape photography.  That's the kind that seeks out mellow, super-detailed images with the best tonality that digital can offer-- even if it lags behind film in the tonality department.  Full-frame cameras have somewhat less of a tendency to maul highlights, although I've seen some badly toasted highlights even there.  One distinct advantage of full-frame cameras is that the details of the scene don't look as crunchy.  Even with a lot of pixels, small sensors do something to the image, making it look a bit more harsh.   APS-C doesn't do it so much, but it gets worse as you go to smaller and smaller sensors.   Depends on the lighting and choice of subject, though.

I like cheap cameras, but there is something to be said for just getting the best you can afford, right now, and knowing that at least you're out there making images with the best technology at the moment.  When I talk about ten years of awful photography caused by digital, the worst of it was caused by small-sensor cameras with no manual exposure controls.   An EOS 6D might just be the antidote if you're into digital.  (Review here.)

Film, especially big film, is still by far the king of landscape photography.  Dynamic range trumps resolution, which is why for many scenes I'd rather shoot 110 film than any digital camera.  (Yep, me and my cheap little Kodak Instamatic 18 from the 1970's, and I'm a happy camper.)  That said, bigger film has not only the dynamic range but also the resolution and that mellow, smooth quality (becase the grain is so small). 

Cameras are sort of like wrenches, or fishing rods, or bicycles, or any other tool that has variation.  There is never going to be "one" camera that's perfect for everything, but for landscapes I feel I can narrow it down to a handful of them. 


Summary...

If I were shopping for a landscape camera and had to pick one, it would be....

OK, well, there are different categories.  How about this:

Film:

If "heavy" is OK:  Mamiya RZ67 or RB67

Portable cameraFuji GF670.  (I was going to say Mamiya 7 II, which is great too.)

Inexpensive portable:  get a 35mm with a good prime lens and shoot Velvia 50, Velvia 100, or Ektar 100.  (See this article.)

Ultra-inexpensive, who cares about technical qualityHolga 120N.  There, I said it.  

What I'd get out of the whole bunch?  Fuji GF670 or Mamiya RZ67, depending on whether handheld shots are important (GF670) or not (RZ67).



Digital:

Portable camera:  Fuji X-E2 or X-T1
Even more portable camera:   Sony RX100 III

Inexpensive DSLR... Best Color:  Canon Rebel T3i
Inexpensive DSLR... Best Detail Rendition:  Nikon D3300

Full-frame DSLR... Best ColorCanon 5D Mark III or Canon 6D
Full-frame DSLR... Best Detail RenditionNikon D800E.

What I'd get from the whole digital bunch?  Canon EOS 6D (get yours with 24-105 lens here) and leave the Wi-Fi turned off.  Basically same image quality as the 5D MkIII, but costs about $1,200 less. 



Sunsets:  a highly addictive type of landscape photography.
This should have been Velvia, and I should have found a better vantage point...
but at least I got it.

Camera:  this one.


For landscapes you won't need fancy autofocus.  You won't need high burst rates or any of that.  You probably don't even really need "compact" unless you go on long hikes.  Just get a good camera that works, learn to use it, and start taking pictures.

The heaviest clunker of a camera will serve well, as long as you don't have to carry it up and down mountains all day.   And if you do, you can always cook up a lot of good food at the end of the day.  (That'll help you condition yourself to carry an even bigger camera....)  I'll save the large format for another article, maybe, but in the meantime, any of the above choices could be the "one camera" that helps realize your artistic vision.

I hope this article was helpful to you.  You can really help me out by purchasing any of your gear through the links on this page.  Please know that it's much appreciated.

Thanks for visiting my website!










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