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Digital SLR Cameras for Landscape Photography 2013

by Miles Hecker

Landscape photographers arguably place more demands upon a camera than any other breed. We want images which are highly detailed and have superb tonality. Not only do we want this, we want the ability to make large prints. How large? For us, 13x19 inches is a good start. If we get a really fine photo 16x24 inches is not unreasonable. and for that once in a lifetime shot, 20x30 inches or larger is a possibility.

For these reasons, landscape photographers have long chosen large format or medium format film cameras as their tool of choice. My favorite in the olden days of film was the Pentax 645Nii. Alas, the advent of high quality full frame digital cameras, that are the equal in image quality of medium format film, have led me to retire my trusty Pentax.

Many novice landscape photographers and some old hands making the transition to the digital age have written, asking me the obvious question. What 35mm digital SLR camera should I buy?

My thoughts, based on the technology available as of January 2013 follow.

Digital SLR Sensor Sizes

Current main stream digital SLR sensors generally are one of two sizes, APS-C or full frame. Full frame sensors are the same size as a traditional 35mm film frame, about 24mm x 36mm. The APS crop sensors are smaller. Canon cameras such as the EOS 60D use a 1.6x crop sensor. Nikon cameras such as the D5200 use a 1.5x crop sensor. The crop factor gives a pseudo magnification effect. Lenses used on theses cameras appear to have a greater than actual focal length.

Full frames sensors are more expensive to produce. All the cameras in this comparison that sell for less than $1800 use crop sensors. Full frame SLR's in general have bigger, brighter viewfinders. They also allow lenses to work the same as they did on conventional film SLR's. For a given number of pixels, say 20MP, they also tend to have less noise and image artifacts, especially at high ISO speeds.

Several interchangeable lens digital cameras made by Panasonic and Olympus cameras use a 4/3" sensor size with a 2x crop factor. They also have an electronic rather than optical viewfinder. This result in a significant size and weight reduction when compared to a traditional SLR camera.

Sensor sizes



Bargain Shopping with $650 in Hand

In previous years I wrote the following paragraph. "At the low end of photography, the truth is disturbing. For my money, consumer grade point and shoot digital cameras come up way short. The typical 10 or 12 megapixel digicam can usually produce a reasonable 11x14 or 13x19 inch print, but that's it. Their tiny sensors are noisy and you are forever stuck with the one lens that came with the camera."

Oh, how things have changed! In 2012 Sony introduced the RX100 digicam for $650. It is basically a point and shoot size body crammed with a 20 megapixel 1" diagonal sensor. This 1" Sony sensor is just a bit smaller than the 4/3" sensor in the diagram seen above. It is twice the size of the typical 2/3" or smaller sensor found in all other point & shoot cameras. Sony also added a superior Zeiss zoom lens to take advantage of this amazing sensor.

At low ISO speeds, the image quality of this camera equals that of almost any 4/3" or APS-C sensor camera I've seen. Images from this pocket size camera will make quite good 20"x30" prints. Not only that, the focusing speed is the equal of or better then an entry level SLR, such as the Canon Rebel or Nikon 5100. It is a pocket size battleship as it were. If you already own a high dollar SLR system, it would make a perfect back up camera. If you're just beginning to learn photography, it would be a great inexpensive way to start before investing in a big SLR system.

If you are looking for a super light weight, compact landscape interchangeable lens camera, you might take a look at the Olympus E-PL5. It's mirrorless design, coupled with it's excellent 16MP 4/3" size sensor, makes it the best of the 4/3" cameras available for less than $1000. It sells for about $650. That said, it is twice the size and weight of the RX100 discussed above. A full line of Olympus and Panasonic lenses are available for future purchasing. This camera is also capable of making a 20"x30" print when use at low ISO speeds.

$1200 with Big Dreams

In my opinion it takes about 18 megapixels of high quality data from a digital SLR to make a truly good 20 "x30" print. So given the current crop of DLSR's where does this leave us?

One camera in this range jumps out at me, the Nikon D7000. It is capable of producing very high quality images with the right glass. It's image sensor is 16.2MP, which is close to the 18MP I'd like to see. It's Multi-CAM 4800DX, 39 point focusing system is a cut above any camera in the under $1500 class. It's 100% coverage, 0.94x magnification viewfinder is also a cut above any other camera in this class.

