What makes a good landscape camera? Is it the megapixel count? Sensor size? Ergonomics? This article will help you develop a personal metric for finding your ideal camera to capture everything from stunning mountain ranges to star-strewn night skies. We'll help you wade through all the technical mumbo jumbo to figure out what specs really matter for the type of landscapes you want to photograph.
It doesn't get much more basic than megapixels. They're like the atoms of photography. But just how many do you need exactly?
The age-old adage states that more is better. This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography. The more megapixels you have, the easier it will be to crop your images in post-production. More megapixels also means that you can make larger prints of your images without losing detail.
Print Size (at 300 dpi)
2048 x 1536
7” x 5”
2464 x 1632
8” x 6”
3008 x 2000
10” x 8”
3264 x 2448
12” x 8”
3872 x 2592
13” x 9”
4290 x 2800
15” x 10”
4920 x 3264
17” x 11”
7360 x 4912
24” x 16”
But how much is too much?
The answer to that question depends on what you plan to do with your images. If they will live primarily online, be that social media, email, or website, and viewed on a phone, you honestly probably won't ever need more than 12MP. That goes for making small prints, as well.
Many landscape photographers would absolutely balk at the idea of a 12MP landscape photography camera, however. That's because with landscapes, unlike documentary, sports, or wildlife photography, you don't really need speed. You can afford to wait for the images to buffer because it's unlikely that you'll be rapid firing off frame after frame.
Landscape photography tends to be more meditative, so you'll probably find it worthwhile to invest in those extra megapixels. You could start by looking for a camera in the 24MP to 60MP range. That should give you plenty of flexibility for whatever application you choose.
If megapixels are the atoms of photography, then perhaps your sensor could be seen as a molecule. The sensor works with other compounds in your camera to make it function. Without a sensor, you would have nothing to absorb the light. Without a sensor there would be no image.
But sensors come in a variety of sizes: medium format, full-frame, APS-C, micro four thirds. How do you decide which is the right size for you?
Historically, full-frame (or even medium format) sensors have been the darling of landscape photographers. This is for a couple of reasons.
Full-frame sensors don't have a crop factor, meaning they don't magnify your lenses like an APS-C or micro 4/3 sensor will. (More on that later.) This makes them better for capturing the entire night sky or an entire mountain range. Full-frame sensors also give you deeper dynamic range, meaning you will have more information in your highlights and shadows, and with less noise. Finally, full frame gives you the most flexibility when cropping your images in post-production. The downside, however, is the cost. Full-frame cameras and lenses will cost far more than APS-C or micro 4/3, putting them out of reach of many amateur photographers.
APS-C and micro four thirds sensors are significantly smaller than full frame. With the smaller size comes smaller cameras and reduced price. They also tend to come with fewer features and cheaper lenses. Most importantly though, APS-C and micro 4/3 sensors add a crop to your lenses. For example, a full-frame 35mm lens on an APS-C camera becomes a 52.5mm lens. That same full-frame 35mm lens when placed on a micro 4/3 camera becomes a 70mm lens.
If you're planning to photograph the night sky, full frame might be the best option because it allows you to photograph a wider field of view. It will also most likely have less grain and noise than an APS-C or micro 4/3 sensor. However, if you're planning to focus on photographing planets, a crop sensor might work to your advantage because it will magnify your telephoto lens at no extra cost. A crop-sensor camera might also work to your advantage if you're planning to use your landscape camera for other things as well, like taking the occasional bird picture. They are also significantly cheaper than their full-frame compeers.
How will you be using your camera?
Will you mainly be shooting from your car? Will you be using a tripod? Do you plan to take it backpacking dozens of miles into the backcountry? These are all very important questions you need to ask yourself before investing in a landscape photography setup.
The size and weight of your camera will greatly influence what you can do with it. If you are prioritizing a lightweight setup, you might consider getting a mirrorless APS-C or micro 4/3 camera. Not only are these camera bodies lighter than full-frame, they also come with lighter and more compact lenses. With APS-C or micro 4/3, not only will you be saving weight, you'll also be saving money.
If size and weight are no issue, however, then other factors come into play.
You'll need to determine the maximum combined weight of your camera and heaviest lens so you can invest in the correct tripod. You'll also want to make sure that the camera you choose feels big enough to be balanced while attached to a massive lens, paying special attention to the camera's grip.
Finally, when choosing your ideal camera, pay special attention to its battery life. If you're backpacking deep into the backcountry, you'll want to bring enough batteries to sustain you for the entire trip. You'll also want to ensure that the batteries are robust enough to last through chilly nights. If you're planning to drive to your photo destinations, you have the luxury of not worrying as much about battery life but it's still something to be mindful of.
Now that you understand some of the basics of landscape cameras, we'll move on to more practical questions. Like, what do you do in a rain storm?
Typically, bad weather makes for interesting images. You don't want to have to put your camera away at the first snowflake. But there are various degrees of weather-sealing of which you should be aware.
Truly waterproof cameras are completely sealed, meaning that you can fully submerge them in water. These cameras are rare and will usually come with a high price tag. They'll also have an IP (ingress protection) rating attached. This rating will indicate how deep and how long the camera can be submerged. For more information on IP ratings, check out this handy guide.
More commonly though, cameras will come with some degree of weather proofing. Exactly how weather proofed they are, however, varies drastically from manufacturer to manufacturer. Usually weather-sealed cameras will have rubber gaskets that prevent moisture and dust from entering. However, you'll want to visit the camera manufacture's website and thoroughly research it's capabilities before buying it and definitely before testing it out in the real world.
How weather-sealed you need your gear to be also depends on what kind of photography you're planning to do. If you plan on doing a lot of backpacking trips with no possibility of returning to a warm, dry car when things turn sour, then perhaps it's better to invest in a more rugged setup. Regardless, though, it's never a bad idea to invest in some rain covers or hoods for your camera and lenses. These come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials to suit every type of situation.
This brings us to our final point when choosing your new camera: design.
You will want to find a camera that not only produces good images but feels good when you're using it. You'll also want to make sure it has all the features you'll need. Is HDR important to you? Bracketing? How customizable do you want your camera to be? Do you need rear button focus or is the standard button focus acceptable?
Make sure to do your research on your camera before you buy it! And once you get your new camera, be sure to play with it around the house and in your backyard before you take it out into the world. There's nothing more frustrating than driving to a location, only to realize you don't have a shutter release cable or that your tripod is too lightweight to steady your setup.
More than anything, though, have fun. Landscape photography is all about connecting with the outdoors through this medium. The act of taking a photograph is rewarding, but only because of the memories behind it, whether that memory is waking up before dawn to photograph the sun rising over the Chugach Mountains and the North Pacific Ocean or staying up late to catch a glimpse of a meteor shower on a clear night from a mountaintop in Colorado. So, get out there, take amazing photos, and enjoy the ride.
Do you have any qualities that you look for in a landscape camera? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, below.