Choosing Gear for Landscape Photography

Landscape is the type of photography I've been pursuing for decades now, and probably have the most training and experience at. I'll warn you also that it's an area in which I have very strong opinions that may run counter to those of others. 

First and Foremost
Almost always, landscape photography is about pixels. Thus, you usually start your decision making regarding landscape photography equipment in the digital age with the camera, because it's the thing that determines the number of pixels. 

Why do you look at pixels for landscape work? Two reasons:

  • Size — I suppose there's a market for landscapes that are 2x3 inches in print size (and one might argue that Instagram is a 2x2 market ;~). I seem to remember seeing such things in Lilliput. Most of the time, though, landscapes look best big, look best wide (not 3:2), and most landscapes have lots of detail in them. Grains of sand, blades of grass, leaves on trees, small rocks in stream, that sort of thing. Moreover, often times you're going to be judged against guys that are using big gear. Back in the film era 35mm slides had a hard time competing against 4x5 slides on the light box photo editors used to review them. These days, capture area is still a factor, but pixel count is also right up there in importance. With the Medium Format (MF) digital cameras now using Sony CMOS sensors, MF once again is tending to have an advantage over DSLR/SLR.

    24mp gives you a native 20" wide print at 300dpi. 36mp gives you a native 24.5" wide print. 45mp gives you a native 27.5" wide print (50mp MF is the same due to aspect ratio). With care, you can usually squeak by with 240dpi, but that's still barely over a 30" wide print for 36mp and 34.4" for 45/50mp. If you're truly going for living room wall-sized prints, bigger is your friend when it comes to pixel count.

  • Dynamic Range — Those pixels need to deal with a lot, from the sun in the frame all the way down to the deepest dark shadowy area behind a tree that's behind a tree that's behind the ridge, and thus isn't getting much light at all. You want the widest possible dynamic range, and you want it recorded in as wide a bit depth as possible with no compression (i.e. 14 bit lossless instead of 12 bit compressed; and preferably 16-bit if the data integrity is there). 

Even a D850 might not be enough pixel goodness for truly impressive landscapes that can compete with the Medium Format and Large Format practitioners. Fortunately, there are cheats for the things you're lacking. Still, a serious landscape shooter has to at least consider moving up to Medium Format these days.

To get even more pixels to compete with the Medium Format crowd, you want to investigate shooting landscape panoramas and stitching them together. So far my record is an image that's 24,000 pixels wide and 10,000 pixels high and 20 stops deep (HDR). That's not an easy capture at all as it consists of over 100 individual images. 

The problems with stitching landscapes are:

  • More gear to carry. You'll really need a good pano head setup where you can get the rotation centered on the lens’ entrance pupil. If you're going full out, that means a leveling base for your tripod, a rotating clamp to hold the pano head, and a pano head that positions the camera/lens in the X,Y, and Z axis and puts rotation at the no parallax point. My full DSLR pano setup weighs an additional four pounds, and that's on top of the tripod, camera, and, lens. I have a lighter pano setup for mirrorless cameras, but it still adds a couple of pounds to what I’m carrying. (Both kits are Really Right Stuff powered, but be forewarned that a full kit that does things right is over US$1000.)
  • Alignment takes time. If you do it a lot, you'll eventually just start marking your plates and gear with proper alignment points for each lens you use, but you'll spend some time doing that for each new piece of camera/lens you want to use this way. It's also not easy to determine the rotation point in the field (at least precisely), so that means you'll spend time in your backyard trying to get everything all set up right once, then mark it.
  • Hassles in shooting. The focus can't vary, the white balance can't vary, the exposure can't vary, and the leaves and clouds better not move between shots. Sometimes you can finesse the latter, but the others mean you have to remember to go all manual for a shot. If the sun suddenly pops out from behind clouds mid-sequence, you start again (usually). If you're in a crowded area, sometimes you've got people coming in and out of your shots, which you need to watch for. I once found a car that had snuck into one of my pano shots that I hadn't seen. Fortunately, it was in an overlapping area, so I just used a mask to edit it out.
  • Hassles in processing. There's no perfect pano stitching software, though we've got some pretty good products these days that do excellent jobs with a little attention (For the highest quality work I use Autopano Giga, though for quick and dirty work I tend to just use Photoshop CC). But beyond keeping all the pano shots organized and together so you can drop them into the software together, there's the simple issue of memory. There's a reason why I've stopped at 24,000 x 10,000. Each time you try to stretch further in how many images you stitch, you need more memory and more CPU/GPU or else you're going to have extremely long processing times. I remember the first time I tried to stitch 128 images in the field. Two days later my computer showed the image, which had a stitching error in it ;~).   