The D7000 has a body that's a bit plasticity, but adequate. It can shoot about 6 frames per second. It has the best walk around lens of any under $2000 camera made. The 18-105mm VR kit lens is optically very good. It is the equivalent of a 28-158mm lens on a traditional 35mm full frame camera. It might be the only lens you ever need. The D7000 with it's kit lens has a current street price of $1195. As well as being fine crop sensor landscape camera, it's focusing system and frame rate make it a camera fully capable of shooting quick moving wildlife and sports.

What about the Canon 7D? A very nice magnesium body, it even has an excellent 100% viewfinder. Currently it's $1899 price puts it above the $1500 mark I've set for this slot. Also, its' 18-135mm kit lens is no match for Nikons comparable offering.


$2500 and Wanting More

The Nikon D600 is the best entry level full frame digital SLR on the market today. It replaces the 5Dmk2 which I personally own as my favorite landscape camera at this price point.

The 25MP sensor in the D600 is capable of producing images that equal the legendary Nikon D3x. The files it produces can make 24"x36" prints that equal 6x7 film scans in quality. Its 39 point CAM4800 autofocus system is more than adequate for landscape work. It is a little slower than the system found in the D800, but speed is not an issue in the landscape world. It has a good liveview focus system which can be used to achieve perfect manual focus is you care to use it. Its viewfinder is 100% coverage and is bright and spot on. Some early problems with dirt or excessive lube in the mirror box of the D600 appear to be solved.

The thing that makes this an easy call over the Canon full frame offerings is the extra 2 stops of dynamic range found in the sensor. To see this, check out this link at Dxomark. This added dynamic range is a blessing when shooting some real world landscapes which can have a dynamic range of 15 f-stops. It was also present on the D3x, but that camera costs $8000! The 24-85mm kit lens is sharp when stopped down to f8 where you should use it for landscape work. It has quite a bit of geometric distortion, but this is usually not a problem for landscape work. It can also be easily removed by modern RAW converters.

If you have a lot of Canon glass and can't bare to go over to the dark side, I recommend picking up a 5Dmk2 while you still can for $1799. The Canon 5Dmk3 is way overpriced. It's excellent 61 point focus system doesn't matter for landscape work. The center focus point in the 5Dmk2 works just fine and liveview works even better. You will find the shadows can have quite a bit of noise compared to the Nikon, so you must take care to expose to the right to hide this.

$4500 and Feeling Like Ansel

Do you want a little bit more than the above cameras can offer? Would you like to make 28"x42" prints of that once in a lifetime shot? Do you want to shoot a digital SLR that can match and exceed 6x7 film scans in quality? Than 2013 may be the year you have been waiting for.

If you were a landscape shooting 35mm SLR owner, Nikon didn't forget you in 2012. It introduced the long rumored D800 and D800E. The 36MP sensor in these cameras is superb in quality. It produces images which almost match the $9000 Pentax 645D. It's rear LCD display is excellent, possibly the best in class. It's 100% coverage, viewfinder is also a cut above any other camera in this class. Its 51 point CAM 3500 focusing system is superb. Some early units did have focus skew problems on either side of the center focus point, but those problems have now been solved. Beside which, manual focus via live view is highly recommended for tripod based landscape use.

The D800 bundled with a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens will set you back about $4600. It will require the utmost in technique to get a full 36MP of sharp detail. The D800E has no anti-aliasing filter and as a result has a bit higher effective resolution. It will probably have to be coupled with a set of Zeiss manual focus prime lenses to fully capture this extra bit of detail edge to edge.



LF 4x5 replacement?

As a very happy Pentax 645Nii owner in the film era, I've been waiting for this little guy for years. Long promised, it finally arrived in the US in December of 2010.

I purchased one of the first ones available in January 2011.The RAW files I've shot with the 645D look excellent. Great color and tonality, excellent dynamic range and a very "natural" look. DxO mark tests show the sensor to perform at a level that matches or exceeds the MF backs that are double the price of the 645D. The autofocus tops the MF competition.

My suitcase full of excellent Pentax MF glass I had saved from bygone days works very well on this little jewel. The 40MP RAW files I've shot are good enough to produce 32"x43" prints that rival 4"x5" large format film in quality. My 2 part review of the 645D can be found at this link.

A new Pentax 645D coupled with a used copy of the excellent 45-85mm standard zoom lens should set you back about $9,995. A new copy of the lens will add about $1000 to that figure.

How can you afford to pull this purchase off? Easy, get a second mortgage on your house, tell your wife you bought it used in a hock shop and went back to shooting film.

I'll see you next year and have a great 2013!

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