To get more dynamic range in our landscapes we often use a different form of "stitching," commonly called HDR (high dynamic range). Most people seem to process HDR "wrong." Incorrect processing is what results in those excessive mid-tone contrasts that are rough and jarring. It's a bit like cranking up the Clarity slider to 100 in any Adobe product. A little bit might look good, as it adds micro contrast in the mid-tones. But a lot usually looks crude or terrible (or great if you happen to like that sort of thing; but I don't know of any landscape photographers making their living off of blatant mid-range contrasts). 

HDR doesn't require any extra gear to carry, but it has many of the same hassles in shooting and processing as panorama stitching. Indeed, I often do HDR and pano stitching together, so I'm just multiplying my hassles when I do so (which explains that 128-shot stitch). 

And no, I’m not a fan of the seven-shot HDR sequence taken a half stop or even a stop apart: you’re just collecting lots of extra mid-range data that’ll make your software spend a lot more time calculating and cranking out those midtones. Yes, you might get a slight noise improvement in the midtones, but that’s not typically where you need it. My methodology is simpler: I take an ETTR shot (expose to the right for the highlights) and an ETTL shot (expose to the left for the shadows). If those are more than three stops apart, I might take an additional shot with an exposure in the middle. How I process those is fodder for another article; sometimes you can just find a border where you can create a mask for the highlights versus the mid-range and shadows, while other times you’ll need to do some real HDR-type processing. Aurora 2018 is probably the best of the HDR processing solutions at the moment, but be careful that you aren't just creating mid-range chaos in the pixels.

You might be getting an impression here: we don’t have a perfect landscape camera yet. You’re correct. As good as the D850 is and as much as I enjoy using it, where landscapes are concerned, I tend to use multi-shot techniques (pano and HDR) to make up for weaknesses in the camera. The D850 does have a focus stacking feature that can be useful, but I'll present an alternative scenario there in a bit.

So first up, we have an imperative: choose the camera that minimizes your multi-shot needs. If the choices are a 45mp camera or a 24mp camera, the 45mp camera is better for landscapes. If the choices are between 11 strong, usable stops of dynamic range and only 9.5, the 11-stop camera is better for landscapes. Those last numbers aren’t arbitrary; they’re the difference between a D810 and Df in practical use, for instance. (The dynamic range difference between the D750 and D850 is negligible, we still have the pixel count advantage to consider.)

As I write this, the best DSLR to shoot landscapes with is the Nikon D850 shooting 14-bit Lossless Compressed NEFs. Even the Sony A7Rm3 can fall behind it due to the way it limits data (bit depth and compression loss; your other choice is enormous raw files). In the mirrorless world, the Fujifilm GFX 50s and Sony A7Rm3 would be my choices, though.

Largest sensor, highest pixel count, deepest bit count, no lossy compression of data, no AA filter over the sensor, and things that eliminate mirror/shutter slap and camera handling movement are the primary things you want to keep in your landscape camera choice list.

Okay, a lot of folk are saying “but I shoot great landscapes with my Df/E-M1/RX100/et.al.” Uh, sure. But your landscape images are limited compared to what could be done. You’re choosing convenience over capability. I’ll just put it as bluntly as possible: you stand no chance of being the next Ansel Adams with a lesser camera when a better one is available. You might stand the chance of being the next Galen Rowell if using a smaller, lighter camera allows you to get your camera in a place that you couldn't drag a big DSLR or MF camera.

Frankly, if I were truly starting from scratch and only capturing landscapes, I’d consider the Fujifilm GFX 50s, Pentax 645D, any of the current Phase One/Hasselblad offerings, or perhaps the now forgotten Leica S. That said, as I noted a moment ago, there’s the Galen Rowell factor: the reason why he choose 35mm film over MF film was that he could haul that gear into places the MF folk never got to, and thus took landscape images they couldn’t. 

So let me throw out another thing to consider: are you just pulling over into parking areas at the side of the road at National Parks and doing out-of-car shooting, or are you hiking 10+ miles into the backcountry and scrambling off trails to find your shooting locations? If the former, large DSLR or MF is just fine. If the latter, you’re going to make a compromise and pick a smaller camera of some sort. I personally use a Nikon D850 for most of my work, but if I know I’m going to be doing a lot of hiking, especially off trail, I’m bring my Olympus E-M1m2 instead. I just can’t lug 30 pounds worth of gear, water, and emergency gear all over the planet any more. 15 pounds, maybe. 

Thus, understand the compromises you need to make. Front country shooters don’t really need to make any. Backcountry shooters do.

In terms of lenses, I have to admit a bias here. Again, I spent a lot of time under Galen Rowell’s wing. Galen was notorious for only carrying a 20mm lens for landscapes. I saw him try many others over the years, but image after image of his that made it into his gallery seem to be shot with the Nikkor 20mm f/4 he favored. 

So you’re expecting me to say I shoot with a 20mm f/4, right? No. I’m not slavish, I’m biased. The bias that Galen built into me is that I shoot landscapes with very wide lenses to establish depth in shots. Note I wrote “depth,” not “width.” When you shoot wide from a distance, you get boring, flat images that are uninvolving. When you climb into the landscape and shoot near things incredibly close with a wide lens, you get depth in your shot. It’s a perspective thing. 

My bias, therefore, is to have something in extremely close perspective. More often than not my best landscape shots have a near element that I could literally reach out an touch with my hand when I was shooting, that’s how close I was. Of course, they have other elements, as well (middle and far elements, with the far element typically being the thing most other people are solely shooting and getting boring shots of). 

I have a further bias in that I believe that infinity doesn’t have to be in perfect focus. Distance is a depth cue. If you set an absurdly small aperture on your lens to get everything from 2 feet to infinity in focus, you just totally destroy all the focus cues that our brains use to gauge distance. I like a far element that is clearly recognizable, but slightly soft. Soft means further away. That near element I’m almost touching has to be tack sharp, though.

Thus, I select lenses for landscape a bit differently than others. Wide to very wide. Sharp at wider apertures. Closer focus ability. Lenses that don’t hit their peak sharpness until they’ve been stopped down many stops aren’t as interesting to me as ones that are at or near peak sharpness used near wide open. Why? Because it gives me more ramp to choose what is and isn’t in focus.

In terms of Nikon’s current offerings, three lenses tend to give me what I want (though both have another aspect we need to discuss): the 19mm f/4, the 20mm f/1.8, and the 14-24mm f/2.8. I find the 16-35mm f/4 also acceptable, and if I think I need to use filters, I sometimes chose it over the 14-24mm. That’s despite the fact that we now have many ways to use filters on the 14-24mm. Those filters and the method to hold them just start to bulk up the gear, though. I might as well be using a bigger MF camera at some point. 

The 20mm f/1.8 is a recent lens, and a surprise. It’s quite good even wide open, and it’s nearly superb beginning at f/2.8. That gives me a solid range of apertures to choose from: f/2.8 to f/11, the maximum I’ll use on a D850 for landscapes due to diffraction consequences. Compare that to the 16-35mm where I’m more restricted to f/5.6 to f/11 to get the level of acuity I’m trying to achieve. 

But the lens that is changing my approach to DSLR landscape is the Nikkor 19mm f/4E. Nikon finally fixed the tilt/shift mechanism so you can orient the lens as you need it. You can do quick and easy three-image panos with the lens with just a small offset plate on a level base (the article I wanted to link to has been removed from bythom.com, so I've updated it and posted it here in the right spot on dslrbodies.com: Stitching a PC-E Lens for Panos).

There's another reason why I like the PC-E: my ability to control the focus plane is improved over just stopping down aperture to get more depth of field. You'll need to learn about the Scheimpflug principle, but you should know that the Focus Peaking in Live View with the D850 is going to be your new friend.

Whatever lens you choose for landscape photography, you need to know whether it has either (or both) of two properties: focus shift and field curvature. 

Focus shift happens because the lens is focused by the camera wide open, but the actual focus plane moves as you stop down during the shot. In other words, you line up your shot and focus at maximum aperture, but the focus may shift (almost always away from the camera) if you’re shooting at a smaller aperture. Unless you invoke Live View or DOF Preview and carefully evaluate it, your carefully aligned focus plane might very well move and be sub-optimal. 

Field curvature means that the lens focuses at different distances as you move away from the center of the frame. This isn’t a big sin for landscape shooting, but you absolutely need to understand the phenomena and how it’s going to affect your shot. 

The Nikkor 14-24mm I mentioned above is particularly difficult to get precise focus in precise points from because of those two things. Fortunately, Live View improved on the D810 over the D800, and then again on the D850, so we can better see what the lens is doing when lining up our shots. Still, it’s another thing to keep track of while shooting, and we’ve already got a ton of things we need to keep track of while shooting landscapes. 

What I believe you should be looking for in lenses for landscapes are these things: sharpness into the corners at the apertures you’ll use, minimal vignetting (particularly if you’re doing stitching), no focus shift or field curvature if possible, and the widest range of sharp apertures you can find. Tilt and shift are very nice extras, particularly when they are independent, as they are on the Nikon 19mm PC-E and the Canon TS lenses. 

While zooms are convenient, most of the time (though not all the time) a landscape photographer can and should zoom with their feet (change perspective). I’d rather have a couple of really great primes at focal lengths I find useful (e.g. 20mm and 28mm) than a zoom that’s just good. 

Which brings us to accessories. I’ve already mentioned a panorama stitching head. That means you’re also carrying a tripod ;~). Sure, you can perform landscape photography handheld. No, you probably shouldn’t do that. Again, I’m assuming that you want to take images that will be impressive writ large. In order to compete with those MF shooters, you want a great lens with high acuity, and you want to handle the camera so that you don’t take one whit of acuity away. That means mirror lockup with a delayed or electronic first curtain shutter, all on a solid tripod and head that dampens any ringing of vibrations. I use a wireless remote when possible, too, so that I’m not putting my own tap of the shutter release into the setup. 

I learned from Galen to control contrast in the field as much as possible. That means that I carry three things with me on landscape shoots: flash, reflector, and filters (in particular, graduated NDs, but also regular NDs). The flash and reflector allow me to add light to areas in my shot. The graduated NDs allow me to take away some light across a broad area, typically from the sky. It’s amazing to me how often even just a one-stop soft-edge graduated ND can pull highlights in on a D850, a camera that allows me to boost shadows easily in post processing. Why not a 3-stop graduated ND? Well, if I have to pull things that much, I’ll resort to multiple shots most of the time (e.g. HDR). It's easy to hide a one-stop soft-edge ND, not so easy to hide the effects of a three-stop one.

Two other filters every landscape photographer should carry are a circular polarizer (cuts reflections off leaves, water, etc.) and a 3-stop or higher neutral density filter (to slow shutter speeds for moving water in daylight). There's also a school of landscape photography that is doing extremely long daylight exposures to mist out cloud, water, and subject motion, and that tends to require a 10-stop ND. 

Okay, so filters in front of lenses sometimes, what’s that do to acuity? Well, it lowers it, and if you’re not careful, light hitting the filters can lower contrast as well (the classic example is light hitting the back of a graduated ND set in front of the lens by a filter holder). One way to deal with this is the way video shooters do: get a matte box.

So if you’ve been keeping track:

  • Large sensor, high megapixel camera (e.g. Nikon D850)
  • Shooting raw, uncompressed or lossless compressed, with deep bit depth (e.g. 14-bit)
  • Sharp prime wide lens (e.g. Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G)
  • Tripod and head that are solid (e.g. Really Right Stuff Versa 2 with Uniqball head)
  • Wireless remote
  • 1-stop and maybe 2-stop graduated NDs, regular ND, circular polarizer

Optional:

  • PC-E type lens (e.g. 19mm f/4E)
  • Panorama head (e.g. Really Right Stuff pano kit)
  • Matte box

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